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2001: Gore Moves In

Al Qaeda doesn’t care who’s president.

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September 10, 2001: United Flight 93 strikes the White House.   

The irony embarrassed him, he told his wife: Being commander-in-chief is supposed to be a burden, not a pleasure. But finally he felt relaxed, free of the twisted, undignified frenzy of ambition and deference.

Albert Arnold Gore Jr. had spent the past fifteen years desperately trying to become president. He’d endured 36 surreally high-strung days waiting for the Supreme Court to rule, at long last, in its 6-3 decision, that the Florida recount process had violated both state law and the U.S. Constitution, that his 379-vote margin was irrevocable.

“God, I feel good,” were the first words out of his mouth that last day of January, his eleventh morning as president. As he looked out the bedroom window at the Washington Monument, he sang a line from a song he and Tipper had first heard as 22-year-old newlyweds: “Lately it occurs to meeee, what a long, strange trip it’s been.”

Two hours later in the Situation Room, at the first meeting of his National Security Council, he was still feeling upbeat. Everyone—Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, Secretary of Defense Wesley Clark, national-security adviser Leon Fuerth, CIA director Bob Kerrey, Vice-President Joe Lieberman—was of one mind, agreed that sanctions on Iraq must be stiffened, enforcement of the no-fly zones tightened.

The SecDef sketched out the target list for the air attacks in Iraq two weeks hence, the largest since the brief bombing campaign two years earlier that Gore had urged President Clinton to extend.

“That one there is in Baghdad?” Gore asked.

“Just outside, Mr. President,” Clark said. “Eight klicks.”

“Close enough to wake up Saddam, I hope.”

Everyone smiled. After Kerrey briefed them on a secret working paper, a “Political-Military Plan for Post-Saddam Iraq Crisis,” the meeting’s mood was confident, hopeful.

As they walked upstairs, Lieberman gripped Gore’s arm. “Mr. President, bravo. This is why we voted for the Gulf War in ’91. This is the next step in making good on our promises to the American people.” As a candidate, Gore had repeatedly professed his “strong commitment to removing Saddam Hussein from power.” The president smiled at his excited little vice-president, whom he had not yet begun referring to as “Joe Leave-Me-Alone.”

That afternoon, at his first cabinet meeting, the president asked Treasury Secretary Tyson, “Laura, am I supposed to believe the OMB’s out-year projections or the CBO’s?” The budget agencies had released optimistic new estimates that the annual federal surplus might reach $1 trillion by 2010.

“I’m conservative,” she said, “so OMB. So we might or might not be able to zero out the debt and cut taxes by the end of your second term.”

Again, everyone smiled.

It was a warm day for January, and as they left the Cabinet Room, Bobby Kennedy Jr., the EPA administrator, croaked, “I hope it’s not always so damn hot in there.” And Interior Secretary Tom Brokaw whispered back, “I hope it’s not always so damn smug in there.”

Until Attorney General–designate Eric Holder withdrew his nomination in April, questions about his involvement in the Inauguration Day pardon of Marc Rich came up almost every day at the White House press briefing. But what occupied much of the president’s attention was the Middle East. After a Hamas suicide bombing in June, the president flew to Tel Aviv and gave his stirring, controversial “Ani Israeli” (“I am an Israeli”) speech in Rabin Square. The same month, Congress overwhelmingly passed the Iraq Liberation Act of 2001, authorizing him to use military force “as he determines to be necessary and appropriate … against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.”

A few months earlier, after terrorists attacked the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen, Vice-President Gore had unsuccessfully urged stronger retaliation. Now, as commander-in-chief, he issued a Presidential Finding that removed the fetters on the CIA’s Special Operations Group concerning Osama bin Laden. In May, the CIA’s first secret attack, an unmanned Predator over Afghanistan firing Hellfire missiles, had missed Bin Laden. It wasn’t until Gore was vacationing at the southern White House on August 17—moments before the Beach Snog photo op, when Al and Tipper performed a sequel to their convention kiss a year earlier—that he was informed that a Predator had killed Bin Laden this time. The president was giddy.

The big story on Monday, September 10, was supposed to be Attorney General David Boies’s announcement that the Justice Department would continue pursuing the breakup of Microsoft. But at 9:08 a.m., United Flight 175 hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center. No one connected it to American Airlines Flight 11, which had crashed 45 minutes earlier in a field in upstate New York, so no one understood that a coordinated attack was under way until American Flight 77 struck the Pentagon at 9:41.


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