Skip to main content

Twenty years ago, a not-especially-eloquent U.S. president had to find words of comfort for a nation in shock – and prepare them for a mission to ‘rid the world of evil’ that would keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq for a long time to come

Smoke rises from New York's World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, after two planes hijacked by members of al-Qaeda crashed into the buildings. A third plane hit the Pentagon in Washington; aboard a fourth, passengers overpowered the hijackers before the plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania.Chao Soi Cheong/The Associated Press

David Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. He teaches at McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy in Montreal

Every inch of the wreckage of the World Trade Center was being examined for survivors; smoke and smoulder still marked the Pentagon grounds; and a field 100 kilometres southeast of Pittsburgh had been transformed into a scene of mourning. And three days after those far-flung settings became a triangle of grief, a sombre group of the powerful assembled in a soaring structure at the highest point of Washington to mark the lowest point in American history since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

There, in Washington National Cathedral, were presidents, law makers, jurists. There, too, sat clerics, generals, admirals. And there, where Woodrow Wilson, the spokesman for world idealism after the First World War, was interred, and where Martin Luther King, the crusader against hate, delivered his last Sunday sermon, a president known neither for eloquence nor elocution – a national leader nearly broken by grief, clearly bent by burden – gave what remains, still, perhaps the greatest speech of the new century.

George W. Bush speaks at Washington National Cathedral on Sept. 14, 2001.TIM SLOAN/AFP via Getty Images

It was neither rally nor call for action. Nor even was it a eulogy for the passing of countless countrymen and women and for what, it was clear to all assembled and watching around the world, was the passing of an serene era of easy tranquility. The Cold War had ended but now, after only a decade’s interregnum, a new, frightful era had begun: of terrorism, to be sure, but also of a furious reaction to terror that itself extracted a terrible cost in civil liberties and national tranquility.

It was – unstated but clear to all – also the prelude to a furious reaction to the terrorist attacks that would take the form of an invasion of Afghanistan that itself would lead to a separate tragedy all its own. That came with a far more prosaic statement from the same president a little more than a month later: “On my orders, a little more than an hour ago, the United States military began strikes against al-Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.” The American adventure in Afghanistan concluded in a mortifying, hurried withdrawal after 20 years of futile combat and failed nation-building and that ended, only last month, with the delivery of Afghanistan to the very Taliban that had sheltered al-Qaeda in the first place.

None of that was within the blurry distance-vision of all assembled in that chapel and of the multitudes beyond who, in their horror, had, only days before, witnessed in real time the decisive fiery end of one era and the frightful beginning of the new one, where peril beckoned, where suspicion flourished, and where the once-familiar, seldom-noticed innocent informalities of contemporary life had perished along with the nearly 3,000 victims.

For New Yorkers, the legacies of 9/11 are as varied as they are personal

Twenty years after 9/11, there remains no real way to honour the unidentified dead

The feeling of personal security that had come with that sense of national security – created by two ocean moats that separated the United States from its ancient enmities had passed, extinguished in an instant, disappearing in a morning of utter terror and, then, in the mourning of unspeakable horror. It was buried, quite literally, in the gleaming city of American democracy, in the crowded centre of American finance, and in the pastoral Pennsylvania acres of American agricultural fecundity.

And so it was left to an American president known neither for natural eloquence nor foreign-policy mastery to confront the hardest and harshest moment of leadership since the Cuban Missile Crisis almost exactly four decades earlier. And in that crucible – in that test of character – the 43rd president, a onetime prep-school cheerleader and carefree ball club owner, mounted a podium at Washington National Cathedral and spoke for the country, and for the ages.

“We are here,” George W. Bush began, “in the middle hour of our grief.”

