Twenty years ago tomorrow, as smoke from the Pentagon rose into the sky across the Potomac, Joe Biden was squaring off with security on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
“I remember him walking up to the steps of the Capitol trying to get in, and there were a bunch of Capitol Police officers around him saying, ‘we can’t let you in there,’ and he’s like, ‘I’ll go in by myself,’” recalled Margaret Aitken, who was then-Senator Biden’s press secretary at the time. “He actually wanted to be on the floor—he said, ‘just turn the camera on and I’ll give a speech.’ I think he thought at that point that it was important that the world see that our government was operational.”
At that moment on Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush, who had delivered a 77-second address on the attacks before being rushed to Air Force Once, was in midair, his destination unknown even to staff. Vice President Dick Cheney was in a bunker beneath the East Wing of the White House, the first of many undisclosed locations to which he would be shuttled over the following days. Members of House and Senate leadership were about to board helicopters bound for West Virginia. There was, in the words of one former Biden staffer, “a vacuum of visible leadership” at a moment of national catastrophe.