Bush in a Crisis

The last few days’ White House press briefings by Scott McClellan make for interesting reading. On both days, McClellan led off by addressing Wednesday’s incident in which a small plane inadvertantly flew over D.C.

I haven’t paid much attention to the story, other than to make a snarky comment in Ishar that it would have been fun to be on the steps of the Capitol building to see “the great corrupt politicians drive of ought five” as the Congressmen and Senators were evacuated. Giddyup! Yah!

But it turns out there was another aspect of the event that I find kind of interesting, because it bears on the tension between the public image of Bush that his people work so hard to project, in which he’s a hands-on, take-charge kind of leader with a firm grip on the reins of power, and the reality that sometimes peeks from behind the curtain, especially during a crisis, of a guy who’s actually not very important in the heat-of-the-moment decision-making.

I’m going to quote extensively from the briefing transcripts, so I’m sticking the rest of this post in the “Continued on” page. Just click the link below (or scroll down) to see the rest of it.

First, let’s look at the press briefing McClellan had an hour or so after the incident ended on Wednesday:

MR. McCLELLAN: Good afternoon, everybody. I’d like to begin by updating you on the situation that occurred here at the White House and the Capitol just a short time ago. First of all, as you all are aware, the President was off-site, getting in a bike ride after returning from a four-day trip overseas. And secondly, back here at the White House — first of all, the top priority of the Secret Service here at the White House is the safety and security of the people who work here every day. And they have certain security precaution protocols that are in place, and those security precaution protocols were followed in this instance.


And in terms of other officials, as I said, the President was off-site at the time. He was informed by his detail; the detail that was with the President was notified and informed the President at that point. Mrs. Bush, as well as Mrs. Reagan, who is in town, were here at the White House and they were taken to a secure location. The Vice President was evacuated and has since returned to the White House.


Q Between noon, when the fighter jets were scrambled, and 12:11 p.m. when the all-clear sounded, who was in a position to give the authority, if necessary, for those fighter jets to fire on the plane?

MR. McCLELLAN: Terry, it never came to that point, I don’t believe. I don’t have any more details in terms of what occurred in terms of that. But I don’t —

Q I guess I’m asking —

MR. McCLELLAN: My understanding from the briefing I received following this situation or this incident, I did not receive any information to that effect.

Q Who was in charge, who would have made the call if this was at threat level red, too serious a threat to allow to continue?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the President was at an off-site location, and he was informed, and he was informed of the situation that occurred. And obviously, there are protocols in place for that, as well. But the President was being kept well-informed of the situation that was going on.

Q By whom?

MR. McCLELLAN: By his security detail that was traveling with him. But I don’t want to speculate that it ever came to that. I was not informed that it ever came to that. But there were fighter jets that were scrambled; they were trying to get in contact with the pilot of the plane. The pilot was not responding to their efforts to communicate with the plane. And I’m not sure that it ever came to that point, because the plane turned west and started traveling away from the White House when it was within that three-mile radius of the White House.


Q What, if any, actions did the President take after he was notified?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President is on his way back to the White House right now. He should be arriving —

Q Did he stop his —

MR. McCLELLAN: He should be arriving at any point. I’ll see if I can get you information later in the day if there’s any additional information to share.

Q You don’t know if he stopped biking, or got in touch with someone, or —

MR. McCLELLAN: He was notified and informed about it by his detail, and like I said, that’s what I have at this point. He should be arriving here at the White House at any moment, and then we’ll have more information and we’ll talk about that at that point.

Q I think what we’re getting at is we’d like to know whether he was on the phone with somebody at the time that there was a red alert; whether he could have conceivably given a shoot-down order; or whether, as John suggested, somebody was empowered to do that. I think that’s important because this is such a short time frame, you’re talking about something that’s within three miles of the White House.

MR. McCLELLAN: Right, David, I understand that, and I understand the question. I appreciate the question that you’re asking. But I — from everyone I’ve talked with, all those that were involved in this from the White House perspective, I didn’t get any indication that it came to that point. The plane did turn away from the White House and started traveling away from the White House. But there are protocols in place for this. That’s why the fighter jets were scrambled; that’s why they did try to make contact with the plane. But I don’t want to try to suggest that it came to that point, because I’m not informed in any way —

Q I’m assuming it doesn’t get any higher than red —

MR. McCLELLAN: Hang on. I’m not informed in any way that it did come to that.

Q But it did. If it’s red alert, it can’t go any higher. So, I mean, if it gets any closer than three miles you don’t have a lot of options if it keeps coming. So I think we just want to know within the bounds of security, what was in place.

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I understand and, as I said, I appreciate the question. We’ll try to keep you updated as we learn more about this. This just occurred a short time ago and I wanted to make sure I came out here and gave you all the information and the facts that we knew at this point. And if there’s additional information to share with you, obviously I will get you that information.

