Twenty years ago this past weekend, Louisiana was a part of the story as a staggering nation looked for stability. What happened at Barksdale Air Force base across the Red River from Shreveport would also provide the setting for what we will call “the mystery of the missing podium.”
President George W. Bush was visiting a grade school in Sarasota, Florida when he received word of the Sept. 11 attacks on the Twin Towers in Manhattan. Rushed back to Air Force One the President wanted to return to Washington. The Secret Service and some staff member felt differently since no one knew how extensive the obvious terrorist attack has been and if Washington could be safely approached. Instead, the decision was made to fly to a major Air Force base where there was protection as well as access to broadcast equipment. Reluctantly Bush gave in and the plane turned toward Louisiana.
Air Force One’s pilots tried to make the route inconspicuous weaving along the Gulf of Mexico before turning toward Louisiana. Two Air Force fighter jets joined the solemn flight to provide extra protection.
Coincidentally that morning, Barksdale was undergoing an alert preparedness drill so some support personnel and equipment were already in place. The impending arrival was kept secret although some staff members were alerted about the arrival of an unidentified dignitary. Guards surrounding the plane would discover that the President of the United States was descending the stairs.
Bush had arrived at approximately 10:30 that morning. He was whisked to the conference room of the 8th Air Force. A simple wooden podium, with the words Barksdale Air Force Base, was found. From the supply room came one of two American flags used as a backdrop. An hour later the President delivered to the world his first words, spoken from Bossier City, about the tragedy. The massage was brief but meant to assure that the United States government was still stable and the nation was strong:
Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward. And freedom will be defended.
I want to reassure the American people that the full resources of the federal government are working to assist local authorities to save lives and to help the victims of these attacks.
Make no mistake, the United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts.
I’ve been in regular contact with the Vice President, Secretary of Defense, the national security team, and my cabinet. We have taken all appropriate security precautions to protect the American people.
Our military at home and around the world is on high alert status. And we have taken the necessary security precautions to continue the functions of your government.
We have been in touch with leaders of Congress and with world leaders to assure them that we will do whatever is necessary to protect America and Americans.
YI ask the American people to join me in saying a “thanks” for all the folks who have been fighting hard to rescue our fellow citizens, and to join me in saying a prayer for the victims and their families.
The resolve of our great nation is being tested but make no mistake. We will show the world that we will pass this test.
Although Barksdale had television production facilities it did not have the capacity to transmit to the networks. Shreveport’s local TV affiliates helped and the message would be sent throughout the world.
Stopping occasionally to shake hands with military personnel along the way, the President headed back to Air Force One. There would be one more stop—Offhutt Air Force base in Nebraska where the president was able to use telecommunications equipment for conferences. After 90 minutes the plane was heading back to Washington.
Bush’s presidency had changed dramatically. He had only been in office since January and by visiting a school that morning he had hoped to establish himself as an Education president.
By the end of the day, George W. Bush was a wartime president.
THE CASE OF THE LOST PODIUM
President Bush’s speech is the centerpiece for the Global Power Museum at Barksdale Air Force base in Bossier City. The podium from which he spoke would become a highlight, but originally there was a problem. One might think that it would be difficult to heist an item from a military base but, no one could find the podium. After much search the mystery was resolved. The Air Force had mistakenly donated it and other mothballed items to the Arkansas Federal Surplus Property program. From there a local school board had bought the podium for $75 and began using it. Eventually government officials were able to get it back, however they did donate a replacement podium to the school board. Presumably there are no plans for using the podium for any further Presidential addresses.