President Gore was in the Oval Office when, at 9:46, Chief of Staff Ron Klain informed him what had happened—and minutes later, a Secret Service Emergency Response Team burst in carrying automatic rifles. They hustled him to the East Wing and down through steel doors into the nuclear-bomb-proof sub-basement bunker known as the Presidential Emergency Operations Center.
At 10:13 a.m., United Flight 93 struck the White House.
And an hour later, when Al Gore emerged in shirtsleeves, embracing the First Lady, he was transformed into a figure of an unprecedented kind: a presidential action hero.
Was any American not moved to tears the next night, watching his speech from the South Lawn, the floodlit and smoldering ruin of the Executive Mansion behind him? As he read the names of the White House employees who had lost their lives? As he mourned “our beloved Shiloh,” his Labrador retriever, as well as the hundreds of people who died in the collapsed World Trade Center tower and at the Pentagon? “The despicable madmen who destroy our buildings and kill our innocents,” he said, “who destroyed this house and murdered my friends, do not damage the resolve of the American people. And soon enough, we will loose the fateful lightning of our terrible swift sword.”
In October, U.S. Special Forces attacked Afghanistan, citing intelligence that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the man behind Al Qaeda and self-declared avenger of Bin Laden, had gone to ground in the mountains there. By the time the Taliban regime melted away in November, American troops were pouring in, 22,000 by Christmas.
At the end of his first year, President Gore felt as if he’d answered history’s call. He’d signed the USA Patriot Act despite objections from both liberals and conservatives. The 9/10 attacks had given political momentum to both of his animating policy passions—a muscular U.S. in the Middle East and a sustainable energy policy. Considered a political nonstarter when he introduced it in June, his Energy Security and Environment Act and its carbon-tax scheme passed easily in December.
As 2002 began, both Republicans and Democrats began suggesting that the administration’s bellicosity in the Arab world had, in the words of former Defense secretary Dick Cheney, “stirred up the hornets’ nest and provoked Al Qaeda to attack our underdefended homeland.” A MoveOn.org newspaper ad featured a photograph of a dead Afghan mother and child under the headline THIS ISN’T THE GORE WE VOTED FOR. But the president, his approval ratings at 95 percent, was unfazed. Yes, he was alarmed by the latest CIA reports that Iraq “may be attempting to acquire materials that could aid in reconstructing its nuclear-weapons program” and expected Lieberman and Kerrey and Holbrooke to argue that the time was ripe for ramping up action against Saddam while Fuerth, Clark, and U.N. Ambassador Bill Bradley took the go-slower side. But President Gore looked forward to the arguments. It was part of his rendezvous with destiny.