Osama bin Laden just never came up.
“We had just come off of a presidential campaign, where, as you know, you and your colleagues had asked my boss every conceivable question,” said Karen Hughes, a senior counselor to George W. Bush, who had been president for less than eight months on Sept. 11, 2001.
“I thought every question imaginable had been asked of him during the 18 months on the presidential campaign,” she said. “No one ever asked him, that I remember, about al-Qaida. No one.”
Hughes was one of many former and current political figures who agreed to relive the days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 in interviews with the MSNBC-TV program “Hardball.” Like everyone else, she recalled being frightened, angry and energized — sharing the “shock, disbelief, anger [and] grave, grave concern about what was going to happen next,” as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., characterized the emotions of those days.
Hughes also remembers being anxious about the new team’s capacity to respond.
“Here we were at war against al-Qaida, going into Afghanistan, and yet he’d never really been asked about all that,” Hughes said. “... I remember just feeling so responsible. It was because, you know, we were still pretty new.”
Word to the family: ‘I’m OK’
Colin Powell, then the secretary of state, was in Peru for a summit of the Organization of American States when news of the attacks reached him.
There was so much to do. He dived into getting the latest intelligence and relaying it to his fellow OAS members, from whom he was able to win a unanimous statement of support.Video: An uncomfortably familiar sensation
But it wasn’t until he was finally on his way back home from Peru that the enormity of the attacks sank in for Powell.
“I’m racing back to Washington. I have my own family — my wife is in McLean, Virginia, and my two daughters were in New York,” he said.
“And it was only when my security people came up to me on the plane halfway home and said to me, ‘We have got your daughters moved to a secure location,’ that it dawned on me that there might have been something else happening in New York. That it was not just planes flying into the World Trade Center — there could have been a bigger plot that we didn’t know about. And my security people had already thought of this and moved my daughters to another location.”
Family, sooner or later, was on everyone’s mind.
“I had the momentary clarity to call my family and say: ‘I’m OK. You’re going to see a lot of things, but I’m OK,’” said Condoleezza Rice, Powell’s successor as secretary of state. She was Bush’s national security adviser on Sept. 11, 2001.
Powell, a retired Army general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told “Hardball” host Chris Matthews: “To look out my window at the State Department once I got back home, look across the river, I could still see the Pentagon smolder — a place that I spent many years of my life in. I knew every wing, every corridor of that building.”
A senator watches helplessly
Like the rest of his colleagues in Congress, John McCain was hustled out the doors of the U.S. Capitol as the last plane, United Airlines Flight 93, flew toward its target, which authorities concluded was probably Washington.
“One of the things that might have been next was Flight 93 coming down to either hit the Capitol or the White House,” he said. “Thank God for those brave young Americans who prevented it” by storming the cockpit and forcing the jet to crash in Pennsylvania.
“I couldn’t get very far from the Capitol, so a staffer of mine has an apartment near here, and we went over to her apartment because there was just no way of getting off of Capitol Hill. Everything was stopped,” McCain said. “I spent the day on the phone and in front of the television set, just like most Americans.”
‘I want a hamburger’
And what about the man at the top, the inexperienced new president whose intelligence and judgment had been widely questioned in the heat of the campaign just a few months before?
“[There were] a lot of things we were going to have to do — rescue efforts in New York, rescue efforts in the Pentagon, rebuilding international coalitions, making sure we knew who had done this to us and how do we go after them,” Powell said. “But the president was calm; all my other colleagues were calm. There were no histrionics. Everybody knew that there was work to be done.”
For Hughes, one special moment of bizarre normalcy crystallized her confidence in Bush.
“I remember once the Secret Service thought they had another threat and tried to get the president to leave,” Hughes said. “And he insisted that he wasn’t leaving. I'll never forget, he said: ‘In fact, I’m hungry. I want a hamburger.’
“And I said, ‘Well, you might as well have cheese.’ He’d been trying to diet, and so I thought, well, if we’re all going to die here in the next few minutes, you might as well have a hamburger with cheese on it.”
By MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson with MSNBC-TV’s Chris Matthews and Jeremy Bronson.
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