Q Scott, for example, we know that on September 11th —

MR. McCLELLAN: Let me keep going around the room.

Q For example, we know September 11th, it was the Vice President who gave the authorization to shoot down, if it was necessary. So we’re just wondering who would have been in —

MR. McCLELLAN: John, let me keep going, and I’ll come back to you if I can. James, go ahead.

Q Scott, you gave us a fairly detailed, minute-by-minute countdown of actions that were taken, the raising of the alerts. You also told us separately that the President was informed by his detail. Can you tell us where in that chronology the President was informed? After the code reached a certain level, or what have you?

MR. McCLELLAN: We’ll get you that information later in the day. As I said, the President is returning to the White House. But I wanted to get you what facts we knew at this point.

Obviously, McClellan doesn’t have all the information at the time of this briefing. But it’s interesting to me how he talks about Bush being informed, but carefully avoids ever saying specifically when Bush was informed. It almost sounds to me like he’s going out of his way to preserve that ambiguity.

Then, in the next day’s (that is, yesterday’s) press briefing, the very first question takes the story to the next level:

Q Scott, yesterday the White House was on red alert, was evacuated. The First Lady and Nancy Reagan were taken to a secure location. The Vice President was evacuated from the grounds. The Capitol building was evacuated. The continuity of government plan was initiated. And yet, the President wasn’t told of yesterday’s events until after he finished his bike ride, about 36 minutes after the all-clear had been sent. Is he satisfied with the fact that he wasn’t notified about this?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes. I think you just brought up a very good point — the protocols that were in place after September 11th were followed. The President was never considered to be in danger because he was at an off-site location. The President has a tremendous amount of trust in his Secret Service detail.

The Secret Service detail that was traveling with the President was being kept apprised of the situation as it was developing. They were in close contact with officials back here at the White House. And the President appreciates the job that they do.

Q The fact that the President wasn’t in danger is one aspect of this. But he’s also the Commander-in-Chief. There was a military operation underway. Other people were in contact with the White House. Shouldn’t the Commander-in-Chief have been notified of what was going on?

MR. McCLELLAN: John, the protocols that we put in place after September 11th were being followed. They did not require presidential authority for this situation. I think you have to look at each situation and the circumstances surrounding the situation. And that’s what officials here at the White House were doing. That’s what officials were doing that were with the President at the off-site location, and this was a matter of minutes when all this was happening, when the alert level was going from yellow to orange to red, and then it went back down to yellow when the plane turned away.

The plane was — as described yesterday — lost and accidently in the restricted airspace around the Capital region. And we appreciate the job that was done by all those who worked to make sure that the protocols that were in place were followed. That was one of the President’s priorities after September 11th, was making sure that we were prepared for a situation like this. And the fact is that the protocols were followed.

Q I take it that it’s not the Secret Service’s duty to inform the President of national security circumstances, that that would come from somebody here at the White House. Even on a personal level, did nobody here at the White House think that calling the President to say, by the way, your wife has been evacuated from the White House, we just want to let you know everything is okay.

MR. McCLELLAN: Actually, all the protocols were followed and people were — officials that you point out were taken to secure locations or evacuated, in some cases. I think, again, you have to look at the circumstances surrounding the situation, and it depends on the situation and the circumstance. But the Secret Service detail that was with the President was being kept apprised throughout while the situation was developing. There is always a military aide that is right with the President. That military aide was in close contact with the Situation Room here at the White House, which is overseen by the National Security Council. And —

Q Nobody thought to say, by the way, this is going on, but it’s all under control?

MR. McCLELLAN: And I think it depends on each situation and the circumstances surrounding the situation when you’re making those decisions.

Q Scott.

MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead, Kelly.

Q Thank you. Isn’t there —

MR. McCLELLAN: And welcome.

Q Thank you, I appreciate that. Isn’t there a bit of an appearance problem, notwithstanding the President’s safety was not in question, protocols were followed, that today, looking at it, he was enjoying a bike ride, and that recreation time was not considered expendable to inform him of this. Isn’t there just an appearance problem?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I mean, John mentioned 36 minutes after the all-clear. Remember, this was a matter of minutes when all this was happening. The all-clear was given at 12:14 p.m., and it had gone down to yellow a few minutes before that, as well. So again, you have to take into account the circumstances; you have to take into account where the President is. The President was never considered to be in danger. The protocols that we put in place after September 11th, I think, worked.

This plane was warned by flares and it turned and then was escorted to an airport in the area. And the pilots were questioned. It was determined that this was an accident, that they should not have been in the area and they did not realize where they were at the time.

