The National Geographic Channel is releasing an exclusive interview with George W. Bush, in which he recounts the first moments after the 9/11 attacks and the decisions he made in the days immediately following the attacks. The interview will air on Sunday, August 28, 2011, in commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the attacks on September 11.
Journalist and documentarian Peter Schnall conducted the interview over two days, and tried to get at the heart of what former President Bush experienced. Turnstyle talked with Schnall about his conversations with the former president. Watch a trailer below.
Turnstyle: How did the interview come to pass, and were there were any conditions that were imposed in terms of your access to George W. Bush?
Peter Schnall: The idea behind the interview was to offer former President George Bush the opportunity to sit down in a very informal way and talk about the events of 9/11 as they unfolded for him in a very personal, in-depth way. It took several months of negotiations between myself, and National Geographic, and his office. They very much agreed to everything we asked – I asked for at least four hours of time spread out over two days, which is unusual for the former president- or for anyone to sit down.
We agreed that we would not give the president the questions beforehand. As long as we stayed on the subject of 9/11, then the questions were open to anything we wanted. He answered all the questions. We sat down for two hours each day. He had no notes, he never got up. It was a very interesting journey.
Turnstyle: He’s come out with a memoir that talks about some of these moments. After reading it, what were the aspects of the story that you felt that he hadn’t covered, or felt that you could further uncover in your interview?
Schnall: The interview that we focused on is only about the days around 9/11. In his book, oddly enough, [9/11] is a very small chapter. I was kind of surprised. We go into much more depth, and [take] much more of a reflective look back at the 11th all the way to the 14th–almost by an hour by hour basis. I wanted to really understand what it was like for him as a president, as a commander in chief, and also as a father and a husband. … He seemed to say in the very beginning, they didn’t really know what was going on. In the very first few hours of September 11, there was great confusion–Were there more terrorist attacks? Were there more targets? Who was the enemy? The president said to us several times in the interview that he felt like he was living through the fog of war. I thought that was a very interesting and revealing thing for a former president to say.
Turnstyle: Could you elaborate on that a little bit?
Schnall: Remember now, he’s in Florida, he’s not in Washington, not in the capital, he’s not surrounded by all his staff and cabinet members, and secretary of defense, and things like that. They whisk him on a plane, Air Force 1, and he’s flying around the country and the communication systems between the plane and the ground were not great at the time – matter of fact, they couldn’t even see the T.V. They couldn’t get reception as we were seeing the events unfold down here. He barely could see what was going on. The communication was very frustrating for him. He was very frustrated by the fact that he couldn’t get back to Washington. He had tried to get back, he said that he insisted on going back, but they said that it’s just not safe. Remember the capital was under attack at the time. He talks about it in a way that I think for the first time really makes one understand how overwhelming and how confusing those first few hours on September 11 really were for him as president of the United States.
Turnstyle: And does he talk in those moments about the decisions that he made? Is there a sense of regret about any of those decisions that he made in that “fog of war” atmosphere that he describes?
Schnall: Well again, we’re only talking about the 11th, the 12th, through the 14th, and some of those early decisions, for example when he was on the plane, the FAA grounded all the commercial airlines, they brought everything down. The president then had to make a decision while flying through the skies of America, he gave the Air Force permission to shoot down any commercial plane that was still in the air that was not responding to that FAA grounding rule. And he told us that when they heard that flight 93 had crashed in the fields of Pennsylvania, they didn’t know at first whether or not that plane had gone down because of his direct order. … He did not at any point say that he had regrets. He did say during the interview that he knew that he was making decisions that would be controversial – and they’re still controversial to this day. I mean look, we’re still going through the conflicts with Iraq and Afghanistan, I think he knew and still knows that we’re still living through those events right now.
Turnstyle: The man was at the center of what have now turned out to be some decisions that have ended up in catastrophic wars, a shift in the United States’ relationship with the rest of the world, and countless other paradigmatic shifts in our world as we know it. Because that image construction is so important to him in terms of his legacy, I wonder how candid he will ever be about what happened that day and what actually led to the decisions he made in the first couple of days.
Schnall: That’s a good point, and we certainly thought about that. We didn’t speak about anything that took place any decisions any of the controversies that ensued after the events of 9/11. Many of those decisions were made afterwards including the decision to go to war. And I think politics aside, one really has to take a step back and reflect on those horrific days in September and really try to understand what we were going through, and what the nation has now been going through, and what the president went through, and I think that’s what we were trying to do, and that’s what we were successful in bringing out from somebody as controversial as George W. Bush.
Turnstyle: Given that you did focus on the personal story, what aspects of his personal experience on that day were revealing to you as you conducted the interview?
Schnall: The fact that he spoke so open and freely about feeling like he was in the midst of the fog of war, that there was so much going on that really was just unclear – and it just had forced him to make decisions that were unusual for a president. …He also talked about how it was affecting him personally. How in the first few hours of of September 11, he was unable to reach his wife, the first lady, and his daughters. And like the rest of us who were trying to connect with our families, he was going through the same thing. He later said that it would take several more hours, before they were able to track down his mother and father.
Turnstyle: Over the course of your interview, did anything change? Did you know him before this point?
Schnall: I had had a unique opportunity to journey with the president on several shows that I had produced on Air Force one. It was very conversational and very relaxed. I was able to bring that same sort of feeling to this interview, despite the fact that it was four hours. He was willing to engage in a very direct and conversational dialogue.
Turnstyle: Given that you had so much time and access to him, once the interview was over and you’d parted, could you share with us what went through your mind?
Schnall: I also realized that I had probably been involved in something that was going to be quite historic — both in whom I was sitting down to talk to and the fact that he was opening up in a way that I had never heard him speak before. And I think it’s important because of the subject matter being September 11, and it’s something we just can’t forget. It’s something we have to keep reflecting on and trying to keep understanding.