The President in Sarasota: September 11, 2001

By: Robert Plunket

Bob Plunket recounts his time with President George W. Bush in the hours leading up to the events of September 11, 2001.


It all started when I received an unexpected invitation to accompany the President as part of the White House press corps during his educational swing through Florida. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out why he was suddenly being so nice to me, but I leapt at the opportunity. What columnist wouldn’t?

Sunday evening I drove up to Jacksonville, and after an uncomfortable night at the Motel Six, I made my way to Justina Elementary School where the President was due at 3:45 that afternoon for a tour and a “Leadership Forum” on reading in the multi-purpose room.

The first thing I learned was that anything to do with the President involves a tremendous amount of waiting. At 2 p.m. we were let into the multi-purpose room and the place immediately filled with the invited guests, most of whom had already been waiting an hour or two. Excluding media, there were about 150 people present; they included the school board, selected teachers and students, a few parents, and a tremendous number of politicians-Sen. Bob Nelson, Education Commissioner Charley Christ, Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, Bradenton’s own Sen. John McKay. It looked like a whole bunch of campaign ads come to life and it occurred to me, not necessarily in a good way, that Florida is run by a bunch of middle-aged white guys in suits. And, I might add, some very expensive and photogenic neckties.

Kenny G. played on the loudspeaker. The wait went on and on. The children kept having to go to the bathroom, which required security clearance.

Finally, precisely at 3:50, the President entered, along with his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, Secretary of Education Rod Paige (a tall and serious African-American from Houston) and the school’s principal. They sat on four bar stools placed at the end of the room. The President seemed horribly uncomfortable on the barstool; he was exactly the wrong height, while the others, being much shorter (the principal) or much taller (the governor and the secretary) had no trouble whatsoever. He spent the entire leadership forum discreetly shifting his weight, trying to find a comfortable position. Nevertheless, he was the soul of affability-he reminded me of Johnny Carson-and kept lightening up the proceedings with little jokes, many about his brother and/or football.

The politicians in suits sat rigidly at attention, leaning slightly forward, each riveted to their President and role model.

The program, such as it was, dealt with reading, and was on what struck me as a very superficial level, even for an elementary school. “Every child should learn to read,” the President said, and then emphasized “the importance of practicing reading. If it takes teaching reading all day long, do it!” he exclaimed. Perhaps the most endearing part of his presentation was the way he and the little kids sitting in the first row would make funny faces at each other when the other people were talking.

At precisely 4:30 the program was over. The kids, yours truly included, surged around Mr. Bush for pictures and autographs. Then I proceeded to the White House press filing center, where the reporters plug in their laptops and write their stories. There was a desk for SARASOTA Magazine, set up right between Time and the New York Times.

I must say I was very impressed with the White House reporters. They are the cream of the crop, mostly young, frighteningly intelligent and fearless, and incredibly hard workers. Under the most pressure were the broadcast journalists. These are the ones you see on the evening news, described by Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather as “traveling with the President.” Not only did they have to write their stories, they had to look good for their live feed on the 6:30 news. Soon a little line of them stood waiting, cans of hairspray in hand, to get their turn in the one men’s room.

All the reporters seemed quite excited about getting out of Jacksonville and going to Longboat Key, which they regarded as the lap of luxury. Several of the younger ones wondered if there was any surfing on Longboat. “Not with this red tide,” I warned them. There was much speculation as to whether the President would be having dinner with Katherine Harris, who they all seemed to know lives near the Colony, where they-and Mr. Bush- would be staying. The official line from the White House press people was that the President would be dining with the mayor of Jacksonville, who would be flying down with him on Air Force One. The mayor is a rising Republican star who can’t run again due to term limits. Apparently some sort of scheme is in the works to get him a Congressional seat.

At 6:45 we all got on buses to go out to the airport. The press plane that follows the President around was quite an experience. I had never been on an airplane like it-very luxurious, all first class, with special LazyBoy-type seats, tables covered with hors d’oeuvres. And even though the flight was only 50 minutes long, the flight attendants managed to serve a complete and rather tasty dinner, on china, with all the fixings. Upon landing in Sarasota we could see Air Force One in all its glory, parked close to the terminal building and splendidly lit against the night sky.

The next morning the President was due at Booker Elementary for an event similar to the one at Jacksonville. I arrived just before eight; and the first thing I noticed were the protestors, herded behind an orange fence on MLK Drive, carrying banners decrying all sorts of things, mostly environmental. I checked in with the press desk and found our photographer Rebecca Baxter.

