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Bush on 9/11: 'This is what war was like in the 21st century'

August 28, 2011 |  6:10 am

No president knows what will happen one moment after taking the oath of office, and that's especially true of wartime presidents.  

Abraham Lincoln surely never thought he'd be the man to shepherd a divided nation through a bloody Civil War. Franklin D. Roosevelt came into an economic crisis and then, after a fateful December day, wound up managing the United States in a conflict that spanned the globe.

GeorgeWBushThe911Interview_01 George W. Bush intended to be the "education president," continuing with reforms he'd started while governor of Texas.

But while sitting in an elementary-school classroom in Florida on Sept. 11, 2001, listening to a lesson, he was given the news that a second airliner had crashed into the World Trade Center towers in lower Manhattan.

The United States, clearly, was under attack.

On Sunday, Aug. 28, two weeks before the 10th anniversary of that day (in other words, today), National Geographic Channel premieres "George W. Bush: The 9/11 Interview," a one-hour documentary on the former president recalling the events of that day, and the days afterward, with clips and photos.

"Sept. 11 is a monumental day in our nation's history," he says, "a significant day, and it obviously changed my presidency. I went from being a president that was primarily focused on domestic issues to a wartime president. It's something I never anticipated nor something I ever wanted to be."

Later, aboard Air Force One, with spotty communications and only intermittent access to TV reports, Bush and his staff received conflicting stories about what was happening. But doing nothing was not an option.

"I was experiencing the fog of war," says Bush. "We didn't know....

... if there were other planes that had been hijacked. So, the first decision I made, on Air Force One, was to give our Air Force orders to shoot down commercial aircraft that did not respond to orders to land."

The film recalls the news of the crash of United Flight 93 in rural Pennsylvania, and for a moment, the president feared the worst -- that military aircraft had taken it down on his orders.

"Eventually," he says, "we learned about the heroics of the passengers on that airplane."

Regarding flying into New York to survey and then visit the World Trade Center site, Bush says, George W Bush The 9-11 Interview "From the air, it looked like a giant scar, but when we actually got to the site, it was like walking into hell."

Many of the firsthand recollections of the day in the documentary will be familiar to those who read the 2010 autobiographies "Courage and Consequence," by Bush adviser Karl Rove, or "Decision Points," by the former president himself.

While it doesn't introduce new information about 9/11 -- or pass political judgment on any decisions made then or in its aftermath -- the intense and emotional interview, conducted over two days by executive producer and director Peter Schnall, does point out the difficulty in figuring out a forward strategy in a world that had just undergone a seismic shift.

"It became apparent," Bush says, "we were facing a new kind of enemy. This is what war was like in the 21st century."

At the end, the film leaps ahead in time to May 1, 2011, when President Obama announced Navy SEALs had killed 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

Bush recalls getting the call from his successor and says, "I didn't feel any great sense of happiness or jubilation; I felt a sense of closure, and I felt gratitude that justice had been done."

Here's a clip from the special:

And here's a video from last year's Waves of Flags display at Pepperdine University in Malibu.

Started in 2008 by the College Republicans, it features one flag for each of the almost 3,000 lives lost on 9/11 -- American flags for U.S. citizens and international flags for non-Americans who also perished in the attacks -- planted in serried rows along the sloping lawn overlooking the Pacific Coast Highway and the ocean beyond.

Erection of this year's display begins on Aug. 30, and a ceremony on Sept. 11 includes the reading of the victims' names.



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-- Kate O'Hare

Media critic Kate O’Hare is a regular Ticket contributor. She also blogs about TV at Hot Cuppa TV and is a frequent contributor at entertainment news site Zap2it. Also follow O'Hare on Twitter @KateOH.

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Photos/Videos: 2010 Waves of Flags display at Pepperdine University; President Bush surveys the damage at the Pentagon from the Marine One helicopter; President Bush speaks to workers at Ground Zero; clip from "George W. Bush: The 9/11 Interview"; "Ride to the Flags 2010 The Flags!" Credits: Kate O'Hare (Waves of Flags photo), Eric Draper / George W. Bush Presidential Library, courtesy of National Geographic Channel (Bush on Marine One); National Geographic Channel (Bush documentary clip); YouTube/DonnaSA1 (Waves of Flags clip)