It’s easier to get within 15 feet of President Bush than through TSA security
President George W. Bush thought the first plane that crashed into the World Trade Center was an accident. The second one, he understood to be an attack, but wanted to keep calm. But it wasn’t until a third plane hit the Pentagon on the fall morning in 2001 did he consider the 9/11 attacks a declaration of war.
That’s what the ex-president told 600 people this morning at a San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce event at the US Grant. Sponsored by WalMart, the speech was part of Bush’s book tour for his presidential memoir Decision Points. There was no opportunity to ask the man questions—not even on the Gitmo detainee verdict yesterday and certainly not on allegations of plagiarism. (I have some questions leftover from his time as Texas governor.) The press were allowed into the engagement, but only for the first 15 minutes.
And that was just enough time to hear Bush describe the general premise of his book, a dissection of the key decisions of his two presidential terms, starting with 9/11 and the decision to invade Afghanistan. That’s about all reporters got to hear before being ushered out into the hall (see the bottom for a transcription of his anecdote of those 7 infamous minutes of inaction after he’s informed of the second plane attack).
Except I wasn’t immediately forced in the hall. I am very grateful that I was one of four reporters allowed to approach the front in order to shoot (and tweet) some closer-up pictures with my camera phone.
A quick digression.
In 2001, before the attacks, I was a reporter for a weekly newspaper covering state government. Bush came to town for some big speech before a few hundred veterans; I put in to cover it. This was around the time Memento came out and so, in addition to the paper’s expensive 3-megapixel digital camera, I brought along my Polaroid camera. The press booth was maybe a hundred feet or more from the stage, so my instant photos came out horrible, blurry and very difficult to make out who the guy is at the podium. But they’re my proof that I saw him and I cherish them.
This time I was allowed to sit just beneath the stage for 2 minutes, perhaps 15 feet from Bush. I could’ve hit him with a shoe.
And that made me think about how I got there. I realized that, at least based on recent accounts in the news, it’s a lot easier to get within a striking range of a former president than it is to pass through a Transportation Safety Administration checkpoint at the San Diego airport.
Here’s the process I went through:
1. I called the Chamber of Commerce press contact and told her I wanted to come. She put my name down and sent me an email with instructions to show up at the US Grant Hotel before 10:45 a.m.
2. At 10:40 a.m. , I walked into the US Grant Hotel—no security at the doors—and made my way to the staircase that leads to the presidential ballroom.
3. At the foot of the stairs, a official looking guy in a suit asked if he can help me. I told him I’m press. He pointed to another guy in a suit at the top of the stairs and said he would help me.
4. At the top of the stairs, second guys asked “media?” and I say “Yes.” He directed me to a couch and said Secret Service would check me out and escort me into the ballroom.
5. As I was sitting on the sofa, a third guy in a suit started chewing out the second guy, telling him that the Secret Service is not in charge of escorting press. If they’re registered, they get to go in, if they’re not registered, they get to go home. I call out that I’m registered/
6. Hearing that, second and third guy directed a woman from the Chamber to escort me in. That was that.
At no point was my ID checked. In fact, no one even asked my name, my publication or checked the registration list. I wasn’t put through a metal detector or any kind of scanner or wanding and I certainly wasn’t patted down. All I had to say was “media” and “I’m registered.” Inside, I did rendezvous with the original press contact, which got me the photo op, but even then my identity wouldn’t have been hard to forge. After the photos, I left on my own accord. I could’ve wandered off or found an empty seat and no one would’ve been the wiser.
I write this not to embarrass the chamber or the Secret Service, but to point out that the stark difference in definitions of security. And because while I got through without scrutiny, it took four police officers to arrest this homeless man across the street from the hotel:
Here’s Bush’s description of the “The Pet Goat” incident:
The story begins in a class room in Florida and I had been told by Karl Rove heading into the classroom that a plane hit the World Trade Center and it was confirmed by Condi Rice, who was my national security advisor and in Washington at the time, that a plane had hit and I kind of felt like it was an accident. I couldn’t imagine anything other than that and then sitting in the classroom, Andy Card, my chief of staff, whispered in my ear ‘a second plane has hit the second tower, America is under attack.’ my first reflection is anger. Who dare attack our country? And then I was looking at the children, the child in particular who is reading at the time and innocence and that child contrasted starkly with the evil of the killers and my role as a president became clarified and that was to protect the children and theiir parents and their neighbors in the country. And then I saw the press in the back started getting phone calls and I made the decision not to overreact and jump up and startle the children because a leader of an organization in a crisis it is essential to project calm. Eventually I was hustled out of the classroom and put into the limousine hurdling down the highway and Condi calls and says a third plane has hit the pentagon. I reflect the first plane, an accident, the second plane, a attack, and the third plane a declaration of war.