Inside the Booker media center most of the guests were already in place. Again, the school board was there in full force. The politicians from the day before had pretty much evaporated; just Congressman Dan Miller was present, chatting with reporters. The mood was light-hearted and anticipatory. I eavesdropped as one of the White House reporters filed a story about the President’s early morning activities. He’d jogged on the beach at the Colony, then “cooled down” for a while, then gone in for a big breakfast.

The first hint that anything was amiss came from Tampa Bay’s Channel 8 reporter, Jackie Barron. She was talking to her mother on her cell phone when suddenly her expression changed. Her mother, who was watching TV, had told her that a plane had just crashed into the World Trade Center. Almost simultaneously Brian Goff from Fox News in Tampa heard the same thing over his cell phone. We all strained to listen, full of questions. It was a little Cessna, someone said. No, it was a 737, someone else said. The information seemed incredible, but there it was. Whatever had happened, one thing was certain. Our little event at Booker was clearly going to be bumped by something much more important.

By this time the President had arrived. He was in a classroom with a small group of students, reading to them, and being shown by a teacher how much their reading skills had increased.

In the media center a strange atmosphere prevailed. Many of the guests had not heard the news, but in the rear, where the press was gathered, attention had already shifted to the tragedy in New York. There was a feeling that we should leave-go back to our offices and find out more about what appeared at that moment a terrible accident.

Then, again over the ubiquitous cell phones, came the most shocking news of all. Another plane, this one definitely identified as a passenger jet, had crashed into the other tower. The reporters and photographers literally ran over to a small TV studio located off to the side of the media center, where for the first time we saw the images that have become all too familiar.

For 10 minutes or so, confusion reigned. Would the President be leaving immediately? Had he already left?

I saw Linda Carson from Channel 40. She had been one of the two or three pool reporters with the President in the classroom when White House aide Andrew Card whispered into the President’s ear that a second plane had hit the twin towers and that it was now presumed to be a terrorist attack. Linda described to Rebecca and me what had happened next. Mr. Bush absorbed the news without changing his expression. For the next six minutes he let the second graders and their reading lesson proceed. He seemed to be going in and out of focus. At one moment he would listen carefully and smile at the kids, then a faraway look would come into his eyes as he stared out into the distance, the horrible implications of what he had just heard going through his mind. Finally the kids put away their readers. As the President complimented them, aides descended on him. A reporter called out a question about the attacks. The President held up his hand. “We’ll talk about that later,” he said, not wanting to alarm the children.

Someone from the school board announced that the President would be making a short statement. An eerie silence descended over the room for several minutes as we all waited.

Mr. Bush entered looking grim and carrying several sheets of white paper. He made his now-famous remarks, which were brief and to the point, the only jarring note being his pledge to track down the “folks” responsible. I can only surmise that in moments of stress he reverts to the idiom of his Texas homeland. Then he grabbed his papers, hurriedly shook hands with Frank Brogan, Wilma Hamilton, several of the teachers, and was gone.

What I saw, in retrospect, was the last moment in Chapter One of the Bush presidency. Never again would he be so carefree, so obviously enjoying himself, as he had been the previous afternoon in Jacksonville. In the media center of Emma Booker Elementary Chapter Two began, and nothing will ever be quite the same-for Mr. Bush and for the world.

AT THE COLONY

A quiet night on Longboat Key.

The decision to have President Bush spend the night of Sept. 10 at the Colony can be traced back to a locally famous incident during the hotly contested presidential election of 2000. This is where Al Gore stayed-in a cottage with the unhappily prophetic name of Castaways-while he rehearsed for the memorable second debate, during which he told the story about the girl at Sarasota High School who didn’t have a desk. Now, when last-minute logistics made a one-day trip to Jacksonville and Sarasota impossible, the Secret Service knew just the place to camp for the night. The Colony is low-key, discreet and, most of all, easy to secure.

The President’s motorcade arrived at 6 p.m., and he was met by Katie Klauber Moulton, manager of the Colony, her stepmother Sue Bassett Klauber, and Katie’s brother Tommy, food and beverage manager of the resort. If anyone can successfully host a President, it’s the Klauber family. With their hotel, which keeps getting named the best tennis resort in the country, their various chic restaurants and the phenomenallly successful catering business (part of Michael’s On East, which is owned by Katie’s brother Michael) they come as close as anyone to defining what is stylish in Sarasota. Just minutes before, Katie and Sue had been up in the penthouse, making the President’s bed with Sue’s best imported sheets.

