Brad Blakeman served as a Senior Advisor to President George W. Bush during his administration and was in the White House on September 11th, 2001. Blakeman sat down with Carolee McGrath to reflect on serving in the White House while events unfolded on 9/11 and in the days that followed.
Read the full transcript:
Tony Dunne, Connecting Point: Brad Blakeman was a senior adviser to President George W. Bush during his administration and was working in the White House on September 11th, 2001.
He sat down with Carolee McGrath recently to share his remembrances of the events of that day and the days that followed.
Brad Blakeman, Senior Advisor to President George W. Bush: I was in my office in the West Wing of the White House and basically it was a morning like we had countless times. It started with a seven a.m. senior staff meeting in the Roosevelt Room. And then once that meeting was concluded, we went back to our offices and began our day of work.
I was in my office, always had the television on because as the president’s gatekeeper/scheduler, I knew that the president’s schedule could be affected by news, and certainly this day was an example of that. And when I had heard that a first plane had hit the tower coming from New York, understanding that there was an attack on the Trade Center before, I found it odd that a small aircraft on a beautiful day with unlimited visibility would hit that tower. And so I was thinking about that.
Shortly after that, the second plane had hit. And I turned to my assistant, Kara Feig, and I said, “This is an act of terrorism.” And I left my desk and walked down the hall to the Situation Room, expecting them to have more information. And they did not. They were watching things happen in real time,as everybody else. And there’s a delay in what’s happening to what you know.
And then shortly after that, the Secret Service evacuated the West Wing, the plane that eventually crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, they said, was heading for the White House. We were evacuated. We went to another location, I had about 150 staff with me, and we continued to work.
Shortly thereafter, my sister had called that her son has been unreachable. Her son was a New York State Court officer who was assigned to the courts not far from the World Trade Center. Unbeknownst to us, he had responded to the scene and was evacuating people. He was told to leave, and his last transmission on his radio was, “People need my help,” and he wouldn’t leave. And eventually, we came to find out that the tower had collapsed and he perished.
But we continued to work. And then there came a time that day where I sent the staff home while it was still light, and then four of us returned to the White House because we were told the president would be returning to address the nation later that evening. And so, we prepared for that.
And then typically, I had the president scheduled for 21 days. That schedule was now irrelevant, and we were scheduling by the minute. And so we were meeting and communicating with senior staff, understanding what the president wanted to do, making that happen.
And in the meantime, my sister was calling my brother, who was on the board of the Port Authority, was a commissioner, was calling me about my nephew, but also about any information that I may glean to him, with regard to what happened at the Trade Center.
And so it was it was a tough period of time between my official responsibility and and then giving my family information that I could that publicly give to them. And then there came a time when we understood Tommy would not be recovered. The only thing they ever found was his badge and his gun. His body was never recovered, so he’s there.
And you know, the president, when he first found out the next day, on the 12th of September that my nephew is missing, he told he first called me and he said, “We’re going to pray for Tommy and we’re going to find the people who did this and bring him to justice.” And then a couple of minutes later, he was at my desk telling me the same thing.
So, it was an amazing, surreal experience because the things that you would expect to happen while you’re serving the president, some of it is unimaginable until it happens. And then you have to respond accordingly.
But I have to say, we have the right leadership, the right time between the president, Secretary Card, our Chief of Staff, and our Cabinet and our staff at the White House. They rose to the occasion. They did their job. And, you know, I was very proud to serve them, at this time.
Carolee McGrath: How were you able to manage both your official role, you know, serving the president, and realizing that your nephew was unaccounted for?
Brad Blakeman: Because you had a mission, and the mission was bigger than my personal connection.
And I knew the type of person Tommy was. He was a person of service — military background, he was a combat trained Army medic — and I knew in my gut that he was there. Because that’s where I expected him to be. And based on his history, there’s no place he would have rather been.
So, he did what he wanted to do, for the right reasons. So, it was a blessing that he was there, because he was able to save people.
Carolee McGrath: And you know, when you think back on 9-11, there’s a picture in particular that always sticks out in my mind of that firefighter walking up the stairs and everybody else coming out.
Obviously, that sounds like the service of your nephew and so many others who went in when everybody else was running out.
Brad Blakeman: Right. And you never know what type of person you are, or you’re capable of being, until that happens. You’d like to think you would do that, but you never really know.
And in the White House, I saw a lot of people rise to the occasion. There were people who did things that were admirable. When I sent my staff home, many of the staff asked to stay. You know, they didn’t they didn’t have to. We didn’t know what was coming next, if anything. Yet, people wanted to serve.
Carolee McGrath: Shortly thereafter, you went with President Bush to Ground Zero. Tell us about that.
Brad Blakeman: No, I planned that, I didn’t go. And the reason is because the president had to go with a small footprint. When the president said, “When do I go?” You need to go, but you can’t go the way we typically go.
You can’t sterilize the place. You can’t sweep and do security searches because it’s a recovery site. You can’t bring the typical members that you normally would bring. So, it had to be a very small group of people, only the ones — a lot of people wanted to go, the question was, did you need to go? I didn’t need to go.
I would have loved to have gone, because of the connection. But it was not my place to be there, I didn’t have to be there. So, the president took a very small footprint. The Secret Service didn’t do what they normally would do, because it was a recovery site.
And the president was able to deliver his message at the place of attack — one of the places — and to also comfort the families who were still, you know, at that point, not knowing what was happening.
So, it was very important for the president to go. He did. It was totally unscripted. What you saw is what happened.
Carolee McGrath: And him standing there on the pile of rubble saying, “I hear you and soon the whole world will hear us.” I mean, those are words that I think people will never forget, you know, standing next to the firefighter, you know, saying that to a nation that was just broken-hearted at that time.
Brad Blakeman: That’s where leaders come to be, and you can really appreciate them for who they are and what the mettle that’s in them. I knew it, from the time I knew him as George, when I was working for his dad, and the world came to know it on that day.
But and it started from the very time Secretary Card whispered in his ear, that America is under attack. You saw a president who was calm and cool and collected and —
Carolee McGrath: — and who took criticism for not jumping up, but he was standing there before a classroom of little kids, and I remember this one little kid standing in front of him, the big smile on his face because President Bush was behind him and they were singing a song and he just kind of stood there.
Brad Blakeman: Right. And he had the press corps there.
What a president does, how he does, and where he does it is as important as to what he says. And if we would have saw a president that had panicked, or that he responded inappropriately, it would have been a totally different story.
The president didn’t know a lot at that point, other than America was under some kind of attack. We didn’t know how severe it was. But on the other hand, the president had to remain calm, not only for the schoolchildren who are in front of him, for a press corps, for a nation.
And eventually, when he did have the ability to gain more knowledge, he responded just as you would expect a leader to respond: calm, cool, collected, deliberate, honest, and well-intended. You can’t ask for more than that.