James Bamford
A Pretext for War

Within minutes, it became clear to everyone that Air Force One was not going back to Washington. For the first time in history, it became not a symbol of power but of escape as the nation’s commander-in-chief searched for a safe haven. The flight of George W. Bush from Sarasota was in stark contrast to the flight of Lyndon B. Johnson from Dallas, Texas, following the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

As on September 11, there were great worries on November 22, 1963, that the assassination was part of a larger plot to destroy or take over the government. It was during the fearsome days of the Cold War when missiles armed with nuclear warheads were pointed at cities across the United States. Yet Johnson flew straight back to Washington immediately after being sworn in on the place in Dallas and gave a short talk on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base several hours later, an act that brought confidence and stability to a shattered nation.

Bush could have easily ordered Vice President Cheney to a secure location outside Washington to preserve the continuity of government and then flown back to Andrews Air Force base and given a defiant, Johnson-like speech. Then, with the public—and the rest of the world—feeling confident that despite the terrorist actions the U.S. government remained stable and firm, he could have gone back either to the White House or to one of the other highly protected, secure locations. That would have been the courageous thing to do.

Instead, the decision was made to leave Vice President Cheney in the White House while President Bush hopscotched around the country. Though reporters were told of a supposed call to the White House threatening Air Force One—the reason for President Bush’s odyssey—later it was concluded that no such call or threat ever took place. “They’ve been unsuccessful in trying to track down whether there was such a call,” one administration official told the Associated Press. CBS News reported the call “simply never happened,” and the Washington Post headlined its article on the subject: “White House Drops Claim of Threat to Bush.”

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