'Gone Fishing,' How the President Got a Life

The “usually disengaged” President, as columnist Maureen Dowd labeled him, had just returned from a prolonged, brush-cutting Crawford vacation to much criticism and a nation in trouble. (One Republican congressman complained that “it was hard for Mr. Bush to get his message out if the White House lectern had a u2018Gone Fishing’ sign on it.”) Democrats were on the attack. Journalistic coverage seemed to grow ever bolder. Bush’s poll figures were dropping. A dozen prominent Republicans, fearful of a President out of touch with the national mood, gathered for a private dinner with Karl Rove to “offer an unvarnished critique of Mr. Bush’s style and strategy.” Next year’s congressional elections suddenly seemed up for grabs. The President’s aides were desperately scrambling to reposition him as a more “commanding” figure, while, according to the polls, a majority of Americans felt the country was headed in the wrong direction. At the Pentagon, Donald Rumsfeld had “cratered”; in the Middle East “violence was rising.”

An editorial in the New York Times caught the moment this way in its opening sentence: “A simple truth of human existence is that it is vastly easier to amplify fear than it is to assuage it.” Now, there was a post-9/11 truth — except that the editorial was headlined “The Statistical Shark” and its next sentence wasn’t about planes smashing into buildings or the way the Bush administration had since wielded the fear card, but another hot-button issue entirely. It went: “Consider the shark attacks that have occurred in Florida, Virginia and North Carolina this summer.”

This was, in fact, September 6, 2001, the waning days of a man-bites-dog summer in which headlines had been dominated by the deaths of David Peltier, a 10 year-old boy in Florida, and Sergei Zloukaev, a 27-year-old in North Carolina in fatal shark attacks. Just the day before, in fact, the Times had carried a piece by William J. Broad reassuring readers that scientists did not believe the world was facing a shark “rampage.” “If anything,” Broad concluded, “the recent global trend in shark attacks is down.”

It was just past Labor Day. Congress was barely back in session. Heywood Hale Broun, the sportswriter, would die at 83 that relatively quiet week, while Mexican President Vicente Fox swept triumphantly into Washington and a new book, featured on Newsweek’s cover, would carry the title, The Accidental President. The Sunday New York Times Arts & Leisure section was promoting “the new season” in entertainment, while that night a highly publicized 10-part mini-series was premiering on HBO — Band of Brothers, a Tom Hanks/Steven Speilberg production that followed a platoon of Greatest-Generation soldiers deep into Germany. If World War II nostalgia was on the tube, war elsewhere in the American world was also largely on screen. On September 7, Times journalist Thom Shanker reported on a classified war game, a computer-generated simulation played out by “the nation’s senior commanders” which determined that the U.S. military could “decisively defeat one potential adversary, North Korea, while repelling an attack from Iraq” — even if “terrorists [attacked] New York City with chemical weapons.”

All in all, that week before September 11th was a modestly uneventful one. An afternoon spent revisiting the New York Times’ version of it, via a library microfiche machine, making my way through that paper, day by day, section by section, plunged me into a nearly forgotten world in which the Democrats still controlled the Senate by a single vote and key Republican senators — it was Texan Phil Gramm’s turn to announce his retirement that week — were going down like bowling pins. (Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond had preceded Gramm “adding a new element of uncertainty to the 2002 race.”) The President had been met by exceedingly gloomy economic news as the unemployment rate jumped that Saturday to 4.9% — another 100,000 jobs lost — a full point above election day, ten months earlier; and Wall Street responded with a sell-off that dropped the Dow Jones to 9,600. Republicans were “panicked,” the administration adrift, and we wouldn’t see the likes of it again for four years.

Eerie Resonances

A number of post-9/11 subjects would be in the paper that week:

Torture was in the headlines — leading off the culture page that Saturday (“Torture Charge Pits Professor vs. Professor”) in a memory piece, datelined Santiago, on Augusto Pinochet’s brutal military rule in Chile. (The anniversary of his bloody coup — September 11, 1973 — was approaching.)

Then, too, an American citizen had been imprisoned without charges for 18 months — but it was electrical engineer Fuming Fong and China was holding him.

Anthrax made the op-ed page — but only because Russian scientists had developed a new type that could “overcome the standard Russian and American vaccines.”

Terrorism in the U.S. was in the news — an Oklahoma prosecutor was seeking the death penalty for Terry L. Nichols in the Oklahoma City Murrah Federal Building bombing.

