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President wore bemused smile { September 12 2001 }

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Bush kept his travels secret
By Mark Silva
Sentinel Political Editor

September 12, 2001

LONGBOAT KEY -- For much of a terrifying day, a television-riveted nation was left wondering: Where is the president?

Confusion about President Bush's whereabouts in the aftermath of terrorist assaults on two of the nation's icons may have undermined public confidence about the nation's newest leader at a time of crisis unparalleled in modern memory.

"This is reassuring a country that's shaken to its foundation," said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "Part of the president's job is keeping the country calm and stable. I think people were asking, 'Where is he?' "

President Bush made a televised address to the nation Tuesday night. And he issued an immediate public statement of outrage and comfort Tuesday morning, after the assaults on the World Trade Center, as he abruptly departed from a school in Sarasota where he was stumping for his reading initiatives.

But the intervening hours of network and cable TV news for a shellshocked nation brought a series of confusing reports about Bush's location, and at one point a televised statement from his communications director, Karen Hughes.

"Your federal government continues to function effectively," Hughes told a national audience midafternoon.

The president, in contact with his Cabinet members and national security advisers, had secretly flown from an Air Force base in Louisiana to an Air Force base in Nebraska before deciding to return to Washington, and to TV.

"With all due respect," Sabato said, "people don't want to see Karen Hughes. People want to see the president. One assumes they have television facilities in Nebraska."

Former President Clinton was quick to call on Americans to rally behind Bush.

"We should not be second-guessing. We should be supporting him," Clinton said in a telephone interview while traveling in Australia. "The most important thing is, we all have to be strong, calm good Americans now and rally behind the president and support the actions he will doubtlessly take." The president's day started full of promise at Longboat Key, where he had spent the night after an appearance at a Jacksonville school Monday. Shortly after 9 a.m., 18 second-graders waited, seated in two rows inside a gray-carpeted classroom at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota.

As Bush headed into the school, the White House says, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice had advised him of the first airplane crash into the first World Trade tower. As Bush entered the classroom, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card whispered in the president's ear word of the second tower.

The president, flashing children a trademark greeting of smiles and rising eyebrows, wore a bemused smile, hands folded in his lap, as the students read aloud to the drumbeat rhythm of the teacher's tapping pen on a notebook.

Minutes later, Bush left and entered the school's crowded library to greet a roomful of guests expecting a talk about literacy.

Instead, a solemn president announced that America was under siege.

"Ladies and gentlemen, this is a difficult moment for America," Bush told the hushed audience. "I am going to conduct a full-scale investigation and hunt down and find those folks who committed this act. Terrorism against our nation will not stand."

With that, he said he was headed for Washington.

Air Force One, waiting at an airport close to the school, made a hasty departure at 9:54 a.m.

Then came televised news that an airliner had hit the Pentagon.

Fighter jets hovered over both wings of the president's plane as it landed at Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, La., at 11:45 a.m. The perimeter of Air Force One was surrounded by soldiers in combat gear, M-16s at the ready.

After seclusion with advisers, Bush emerged at 12:36 to declare: "Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward."

Bush said he was in "regular contact" with Vice President Dick Cheney, huddled with security advisers in a secure facility at the White House.

Bush boarded Air Force One at 1:30 p.m. for a secret destination that turned out to be Nebraska's Offutt Air Force Base, home to the U.S. Strategic Command, which controls the nation's nuclear weapons. Until three years ago, the Strategic Command also housed the so-called Doomsday Plane that had been specially equipped to serve as a flying White House in the event of nuclear war.

Air Force One was bound for Washington, at 4:36 p.m. and the president went on TV at 8:30 p.m., from the Oval Office.

White House officials were sensitive to any appearance that Bush was not at the helm.

It was hours before the White House announced Bush would return to Washington and to television. Protection of the president, paramount through much of this disturbing day, yielded to the imperative of public relations.

Tuesday night's address was to be a "message of resolve and reassurance," said Ari Fleischer, Bush's press secretary, flying from Nebraska to Washington, "a reassuring message that our nation has been tested before, our nation has always prevailed."

Mark Silva can be reached at or 407-420-5034. Wire services were used in this report.

Copyright 2003, Orlando Sentinel

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