Who Would You Have Wanted to Have as President on 9/11?

A thought experiment concerning American leadership

Immediately after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the country rallied around George W. Bush, and some Americans even talked about how lucky we were to have him in the White House. These days, only a tiny minority holds that opinion. So who would we want to be president if we could go back and install anyone? The person would take office in January of 2001. The September 11 attacks would happen just as they did. The question is who we'd want in power on 9/12/01. 

George H.W. Bush? He had run the CIA, served 12 years in the White House, and built an international war coalition. He also presided over the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the USSR with competence. Would he be tempted to invade Iraq? Would he put Dick Cheney in close enough proximity to power to abuse it?

Dwight Eisenhower is another possibility. Would he heed his own warnings about the military-industrial complex? He'd presumably be competent and unifying. Though without presidential experience, Russ Feingold proved as prescient as anyone about needless civil-liberties abrogations even early in the War on Terrorism.

Whole swaths of the conservative blogosphere will say Ronald Reagan. I'll let them make the case. And I suppose some progressives will say FDR. In deference to Muslim Americans, I can't endorse the man who interned Japanese Americans.

Let's keep the hypothetical to the modern era, so no one before World War II. The person must be eligible to be president too, so the Dalai Lama and Tony Blair are out. Who would you put in the White House and why? What qualities would help them to navigate one of the most challenging presidential moments since WWII?

I have no strong opinion about the right answer. Perhaps you'll persuade me that your choice is best. If compelling nominations are emailed to me I'll publish them as letters. My email is below—and the comments are open too. What were we missing in those years? What should we be looking for in 2016, just in case of emergency?

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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