How Politico recreated 9/11 aboard Air Force One

Courtesy George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum

Politico Magazine’s oral history of Air Force One’s nerve-racking flight after the Sept. 11 attacks is more than just a fascinating story. It’s a historical document of some of America’s darkest hours, told from the perspective of those with theoretical power to respond but no practical way to do so.

Air Force One took to the sky that day to keep President George W. Bush safe from any additional threats. Garrett M. Graff’s re-creation of the roughly eight hours afterward, published Friday, traces the plane’s harrowing and at times aimless flight through the fog of war, as told by roughly two dozen of the aides, crew, servicemen, and journalists on board. The 16,000-word story is “one of the most-read Politico pieces of all time,” says Graff, a former editor of Politico Magazine who’s now finishing a book on US government doomsday plans.

CJR caught up with Graff by phone Wednesday morning to talk about his reporting process, how 2001-era communications left Air Force One in the dark, and the lone passenger who declined to be interviewed outright. The following discussion had been edited for length and clarity.

What was the genesis of this project?

Three years ago, when I was at Washingtonian magazine, I did a piece for the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination that recreated the Air Force One flight back from Dallas. Ever since I did that, I’ve wanted to do a piece on Air Force One on 9/11. I sort of see them as two chapters of the same story—the two most famous flights of the world’s most famous plane.

How did you approach the reporting? Why an oral history?

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I wasn’t interested in trying to recreate all of the facts and the tick-tock of that day, because that has been well-trod territory. Journalists have done it, and the 9/11 Commission has also done it. I couldn’t ever recall reading a piece that was really about the emotions of that day as they were lived by policymakers and leaders. That was the goal of doing it in oral history format.

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Director of Communications Dan Bartlett points to news footage of the World Trade Center Towers burning, September 11, 2001, as President George W. Bush gathers information about the attack from Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Florida. (Courtesy George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum.)

Did you reach out to everyone on the plane? Did anyone decline to be interviewed?

I didn’t reach out to everyone—more than anything, it was a time factor. I tried to interview the majority of the people who were on board for the majority of the day, and I tried to find at least one person from each category of people who were on the plane. The only category that I didn’t get was the flight stewards who were on board—sort of the Air Force flight attendants who staff the plane.

There were people that I did reach out to who just didn’t respond. But the only person who actually declined to speak was President Bush. I expected that. He has given very few interviews about 9/11. He doesn’t give many interviews nowadays, period.

From a writing and craft perspective, I was OK not having the president’s voice in it because he was such a presence in the story anyway. The entire story is basically about him. It’s about people’s interactions with him and the way that he motivated and inspired and shaped the experiences of everyone else aboard the plane that day. I think that some of the power of the story comes from him being a presence but not an overpowering one.

So you ended up with about 40 hours of interviews. What fraction of that eventually made it into the piece?

An incredibly tiny percentage. The piece was already one of the longest pieces Politico has ever published, so I knew I was already pushing the upper bounds of what it was going to be.

There were so many incredible details throughout. How did you go about balancing those with the narrative?

One of the things that most fascinated me was realizing how many different experiences there were aboard the plane. From an outsider’s perspective, I had been thinking all of these people were on the plane together, so they all must have had the same experience.

What I found was quite the opposite. It’s a 230-foot-long airplane, and people were spread across two different decks and a dozen different cabins. The people who were at the back of the plane had no idea what was going on in the front of the plane. The people who were up on the communications and flight deck mostly didn’t know what the people below them were doing.

There were some shared experiences—getting off the plane in Barksdale, Louisiana, or taking off from Sarasota, Florida, or seeing the fighter planes off the wings—but people had different jobs and were doing different things. So, some of my job was trying to weave together a wider variety of experiences than I had originally thought when I was starting the piece.

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After departing Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, President George W. Bush confers with Vice President Dick Cheney from Air Force One, September 11, 2001, during the flight to Andrews Air Force Base. (Courtesy George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum.)

You also talked to some of the journalists who were on the plane. Was there any major difference in their take on the situation compared to those of the non-journalists on the plane?

Not necessarily. The journalists had notes about the day and the timeline, but a number of people who I spoke to had notes that they were able to refer back to. Sonya Ross [of The Associated Press], Ann Compton [of ABC], and a number of reporters who were on board did a tremendous job of working under incredible stress. But in some ways, they knew the least of anyone involved in the flight because they were largely cut off from the news below and didn’t have access to the telephones to be able to learn more. The White House staff and security and military folks on board knew more about what was happening than a lot of the reporters did.

That gets to my main takeaway, which is that the communications were so primitive compared to now. People on board really had no idea what was going on. Did anyone you interviewed reflect on how it might be different now?

The inadequacies of Air Force One that day drove the White House to make substantial investments for a better Air Force One in the future. They spent a lot of time and money after 9/11 fixing some of those issues that were made apparent by 9/11. There have also just been tremendous underlying advances in technology. Obviously Twitter and Snapchat and Facebook Live would change the way that everyone would experience those events today.

But, at the same time, the fog of war is something else entirely. That’s still something that we see play out in the age of social media as disparate events become conflated in original reporting. Social media and modern technology would solve some of these communications issues, but the fog of war, as [White House Chief of Staff] Andy Card said in the piece, is real. I don’t think that the confusion of those initial hours would necessarily be different today.

What has stuck with you the most from doing this piece?

I have been overwhelmed by the global response to the story. I got a letter from every continent but Antarctica over the course of the weekend. I got a letter from someone in Poland—I can’t imagine what 9/11 meant to someone who was in Poland. I did a long interview with Radio New Zealand on Monday, which made me think about what 9/11 would have meant to people who would have woken up on the morning of Sept. 12 to see all of this had happened overnight, while they were sleeping. These heartfelt, amazing reactions to the piece made me realize just how raw and global 9/11 still is.

We think of these attacks as such an American event. And even within America, we think of them as a New York, Washington, Pennsylvania, and Boston event, depending on how you define it. But the trauma of that day is just so much greater than I had imagined.

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.