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Fighting BackThe War on Terrorism--From Inside the Bush White House
By Bill Sammon
Regnery PublishingCopyright © 2003 Bill Sammon
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThis Had Better Be Good
ON THE MORNING OF SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, George W. Bush awoke in a bed whose last famous occupant was Al Gore. Blinking into consciousness in the predawn darkness, the president of the United States found himself alone in a massive luxury penthouse suite on the island of Longboat Key, Florida. To his left was a wall of windows overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, where a pair of heavily armed boats patrolled the murky surf. To his right was Sarasota Bay and, beyond that, the city of Sarasota itself, where Bush was scheduled to give an unremarkable speech on education later in the morning.
Swaddled in the finest Frette linens and matching duvet, the president was stretched out on the same king-sized bed that Gore had slept in nearly five years earlier, the night before he battled Jack Kemp in the 1996 vice presidential debate in nearby St. Petersburg. Gore had liked the Colony Beach & Tennis Resort so much that he returned there in 2000 to prepare for his presidential debates with Bush, although the vice president stayed in a beachfront cottage instead of the penthouse now occupied by the president. In fact, as Bush swung his six-foot frame out of bed and padded across the olive Berber carpet in front of the sliding glass doors, he could see the cottage down there on the beach. So that was where Gore had plotted his overly aggressive performance for the first debate. Thank God for those sighs! If it hadn't been for Gore's exasperated sighing throughout that first, fateful debate, the press might have awarded the vice president a victory on debating points alone. Even Bush conceded that Gore was the superior debater. But those sighs had shifted the focus to stylistics and Gore had taken a beating in the all-important court of public opinion. Saturday Night Live had a field day with those sighs, mercilessly lampooning Gore as an insufferable, microphone-hogging smarty-pants who oozed smarmy condescension. The vice president's aides had actually forced him to watch a tape of the withering send-up. Afterward, Gore felt compelled to promise "a few less sighs, absolutely" for the second debate. It was a remarkable nod to the power of popular culture. An irreverent skit on a late-night comedy show had more influence on a major presidential candidate than all the long-winded blowhards in the political press.
Of course, Bush did not exactly escape unscathed from that skit. As usual, he was portrayed as a vacuous frat boy who was so incapable of pronouncing or remembering the names of heads of state that he resorted to the shorthand "Leader One" and "Leader Two." Try as he might, Bush had never been able to shake his reputation as a foreign policy lightweight, which was hopelessly cemented when he flunked a humiliating pop quiz at a Boston TV station a full year before the election. Why on earth had he ever allowed himself to get drawn into that reporter's brazen demand that he recite the names of four world leaders? Who the hell knew the name of the president of Chechnya anyhow? It wasn't even a country! Bush tried to look on the bright side. At least the stereotype of him as an airhead was becoming so stale that it was overshadowed in the first debate by Gore's pompous sighing-not to mention his penchant for exaggeration. That gave the comedy writers and political pundits some fresh material to chew over, shunting the caricature of Bush the Brainless to the back burner.
Gore had returned to that squat brown cottage in the sand, now illuminated by the flickering flames of tiki torches, to bone up on his briefing book for the second debate. Chastened by the mockers, the vice president was determined to eradicate his image as a boorish know-it-all. But he ended up overcompensating in Round Two. He was overly subdued, almost docile, as if he were biting his tongue when he really wanted to lash out at the increasingly confident Bush. Saturday Night Live portrayed the vice president as a self-shackled sycophant who took pains to agree with everything his opponent said. Bush, miraculously, had dodged another bullet.
Perhaps that was why Gore had fled the Colony to recalibrate yet again before the third and final debate. Whatever the reason, the vice president finally managed to win one, fair and square. But by then it was too late. Even Gore's own pollster, Stanley Greenberg, conceded the vice president never regained the national lead that had slipped away after the first debate. As far as the public was concerned, the presidential debates of 2000 could be summed up in a single sound bite of political shorthand: Bush the underdog had beaten Gore the favorite.
