President George W. Bush had a famously prickly relationship with the media, especially the Washington press corps. Except for a media blitz last year to promote his memoir, he has mostly laid low since leaving the Oval Office.
But with the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks that defined his presidency on the horizon, Bush will re-emerge from self-imposed exile. And he won’t be talking to any of the A-list anchors at the news divisions.
Rather, he sat for two days of interviews with National Geographic Channel; exclusive access that took four months to negotiate and was fortuitously scheduled to take place two days after it was announced May 1 that Navy Seals shot 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden twice in the head in a nighttime raid at the Al Qaeda leader’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
George W. Bush: The 9/11 Interview premieres Aug. 28 and is the keystone of seven days of Sept. 11th-themed programming.
Nat Geo executives called on New York filmmaker Peter Schnall, whose previous work for the network includes the top-rated 2009 documentary Onboard Air Force One. (Schnall’s Partisan Pictures is also producing two additional specials for Nat Geo’s 10th anniversary coverage. The topic has been one that Nat Geo has explored consistently over the years and the two-part 2005 documentary Inside 9/11 stands as the network’s most-watched program with nearly 18 million viewers.)
Schnall got to know the president while working on the Air Force One special; flying on the famous plane with Bush during the early weeks of his presidency.
“I reminded him of our journeys together,” says Schnall. “I wasn’t a journalist who was out to dig. So we had a friendly relationship in a sense.”
After four months of back-and-forth, Bush agreed to the interview. He did not ask to see questions in advance, nor did he request final approval over the film – which would have been a deal breaker, says Schnall. “We would never allow that.” The only condition was that the interview would be limited to the days and events surrounding Sept. 11, 2001.
Schnall himself did not learn of the death of bin Laden until he landed in Dallas with his crew late on the night of Sunday, May 1, when the world was learning that bin Laden was dead.
“It was very surreal. Everyone was just standing and staring at the TV monitors in the airport,” recalls Schnall. “Everybody just stopped. And then [President Obama] came on. We were in the baggage area, and we just listened to his entire speech. It was very powerful and very overwhelming. I did notice that at the end of the president’s speech nobody applauded. Maybe that’s because we were in Dallas.”
As he absorbed the news, Schnall began to worry about his access to Bush.
“That’s the first thing we thought: ‘Oh no he’s either going to cancel the interview because he’s going to run off to Washington or he’s going to start talking to everybody.’ And to our surprise, that didn’t happen.”
The president’s representatives told Schnall they received 500 media requests after the death of bin Laden. They declined them all.
Schnell interviewed Bush over two days – May 3 and 4. The result, he says, is a very personal account of a day that changed the world.
“One of my concerns, like the concerns of other husbands and wives, was, ‘Was my spouse okay? Was Laura okay?'” Bush says in the film “And my second concern was ‘Were our girls okay?’… And I finally found her [Laura]. She was in a secure location. And it was awesome to hear her voice. And she had talked to the girls. And they were secure.”
Bush says he feels “grateful” that bin Laden is gone. He was at Dallas restaurant Rise No. 1 with Laura when the Secret Service told him he had a call from the White House. He went home to take it, where President Obama relayed the news.
“I didn’t… feel any great sense of happiness. Or jubilation,” he says. “I felt a sense of closure. And I felt a sense of gratitude that justice had been done.”
The tone of the documentary is somber; there is no voiceover narration, and aside from news footage the only voice in the film is the president’s. Schnall never appears on camera and viewers never hear his questions.
“From the air it looked like… a giant scar. But when I actually got to the site, it was like walking into hell,” Bush says of his Sept. 15 visit to Ground Zero.
The White House supplied Nat Geo with exclusive photos and video including video of the president at the Pentagon on Sept. 12 and in New York on Sept. 15. But like all filmmakers, Schnall had to leave plenty on the proverbial cutting room floor, including a few quintessential Bush wisecracks.
Traveling in a motorcade with New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the days after 9/11 when the nation was all too briefly united, the president was struck by the warm reception from cheering crowds lining the streets of Manhattan.
“He said it was fist time he had ever been to New York where everyone was waving to him with all five fingers,” laughs Schnall. “He knew I was a New Yorker. So he really enjoyed telling that story.”