As the Presidential caravan sped away from the Florida school where President George W. Bush was speaking to children when he was first told about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Bush turned to White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and said, “OK, we’re at war.”
It was a phrase Bush would repeat many times in the days following the attacks. Being considered a wartime President is important to him. It allows him to justify, at least in his own mind, the actions he has taken over the last five years.
Play close attention to Bush’s speeches and words and you see this obsession with being a wartime President. Whenever he wants to justify an action that pushes the envelope he refers to himself as the “commander in chief,” not the President. In Bush’s world, being commander in chief gives him greater latitude in pursuing actions that may or may not be legal.
“I’m the commander in chief,” he told Congressional leaders at a recent White House meeting. “Do it may way.”
During his interview last week with Jim Lehrer last week, Bush referred to himself often as the “commander in chief” while discussing the decision to invade Iraq. In his Saturday radio address where he admitted authorizing spying, he again invoked the war president theme.
“This authorization is a vital tool in our war against the terrorists. It is critical to saving American lives,” Bush said in his Saturday radio address address. “The American people expect me to do everything in my power…to protect them…and that is exactly what I will continue to do as long as I am president of the United States,”
“To fight the war on terror, I am using authority vested in me by Congress, including the Joint Authorization for Use of Military Force, which passed overwhelmingly in the first week after September the 11th. I’m also using constitutional authority vested in me as Commander-in-Chief,” Bush said.
In his speech to the nation Sunday night, Bush used the word “war” sixteen times and the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” five times. But he did not, in this case, refer to himself as the “commander in chief.”
In Bush’s mind, his role as President is limited by the constitution, the same constitution that he feels gives him greater authority as commander-in-chief so he can “do everything in my power.”
The question that must be resolved in coming weeks, in probes demanded by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, is whether or not President Bush exceeded “everything in my power” when he authorized both the Pentagon and the National Security Agency to spy on American citizens.