2001: Gore Moves In

September 10, 2001: United Flight 93 strikes the White House. Photo: Illustration by Tomer Hanuka

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.

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.

2001: Gore Moves In