New York, then and now: At top, a man with a fire extinguisher looks at the rubble of the first World Trade Center tower in 2001, and at bottom, people walk through the Oculus Mall, also known as the World Trade Center Transportation Hub, earlier this month.Doug Kanter/AFP/Getty Images; Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, writing largely himself, is forever linked with his “date which will live in infamy” description of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

But a president crafting his own speech was a rarity for a rare moment in history; two Pulitzer winners, the poet Archibald MacLeish and the playwright Robert Sherwood, were among FDR’s speechwriters for other occasions. Richard Nixon would write his own remarks from time to time, drafting remarks on yellow legal pads, and so would Barack Obama, employing what he called “my left-handed scrawl,” but speechwriters had been part of White House staffs for more than a century.

Even so accomplished a craftsman as Abraham Lincoln had help with his remarkable first inaugural address; William H. Seward, whom Lincoln would appoint secretary of state, helped shape the lyrical final passage of the speech that spoke of “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land,” concluding that they will be touched “by the better angels of our nature.”

John F. Kennedy’s 1961 “ask not what your country can do for you” inaugural address was worked and reworked by Kennedy and speechwriter Theodore Sorensen. Ronald Reagan’s stirring “touched the face of God” speech after the 1986 Challenger disaster was shaped by Peggy Noonan.

Mr. Bush’s National Cathedral speech was the product of three writers – Michael Gerson, Matthew Scully and John McConnell – and one president, himself steeped in Scripture and battling a reputation as an underachiever and, like his father, a mangler of the English language.

Mr. Bush had appeared startled, even wounded, in his first remarks after the attacks. But this address, delivered – not noted at the time, and yet freighted with significance – exactly 100 years to the day after another national trauma, the assassination of William McKinley, reflected the sentiment of the man who succeeded the slain president in 1901. “The American people are slow to wrath,” said Theodore Roosevelt, “but when their wrath is once kindled it burns like a consuming flame.”

Theodore Roosevelt delivered a moving speech after he assumed the presidency when William McKinley was assassinated.Library of Congress

So it was with Mr. Bush. “We tried to convey qualities in the speech,” Mr. McConnell said in a recent interview, “what we saw in the president.”

In truth, many Americans did not see those things – strength, perspective, wisdom, the ability to reach for a national moment and to express the will and the resolve, the remorse and rage, of the American people – in their president. But the speechwriters did.

“We knew what he liked, and we knew what we liked about him,” Mr. McConnell said. “We knew his character, that he liked to speak about important things but not about himself. We knew the message he wanted, the language he wanted to use.’’

Though the speech – Mr. Bush examined the draft carefully, editing every line, adding thoughts here, shaping phrases there – was crafted in haste, it was delivered slowly, and the pauses in his delivery were not so much for emphasis but were commas in his grief and semi-colons in his growing sense of purpose.

From the start, the goal was to make this speech stand out and to make the president who delivered it stand tall.

The speechwriters knew Mr. Bush had strong faith, and yet they did not want it garlanded with quotes from the Bible; the idea was to make it religious but not overly or overtly Christian. Nor did they want the speech to seem derivative from other occupants of the White House, which is why it carried only one presidential quote – not from a Republican but from a Democrat, Franklin Roosevelt.

Mr. Bush addresses the nation in 2003 from the USS Abraham Lincoln as a 'mission accomplished' banner hangs behind him.STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP/Getty Images

The speech was not flawless. It carried a pledge to eradicate terrorism from the face of the Earth, which Mr. Bush could not, and of course did not, achieve. It suggested American could, and would, end evil, and it did not achieve that either.

Peter Robinson, who wrote the 1987 “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech that Mr. Reagan delivered in Berlin, characterized Mr. Bush’s remarks as “moving, gracious, heartfelt” and “a speech that proved that George W. Bush’s reputation as a bumbling communicator is totally unfounded.”

But Mr. Robinson, a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, believes the Taliban’s August resurgence in Afghanistan proved that Mr. Bush went too far. “This has qualities of a great speech,” he said, “but I have to wonder if a speech can be great if it has elements that are false.”

