Skip to main content

Writer William Langewiesche

Writer William Langewiesche is a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly. He writes about recovery and cleanup efforts at the World Trade Center in his new book, American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center (North Point Press). Langewiesche arrived at the scene days after the collapse and had unrestricted, round-the-clock access to events there.


Other segments from the episode on February 4, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 4, 2002: Interview with William Langewiesche; Review of the new documentary film "Journeys with George."


DATE November 4, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: William Langewiesche discusses his book, "American
Ground," and the scene at ground zero in the days following the
9/11 attacks

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

In the new book "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center," my
guest William Langewiesche reports on life at ground zero in the months that
the remains of the World Trade Center were deconstructed and cleared away. He
was given unrestricted access to the site through the commissioner of New
York's Department of Design and Construction. He not only had access to
ground zero, he had access to the meetings of city officials, engineers,
construction companies and consultants. His report was first published as
three lengthy articles in The Atlantic Monthly, which commissioned the story.
He's a correspondent for the magazine and won a National Magazine Award last
year for his cover story investigating the circumstances behind Egyptian Air
Flight 90's plunge into the Atlantic Ocean.

Langewiesche is a professional pilot and is the author of an earlier book
about flying called "Inside the Sky."

Although the initial idea of your book and much of the final book is about the
engineering feat of dismantling the remains of the World Trade Center, your
book is also a lot about the human experience of witnessing the unbuilding of
the World Trade Center and the human interactions that took place at ground
zero. You write, `Many felt they had stumbled into a war zone and compared it
to something you'd see in a movie.' But you say your reaction was different
to that. What was your reaction when you got to ground zero?

Mr. WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE (Author, "American Ground"): Well, as an American,
of course, I was shocked. I mean, this was clearly a very serious attack.
Many people had died. It was a terrible tragedy and remains so today.
However, as a wanderer of the world and a writer, my reaction was that, in a
way, I had seen this before. I mean, there was--my gut reaction at first was
of familiarity. It was--I looked down at the rubble under foot, the way it
felt under foot, the color, the dust in the air, the smoke in the air, the
smell, and I had a feeling that I had seen all this before many times, and
specifically I had a feeling that I had seen it in the Middle East in war
zones or the aftermath of war zones. And so it was strange. I mean, it was
very strange for me as an American--I'd just come in from overseas; I do a lot
of work overseas--to see this sort of foreign thing on our soil, but it was
also a familiar foreign thing to me.

GROSS: You write, `The truth is that people relished the experience. It's
obvious they would never have wished this calamity on themselves or the
others, but inside the perimeter lines and beyond the public's view, it served
for many of them as an unexpected liberation.' Liberation from what?

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Again, I think we need to couch all of that with the
understanding that it was also a shock. I mean, before going on with that, it
was--the people there were certainly not in any sense rejoicing, so I say
liberation, but I don't mean a liberation with joy. It was liberation with
regret in the sense of the tragedy, with the sense of the loss of life, and
with the sense of the political importance of this moment--I mean, this attack
on the United States.

With all of that having been said, liberation from the routines of daily life,
liberation from e-mails, from the need to answer to superiors, from
bureaucratic constraints. I mean, it was sort of a fresh-start place for
everybody. It was so chaotic, so unanticipated. You couldn't plan for it.
You couldn't lay normal procedures for the first few months, at least, on top
of it. Everything had to be invented. And this happened on a level that was
unexpected. In other words, not only were the people who were doing this
people who had not previously been anointed as problem solvers--they were
typically fairly low-ranking people, construction workers, firemen,
policemen--on a fairly low level, but they also didn't necessarily even know
that about themselves.

So there was this creativity and energy that was emerging all through the site
that was taking people by surprise, and it was a form of liberation.
Practically, also, there was something else, and that is that many of the
people, given the dedication to the cause there, day in, day out, night, day,
seven days a week, on and on, were liberated from family constraints. They
were liberated from--they had sort of an excuse and a reason not to be good
fathers, in some cases probably good mothers, though there were very few women
there. And it was sort of socially justified. So the experience was a lot
like war in that sense, only, of course, no one at that point was shooting at

GROSS: Yeah. So I think you're getting to that kind of crazy exhilaration
that some people find in a war because it is so out of the ordinary. And it's
the kind of exhilaration that seems to fuel certain people in the military,
certain war journalists as well who, you know, voluntarily cover situations
like that.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Absolutely it does, and it's probably an addictive thing.
And I think it's not a bad thing. I mean, the real...

GROSS: That's the thing. I mean, you know, when I think of it, I think,
like, it's lucky there is that kind of exhilaration, or else how would people
get through these experiences?

