In just over a week, the country will mark ten years since the September 11th terrorist attacks. We’ll be bringing you all sorts of stories and conversations related to that anniversary. Today we’re going to focus on one Chicago resident: what he did that day, and how he reacted in the days that followed.
In 2001, Barack Obama was a lawyer, a professor and a state senator. We have this look at the president’s 9/11 story.
As personal memories of September 11th go, President Obama’s are remarkable in how unremarkable they are. Mr. Obama recounted the day as “one bright, beautiful Tuesday morning” a few years ago in an August 2007 speech captured by C-SPAN.
“I remember that I was driving to a state legislative hearing in downtown Chicago when I heard the news on my car radio, that a plane had hit the World Trade Center,” he said.
Then an Illinois state senator, Barack Obama recalled he was on Lake Shore Drive. He continued to the Thompson Center, the state building in downtown Chicago, for a meeting of the policy wonky Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. Vicki Thomas is the committee’s director. She and her staff rushed to the Thompson Center when they heard of the attacks.
“And on the plaza outside, we began to see members arriving, so we all kind of clustered,” Thomas recalled. “They decided to cancel the meeting.”
“As members arrived, we told them that that had been the decision, and everyone was sharing news, of course, about what had happened, what they had heard,” Thomas said.
Thomas doesn’t remember exactly who was in the group. Mr. Obama may have even arrived at the building a bit later.
“By the time I got to my meeting, the second plane had hit and we were told to evacuate,” Mr. Obama said. “People gathered in the streets in Chicago, looking up at the sky and the Sears Tower, transformed from a workplace to a target.”
He went next to his day job, at the law firm Miner, Barnhill and Galland.
“Back in my law office, I watched the images from New York - the plane vanishing into glass and steel, men and women clinging to window sills, then letting go. Tall towers crumbling to dust,” Mr. Obama said. “It seemed all the misery and all the evil in the world were in that rolling black cloud blocking out the September sun.”
In his book, The Audacity of Hope, Mr. Obama wrote about the scene in the law office. “A group of us sat motionless,” he wrote, “as the nightmare images unfolded across the TV screen.”
“This is our conference room, and this is where we had the television when the 9/11 explosions happened,” said William Miceli, a partner at the firm, standing in the small basement room, with old furniture, law books and green carpeting.
The firm’s offices are kind of hidden in a three flat, with no sign on a relatively quiet street just North of downtown.
“The firm was clustered in this room - basically everyone - lawyers, secretaries, paralegals - and the room was full,” Miceli said. “We were all watching…it was a small screen… As I remember it, there was really little conversation. There was no talking. People were just transfixed by what they were seeing on the screen.”
So transfixed, Miceli said this week, that he wasn’t aware of exactly who was in the room. He has no specific memory of Mr. Obama being there.
Miceli recalled that most people left early that day. At some point, Mr. Obama did too, to his home at the time, a condo not far from Hyde Park’s Promontory Point. He described that night in a recent interview on CBS.
“I remember going home and Sasha had just been born,” he said. “And I usually had night duty, so Michelle could get some sleep. And I remember staying up…late into the middle of the night, burping my child and changing her diapers, and wondering, ‘What kind of world is she going to be inheriting?‘”
At that time, few were interested in any profound thoughts this Illinois legislator had on the state of the world. His reaction to the attacks did not appear in the local newspapers, except for a very local one: the Hyde Park Herald.
The paper frequently ran columns by the neighborhood’s elected officials, including Mr. Obama. After 9/11, then-editor Caitlin Devitt invited them to submit short statements for the following week’s edition.
“The essence of this tragedy, it seems to me, derives from a fundamental absence of empathy on the part the attackers: an inability to imagine, or connect with, the humanity and suffering of others,” Mr. Obama wrote. “Such a failure of empathy, such numbness to the pain of a child or the desperation of a parent, is not innate; nor, history tells us, is it unique to a particular culture, religion, or ethnicity. It may find expression in a particular brand of violence, and may be channeled by particular demagogues or fanatics. Most often, though, it grows out of a climate of poverty and ignorance, helplessness and despair.”
Devitt said these comments were perhaps more nuanced that most political reactions at the time. Politicians like Mr. Obama, she said, know how to write for the less-hawkish Hyde Parkers.
Devitt doesn’t remember taking special notice of Mr. Obama’s September 19th statement.
“I mean, I never really imagined that these words that I’m reading now would one day maybe be translated into policy - foreign policy, you know, or our national policy, that’s, you know, that’s pretty, I don’t think I thought that big about him,” Devitt said.
At that time, the future president was also a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago’s law school. The fall quarter hadn’t yet begun, but a university spokesman said that by late September, Mr. Obama was teaching a couple courses.
Jaime Escuder was in one of them: Constitutional Law III: Equal Protection and Substantive Due Process. Escuder said in a recent interview that he can remember only one time that Mr. Obama made a comment related to September 11th.
“People starting wearing…the American flag starting appearing everywhere, and particularly - frankly - Republicans, although he didn’t mention Republicans,” Escuder said. “He did make a comment, though, such that it was clear he was uncomfortable with the - I guess you could say - the effort to politicize the American flag.”
Escuder is a public defender now, and remembers his professor’s comment when he sees other lawyers wearing flag pins, and when he sees President Obama wearing one. He said it maybe disappoints him a little, but he doesn’t fault the president.
“He probably made the calculation that it could be turned into something far bigger than it really was, if he didn’t wear it,” Escuder said. “He is a patriot and it just takes away one more argument that people could be making against him, if he just sort of goes with the flow on that small issue.”
In the fall of 2001, Mr. Obama’s political future was cloudy. The year before he’d had an embarrassing primary election loss when he tried to oust U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush. But he’d started to think about a statewide run.
“We went to lunch right after 9/11,” said Eric Adelstein, a political consultant based in Chicago.
At lunch, he and Mr. Obama talked about the terrorist attacks, which dominated most conversations at the time, Adelstein recalled. And the state senator with eyes for a bigger office asked him about the logistics of a U.S. Senate campaign. Adelstein said they both acknowledged a specific hurdle.
“He or I might have said, ‘You know, now his name rhymes with this horrible mass murderer who’s been accused of doing this thing and that would just create an added challenge,” Adelstein said this week.
In his book, Mr. Obama wrote about this lunch with an unnamed “media consultant.”
“We both looked down at the newspaper beside him,” Obama wrote. “There, on the front page, was Osama bin Laden.”
“Hell of a thing, isn’t it?” Mr. Obama quoted the consultant. “Really bad luck. You can’t change your name of course.”
Mr. Obama wrote that the consultant “shrugged apologetically before signaling the waiter to bring us the check.”
Adelstein doesn’t remember it quite like that.
“I think I’d write that off to the poetic license of the author,” Adelstein said. “It didn’t exactly happen that way. But, you know, he’s become president at a difficult time. Everyone who knew him back then, knew that this guy was going to go far, and I think we’re grateful that he has.”
Adelstin doesn’t remember the exact date of the lunch, name of the restaurant or what the two men ate.
A lot of details get fuzzy over ten years. And it’s not like everyone in the aftermath of 9/11 made a conscious decision to remember their interactions with Barack Obama, on the off-chance he would someday be in a position to, say, order a military operation to kill the terrorist behind the attacks.
Back then, he was a lawyer, a professor and a state senator. No more important than any of us, on a day that nonetheless would largely shape his presidency.