And yet at 946 words, the Bush speech remains a potent period piece, emblematic of a time of American testing and tragedy. “If this speech were longer,” said Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff who was with Mr. Bush the morning of the attacks, “it would not have captured the moment.”

In many ways, the speech in which Mr. Bush sought to speak for America speaks for itself.

Watch excerpts from the 2001 service in Washington where Mr. Bush mourned the victims of 9/11.

Here is an annotated version of the president’s remarks.

We are here in the middle hour of our grief.

Here the echoes ring. This line, written by Mr. McConnell, the result of inspiration that even he cannot fathom, contains overtones of Shakespeare, when in Richard III, Gloucester declares that, “Now is the winter of our discontent,” and, though unstated here, the speech is designed, as Shakespeare put in a different context, “To fright the souls of fearful adversaries.”

But the line also has trace elements of Lincoln, who in his Gettysburg Address told his listeners, “We are met on a great battlefield …”

One way or the other – writers sometimes never know the origins of their thoughts – the goal was to avoid the standard rhetoric that occasions like these often prompt.

“It is a stunning first line that works because it is true,” said David Scott Kastan, a Yale University authority on Shakespeare. “Grief is always ‘in the middle hour’ – first, it is just pain and eventually it becomes a memory. But always there is the loss.”

So many have suffered so great a loss, and today we express our nation’s sorrow. We come before God to pray for the missing and the dead, and for those who love them. ... We have seen the images of fire and ashes, and bent steel. Now come the names, the list of casualties we are only beginning to read.
They are the names of men and women who began their day at a desk or in an airport, busy with life. They are the names of people who faced death, and in their last moments called home to say, be brave, and I love you.
They are the names of passengers who defied their murderers, and prevented the murder of others on the ground ...

The context would have been clear to the audience in the cathedral and beyond: The identities of the victims were not swiftly known, the wreckage at the base of Manhattan being so deep, nearly impenetrable. Everywhere in New York there were notices pasted on telephone poles and doorways, the desperate pleas of families frantically looking for loved ones. But at this moment Mr. Bush recognized that finally the names were becoming known.

People read the names of the 9/11 victims at a memorial in Jersey City, N.J., in 2015.Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Just three days removed from these events, Americans do not yet have the distance of history. But our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.

“This is an eloquent speech,” said Adam Frankel, an Obama and Kamala Harris speechwriter, “but you see in the sweeping nature of this passage the opening of the door to the kind of blank-cheque war on terror with all of the associated problems and violations it created here in the United States and globally.”

War has been waged against us by stealth and deceit and murder. This nation is peaceful, but fierce when stirred to anger. This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way, and at an hour, of our choosing ...

“The moment required something that really showed resolve that couldn’t be shaken,” Mr. McConnell reflected, “and to do it not with adjectives or puffed-up talk.” That was accomplished. But the task was not, and so this passage sticks out, the bitter, ironic triumph – as Samuel Johnson might have reminded the writers – of hope over experience. Two empires, the British and Soviet, failed to prevail in Afghanistan. So, too, would the American.

God’s signs are not always the ones we look for. We learn in tragedy that his purposes are not always our own. Yet the prayers of private suffering, whether in our homes or in this great cathedral, are known and heard, and understood.

Here is Mr. Bush, undistilled. “This is a man of great faith talking about the mystery of God,” said Mr. Card, the White House chief of staff. “He was saying that God didn’t do this evil, but that God will get us through it.”

There are prayers that help us last through the day, or endure the night. There are prayers of friends and strangers, that give us strength for the journey. And there are prayers that yield our will to a will greater than our own.
This world He created is of moral design. Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time. Goodness, remembrance, and love have no end. And the Lord of life holds all who die, and all who mourn.

This is the view of a man who once asked an NBC reporter, David Gregory, “How’s your faith?” It is the stirrings of a president who, each morning, read the Bible to himself, and then prayed, out loud, before diving into what is known as the President’s Daily Brief, the often-terrible assessment of security threats assembled overnight by intelligence officials.

