David Frum Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
|Photo by Jane Scherr|
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You have written an account of your work in the White House. It's called The Right Man: An Inside Account of the Bush White House. For the people in the White House, 9/11 was really a turning point, even beyond 9/11 as a turning point for the country, because the people in the White House had the responsibility of figuring out how to respond. Tell us a little about that day, 9/11, and how it pulled the rug out from under everyone.
We had just come out of a very sleepy summer. We had come out of a summer where it became extremely clear that the political momentum of the Bush presidency was exhausted -- it was this terrible election process that yielded an inconclusive result that put George Bush in a weakened position. Through sheer brass and nerve, he got through his first big commitment, the tax cut, but that act destroyed the Republican coalition in the Senate. It was like landing an airplane on a bumpy piece of ground -- the wheels come off, the wings come. Through the summer, the president's poll numbers were coming down, his agenda was stalling, and the Democrats now had control of the Senate. It looked like the administration would be on the defensive for four years. You could just feel it. I describe it in the book, my own feeling of the energy running out of the operation, and my thinking, "What am I even doing here?"
Then 9/11 came. It came out of the clear, blue yonder. We were evacuated from the White House. It was a terrible ... it was a terrible day. The president was in Florida, as everyone knows. For those of us who were there, I think the defining experience -- and I write a lot on this, because there were a lot of amazing experiences that day -- was the experience of being ordered to run. We were all ordered to run out of the building. Afterwards, people would wear these patriotic tags with the red, white, and blue that say, "These colors don't run." That day, they did run. Then we were all stranded, because the White House evacuation plan was written during the Cold War, and the contingency it was planning against was a Soviet nuclear strike. The assumption was, in such an event, the White House and everyone inside of it would be incinerated -- very sad -- but it would eliminate the problem of "Where do you put the staff?" Here we had the unforeseen, and it was never revised, of course. After the Cold War no one ever thought you need would such a thing again.
So now we had the White House empty, no one knew what to do with the staff, most people went home. A few of us were taken to a location to do some work for the president, and that's where we spent the day. That's where I was, but one of my dearest friends in Washington was on the plane that smashed into the Pentagon. If I ever see that Frenchman who says it didn't happen, I'm going to sock him in the mouth! We finally emerged at the end of the day into a city at war. It was a moment where you suddenly understood what 1942 felt like. The city was empty. There were armed personnel carriers and small fighting vehicles everywhere, soldiers with enormous guns on patrol. And the lights ... the flags were still up. The next day, everything would be at half-staff, but the flags were still up and the lights were on, but the city was empty. We walked back to an empty White House, and we filed in to watch the president speak to the nation.
The people in the White House were actually concerned for their own lives, in addition to ...
We ran. We thought there was a plane heading our way. I mean, there's an absurd story I tell in the book of being at my desk, and the news coming [in]. My wife called me and said, "You'd better get out of there." I had this moment of macho mulishness and said, "I'm not leaving." Two minutes later, the Secret Service ordered everybody to go. So much for my moment of glory.
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