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Well, and the impulse to go to war on an individual level
in my experience is not to kill the enemy. I mean, the impulse--I mean, the
positive side, what people remember, what makes it so often a positive
experience for the participants is that, A, it's not very scary up
close--there are exceptions, obviously--and, B, there is this kind of
liberation. I mean, there is enormous responsibility placed on the soldier,
for instance, on the individual soldier. And so we were looking at that at
the World Trade Center. That's absolutely certain. There's no doubt about

GROSS: You write, `One of the unacknowledged aspects of the tragedy was the
jealous sense of ownership that it brought about, an unexpected but widespread
feeling of something like pride, like "This is our disaster more than yours."'
Explain what you mean there.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: The farther away people were from New York and Washington,
the less possession they felt. Of course, the farther away they were from the
United States, the less possession they felt, which explains a lot of the
differences that now exist in the world politically. But as you moved toward
the impact zones, and particularly toward the World Trade Center impact zone,
which was the big one, you moved closer to possession and, I mean, the
possession started with political responsibility in Washington, the various
politicians and bureaucrats, officials that took possession of it mentally, of
the disaster, and then also it was geographic, so that as you moved then
through the suburbs of New Jersey--and I'm not talking right now at all about
the possession of the people, in fact, who lost family members; I'm talking
about a more general thing that was going on--as you moved through the suburbs
of New Jersey proximity to New York, the very lack of the World Trade Center
visually became added to this sense of possession. I mean, if you could see
it before, you could not see it now, it was more your tragedy than it was
those who lived over the horizon.

And then you got, of course, to New York City. New York City, which is a very
proud place, a very strong sense of self, there was obviously a very strong
sense of possession. And finally it was--you had to really be either at the
site itself when the buildings came down--but I don't think that was so much
that. It was more later, you had to be inside the perimeter. I'm now talking
about the sense of possession that ran through the actual operation that I'm
writing about, which is not what happened on 9/11, but what happened
afterward. Among the workers there, there was a very strong sense of
possession and it was enforced partly by this opaque perimeter wall. I mean,
the truth is that people on the outside really did not know what was going on
inside. People on the outside had this cartoonish image. People on the
inside were affected by that image, but really know what was going on, so the
sense of possession in that sense was quite real and justified.

GROSS: You say the firemen in particular felt they had a special relationship
to the site, not only because they had lost 343 people there, but also because
afterward their survivors, along with their dead, had been idolized as
national heroes and subjected to a full force of modern publicity. Talk a
little bit about that phenomenon that you saw of the firefighters being so
photographed and written up in the press and being seen as heroes, which, I
mean, I think they really were heroes. It's probably hard to dispute that,
but what's the problem?

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: The problem--I don't really see it as a problem. I would
say that the word `hero' was, you know, much overused. It was cheapened by
overuse. Again, I'm writing in this book about people who were at the site
after the buildings came down, not who were at the site when the buildings
came down. If you talk about the heroism that obviously existed at the moment
of the attack, there was plenty of it and it was shared. It was not just a
question of uniformed services. If one has to look at these groups of people
who were being incredibly heroic and altruistic by groups, which I kind of
don't want to do--but you have to say that among the civilians also there was
enormous heroism that day. No one had a lock on heroism on the day of the
attack. I mean, people were extremely altruistic and many were completely

But that's really not what I'm writing about in this book. I'm writing about
the people who were there afterward. I think the word `heroism' was probably
misapplied. There were people--of course, everyone was taking, to some
extent, risks, but the risks--the truth is, in the end, no one was killed at
the site. I mean, we have this tremendously inherently dangerous environment
and no one was killed, something else we might want to talk about. But
heroism--I don't know. It no longer meant anything to me, at least, there.

The problem is that, to what extent did people buy into it? I mean, on the
outside, people were--I guess they were really buying into this myth or
cartoonish image of the heroes of ground zero, as people said, and all of that
energy, that public energy, that public emotion, which, again, I think was
very justified and understandable, was being focused on this relatively small
group of guys who had this identity, that they wore a certain uniform, they
had big hats. These guys were not really mentally prepared any more than I
would be or than others are for this kind of adoration. So some of them, I
think the great majority of them, were just absolutely even-keeled about it,
pragmatic, a little cynical. They understood the media. They knew that what
they were doing there was a very serious job, and specifically of looking for
the dead. And they were not overly affected by it. Others were affected by
it. They began to sort of pose to themselves. You could see it happening,
striking tragic poses and striking sort of heroic poses...

GROSS: What do you mean by striking tragic poses?

