I used to love conspiracy theories. The Kennedy assassination provided many wasted but happy hours as I pored over the literature. I knew all the tiny little facts that were part of the puzzle: the stripper who got thrown out of the car, David Ferrie’s paste-on eye-brows, the Umbrella Man. I can’t say I swallowed everything, but I was a very willing audience. Clearly, something fishy was going on.
Then I got involved in a conspiracy theory, probably the biggest one of all. And now I understand exactly what’s fishy—gossip columnists like me.
Let’s go back, as we all are doing this month, to Sept. 11, 2001. As unlikely as it sounds, I happened to be traveling with the White House press corps. Our Biz(941) editor, Susan Burns, arranged it with a friend she has in Washington. I’d joined them in Jacksonville the day before for an education event with the president, and then flown on the press plane to Sarasota. Early the next morning, I arose before dawn and headed over to Emma Booker Elementary to meet our photographer, Rebecca Baxter. We were going to cover another education event in the school library. I instructed Rebecca that her primary function that morning was to get a picture of me and President Bush.
There was a crowd of maybe 200 people—reporters, school board, local politicians, schoolchildren. It seemed we had to wait an awfully long time. Then a whisper went through the crowd—a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. My first reaction? “Oh, great. Now nobody could care less about our little event. We won’t be on the evening news after all.” My second reaction? “What a horrible place to get stuck when something important is happening. I should be home watching it on TV.”
Then another whisper began—a second plane had hit. Throwing decorum aside, the reporters, Rebecca and I included, ran to a little room off to the side where there was a television. We saw the instant replay of the second plane hitting. A sort of controlled chaos ensued, with nobody knowing what to do. The place was suddenly full of unchanneled adrenaline. Finally, about 25 minutes later, the president came out, made a short speech about catching the “folks” responsible, and literally ran off. A school officer, who we all know but who shall remain nameless, planted herself in front of him for one last handshake.
I don’t know what it says about my news sense, but it wasn’t until that afternoon that I realized that maybe there was a story in what I’d just seen. So I sat down and in 24 hours pounded out an account of the president’s time in Sarasota. I talked to Katie Moulton about his dinner and overnight stay at the Colony, and then, in a real stroke of luck, was able to interview then-Congressman Dan Miller, who flew with him on Air Force One as it headed off to that base in Louisiana.
I finished the article, it was published in our November 2001 issue, and the world moved on. It was a different world, true, with two wars and security lines at the airport, but slowly 9/11 receded into the past.
It wasn’t until several years later that the emails started. They came from all over the world and they had all sorts of questions. What time did this happen? What time did that happen? Some of them sent along elaborate papers they’d written, with charts and timelines that proved various things.
I perused one of these documents and the words “Sarasota Magazine” popped out at me. I read it carefully and was shocked to find out that my article was being used to prove that President Bush had ordered the attack personally. I felt awful. I’m not that bad a writer, am I?
Since then Sarasota Magazine has become primary source material for the conspiracy theorists. Granted, some of the mysteries surrounding 9/11 remain perplexing. Take the issue of when and how President Bush found out about the attacks. As I was writing my story the next day, I had to come up with an answer. When did the president find out?
To me it was obvious. Katie Moulton had described to me the interior of the presidential limo—she’d gotten a tour the night before—and was amazed at the amount of electronic equipment it contained. She was told that the president could immediately talk by phone to anyone in the world. And since he was in the limo, half way between the Colony and Emma Booker Elementary when the first plane hit, he must have found out in the limo. They would certainly call him and tell him. They wouldn’t let him sit there for 10 minutes, with nothing to do but watch Sarasota pass by.
Except they did. Or maybe they did. According to Wikipedia, there are seven different versions of when Bush found out. What makes this interesting is that the president’s own recollection is clearly impossible. He has said—twice—that he saw the first plane hit, just after he arrived at Booker. But footage of the first plane hitting did not emerge until the next day. And his timing is off by 15 minutes.
It’s all these little details that make conspiracy theories so potent. Facts, rumors, semi-facts, guesses—they all go into this big stew and you pick out the ones that are going to prove your point and ignore the rest.
That morning at Booker ruined conspiracy theories for me. I saw what was really going on. Something was happening that had never happened before, and people—meaning our government—had no idea what to do. They were literally running around, confused, panicky and illogical. It took them the rest of the day to find their footing. Case closed.
Of course, it will never be closed. Now that the 10th anniversary is here, the emails are back in full force. My favorite is the guy in Denmark who is trying to prove that the president’s speech at Booker—the one Rebecca took pictures of—never occurred. Or rather, it occurred, but was taped several days earlier, with an audience of actors sworn to secrecy.
I wonder who played me.