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September 12, 2008

Seven Years Ago

Roy Meachum

The phone rang; it was my Texas "child." Knowing my penchant for working mornings, he guessed correctly that I had not seen television that day. He had been watching a national trauma that changed the world. It was seven years ago yesterday.


Turning on, the first thought off the top of my head was the mushroom clouds over atomic bomb tests 50 years back. There were no mushrooms, as you know. I stood transfixed before the TV screen conscious of a similar dread: something overtook Western civilization and the world could never be the same, that September 11 morning, 2001.


Shortly before the horrors of men, women and children dying in New York and at the Pentagon, George W. Bush walked into the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida. Rare presidential visits are spontaneous. Planning went on for days, maybe weeks and vetted by the Secret Service. The White House only announced the photo-op two days before.


The same night as the announcement Muhammad Atta and Marwan Alshehhi had dinner and cocktails – although forbidden by Islamic law – in the Sarasota Holiday Inn. The leaders of the 9/11 hijackers departed shortly before the presidential party checked into the Colony Beach motel, about two miles from where the Saudis stayed.


What the Secret Service considered an attempt to assassinate Mr. Bush took place the morning he was going to the school. The "news" van was turned away.


As news film showed, the U.S. armed forces' commander-in-chief was reading, as lens clicked away, when the twin World Trade Center Towers came apart, not to be put together again – like Humpty Dumpty.


Serious debate still rages about the exact moment Mr. Bush was told about the hijackings. As the world saw, it may have come while he was reading. He has been criticized for continuing – briefly. That's a bum rap. News like that takes more than a moment to digest. On the other hand, if the president learned sooner, while the motorcade approached but was not parked at the school, that's another matter. I tend to believe what I saw.


And really it makes no difference.


What counts more is how the situation was handled and, on every count, the administration failed. Not George W. Bush as a person. Every president is little more than a bird in the Oval Office cage. Mr. Bush uses the "I" more than most presidents I recall. But then, he seems a greater prisoner to his advisers and handlers than any chief executive, except Ronald Reagan in his second term. But that may be my ego flapping: I voted for Mr. Reagan the first time around.


The great sorrow of our present circumstances is that Mr. Bush hopes history will treat him more kindly than today's Americans who do not like the president; that's not exactly true. Depending on the survey, somewhere a little more than 30 percent hangs in with him. They sound like the membership of the GOP. But notice how few Republican candidates invoke his name in this election year.


George W. Bush had the opportunities beginning with September 11, 2001. I still have trouble believing the president and his men/women treated Afghanistan so lightly. Does no one with access to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue know that country's history? You can toss off two 19th century British armies that were wiped out: after all, most of the fallen were from London's colony, India.


But the Soviet Union collapsed when Red soldiers lost in that mountain nation. It was only 1989 when they packed up their machines and super weapons and headed toward Moscow. That's not history but directly related to the present realities Americans face while our allies pull out in greater numbers: they were not numerous to begin with.


In my simplistic view, all the Bush troubles spring from optimism about Afghanistan; it set up the invasion of Iraq as easy; it triggered the economic crises – plural – we face. Put another way: How can you shell out billions and billions and not have the costs wreck the national treasury?


Everyone recalls George W. Bush's performance on the aircraft carrier when his advisors thought Afghanistan belonged in the past and Saddam Hussein's fall sealed the triumph in Iraq. It was slightly over five years ago: May 2, 2003.


In fact, fighting in Iraq had just started and far from settled. Afghanistan proved a gaping wound that cannot be healed. As for the economy, it was announced this week that $407 billion will probably be added this year to the national deficit: $9 trillion!


What a mess!


And it all started with events on September 11, 2001. Seven years ago – plus one day.


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