The year's must-Skip series!

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March 3 2002 2:55 PM

Ten Years in September

This season's must-Skip series!

(Continued from Page 6)

Which "principal" comes across as having blabbed in the least team-playerish fashion: Powell.

In the most team-playerish fashion: Rice.

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Least dramatic sentence: "For more than an hour, Daschle's staff did not know where he was."

Bush barking orders that don't get carried out: "We won't be held hostage. We'll fly at noon tomorrow."—Bush on 9/11. It actually took "three more days for commercial flights to resume."

Do W & B make sense of Bush's peregrinations before returning to the White House Sept. 12? Yes. The perceived threat to Air Force One, which caused the plane to sharply change course and fly to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, was prompted by a common game-of-telephone foul-up. "Someone inside the White House had heard a threat to Air Force One, perhaps in a phoned-in call, and passed it up the line using the code word 'Angel.' Others thought the threatening caller had used the code word ... "

But her husband didn't send around a boastful e-mail: Cheney's wife Lynne worked on the statement Bush was to read on 9/11 when he landed at Barksdale.

Signs of Bush subtlety: 1) As early as the evening of 9/11, he notes that "this is a great opportunity" to improve relations with other nations, including Russia and China. 2) He worries as early as 9/12 that the public's short attention span might be a problem—that soon Americans would be "watching football and the World Series," in W & B's paraphrase. 3) He tells W & B he was concerned that Powell, Cheney, and Wolfowitz—who had all been involved in the 1991 Gulf War that failed to oust Saddam Hussein—might let "their previous experience in this theater" distort their advice (presumably, by spurring them to go back and finish the job they left undone).

Possibly troubling Bush virtue: "You've got to be careful what you tell him, because the next day he'll ask you about it," says one aide. Do aides eventually learn not to tell him? Bush says, "I ask Bob [Mueller] every day, 'What have you done about, you know, Mohammed Jones, or you know, some guy you're following?' " Is this relentless follow-up the reaction of a man who knows too much, or too little (so he latches onto the bits he's given)? "The president finds out what he wants to know. But he does not necessarily find out what he might need to know," says a "senior administration official" who requested anonymity from W & B.

Untapped source of dramatic tension #1: The White House's failure, for several days, to erase the contrast between Bush's behind-the-scenes firmness and his public shakiness. Bush aide Karen Hughes' televised 9/11 statement, which conspicuously failed to close the confidence gap, gets only a short, bland mention. (You don't want to piss her off!) Readers can figure out how the private/public split happened—how Bush's personal desire to avoid early talk of war, plus a not unClintonian initial desire to comfort ("our mission is reassurance") made him seem vague and unfocused. But we don't see administration aides (except, in one instance, Powell) worrying that the president is flopping in public, and trying to correct it—though it's hard to believe that wasn't going on. Nor do W & B make Bush's 9/14 speech at Ground Zero into any kind of pivotal finds-his-voice moment in their narrative, though it was a turning point in the public campaign.

Untapped source of dramatic tension #2: Did we really want the Taliban to comply with our demands, thereby forestalling an attack? What if they seemed to comply and dragged out the process? Again, it's hard to believe nobody in the administration worried about this, although nobody in this series does. (Bush says only, "If they don't comply, we'll attack them.")

Untapped source of dramatic tension #3: Who got to get into what bunker? W & B report that some "who were told to go to the bunker Sept. 11 had no idea where to find it and still others who should have been on the list were left off until they received authorization. …" Was there no unseemly status-jockeying and rank-pulling? Similarly, "At the secure location outside Washington, there were too few phone lines for the congressional leaders. … Coordinating with lawmakers left behind in Washington was difficult, sometimes contentious." Embarrassing details, please!

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