A worshipper at Toronto's Jami Mosque prays for the 9/11 victims on Sept. 14, 2001.Patti Gower/The Globe and Mail

It is said that adversity introduces us to ourselves. This is true of a nation as well. In this trial, we have been reminded, and the world has seen, that our fellow Americans are generous and kind, resourceful and brave. We see our national character in rescuers working past exhaustion; in long lines of blood donors; in thousands of citizens who have asked to work and serve in any way possible …

This riff, shaped by Mr. Scully, opens with a notion that has been attributed both to Kahlil Gibran and H.L. Mencken. But the truth is that adversity – whether the price that alcohol was exacting from his family decades before he became president or the emotional trials that would follow the terrorist attacks – introduced itself to Mr. Bush.

“He knew that days like this would bring something out in him,” Mr. Scully said. Mr. Card added: “The moment I whispered in his ear about the second plane hitting the twin towers was the moment he became a president.”

Still, many Americans wondered whether Mr. Bush was suited for this moment.

A few days later, former New Hampshire attorney-general Thomas Rath, who had helped run the president’s campaign in the first 2000 primary, visited Mr. Bush in the White House. “Nobody asks for this,” Mr. Rath, seeking to console Mr. Bush, told the president. Mr. Bush replied immediately: “Yes, some do.” Days later, on Capitol Hill, the president would say, ���In our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment.”

Today, we feel what Franklin Roosevelt called the warm courage of national unity …

This is an allusion to the 32nd president’s first inaugural address, delivered in the depths of the Great Depression. The full quote matches almost exactly the challenge Mr. Bush set forth almost exactly two-thirds of a century later: “We face the arduous days that lie before us in the warm courage of national unity; with the clear consciousness of seeking old and precious moral values; with the clean satisfaction that comes from the stern performance of duty by old and young alike.”

“There were speechwriters involved, but this was his voice,” Mr. Card said. “It sums up his ‘compassionate conservatism.’ He knew there was a higher power and he prayed for the nation and for the world.”

Franklin Delano Roosevelt takes the oath of office on March 4, 1933.Library of Congress

America is a nation full of good fortune, with so much to be grateful for. But we are not spared from suffering. In every generation, the world has produced enemies of human freedom. They have attacked America, because we are freedom’s home and defender. And the commitment of our fathers is now the calling of our time.

This passage is evocative of the ancient eulogies asking the Greeks to honour the dead by dedicating themselves to the enduring ideals of Athens. “Most eulogies aren’t written to persuade,” said Mary Kate Cary, a George H.W. Bush speechwriter who teaches a University of Virginia course on American speeches. “Yet this has all the hallmarks of a great eulogy while persuading Americans to be steadfast in the face of evil.”

On this national day of prayer and remembrance, we ask almighty God to watch over our nation, and grant us patience and resolve in all that is to come. We pray that He will comfort and console those who now walk in sorrow. We thank Him for each life we now must mourn, and the promise of a life to come.

Mr. Bush’s 1999 prepresidential autobiography was titled A Charge to Keep, based on a Methodist hymn written in 1764 by Charles Wesley and itself a paraphrase of Leviticus 8:35: “Keep the charge of the Lord, that ye die not.” The second verse of that hymn speaks to Mr. Bush’s faith and his sense of resolve:

To serve the present age, My calling to fulfill: O may it all my powers engage To do my Master’s will!

The president concluded his remarks with these words:

As we have been assured, neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, can separate us from God’s love. May He bless the souls of the departed. May He comfort our own. And may He always guide our country.
God bless America.

Six days later, in the chamber of the House of Representatives, he added a coda that rings with poignancy: Even grief recedes with time and grace. Now, two decades on, that remains the unfulfilled promise of Sept. 11, 2001.

People visit the Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum in New York earlier this month.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referenced the assassination of William McKinley, which was in 1901.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles