In 2001, Timothy Goeglein, Focus on the Family’s vice president for external relations, was a special assistant to President George W. Bush and deputy director of the White House Office of Public Liaison. He recalls the years spent at that job in his new book, The Man in the Middle: An Inside Account of Faith and Politics in the George W. Bush Era, (available Sept. 15) and sat down with CitizenLink to discuss the historic events of 9/11.
1.You were at the White House getting ready for a meeting that morning. How did you find out about the attacks?
It was a crystalline day. It was the most beautiful day of the year in Washington. I’d been to breakfast with a friend, and came back to the White House a little after 9 a.m. and stopped in the press office to say hello to a friend of mine. He was not at his desk, but he had a television on top of a filing cabinet, and I noticed there was some commotion on the screen. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it, but after I got back to my office, I learned a plane had hit one of the towers. I thought it was a small plane. I got a call from a colleague at the entrance to the White House saying a plane had hit the World Trade Center, and he was hearing a lot of buzz about what it could mean. My parents called me on another line, and they’d been watching one of the cable channels, and were hearing it was really serious, maybe an attack on the country. Then my colleague at the entrance called me back and said they were talking about evacuating the White House. Right after that, a man came down the hallway, saying, “Get out, get out, this is real!” When I got outside, it was really chaos — cars going each way on 17th Street, ignoring the signals, doing everything they could to get out of the city. All the buildings around the White House were being evacuated. By this time, there was a lot of buzz — all kinds of rumors. The most devastating one, which turned out to be true, was that the second tower in New York had been hit, and then later, that the Pentagon had been hit. But amid all that chaos, several of the people who’d been scheduled to come in and see the president were fellow Christians. Instead of running away, they were forming these extemporaneous prayer circles around the White House, offering people prayer and calm. They were really ministering on the very cusp of 9/11. It was a remarkable and a very heart-rending thing to witness.
2. We all have images from that day burned into our memories. What are those images for you?
The first image I have of 9/11, in real time, is going into my colleague’s office and seeing that small image on a screen. I never could have known it would be a day of images like that. Secondly, my most important memory of that day, was the image of my brothers and sisters in Christ who were ministering to people not only on the streets of Washington, but in a place that could have been the site of a bombing. It was possible one of the objects of terror could have been the White House. When it comes to danger and being a person of service, you have to be one in the moment — not when you plan for it, but when it comes to you in the blink of an eye. To know they were not running away from the chaos, the panic and the tears, they were standing there in the midst of it, being salt and light in Washington. That was the most indelible image of the day.
3. You were asked to plan some key church services in the wake of 9/11. How did you go about it?
On Sept. 12, I was asked to plan a service to commemorate our fallen comrades. The first Americans who died in New York at Ground Zero, the Pentagon, and in the fields of Pennsylvania were the first victims of this new war. The first discussion was that it should be a small, solemn service across the street from the White House. I talked to a very dear friend who is an expert in church history and services, and realized no, it should be a national service of prayer and remembrance, and it should be a service for the nation. We came to call it A Service of Prayer and Remembrance at the Washington National Cathedral. For the next two days, around the clock, a team worked together to design the service. I was very honored to be of service to the country, the president, and those who were directly impacted by the tragedy. There are very special moments in a presidency that are unplanned — speeches or appearances that come to be defining moments. I could have not have known that in a very small and tangential way, I could be part of that, yet I was. In my opinion, the 9/14 service was one of the most solemn and memorable moments of the entire eight years of the Bush presidency. The decision we made as a team to have Billy Graham come in and deliver the service … the 9/14 service was America’s balm in Gilead, that out of this terrible tragedy and evil came something good. I believe God was honored that day.
4. Ten years later, how much better equipped are we to handle terrorist threats? What’s the lasting legacy of the Bush era?
I believe the greatest achievement of Bush’s presidency was his insight, his integrity and planning kept us safe on domestic soil for all the years after 9/11. I give God the credit, but he was an instrument in God’s hand. That’s not a partisan statement. It was the greatest reorganization of the federal government since World War II. Bringing down the wall between the CIA and FBI, creating the Department of Homeland Security, understanding we were now at war and the enemy was decentralized. It could only be met by a strong national defense. I believe that was the greatest achievement of the Bush years. Ten years later, the threat remains. I believe our armed forces have performed heroically. But the threat is real, it is constant, our enemies are smart, patient and well-funded. This is not a war that will end on a specific day with the signing of a treaty. So I believe we are in this era of a new war and a new enemy that is very lethal — but less lethal than on 9/11.
5. What’s the one lesson of 9/11 you hope our leaders keep in mind going forward?
Vigilance is the eternal watchword of liberty. If we are to remain a liberty-loving, free country, we have to be eternally vigilant and see that the other side of liberty is virtue. That’s very important. The second thing is that nations are not great because they have great militaries and economies. Those are the benefits of being in a great country. Humility is central. Freedom is a gift from Providence. God is the author of our faith. Our rights and liberties don’t come from government, they come from God. So I believe it’s very important, as we remember 9/11, that we don’t secularize this date. We must see it’s faith-laced, faith-undergirded, and it’s by God’s grace that we’ve been kept from another attack on our soil.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Pre-order Goeglein’s book, The Man in the Middle, today.
Here are some creative ways fellow Americans are remembering 9/11:
The Spirit of Liberty Foundation supports our Armed Forces and their families, the Wounded Warriors and the Families of Fallen Heroes.
Learn more about The Heritage Foundation’s Protect America initiative.