Of course, Bush had gone on to vanquish the vice president in the election and again in the Florida recount wars. And yet he seemed unable to shake Gore's political ghost. Even now, as the president pulled on a white T-shirt and tan running shorts, he was aware that Gore was plotting a political comeback. Having withdrawn from public view after those nightmarish thirty-six days of dimpled chads, Gore had purposely kept a low profile for nine months. But lately he had begun meeting with small groups of supporters to test out privately a new line of attack on Bush. He planned to make this attack public in a major coming-out speech at the annual Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner in Iowa on September 29. The political reporters were already salivating at the prospect of Gore's tearing into Bush all over again.
And then there was the Mother of All Media Recounts, which, in the parlance of cyberjournalist Matt Drudge, was about to "impact." Never mind that USA Today and the Miami Herald had published the muddled results of their own statewide recount months ago. Never mind that more than a dozen other media outlets had also tallied various batches of ballots, with wildly disparate results. Never mind that the overwhelming majority of Americans desperately wanted to move on from this endless rehashing and second-guessing of a painfully contentious chapter in U.S. history. None of this seemed to matter to the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and the host of other media outlets that had formed a consortium and anointed themselves the last word on recounts. They had already poured more than a million dollars into the project, which was originally scheduled to be published no later than Easter. But the consortium had so many big-name participants that it turned into a lumbering bureaucracy that could not reach decisions without anguished and protracted consultations among a tangle of outsized egos. Deadlines slipped left and right. By late summer the consortium had settled on September 17 as the day on which the whole mess would finally be published. But in just the last week, that deadline had slipped yet again and the consortium was now looking at late September as a target. Would the madness never end? Bush tugged on a pair of white, ankle-high athletic socks. What he needed was a good run. In addition to clearing his head, it would burn off some of the calories he had packed on at dinner the night before. It had been a veritable feast of his beloved Tex-Mex cuisine-or at least Florida's idea of Tex-Mex. Truth be told, Red Snapper Ranchero would be considered a bit froufrou at a barbecue in Crawford, Texas, the landlocked site of Bush's 1,600-acre ranch. Still, the president enjoyed the Texas Tortilla Soup and the Lone Star Tenderloin. The resort had made up a special presidential menu just for the occasion. Under the extremely watchful eyes of the Secret Service, the Colony's chefs had begun preparing the food as soon as Bush rolled up in his limousine at 6:30 P.M. on Monday, September 10. The president bounded out of the backseat and strode into the small lobby, where he was greeted by a poised, impeccably dressed blonde with chiseled cheekbones named Katie Klauber Moulton, then the Colony's general manager. After greeting Moulton and two of her family members, Bush spotted a group of maids, gardeners, and other menial workers who had obviously been shooed away from the president's trajectory. He immediately sized up the situation and made a beeline for these startled employees, pumping their hands and thanking them for their hospitality. He took his good old time, making sure he didn't forget anyone, before finally getting into a cramped, aging elevator with a couple of Secret Service agents.
A sixty-year-old maintenance man named Kenneth Kufahl had been instructed in advance to take the elevator directly to the fifth-floor penthouse. Not that Bush was in any danger of running into unscreened members of the public. All guests had been cleared out of the building to make way for the invasion of White House staffers, aides, communications technicians-even an antiterrorism unit. Still, the Secret Service was taking no chances. Kufahl was under strict orders to take the president directly to the penthouse.
The proximity of the most powerful person in the world, however, unnerved the maintenance man, who fumbled with the various keys, switches, and buttons on the elevator's control panel. Several seconds ticked by.
"Son, you're makin' my men nervous," Bush said. "And that makes me nervous. Calm down and this whole thing's gonna come off real easy."
The president cut a glance at the agents, a couple of tough-looking hombres with coiled wires coming out of their ears and walkie-talkie microphones up their sleeves. They remained expressionless, a pair of stone-cold Terminators in off-the-rack suits.
Bush then studied the elevator operator, who struggled to regain his composure. The president was accustomed to encountering citizens who were overwhelmed by the power of his office. Some literally quaked in the presence of the leader of the free world. Their palms went clammy, their voices quavered, they fumbled with whatever they were holding. They weren't so much intimidated by Bush himself, who in fact was remarkably down-to-earth, as they were by the raw power of the presidency. Bush understood this and actually spent a surprising amount of his time just trying to put ordinary people at ease. He sensed that Kufahl was the sort of no-nonsense guy who responded well to straight talk. Indeed, the 6-foot-4-inch maintenance worker fancied himself a "man's man" with a disdain for "plastic people."
