Throwback Thursday: President Bush's First Pitch, Fear, and the New Normalcy

At the time, the accuracy of Bush's pitch felt important, which is ridiculous in retrospect.

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Oct 27 2016, 2:09pm

Photo by Chris Faytok/THE STAR-LEDGER via USA TODAY Sports

I don't remember being afraid while outside the gates of Yankee Stadium 15 years ago this week preparing to enter for Game Three of the 2001 World Series, but I remember feeling like I was supposed to be. I was there with my dad, who has always been good at seeing the big picture. He was confident that, despite it being a World Series game in New York City, an almost unfathomably obvious target for any potential wrongdoers, there was nothing to worry about. I believed him.

But I was unsettled. The unusually long security lines (thanks to newly installed metal detectors), the helicopter hovering barely overhead, and the unusually large number of police at every turn signaled to my 12-year-old self that something wasn't right.

I thought all the security was weird—even airport security wasn't this thorough pre-9/11—but 15 years later, it feels exactly as then-White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer called it: "the new normalcy." Of course, Fleischer wasn't talking about just ballpark or airport security. He was also referencing the constant fear, spurred on by not just 9/11 but also the letters filled with anthrax being mailed to senators and media members. Everything was scary, potentially scary, or could be imagined to be scary.

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Once we got to our seats, I could see the snipers on the Yankee Stadium roof. The helicopter continued to hover, which, less than two months after 9/11, struck me as more menacing than protective. President George W. Bush came out wearing an FDNY jacket, waved to the crowd, gave a thumb's up, and threw a perfect strike. My dad and I both turned to each other as the ball hit the catcher's mitt and remarked at the impressive pitch. We probably said something like, "What a pitch!" because we are cool and creative dudes.

Bush threw out the first pitch despite the security concerns—the White House was regularly issuing vague warnings about future terrorist attacks based on "a limited amount of nonspecific but credible information," according to an ABC News broadcast at the time—because he wanted to send a signal that Americans should "go about their daily lives," as he and many others in the administration put it.

At the time, the accuracy of Bush's pitch felt important, which is ridiculous in retrospect. Maybe it was the fact that he was calm and composed enough to torch a heater that made his message even more convincing, or maybe it was just that he didn't embarrass himself at a time when our national emotions were still fragile. Anyway, it's silly now.

All 55,000 of us chanted "USA! USA!" in a patriotic fervor. For me, this wasn't a complicated gesture. Everyone else was doing it, and it felt good. I don't remember seeing it at the time, but several news accounts reported fans in the upper deck unfurled a banner reading "USA FEARS NOBODY: PLAY BALL."

Our country's actions in the 15 years since belie that simple message. We still play ball, but we also fear many things. We are still engaged in the longest protracted period of war in American history in the name of fighting terrorism—which is, almost by definition, the fighting of fear. One of our major party candidates literally hugs an American flag as he leads a campaign based entirely on anger and fear: fear of ISIS, of foreign workers, of a woman being president, of non-existent crime bumps, of inner cities rigging elections, of damn near everything.

President Bush with managers Joe Torre and Bob Brenly before the first pitch. Photo by Chris Faytok/THE STAR-LEDGER via USA TODAY Sports

Two days before throwing out the first pitch, President Bush said that "every American is a soldier, and every citizen is in this fight." The New Normalcy, we now know, was about reconciling our daily lives with a constant state of war, where every American is a soldier and every activity is either patriotic or unpatriotic. The new normal was building upon the tragedy of 9/11 with a series of actions that further devalued human life at home and abroad. The new normal was gigantic, field-length flags unfurled for the National Anthem, a decade-plus of "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch. The Pentagon paying sports teams to put on patriotic pre-game displays. The New Normalcy is a professional hockey team honoring a veteran as the "Northrop Grumman Hero of the Game," and nobody thinking that's weird.

I think about that 2001 World Series game often these days, because the fear present at Yankee Stadium felt like a choice. For those of us who lived in the New York City area but didn't lose any close family or friends, the pure, visceral shock and mourning from 9/11 had worn off. What emerged from that fog was a residual vague uncertainty, a pair of distinct options about how to view the world: one could either be perpetually terrified or get on with it. The pitch was a signal that we should do the former. Of course, we didn't know that night, watching President Bush throw his strike, that two years later his Administration would play to very similar fears in launching a war in Iraq.

This election cycle in particular feels like another moment in which our choices come down to how afraid we are, and of what. It appears to me that many of us long for those days like the one in late October 2001 when nobody questioned the rationality of being afraid. But in doing so, we are also choosing to forget where embracing that fear took us.

Either way, Fleischer's words have come to pass. We are now here, in the New Normalcy, whatever that was supposed to mean. It still isn't clear. The first time Fleischer mentioned the phrase, a member of the press asked him to elaborate. What does that mean? To this, Fleischer assured us, "It's not normal."

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