The President dined at seven, in the small private dining room located just off the entrance to the Colony Restaurant. Tommy Klauber prepared the dinner with the input of the White House kitchen. The President likes Tex-Mex, they advised, so he prepared his famous chili con queso, which, I am told, went quick. Guests included brother Jeb; Secretary of Education Rod Paige; Bradenton’s John McKay, president of the Florida Senate; State Representative Lisa Carlton; Tramm Hudson, an officer at Sarasota’s Provident bank and chairman of the local Republican Party; former governor Bob Martinez from Tampa; Tom Feeney, speaker of the Florida House; and John Delaney, the mayor of Jacksonville.

The President went up to bed at 10 but some of the others lingered in the Monkey Bar. Katie chatted with some of the Secret Service agents and soon found herself touring the Presidential limousine. She remembers marveling at all the phones and electronic equipment.

The President was up at six and gave in to the Secret Service when they requested that he not jog on the beach, for security reasons. He was driven to Harbourside Gulf Course in the neighboring Longboat Key Club.

After a four-and-a-half mile run, the President returned to the Colony and showered. He left promptly at 8:35 but not before thanking the Klaubers and the Colony staff, each member personally when possible.

The motorcade set out and soon disappeared southward on Gulf of Mexico Drive. The President was on Highway 301, just north of Main Street, heading toward Booker Elementary when, on the phone that Katie Moulton had been admiring just hours before, he received the news that a plane had crashed in New York City.

ON AIR FORCE ONE

Congressman Dan Miller describes the scene aboard the President’s plane.

A ride on Air Force One is usually one of the more pleasant perks that members of Congress enjoy. Bradenton’s Congressman Dan Miller had experienced the pleasure three times before. As a Presidential courtesy, it transcends party. Miller, a Republican, had last flown aboard the fabled jet, probably the most famous plane in the world, as the guest of President Clinton.

Miller and his wife Glenda had been in Washington for the weekend, but he flew back to his Bradenton home on Monday night. At 8:55 Tuesday morning he was standing in front of Emma E. Booker Elementary School as part of the official greeting party, along with Congressman Adam Putnam. An aide had just whispered to Miller the news of the first plane crash in New York, but if the President yet knew, his greeting as he got out of the limo did not give it away. He did, however, make an unscheduled stop in a communications room, where he talked with Condoleeza Rice in Washington. He then proceeded into a classroom where 16 second graders, led by their teacher, Sandra K. Daniels, were going to demonstrate their reading skills.

About eight minutes into Daniels’ lesson, the world fell apart. While Mr. Bush continued reading for a few more minutes, the White House staff considered their options and decided the President would return to Washington at once but would first make a brief statement to the crowd-and news cameras-assembled in the media center.

Dan Miller missed this. He had already been hustled out to the motorcade, which left the moment the President finished speaking and sped up 301, across DeSoto Road into the airport. As it crossed the tarmac the motorcade passed within yards of Jones Aviation, where in the the fall of 2000, two men named Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi had taken flying lessons.

By now the sense of urgency was accelerating. The President, famous for his courtesy, hurried past the local officials who had gathered to see him off. Dan Miller and Adam Putnam were led into the plane through the rear entrance and escorted to a conference room that contained eight chairs grouped around a large table. Within seconds they were in the air, heading north.

Ironically, as a passenger on Air Force One, Miller was getting less information than the average TV viewer at home. Though there was a TV in the conference room, the reception was so poor that the images and words were hard to make out. They were forced to rely on the news that was passed, mouth to mouth, throughout the plane. Then, over northern Florida, Miller noticed a strange thing. The plane had turned west. Below was the unmistakable coastline of the Panhandle, then Alabama, then Mississippi. Clearly, they were no longer headed toward Washington. Miller reports that he didn’t feel he was in danger, just shock. “This is like a Tom Clancy novel,” he kept thinking. “It can’t be happening.”

At 11:30 the President called Miller and Putnam into his private office in the front of Air Force One and explained what was going on. His demeanor, Miller reports, was calm and serious. They were flying at 45,000 feet, he told them, high above any other planes, and they were headed for an undisclosed location. There had been credible threats against Air Force One, and they were currently being escorted by six jet fighters. Even though the President had already ordered the grounding of all flights in the country-an order he issued from his car en route to the Sarasota airport-several were still unaccounted for. It was impossible to rule out the possibility of further attacks.

Approximately one half hour later, Air Force One landed at Barksfield Air Force Base in Louisiana. Miller looked out the window and was amazed at the armored equipment and soldiers with automatic weapons that immediately surrounded the plane. The President disembarked and was escorted to the general’s office, where he spent the next hour and a half talking on the phone. Then he returned. All non-essential personnel, Miller and Putnam included, were escorted to a building where they stayed until a backup plane took them back to Washington. They arrived at 5 p.m. and Miller hurried home. “I remember hugging my wife,” he reports. “You don’t even try to hold back the tears at a time like that.”

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