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A Bush insider's recollection of 9/11 and its aftermath

By Paul Choiniere

Publication: The Day

Published March 31. 2013 4:00AM

It was impassioned political discussions around the family dinner table in Brockton, Mass. that would send Andrew Hill Card Jr. on a political career that led "to a series of experiences beyond comprehension," the former aid to three Republican presidents told Coast Guard Academy cadets last week.

Most famously Card, then the chief of staff to President George W. Bush, was the man who had the task of interrupting the president on Sept. 11, 2001 as he read a children's story to second graders at the Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla., promoting his No Child Left Behind initiative.

Card, speaking at Leamy Hall to an audience of cadets who in 2001 were around the ages of the children Bush was meeting with that day, said the president's traveling staff had originally thought a plane crashing into the World Trade Center was a terrible accident. News of the second impact dispelled that notion.

Card said he wanted to be brief and avoid a prolonged discussion in front of curious reporters, but yet convey the seriousness of the situation. He would whisper in Bush's ear, "A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack." Then he stepped away.

The occasion for Card's visit was his recognition as the 18th Coast Guard Foundation Hedrick Fellow. The fellowship program was founded by an endowment from Frank E. and Harriet E. Hedrick in 1982. It brings influential Americans to the academy to meet with cadets and the faculty, both in classrooms and informally. Past Hedrick Fellows include Presidents George H.W. Bush, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, former Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Warren Burger, and former Secretary of State James A. Baker.

Before serving in the second Bush administration, Card had worked as an aide to President Ronald Reagan and as secretary of transportation during the first Bush administration.

"Politics was not a dirty word in my household, it was a noble calling," said Card. His first office carried no pay and, he said, made enemies of friends - serving on the city's planning board. Card would go on to win a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, make an unsuccessful run for governor, and succeed as a party organizer at the national level. Card is now dean of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M.

Last Monday he kept his audience of cadets, faculty and invited guests mesmerized as he told insider details of Sept. 11 and the following days, including the president's arrival by helicopter to Ground Zero on Sept. 14.

"There was the tip of Manhattan and it had a pillar of black smoke rising. And the helicopter circled around that pillar of smoke twice. We were pressed against the windows and no one said a word. We saw thousands of people around the edges of a black hole where there was billowing smoke," Card recalled.

It was the day Bush, climbing atop wreckage from the attack and using a bullhorn, addressed rescuers.

"We can't hear you," shouted a New Yorker, as Bush began.

"I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked down these buildings will hear all of us soon," the president famously replied.

Card said it happened because Bush overruled his own Secret Service officers when his limousine arrived at the site.

"The president says to the Secret Service, 'Stop the limo, I want to get out.' And the radio traffic was, 'We can't let him out, these people haven't been through magnetometers, they haven't had their names run through the computers.' But he says, 'I want to stop.' And they stop and the president gets out," Card said.

Also memorable, recalled the former chief of staff, was the president's visit to the Jacob Javits Center and a gathering of families of firefighters and policemen lost and presumed dead from the attack. The planning called for Bush to address the families from a podium and then depart.

"I am not going to the podium," the president told his chief of staff. Instead he walked through the room consoling and listening to grieving family members, staying nearly two hours.

A woman stood up and walked over to Bush as he got ready to leave.

"She stands right in front of the president and looks him right in the eyes and holds out her hand and says, 'Mr. President, I want you to have this. This is my son's badge. His name is George Howard. Don't ever forget him,' and she dropped the badge in the president's hand."

Card recalled Bush's response, "America will forget. It will start to move on. But don't worry about me, I will never forget."

Howard, a Port Authority police officer, had a day off Sept. 11, but went to the scene to help. Aged 44, he had two sons. Back in the limo, the president, stoic throughout, finally let go emotionally.

"He reaches his hand into his pocket and pulls out the badge. Tears begin streaming down his cheeks. And I look at the badge. It's badge Number 1012. He squeezes it, puts it back in his pocket."

Bush would keep the badge throughout his presidency.

Paul Choiniere is editorial page editor.

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