President Bush looked to be struggling to conquer his emotions on the White House south lawn this morning, as he observed a moment of silence to mark the seventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
The president’s appearance was brief. At 8:45 a.m. he walked out of the White House with first lady Laura Bush, Vice President Cheney and his wife, Lynne, through a color guard and through several hundred White House staff and other government officials.
There was no introduction, and no fanfare, as is usually the case when the president appears in public. He and Mrs. Bush and the Cheney’s walked down to the front of the crowd facing south, toward the National Mall, and stopped, with the White House to their backs. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, and virtually every other high-ranking government official stood to the president’s right. White House kitchen and other service staff stood to the president’s left.
Mr. and Mrs. Bush and the Cheney’s stood a few feet away from both groups, and out front, all by themselves, as a chime rang at 8:46, the time that the first commercial jetliner, American Airlines Flight 11, was flown into the World Trade Center’s north tower in New York City.
The president took a deep breath and squared back his shoulders, then exhaled as a military choir began to sing, “God Bless America.”
Watching Mr. Bush from about 20 yards away, his face looked like a mask barely containing a flood of emotion as the song began, the acapella voices softly piercing the silence. The air was cool, and the sky was filled with clouds.
Moments earlier, before the president had walked onto the lawn, Ms. Rice has wiped away tears as the choir sang “America the Beautiful.”
As we wrote about in today’s paper, today is a very meaningful day for the president and those in his administration. He is one of the most unpopular presidents ever since the advent of modern polling. But protecting the American people has been his number one priority, and there has been no repeat on his watch of a 9/11-style attack.
It’s been a rough road for him from 9/11 to today, with incredible controversy over many of the steps Mr. Bush has taken in response to the terrorist attacks.
But former top aides to Mr. Bush said those who have worked for the president feel proud that there has not been another attack.
“It is certainly not just luck that the U.S. has been terrorist-attack free for seven years,” said Andrew Card, the president’s former chief of staff.
But the presidency, as it does with all who inhabit it, takes its toll. One former top aide to Mr. Bush told me yesterday that it “extracts a great toll.”
It has certainly done so from Mr. Bush. In Bob Woodward’s new book, he writes that “seven years of war have taken a visible toll” on the president.
“His hair is much grayer, and the line in his face deeper and more pronounce,” Mr. Woodward writes.
Today was a reminder for Mr. Bush that he will have to bear the heavy burden for only a few more months.