It was the most wrenching decision of the most wrenching day of George W. Bush's life. The Twin Towers had crashed to the ground, and the Pentagon had gone up in flames. The President was aloft in Air Force One, staying out of harm's way and dealing with the crisis. He spoke with Vice President Dick Cheney every 30 minutes. The two men were concerned that passenger flights still heading toward Washington might be part of the terrorist plot. Bush, sources tell TIME, had to decide whether to authorize the military to shoot down the planes, loaded with civilians, if they proved to be threats. Bush ordered the pilots "to do whatever was necessary with planes that refused to respond to commands to divert [from] the city," according to a top Cheney aide.
What felt very necessary to the outraged President was a military response, so he asked the Pentagon his options for immediate air strikes. But with intelligence offering nothing more than a pinprick--"We could have only made the rocks bounce," a military source says--Bush started working the phones. He called Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who refused to leave the burning Pentagon, and said they would hunt down and punish those responsible. He turned to a CIA officer and passed on a message for CIA Director George Tenet. "If Tenet has something"--such as news of another attack--"I want to hear it directly from him, not from you," Bush said. After dividing the work among his closest aides, Bush instructed a military operator to place a call from Air Force One to the last American who had had to grapple with the decision of whether and how to go to war. When his father came on the line, Bush cleared the cabin so they could confer privately.
The job of calming and reassuring the American people, however, was not going so well. The President's first brief statements from Florida and Louisiana were shaky, and when he finally got back to the White House that night, his speech was uninspiring. Afterward, in the White House bunker built to withstand nuclear attack, he leaned forward in his blue chair and began the first meeting of his war council. Around the oblong table sat Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Attorney General John Ashcroft and chief of staff Andrew Card. "Make no mistake," Bush said, stabbing his finger into the table. "Understand my resolve, and all of your people need to understand this."
Bush was focused on one simple point: persuading his staff that he was resolute in the face of this horror. He had made the point to Cheney from Air Force One that day. He had made it again during a video conference with advisers, and during conversations with lawmakers. He returned to the theme so often, in fact, that he seemed to be trying to reassure himself--repeating the words over and over again to help summon the strength he needed so badly.