SHOW "George Bush: The 9/11 Interview"
WHEN | WHERE Sunday at 10 p.m. on NatGeo
REASON TO WATCH President George W. Bush's first extended TV interview about 9/11.
WHAT IT'S ABOUT In blue striped tie, white shirt, dark suit and front-lit against a black background, the 43rd president reflects on his actions on Sept. 11, 2001. There is no interviewer -- at least no one is seen or heard -- and Bush addresses the camera, or looks off to the side.
Early that morning, he recalls, he went on a run, and later appeared at a Florida school where a reading lesson was in progress. Within two hours he would be aboard Air Force One -- soon the only plane aloft -- and giving the order to shoot down any domestic airliner that appeared to be in the hands of terrorists. By the end of the day, he was back at the White House, and the world had been wrenched in a new and unknowable direction.
MY SAY Last November, Bush conducted an interview with Matt Lauer as part of his book promotion tour that devoted about 10 minutes to his actions on 9/11; this ground, in other words, has been covered before, but not with this level of detail, which is its chief virtue. He goes to some lengths to explain his controversial actions that day -- reading to the kids even after being informed of the second plane; and heading to points west rather than directly to Washington.
To critics (and Bush has had a few), they were the actions of someone immobilized in the moment. Bush sees it differently: Upon hearing the news, he says, "My first reaction was anger -- who would do that to America? -- and then I immediately focused on the children . . . the innocence of children clarified my job, to protect people. . . . "
His aides ordered Air Force One to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, and later Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. "I wasn't happy about it [but] they felt it would be irresponsible for me to head back into a city when we didn't know what else might come." In fact, what's most striking, and chilling, about this program is exactly what Bush didn't know -- arguably the average TV viewer sitting at home knew more. Phone links on Air Force One were antiquated, while the president saw the horror unfold in almost "Rashomon"-like style: Televised glimpses of the tragedy would come into focus as his plane flew over transmission towers in one city, while entirely different ones appeared over the next town.
BOTTOM LINE In blunt and at times salty language, Bush gets to say exactly what 9/11 meant to him; it's visceral but only occasionally revelatory. We all know this story very well. Maybe too well.