- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 27, 2002

Bill Sammon, a senior White House correspondent for The Washington Times, has it all: a good beat, a bestseller already under his belt, and oh, yes, access. In this case Access.
"Fighting Back: The War on Terrorism from Inside the Bush White House" is the story of September 11 and the aftermath, but unlike most books pouring off the nation's presses about our generation's Pearl Harbor, Mr. Sammon concentrates on the view from the Oval Office or wherever President George W. Bush happened to be during this national nightmare.
When the attention is on the president and his national security team the story is well told. When it wanders, less so. The two Sperling breakfasts featuring Democrat strategists James Carville. Bob Shrum, and Stanley Greenberg are entertaining enough, but go on for too long although the irony of the three amigos crowing to the Fourth Estate over the vulnerabilities of W. on the morning of September 11 is too rich in irony not for Mr. Sammon to dwell on. So is former President Bill Clinton's shameless scene stealing during the memorial service at the National Cathedral.
So fair enough. Furthermore, to Mr. Sammon's credit, he notes that Mr. Carville (to his credit) having learned about the fate of the Twin Towers hit the delete button on everything he had been saying. At least for a while. As for Bubba … what else can we expect?
The chapters on Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda also are perfunctory, leaving the reader hoping the author will return to the scene he knows best. And these chapters are very good indeed. In them, Mr. Sammon draws a portrait of a president who performs under fire with no little grace the vignette of him sitting through the Sarasota elementary school classroom gives all of us another reason why we never wanted to be a president faced suddenly with some earthshaking news.
How the president transformed himself from pol to commander-in-chief while listening to school kids doing their lessons is fascinating, leaving anyone wondering what he would have done in his place. Mr. Sammon also traces the president's journey that first day in detail, an account that pretty well demolishes the carping critics who accused Mr. Bush of cowardice for not returning immediately to the stricken capital surely one of the most idiotic critiques of a president since the press description of Abraham Lincoln as a baboon.
In doing so the author also captures the jumpiness of a White House in crisis, something that if experienced is not easily forgotten; it simply rewrites everything one once believed about how men and women in high places act when fear is in charge.
There is a moment recorded by Mr. Sammon that is especially revealing. On the evening of September 11 with the president "safely" in the White House, the Secret Service informed Mr. Bush that he would be sleeping in the underground bunker. The president refused, believing rightly the danger was minimal and he needed a good night's rest in his own bed and not on the lumpy foldout provided in the shelter. He almost didn't get it just before dozing off in the residence, the Service hustled him and the entire staff into the bunker once more after reports of an unidentified aircraft nearby. The jitters turned a patrolling F-16 into a life threatening menace.
Mr. Sammon makes no secret of his admiration of the president which is fine there is plenty of the opposite from other journalists and pundits who don't fare too well in this account. In fact, anyone who loathes the media will have a joyous time reliving the moronic questions from the Pentagon and White House press corps. By this account, the boys in the big gray building on the other side of the river come off worst and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld best.
As for the president when confronted with the decision to shoot down any civilian airliner that might be in the wrong place at the wrong time, Mr. Bush simply said: "You bet." No "West Wing" angst about that decision. He knew it was an appalling choice, but Truman-like it was the right one. The commander-in-chief also looks pretty good at Ground Zero giving an impromptu talk to the rescue workers, turning their raucous over familiarity into a tribal fury aimed at America's enemies.
As for the media, much of the press still thinks of President Bush as a lightweight who remains aloft in the polls on the strength of a national tragedy. But as with Ronald Reagan, it pays to be underestimated by your opponents who in truth aren't all that bright either. Listen to any of the armchair experts discussing military strategy, for example, people who know even less about the art than Saddam Hussein. But the pull of the conventional wisdom of the well-groomed herd is not to be discounted either.
Along the way Mr. Sammon provides some insights on what it is like working in the press. Even better, his description of the White House press briefing room as a "cramped and cluttered dump" with "ambience of a bus station" is accurate with the caveat that it is somehow unfair to bus stations. I am sorry to learn, however, this national disgrace is now named after James Brady, a fine man, who deserves far better.
Somehow the briefing room should be called "Nixon's Revenge" for never was a relationship between press and president based on more mutual loathing. Filling in the White House swimming pool where JFK once frolicked with various pool maidens and leaving the press corps with that briefing room and its tiny adjacent quarters would make any newsman grumpy. And so a generation later, they continue to toil in general misery.
Perhaps some day, a truly Machiavellian chief executive will put them up in something more like the Waldorf. Perhaps, but until then I prefer the current arrangement with an occasional newsman like Bill Sammon writing from a slightly different perspective.

Roger Fontaine served on the National Security Council staff during the first Reagan administration.

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