AUSTIN, Texas – The event that changed the nation also changed a president.
When he visits the wounded now at military hospitals, George W. Bush sometimes finds young warriors who were in middle school when the wars started so many years ago.
The wounded warriors are a legacy of war, something that has stayed with him from two White House terms that started with a focus on domestic policy but took a sharp turn once terrorists struck the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
“He realizes what it cost some of the guys,” said Cliff Johnson, a friend and former gubernatorial aide. “Bush got emotionally committed and involved in their suffering. I think it’s affected him deeply.”
Bush ran for president in 2000 talking about education, tax cuts and humility in foreign policy, and during his first eight months in office, those were the focus. But it wasn’t just his administration and its policies that were different after 9/11, colleagues say. Bush himself was altered when the twin towers fell.
“He was focused before, but with 9/11 that focus became more intense and laserlike with everything,” said Joe Allbaugh, his former chief of staff as governor and director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency when Bush was in the White House.
“For myself, I can say it made me more serious. And I viewed him much the same way,” said Allbaugh. “It was a day that sears not just the mind but the heart, and you never get away from it.”
Karen Hughes, a longtime Bush aide in Austin and counselor to the president, said the fall of 2001 was shaping up for more work on Bush’s domestic agenda.
“We were working on No Child Left Behind, we were working on the economy, we had passed the tax cuts. Congress was getting ready to come back for the fall, and most of the outlook was domestic policy,” she said.
“Obviously, as of that morning, the entire focus changed.”
The transformation to a wartime presidency presented Bush with an overriding purpose, however unwanted, that would redefine the man and his legacy. And it led him into areas that marred the public’s view of him when he left office, including the Iraq war, surveillance policies that many felt went beyond the bounds of the Constitution, and a tough approach to the world that soured even some U.S. allies.
Bush is famously reluctant to reveal himself, and his memoir, “Decision Points,” largely avoids introspection. His book is mostly a vigorous telling of events and a defense of his decisions. In the days after 9/11, he felt it was important for the country to see a president who was steady, confident and in charge, he says.
“My West Texas optimism helped me project confidence,” he writes. “Occasionally, I spoke a little too bluntly, such as when I said I wanted bin Laden ‘dead or alive.’ The people around me helped a lot during those trying days.”
The terrorist attacks were a cataclysmic event in which no one was left unchanged and the fear of more attacks, the rapid escalation of a military campaign and the installation of cumbersome security procedures at airports were all reminders of a nation at war.
In his book, Bush writes that he could not sleep. He says he saw images of the towers falling, frightened faces and people jumping to their death. When he first visited ground zero on Sept. 14, he saw the colossal rubble and raw emotions.
“The blood lust was palpable and understandable,” he writes.
Afterward, Bush drove three miles north to the Javits Center, a staging area for first responders and a gathering place for about 200 family members of missing firefighters and police officers.
Hughes remembers the scene. “We walked into the waiting room, and it was so intense, I couldn’t stand it,” she said. “I literally could not stand it. It was so awful. I felt I had to leave, the grief and pain and the loss was just overwhelming.”
When she returned 30 minutes later, she saw Bush move from family to family, listening to their stories, looking at pictures and commiserating. Allbaugh, who was there at ground zero with Bush, said it was impossible not to be deeply affected by the day.
“I can still close my eyes and smell, as he did that Friday on the first visit, the odor, the stench, the poison in the air and see literally the fear in people’s faces,” Allbaugh said. “When you have the responsibility of the presidency and of the United States, that weighs heavily on your shoulders. And what I noticed as a personal change was that his hair turned grayer faster right after that.”
The decisions after 9/11 remain controversial: First, Afghanistan, and then regime change in Iraq, the use of interrogation techniques such as waterboarding, the establishment of a prison for terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay. Civil liberties collided with public safety – eavesdropping on conversations abroad, implementation of swollen airport security at home.
Much of it has endured under Barack Obama. Despite his campaign promises to close Guantanamo and recall the troops, America remains very much at war against terrorism. It appears the U.S. may have a permanent, albeit small, military footprint in Iraq.
In his presidential library at Southern Methodist University, Bush will answer critics who say America went to war on false information and bungled the outcome, squandering thousands of lives and billions of dollars. At his library, allies say, Bush can point to the ferment leading to the Arab Spring as evidence that his freedom agenda began to transform a troubled part of the world.
Last spring, Bush and his wife, Laura, were at dinner at a restaurant in Dallas when the Secret Service told him the White House had called. He returned home and Obama gave him the news: Osama bin Laden was dead.
“I didn’t … feel any great sense of happiness or jubilation,” Bush said in an interview broadcast on the National Geographic Channel. “I felt a sense of closure. And I felt a sense of gratitude that justice had been done.”
In his public appearances, he exudes the certitude of a man reconciled in the belief that he did his best amid tumultuous circumstances. Privately, friends say, in his often unannounced visits to military hospitals, he is a man deeply affected by the events of 9/11 and its aftermath.
“As much as you want to go on,” Allbaugh said, “there is a part of you that is frozen in time on Sept. 11 – and forever will be frozen in time.”
It’s true for the man who was president. In his final White House address to the nation in 2009, Bush said, “Most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9/11.”
Then he added: “I never did.”