Q Scott, I think there’s a disconnect here —

MR. McCLELLAN: Let me keep going through here and then I’ll come back to the — I’ll come back to your —

Q It’s a follow-up.

MR. McCLELLAN: I know, I’ll come back to you.

Q But has the President even indicated that even if everything was followed that he would prefer to be notified, that if the choice is: tell the Commander-in-Chief or let him continue to exercise, that he would prefer to be informed?

MR. McCLELLAN: Again, it depends on the situation and the circumstances. And you have to take all that into account, and I think that’s what people were doing here at the White House, as well as those people that were with the President.

And let me just step back from this specific question because any time you have a situation like this, we will review the procedures and protocols that were followed. And if there are any steps that need to be made to make improvements, those steps will be made. But that’s not pointing to anything specific at this point. The President appreciates the job that those that were with him did in the situation like this. They were constantly being kept apprised of the situation as it was developing.

Q Is he ever — is he on any protocol to be informed at any point? Is there a protocol that involved when he’s informed?

MR. McCLELLAN: Of course, and he has been in the past, Helen.

Q Scott —

MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead, Steve.

Q New subject, or do you want —

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, let’s stay on this subject since there seems to be interest in this subject.

Now, go ahead.

Q I think there’s a disconnect here because, I mean, yesterday you had more than 30,000 people who were evacuated, you had millions of people who were watching this on television, and there was a sense at some point — it was a short window, a 15-minute window, but there was a sense of confusion among some on the streets. There was a sense of fear. And people are wondering was this not a moment for the President to exercise some leadership, some guidance during that period of time? Was this not a missed opportunity for the President to speak out and at least clarify what — that he was informed, and what was taking place at that time? If not even during the 15-minute window, why not later in the day?

MR. McCLELLAN: The President did lead, and the President did that after September the 11th when we put the protocols in place to make sure that situations like this were addressed before it was too late. And that was the case — that was the case in this situation. And in terms of during this time, this was a matter of minutes when this was occurring. And all the appropriate security personal and Homeland Security officials and others were acting to implement those protocols. And we commend all those that worked to follow those protocols and make sure that this situation was addressed. And it worked, in terms of the protocols.

Q Beyond the protocols here, I mean we’re talking about just simply demonstrating to the American people, I understand what’s taking place, we’re in control of the situation, and I’ve been apprised of what is happening here — because there were thousands of people involved in what was a very scary moment.

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, and we briefed you about the circumstances of the event shortly after that. But during that time period, it’s important in those minutes when this is occurring, that everybody is focused on making sure the people in the area of the threat are protected, and there are protocols in place to make sure that the people in the area of the threat are protected. Those protocols were followed. You all covered this on the coverage last night and pointed out how those protocols were followed and how jets were scrambled. This was an instance where presidential authority was not required because we had put these protocols in place after September 11th.

Q Any consideration of reexamining these protocols in light of yesterday?

MR. McCLELLAN: Like I said, I’m not pointing to anything specifically, but in any situation of this nature, there’s always going to be a review to look at how things transpired. And if there are any improvements that need to be made, they will be made.

It’s clear that McClellan is working very hard to put his storyline across (the protocols were in place, and worked correctly), and at the same time working very hard to avoid highlighting the fact that at the height of the crisis lots of people in the government were very busy dealing with the emergency — people were being notified, people were being evacuated, Bush’s Secret Service detail was being informed — but no one bothered to notify Bush himself until a half hour after the whole thing was over.

The reason the question resonates, of course, is that it evokes the emotional response we all had on September 11, 2001, when a much bigger crisis seemed to be going on and on and on with no sign of Bush’s leadership.

I’m not saying the people in charge of dealing with this latest incident did anything wrong; I’m sure that, within the limits of unfolding chaotic events, they did everything exactly right. But I object to being spun a version of reality in which Bush is painted as playing a different kind of role than the one he actually played.

J.A.Y.S.O.N., in his mild-mannered alter ego of Arktos, made the following comment in Ishar when I was griping about this:

Arktos chuckles.

Arktos says, “so you would have been happier if the president would have grabbed a stinger missile, shot down the cessna, taken a piss on the smouldering wreckage and said ‘get off my lawn!'”

I realize the world doesn’t work that way. But I still think it’s significant that Bush, far from embodying that kind of Harrison Ford stereotype of the badass chief executive, is actually more or less at the opposite end of the spectrum: In a crisis, he’s pretty much the last person the professionals want to have involved. Not just because he wouldn’t be much help, but because his uncoached reactions in the heat of the moment would make the post-crisis spin harder to pull off. They want him out of sight and out of the way until the incident is under control and the political-minded folk can sit down and figure out the storyline that best preserves the illusion that he actually was involved in a substantive role as leader and decision-maker.

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