Even by the president’s standards, October 30, 2001, had been busy. There were conference calls with the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, CIA and FBI and NSC briefings and meetings. There were meetings about aviation security and his effort to overhaul Social Security; a trip to a Maryland high school; conversations with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, his counsel Alberto Gonzales, Assistant for National Security Affairs Condoleezza Rice, senior adviser Karl Rove. And finally, Bush boarded the flight to New York. Bush is not by nature introspective,1and besides, he said, “when you’re busy like that, you don’t have time to reflect on the moment.” But as Air Force One flew by the World Trade Center wreckage on the way into JFK airport that evening, and then as Marine One moved through the black Bronx sky toward a park next to Yankee Stadium, he took rare time to think about what had happened and what was to come.
He thought about Ground Zero, he said, and his first trip to New York after 9/11, three days after the attacks. Then, he had stood on top of the shell of a twisted, burned-out fire truck in a mound of still-smoking rubble and spoken. Someone had handed him a bullhorn, and then someone had shouted, “We can’t hear you!” “I can hear you,” he yelled in response. “The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!” That’s the iconic image of him; that’s the moment people remember.
“That was all just emotion and reaction,” he told me. “I was surfing off the emotions of the people.”
And then he thought about the pitch itself. He thought about the other time he’d thrown a first pitch as president, at a Brewers game. He’d put it in the dirt. His dad had bounced it when he was president too. Both he and his dad had played baseball at Yale — the senior Bush was team captain, the younger never made varsity. And bouncing it had been mortifying. “We’re pretty competitive people,” he said.
He hadn’t had much time to prepare, squeezing in a game of catch with his press secretary, Ari Fleischer, in the South Lawn to loosen up. So he knew he faced the prospect of embarrassment in front of a stadium of people who hadn’t voted for him, and more.
As he walked out to the mound, wearing an FDNY pullover over a flak jacket, as the voice of Bob Sheppard — “Ladies and gentlemen” — faded into the great sound of the crowd, he had a sense that something more was at stake than pride.
It wasn’t just a pitch to him. He talked about it as an act of healing and an act of aggression. He didn’t allow for the distinction. “I can’t remember thinking, If you don’t bounce it, that’ll lift their spirits,” he said. “But I probably knew, instinctively, that a bounce would kind of reduce the defiance — the act of defiance toward the enemy.”