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President George Bush’s 9/11 speech: A model of presidential leadership

The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks have come and gone. I suspect many Americans join me in finding the events and commentary associated with that somber observance to have been different than we had expected them to be and somehow emotionally and spiritually dissatisfying.

Richard Land
The Christian Post/Katherine T. Phan

All Americans above a certain age remember vividly exactly where they were and exactly what they were doing when those heinous and evil assaults on our nation took place. I had spent the previous Thursday and Friday participating in a U.N. event in New York and had flown back to Nashville on Friday night, passing right by the Twin Towers in all their illuminated majesty. (As a baby boomer who grew up in boomtown Houston, I feel the same way about skyscrapers that some people feel about mountain peaks.)

One speech did, however, arrest my attention, lift my spirits, and provide much-needed perspective on that horrible day and our current national crisis of identity.

Former President George W. Bush’s speech was delivered in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, at the Flight 93 memorial, the site where a heroic group of extraordinary Americans brought down a hijacked airliner before it could attack either the White House or the Congress, killing many more Americans.

As I watched the speech on television, I was vividly reminded of what presidential leadership is and how uniquely important it is to our country. Presidential leadership may be hard to define precisely, but to paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart’s famous observation concerning pornography in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964), “I know it when I see it,” and our 43rd president furnished us with a vivid example of such presidential leadership on September 11th.

President Bush reminded us of just how shocked the entire nation was by the unprecedented attacks on 9/11. “There was horror at the scale of destruction, and awe at the bravery and kindness that rose to meet it … in the sacrifice of the first responders, in the mutual aid of strangers, in the solidarity of grief and grace, the actions of an enemy revealed the spirit of a people.”

President Bush, speaking as a proud American to his fellow countrymen, recounted that, “We learned that bravery is more common than we imagined, emerging with sudden splendor in the face of death.”

Turning specifically to the extraordinary heroism of the passengers of Flight 93, the president recounted that “the terrorists soon discovered that a random group of Americans is an exceptional group of people. Facing an impossible circumstance, they comforted their loved ones by phone, braced each other for action, and defeated the designs of evil.”

Reminding his fellow countrymen of who they are and have been, the president concluded, “Those Americans were brave, strong, and united in ways that shocked the terrorists — but should not surprise any of us. This is the nation we know. And whenever we need hope and inspiration, we can look to the skies and remember.”

As I listened to the speech, I thought, “This is Lincolnesque” — and I do not use that word lightly. As I listened, I thought of President Lincoln’s first inaugural address, when he appealed, albeit unsuccessfully, to a nation on the verge of civil war to listen to “the better angels of our nature.”

This was the recurring theme of the president’s speech. Deeply concerned about “a malign force … at work in our common life that turns every disagreement into an argument, and every argument into a clash of cultures,” President Bush attempted to remind us of who we are and what we have, and do, stand for as a nation.

Essentially, he reminded us that our heritage and our history tell us that we are better than we have been behaving.

President Bush is justifiably proud of our country. America is not a perfect nation, but there is a reason people from all over the world, of every ethnicity, risk life and limb to come here. We are a unique country, and the American ideal has bettered the human condition for more than 200 years and will continue to do so.

Recounting the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the months afterward, President Bush reminded us “That is the nation I know.”

When I was a boy, virtually every time I would leave the house, my mother would say, “Richard, remember who you are!” She was telling me to behave the way I had been brought up to behave and not to bring discredit to my family. Just so, President Bush is reminding us to remember who we are and who we can still be as a people.

The media’s reaction to President Bush’s speech illustrates that his concern over our civil, or should we say uncivil, discourse, is justified. It is as if President Bush’s speech functioned as a type of national Rorschach or “inkblot” test, with each side, seeing what it wanted to see, thus illustrating just how irrational and dysfunctional our national discourse has become.

The liberal media have praised former President Bush for condemning the extremism that produced the Capitol Hill riots of January 6, blind to the fact that the president was acting as an equal opportunity offender, criticizing extremes of the Right and the extremes of the Left that produced Black Lives Matter, Antifa and widespread violence and riots over the past 18 months. Remember the protesters marching through American cities chanting, “Pigs in a blanket, fry ‘em like bacon,” encouraging violence against perhaps the most visible symbol of law and order, the police force? Remember when they attempted to tear down statues of Lincoln, Grant and Washington and suggested that the capital city be renamed?

On the right, conservative media have also too often assumed former President Bush was only criticizing extremes of the Right and not the Left. I know the man and I am certain he was condemning extremism in all its various manifestations and was calling on Americans to quit thinking the worst about each other and find common ground in our priceless heritage as Americans.

President Bush’s 9/11 speech is what real presidential leadership looks like and it was indeed reminiscent of the “Great Emancipator,” and no higher praise can be given to anyone who has had the privilege of occupying the oval office.

Such inspirational rhetoric from our 43rd president should not surprise those who actually listened to him during his tenure in office. In his much-underrated first inaugural address, the president declared:

America has never been united by blood or birth or soil. We are bound by ideals that move us beyond our backgrounds, lift us above our interests and teach us what it means to be citizens. Every child must be taught these principles. Every citizen must uphold them. And every immigrant, by embracing these ideals, makes our country more, not less, American.

Today, we affirm a new commitment to live out our nation’s promise through civility, courage, compassion and character.

America, at its best, matches a commitment to principle with a concern for civility. A civil society demands from each of us goodwill and respect, fair dealing, and forgiveness.

May we all heed President Bush’s prophetic reminder of what it means to be an “American,” and may we all strive to live up to that noble heritage.

Dr. Richard Land, BA (Princeton, magna cum laude); D.Phil. (Oxford); Th.M (New Orleans Seminary). Dr. Land served as President of Southern Evangelical Seminary from July 2013 until July 2021. Upon his retirement, he was honored as President Emeritus and he continues to serve as an Adjunct Professor of Theology & Ethics. Dr. Land previously served as President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) where he was also honored as President Emeritus upon his retirement. Dr. Land has also served as an Executive Editor and columnist for The Christian Post since 2011.

Dr. Land explores many timely and critical topics in his daily radio feature, “Bringing Every Thought Captive,” and in his weekly column for CP.

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