Sure enough, Kufahl calmed down and got the proper elevator key to work, which allowed him to flip the necessary switches and press the necessary buttons to get Bush up to the fifth floor. The dark green elevator disgorged the president into a narrow hallway, directly opposite a table that contained a large vase of exotic flowers-ti, protea, and birds-of-paradise. The hall contained the doors to three suites. One was the permanent home of Klauber's father, Murray, who founded the Colony after tiring of his orthodontics practice in Buffalo back in 1969. Another was for Bush's personal assistant, Blake Gottesman. Bush turned right and walked a few paces to the end of the corridor, where he entered the third door, Suite 503.
Once inside, the president proceeded down a short hall that opened into the living room, which had a panoramic view of the Gulf of Mexico along the western exposure. The sun was already descending toward the aqua surf, where dolphins frolicked near a sand bar and pelicans cruised low in search of easy meals. Another bank of windows lined the northern exposure, although the Secret Service had loaded up the balcony with enough heavy ficus trees to block the view from anyone who might try to catch a glimpse of the president from the condominiums to the north. The room contained a plush gray couch that was upholstered in the softest, supplest leather imaginable. A thick slab of glass topped a table of brushed stainless steel. In one corner stood a trio of tall, slender, weather-beaten planks that had been carved into crude human totems-one smiling, one frowning, one poker-faced. They were African grave markers that had been brought to America as souvenirs. In the opposite corner stood a big-screen TV, topped by a curiously outdated stereo system, the kind that contained a turntable for vinyl record albums. As he surveyed his surroundings, Bush walked across a floor of off-white Italian tile topped by a multicolored rug that was done up in the style of an old-fashioned hooked rug, although this one seemed a lot more expensive.
The eastern half of the suite consisted of a dining room and a kitchen, which, like the living room, were brightened by fresh flowers that had been specifically chosen for their lack of fragrance. Cobalt blue ginger jars overflowed with gerber daisies and snapdragons, all set in "spring arrangements" of warm pink and peach tones. Another batch of ficus trees had been placed along the balcony outside the dining room and kitchen. Through the branches, Bush could look out over a sea of tennis courts. The Colony didn't have a single golf green, but it had so many tennis courts that it had been dubbed America's top resort by Tennis Magazine. Just beyond the courts, across Gulf of Mexico Drive, were the roofs of spectacular mansions that faced Sarasota Bay. One of them was the home of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who had been savaged by the press for upholding Bush's victory in the recount wars. Harris, who also kept a home in Tallahassee in order to fulfill her duties in the state's capital, had recently decided to move back to Longboat Key and run for Congress, which was a pretty safe bet, considering the strong Republican makeup of Florida's 13th District.
Bush then retraced his steps, veering right just before he reached the entrance door of his suite. This placed him in another short hallway that opened first to a small bathroom and then to the master bedroom. The headboard of the bed was set into a slight recess along the south wall. Opposite the bed stood an exquisite antique armoire of worm-eaten English pine, which concealed another television. The eastern wall was dominated by an elaborate ceiling-high bookshelf that had been built to match the armoire, complete with artificially "fatigued" wood, although there was no way to replicate the tiny wormholes of the armoire. The shelves of this particular piece of furniture, which had set the Colony back more than $10,000, were lined with vases, rare seashells, and a row of paperback books, all in German, that had been left behind by a family from Munich who rented the suite once a year. Bush freshened up in the master bathroom, a dark, expansive chamber of highly polished marble the color of chocolate. Off to one side was a low doorway that led to an even darker shower stall built for two people, each of whom would have three shower heads strategically aimed at their head, chest, and derriere. Vases of orchids had been placed in both the bathroom and bedroom.
Excerpted from Fighting Back by Bill Sammon Copyright © 2003 by Bill Sammon. Excerpted by permission.
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