“Violence in the Middle East” was on the front page — but in that week, it had only one meaning, the endless Israeli/Palestinian conflict. (The first Israeli-Arab suicide bomber had just struck.)

The Taliban could be found on the front page on September 7 (and inside on subsequent days) — but only because the mullahs were trying eight foreign aid workers for preaching Christianity. The bemused articles (“Another Strange Kabul Problem: Finding a Lawyer”) were of the weird-foreigners variety.

Military recruitment was a topic of interest then as now — the Army, after switching ad agencies and slogans (“Army of One” for “Be All You Can Be”) had just conducted an “elaborate event” at the Pentagon, swearing into service its 75,800th recruit of the year, 19 year-old Rodrigo Vasquez III of Karnes City, Texas, in order to highlight meeting its recruitment goals a month ahead of schedule in the “most successful recruiting year since at least 1997.”

Howard Dean made the inside pages of the paper that week — the little-known Vermont governor (tagged with “fiscal conservativism/social liberalism”) announced that he would not seek reelection to his fifth two-year term. There was “speculation” that he might even “run for the Democratic nomination for President.”

Missing in Action

And then there were — in terms of what we’ve been used to ever since — the missing, or almost missing. Saddam Hussein didn’t make it into the paper that week. Kim Jong Il was nowhere in sight. Osama bin Laden barely slipped into print — twice deep into articles — as “the accused terrorist” being hosted by the strange Taliban government. The Axis of Evil, of course, did not exist, nor did the Global War on Terror, and the potential enemy of the week, pushed by Donald Rumsfeld (himself on the defensive over the military budget and arguments with his generals), was “the rising China threat.” Iran was scarcely a blip on the news radar screen; Syria rated not a mention. Also missing were just about any of the names we now consider second nature to the post-9/11 news. No “Scooter” Libby. No Valerie Plame. No Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, or Douglas Feith. In fact, not a neocon made it into the pages of the paper over those seven days, and Judy Miller, the neocons’ future dream reporter, who would soon enough storm the front page of the Times and take it for her own, had two pieces that week, a September 5th page-five article about a former Arms Control and Disarmament Agency general counsel challenging the administration’s “assertion that the global treaty banning biological weapons permits nations to test such arms for defensive purposes”; and, two days later, a tiny Israel piece tucked away at the bottom of page fifteen on “the alleged [on-line] support for terrorism” by Islamic groups and charities. The Vice President, seen silently at the President’s side at a “hastily arranged” and awkward “appearance” on the White House grounds after the unemployment figures broke, was otherwise nowhere to be seen, though the Times speculated on its editorial page (“The Bush Merry-Go-Round”) that he was “losing influence.” (“Mr. Cheney’s heart problems and his ardent embrace of the coal, oil and gas industries seem to have hobbled him.”)

Though the sharks in the world’s oceans that week were feeding on something other than humans, there were still “sharks” around. Allison Mitchell began a Sunday lead Week in Review piece (“Face Off: Which Way to Win Control of Congress?”) this way: “Talk about shark season, Congress came back into session last week and the Democrats were circling, sensing blood in the political waters.” Little wonder. This was, after all, a non-majoritarian President who had, as Times writers didn’t hesitate to remind people, just squeaked through with a helping hand from the Supreme Court. After managing to get one massive tax cut by Congress, he began to drift like a lost lifeboat at sea, while his advisers fretted over polls “showing that many people still view Mr. Bush not as decisive but as tentative and perhaps overly scripted.” He was, as a front-page piece by Richard L. Berke and David E. Sanger, put it on September 9th, “essentially out of economic ammunition.”

The nature of politics in Washington that week could be caught in lines like: “Democrats go on the attack…” and “Democrats intensified their attacks against Mr. Bush…” Less than a year into a Bush presidency, Columnist Tom Friedman was already offering the faltering leader heartfelt advice on how not to lose the next election. Be “Clinton-minus,” not “Reagan-squared” was the formula he offered. As the Mitchell piece made clear, this was a presidency under siege as well as a Republican Party — so “everyone” in Washington agreed — “in peril.” In the sort of action not to be seen again for years, a Senate committee actually cut money from the defense budget that week, an act Shanker of the Times termed “another stark challenge” from committee Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan. The political failure of the President’s father was evidently on Washington minds as well, and so the paper in a number of pieces linked father and son. The father’s bid for reelection had, after all, gone down in flames in the nation’s previous recession or, as the headline of one story put it, “Like Father, Bush Is Caught in a Politically Perilous Budget Squeeze.”

