My dinner with President Bush

Essay By
Jennifer Barnhill
Guest Author

Jennifer Barnhill is a military journalist, researcher, and 2023 Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program Scholar.

“You’re at the president’s table,” my friend Tracy hurriedly shared as I walked into President and Mrs. Bush’s private dining room at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, Texas. Earlier in the day, I had shaken his hand and instantly forgotten my name. Here I was sitting two places away from a man whose presidency left an indelible mark on my military family and the nation. As a journalist, I wanted to ask him about the war on terror; instead, I told him a story. 

This amazing opportunity to meet President and Mrs. Bush grew out of my participation in the George W. Bush Institute’s Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program, a five-month experience designed to equip leaders focused on military and veteran issues to solve the problems they see within their communities.  

As a journalist focused on issues impacting military families, I came to the Veteran Leadership Program with more questions than answers:  

Is the public’s understanding of the military narrative limited to images of men storming beachheads during World War II or bombs exploding in distant deserts? Are they given access to stories of individuals jolted awake at night, reliving those battlefield moments from the comforts of their own bed? Does the military narrative include the humanizing moments of family life, painting a picture of the sacrifices made by spouses and children? 

Whose stories are worth telling, and who gets to choose?  

At the table with the president were people working on some of the biggest issues faced by our veterans and military today, including topics like veteran suicide and reducing veteran and military spouse unemployment via higher education and entrepreneurship. As we went around the table, my colleagues asked questions about the highs and lows of his presidency and shared a little bit about what brought them to the Veteran Leadership Program. 

As we informally made our way around the table, sharing our thoughts and asking questions, it came to me. A reel of a million stories began scrolling in my head, but whose story should I tell? I panicked and trusted my gut. 

“Sir, I would like to tell you a story,” I started. “My dad was in Tower One.”  

I had a hook, but do not let that confuse you. I am a writer, not a public speaker. I’m not particularly good at telling stories that put me on the verge of tears on a good day, let alone on a day that involved meeting a man whose presidency profoundly impacted my life. So, in this state, I committed the ultimate journalistic sin: I buried the lead.  

“A month before September 11th, my dad’s business wasn’t doing well. So he moved down roughly 20 floors to a smaller office, a financial stressor that would ultimately save his life and the lives of those he worked with.”  

The story took a turn when I started describing which floor he was on, but my poor storytelling did not cause him to lose interest; instead, he just asked clarifying questions. 

“Yes, sir, he survived. He made it out but had stopped on the lower floor to call family.”  

I hesitated to tell the entire truth – that my dad knew he should get out of the building because he saw dead bodies in the courtyard. Those deaths saved my father’s life. But for whatever reason, I felt the need to censor this grim reality for a man who was certainly all too familiar with it.  

“I was in college and attended a 9 a.m. class unaware of what was unfolding,” I told the table. “So, by the time I got out of class, both towers had already fallen. I had no idea if my dad was alive or dead. And I had no ability to get ahold of him.” 

After stumbling through a story I have told every year for over 20 years, I got to my point. 

“Your words carried me home that day,” I said, trying my very best to not cry. “In my frantic state, not knowing if my dad was alive or dead, I decided to drive home from college to wait by our landline. And as I drove, I listened to your speech.”  

“The search is underway for those who are behind these evil acts. I’ve directed the full resources of our intelligence and law enforcement communities to find those responsible and to bring them to justice. We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” – Statement by President George W. Bush in his Address to the Nation on Sept. 11, 2001 

This is where my story, hopefully, started to make sense. In all the chaos of that day, his words, confidence, and resolve helped me, even for a brief moment, set aside my worry about the future of our country and focus on my family. 

“Sir, your words helped me realize that our military and our leaders had us in hand and it freed me up to worry about my family and to be there for my dad,” I said.  

And that’s exactly what I did. As my dad’s train pulled into the station, he stepped out covered in white ash and was greeted with hugs and a warm New Jersey pizza. I spent the night curled up on his lap watching the news. 

When confronted with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I chose to tell my father’s story, and, upon reflection, I don’t regret it.  

The president’s words got me home safely that day, but those same words sent my husband to war.  

As a journalist and military spouse, I spent the hours after our interaction wondering if I did the right thing. I should have asked President Bush why he sent the military into what felt like a never-ending war.  

As an advocate, I should have shared my own agenda and emphasized the importance of telling the stories of military spouses (or first ladies) whose experiences are on the sidelines of history. But as a storyteller and the daughter of someone who survived the Sept. 11 attacks, I didn’t worry about the shoulds, but instead chose to create a moment of connection. 

And in those moments, we were people, not just a president and a journalist. This short interaction at dinner was a perfect illustration of why I was at the Veteran Leadership Program in the first place. If journalism – or good conversation for that matter – intentionally or accidentally leaves out individual voices, it loses its humanity and devolves into an exchange of talking points. If I had asked him about the war on terror, the focus would be on the president and his decisions, instead of the people his decisions impacted.  

This moment of intentional connection helped set the tone at our table. When my friends, Navy Commander Jessica McNulty and Dr. Mollie Marti shared stories of their work helping reduce active duty and veteran suicide, they also made it personal. They eloquently explained how they came to do this work, how their families supported them, and the different ways they were approaching this daunting problem.  

They didn’t focus on selling their agendas but rather sharing how this issue impacted lives. If I had told President Bush about my Military Dinner Table Conversation project, which highlights how individual military servicemembers and families aren’t included in military news stories, he might have nodded and been interested in my work, but which of the countless military family stories should I have chosen as an example? 

The stories we write and read help us see the humanity in each other. If the only military stories we tell are battlefield experiences, we will never see servicemembers as human, only links in a chain of command. If we don’t highlight the role of military families, then we will not be able to benefit from a truly unified military family unit. Maybe I’m naive and removing humanity from service was at one point by design. But I truly believe that telling stories that extend beyond the battlefield will connect this community with itself and with the nation.  

Riding the high of my too-quick presidential dinner, I ran to a nearby room and grabbed my phone to call my dad. In the decades after 9/11, we have ideologically drifted further and further apart, but my late-night call was a welcome surprise. Recalling the relief we felt on Sept. 11, 2001, has always had the uncanny ability to unite us despite our immediate political or generational differences.  

Choosing to tell President Bush our story may not have been the choice others in my shoes would have made, but I don’t regret it. Just as telling military family stories doesn’t take away from telling stories of service, my choice to find common ground was not compromising, but a way to see each other not just a journalist and a president, but as humans with different vantage points on a shared story. Because often it is the stories that go untold that stand to connect us.