Paul Pillar

The Instantaneous Presidency

George W. Bush did highly regrettable things during his presidency, with the launching of the war in Iraq at the top of the list. Perhaps next on the list, and not unrelated to the very costly Iraq War, was fiscal policy that reversed his predecessor's budgetary surplus and opened a gusher of red ink. But a criticism of the former president that should have died long ago even though it keeps coming up from time to time is that he supposedly did not react properly when, as he was listening to some elementary school pupils in Florida read a story on a September morning ten years ago, his chief of staff quietly informed him that a second airplane had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. The critics say that by staying with the students for another seven minutes he was exhibiting indecisiveness or a lack of appreciation for the seriousness of what had just happened. Actually, in continuing to hear the schoolchildren read their story for those few additional minutes, Mr. Bush did absolutely nothing wrong.

The episode came up again in a new interview with the former president to be aired in late August. Mr. Bush explained his behavior by saying that he wanted to project calm and not “rattle the kids.” That's a politic explanation, one that we would expect to hear, and it's fine as far as it goes. Here's an even better reason he was right to respond as he did: there's wasn't anything else useful he could have done anyway.

To believe otherwise involves several common confusions. One is confusion between what is urgent and what is important. That's a distinction that applies to mundane matters in our daily lives as well as to matters that concern a president. Another confusion is between what is important and what one can do anything about. Presidents observe many things that are quite important to U.S. interests but that they can't really do much about, or that are best just left alone. This was true of some aspects of the end of the Cold War during the presidency of Mr. Bush's father, including the collapse of communist rule in Eastern Europe.

A related confusion is between knowing what there is to know about something and being able to do anything about it. We expect senior leaders in government to be literally up to the minute on everything related to their areas of responsibility, whether or not any actions by them depend on such a continual feed of information. (Recall the heat that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper took last year for a broadcast interview in which he showed he had not yet been informed about the arrest earlier in the day of some terrorists in the United Kingdom.) When something really significant, such as a disaster or major overseas event, occurs, the White House press corps is intent on finding out when and how the president was informed—again, whether or not there was anything he could do about it right away. If such an event happens during the night, it is expected that the president's chief of staff or national security adviser will wake him with the news. This might involve some of those 3:00 a.m. phone calls that Hillary Clinton talked about in the last presidential campaign. With many of the 3:00 a.m. calls, the best thing the president can do after receiving the news is to roll over and go back to sleep, in the interest of being well rested and clear eyed when, later on, his subordinates present him with options for decision.

Even when things can be done right away, this doesn't mean—this is yet another confusion—that the president is the one who can or should do them. Given the multiple planes involved in the 9/11 attack, conceivably steps could have been taken in the first few minutes after the second impact at the World Trade Center that would have made a life or death difference. But those steps would have had to be taken by people involved in the air traffic control system, or the defense of U.S. cities, or the security of landmark buildings—or, as it turned out, by passengers on United Airlines Flight 93. There were no presidential decisions to be made in those few minutes. And what were presidential decisions involving responses to 9/11 should not have been taken in those early minutes; if they were, they would have been hasty and ill-considered.

In pointing out these realities I am thinking of the president primarily as chief executive. We expect our presidents to play other roles, including one as a sort of empathizer-in-chief, someone who will react as we would react ourselves to anything shocking or tragic. Because our chief of state and head of government are the same person, more of this role falls on the president than it does on his fellow heads of government in other countries, where some of the empathy burden is carried by royalty or ceremonial presidents. It is a legitimate and necessary function, one that George W. Bush had to perform on several occasions (although he wasn't quite as good at it as some other recent presidents, especially Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton). It is performed primarily not in the first few minutes after an event, however, but instead in later statements and ceremonies.