A few aspects of our post-9/11 political world were quite recognizable even then. That week, the Bush administration was easing up on Big Tobacco (“Justice Official Denies Pressure to Settle Tobacco Suit”) and Big Computer (“U.S. Abandoning Its Effort to Break Apart Microsoft”), while preparing to bail from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. And as the administration pushed for legislation to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a “hobbled” Dick Cheney was already stonewalling about what had occurred when his Energy Task Force of Big Oil met earlier in 2001.

The two days before 9/11 were so quiet that you could practically hear a news pin drop. In the Times of September 11th — in that moment before the Internet took full possession of us, a day’s lag between events and the news was a print norm — the major story (“Key Leaders Talk of Possible Deals to Revive Economy, Bush is Under Pressure”) indicated that “some Republicans” were anxiously bringing up the 1982 midterm elections when President Reagan “told the nation to u2018stay the course’ in a recession” and the Party dropped numerous House seats in the midterm elections.

At the bottom of the front page was a plane-hijacking story, though it was thirty years old. (“Traced on Internet, Teacher Is Charged In ’71 Jet Hijacking.”) Across the rest of the page-bottom on that final morning were: “In a Nation of Early Risers, Morning TV Is a Hot Market” and “School Dress Codes vs. a Sea of Bare Flesh.”

For intimations of what was to come, you would have had to move inside. On page 3, Douglas Frantz reported, “Suicide Bomb Kills 2 Police Officers in Istanbul,” a bombing for which no one took credit and which was automatically attributed to “a leftist terrorist group” (something that would not happen again soon). A page farther on, you could find Barry Bearak and James Risen’s piece “Reports Disagree on Fate of Anti-Taliban Rebel Chief” about the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud, an anti-Taliban warlord, by two Arabs posing as journalists (which we now know was connected to the September 11 plot). In its penultimate paragraph was this: “If the would-be assassins were indeed Arabs… the fact would lend credibility to those who contend that foreigners, including Osama bin Laden, are playing an ever bigger decision-making role among the Taliban.”

Peering further into the future — on page 8, under World Briefs, was a throwaway paragraph on the low-level air war even then being conducted against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (“Iraq said eight civilians were killed and three wounded when Western planes attacked farms 100 miles southeast of Baghdad. The Pentagon said American and British warplanes attacked three surface-to-air missile sites in the so-called no-fly zone…”); and another, “Iran: Denial on nuclear weapons,” that began: “The government rejected charges by the United States that it was seeking nuclear weapons…”

And then, of course, there was nothing to do but oh-so-slowly turn the microfiche dial, knowing exactly what was around the corner of time and, after a pitch-black break between days, stumble into those mile-high headlines — “U.S. Attacked, Hijacked Jets Destroy Twin Towers and Hit Pentagon in Day of Terror” — and, despite yourself, experience with a kind of gasp the sky in your brain filling with falling bodies.

Here, by the way, is how that September 6th Times shark editorial ended. If it doesn’t give you a little chill for what we’ve lost, I don’t know what will. “Life is full of things that carry more risk than swimming in the ocean. Most of them are inevitably the byproducts of daily life, like falling televisions and car accidents, because daily life is where we spend most of our time. It may lack the visceral fears aroused by the unlikely threat of a shark attack, but it is also far more lethal.”

Only five days after that was written, almost three thousand New Yorkers, some adopted from countries around the globe, would face a danger far more shocking — and, until that moment, far less imaginable to most of us, than any shark attack. Things would indeed fall from the sky — and from a history so many Americans knew nothing about — and visceral fears would be aroused that would drive us, like the Pearl Harbor-ish headlines that greeted the audacious act not of a major power but of 19 fanatics in four planes prepared to die, into a future even more unimaginable.

Put another way, an afternoon spent in the lost world of September 5—10, 2001, reminds us that the savage attacks of the following day would, in fact, buy a faltering, confused, and weak administration as well as a dazed and disengaged President a new life, a “calling” as he would put it, and almost four years to do its damnedest. It would be 2004 before the President’s polling figures settled into the levels of that long-lost September 10th. It would be the summer of 2005 — and the administration’s disastrous handling of hurricanes Sheehan, Katrina, and Iraq — before the President would again be criticized for his “gone fishing” summer vacation; before the Democrats would again begin to attack; before newspapers would again be relatively uncowed; before the Republicans would again gather in those private (and then public) places and begin to complain; before Congress would again be up for grabs. Four long years to make it back to September 10th, 2001 in an American world now filled to the brim with horrors, a United States which is no longer a “country,” but a “homeland” and a Homeland Security State.