Two days after 9/11, President Bush was in the Oval Office, on the phone with New York Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The president had called to tell them he would be visiting ground zero.
I stood just a few feet in front of his massive desk, part of the "pool" of White House reporters assigned to cover Mr. Bush that day. It's not possible for a media army to follow the president everywhere he goes, and so reporters take turns as part of a small group that acts as the eyes and ears for colleagues.
Before being admitted to the Oval Office that morning, the pool had assembled in the outdoor colonnade leading to the office door. It was a sunny day, almost as brilliant as the cloudless day of the attacks. I thought about what to ask when it came to my turn. In the official pecking order of questioning, reporters for television and the wire agencies go first. The print pooler – that was me – comes later, if the questioning even gets that far.
That line-up meant I had to think strategically. I wanted to ask a question that would generate news, but it couldn't be so spot-on that it was likely to be asked by the reporters ahead of me. I thought forward to the next day, which the president had set aside as a national day of prayer and remembrance. He was scheduled to address the nation from the National Cathedral in that role which no president voluntarily seeks, pastor-in-chief.
I knew Bush was a man of faith, and I was curious as to what was sustaining him now. Was it perhaps the 91st Psalm, which is all about God as a fortress, a protection? I was fairly certain no one else would ask about what Bush himself was praying. By pegging it to the event the next day, I hoped he would see my query as topical and relevant, and not inappropriately intrusive.
We filed in, listened to him on the phone call, and then Bush took questions about aviation safety, Osama bin Laden, and Congress. I went last.
"About the prayer day tomorrow, Mr. President," I began. "Could you give us a sense as to what kind of prayers you are thinking and where your heart is for yourself?"
I was just as surprised by his response as he appeared to be by my question. In his first public expression of emotion since this most traumatic event, his eyes welled with tears. He leaned forward:
"Well, I don't think about myself right now. I think about the families, the children."
In his memoir, Decision Points, Bush said the question brought suppressed emotions "to the surface." He writes that he had been thinking about the grief-stricken voice of Ted Olson, the solicitor general, who had lost his wife on the plane that slammed into the Pentagon. He had pictured the exhausted morgue team at the Pentagon that he had visited the day before.
The president regained composure, but he was clearly shaken. "I am a loving guy," he continued, "and I am also someone, however, who has got a job to do. And I intend to do it." He exited the room quickly and the pool filed out.
Unknown to me, the three major networks had gone live with this informal exchange. When I descended into the media rabbit warren of the White House basement to write up the pool report, my colleagues called out cheers of approval.
"Great question, Francine!" as if I had somehow had the foresight to know that my question would elicit such a response. All I had wanted to know was what was going on in Bush's mind. Was he reaching out to God? In fact, I was a bit disappointed that I had not been able to find this out. Surely, he needed strength at this time, too.
In retrospect, one has to take at face value Bush's answer to my question and his elaboration in his memoir: that he was truly focused on others, and not himself. In his memoir, he says that when he met with his speech writers to talk about the National Cathedral address, he asked them, among other things, to "remind people there was a loving God."
What came from their pen was this point: "Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a time. Goodness, remembrance, and love have no end."
It was a message fitting for the nation. And the president.