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: I often have the feeling in the United States today that
many of us look at ourselves as if we were in the movies. We sort of see
ourselves from the outside because we live in this media-saturated
environment. When we drive down the interstate, we don't just drive down the
interstate, we drive down the interstate in one role or another, depending
maybe on the kind of car we have, the ad we've seen, whatever it is. Sort of
the external view of self. That's what I mean. That was going on at the
World Trade Center among a few people in a large way, and it wasn't just the
firemen. There were people who were participating in that who had sort of
bought into the myth in every corner of that operation. You could see it on
the perimeter among the few firemen who would go, for instance, to sort of
work the crowds when the viewing platform was finally erected. It caused a
certain amount of cynicism and resentment within the site. I think it was
understandable. I don't think it was very important. It did not affect the

GROSS: My guest is journalist William Langewiesche. His new book is called
"American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center." We'll talk more after
a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist William
Langewiesche. His new book is called "American Ground: Unbuilding the World
Trade Center," and most of this book was originally published in The Atlantic

You write a little bit about the conflict between the police and the firemen
at ground zero, and you say that the police resented how their dead were being
treated compared to how the firemen were treating their own dead. Can you
expand a little bit on this conflict?

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: There was tribalism at the site. It was based largely on
what uniform people happened to be wearing. Most people at the site came from
the same level of society. It was very New York. It was very Irish and
Italian. It was outer borough. But when people joined one group or another,
whether the fire department or the police or the Port Authority police or, for
that matter, the construction world, they seemed to assume differing
identities, and those identities came into conflict at the site. I mean, I
suppose it's a normal part of life, and so it's certainly not surprising. I
mean, the surprising thing really was the idea that this would not be
happening, the myth that was going on in the outside of just everyone in
lockstep, being heroic together. And so, yes, there were jealousies.

The treatment of the dead was one of the more difficult aspects of what was
going on there from early on for understandable reasons. Again, the firemen
were treating their own dead with more pomp and circumstance than they were
treating the dead of other groups, whether the police, who got a certain
amount, quite a lot, of pomp and circumstance, or the civilians, who got
relatively little. And that was noticed. It was obviously noticed. It
caused resentments not just by the police, who felt that they had lost their
own and had been equally heroic, but by the sort of self-appointed
representatives of the civilians, who tended to be the construction workers,
some of whom, not all of whom, resented the treatment that these civilian dead
were receiving.

It struck me at the time as very odd. I mean, it was so obviously a mistake.
It was so obviously causing frictions and unhappiness, and it would have been
so easy to solve. I mean, it would have been--if you simply could treat all
bodies with equal pomp and circumstance and, for that matter, give them all a
lot of it, it would have been easy to do, and the fact that it wasn't done, at
least not for a long time, is kind of a window into the relatively closed
societies that were operating there. I mean, people were--in a sense, it was
naive of people not to be--it was innocent of people to be treating their own
dead with greater dignity and pomp than they were treating dead of others. It
was not a mean thing. It was not to put others down. It had to do with
living and thinking inside of the very small world of fraternal organizations.

GROSS: You write about some looting near the site of the World Trade Center.
What did you learn about that?

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: There was filching going on--I've learned to be very
careful of the word `looting.' I think it's an overly--it arouses all kinds
of emotions. And, you know, the word `looting' brings to mind some sort of
riot with people running through the streets proudly holding televisions as
they run away. That's not at all what happened. But there was extensive
filching, and it started early and it continued for quite a long time till
finally guards were posted at any building with anything of value in it. And
it was pervasive. I mean, it was done by all groups, and no one had sort of a
lock on doing that. It was part of life at the site. And I actually was not
particularly shocked by it.

I mean, my job as a writer is to go in there with clear eyes and to write, as
I saw it, history in the present tense, to try to get away from some of the
excess of emotionalism surrounding the subject, and to talk to my readers
clearly about what was going on there. But I never had a sense of outrage
about this at all. In fact, it was perfectly understandable, I thought it
was, because on the inside of that perimeter, in the secret world of the World
Trade Center, away from public view, it was a lot like a war zone. It was a
difference place. It was no longer New York City. These buildings were no
longer normal buildings. The filching that went on there psychologically, and
I think even also morally and ethically, was very different from, say, walking
into a standing building out in the normal city and taking things away. This
was a very special place. All the rules had changed. And the sense of
ownership had changed. When people were walking away, for instance, with a
computer, taking a computer off a desk, well, who did that computer belong to?
I mean, obviously everyone knew that the computer belonged to the original
owner, probably some company, but the entire building had been condemned, the
insurance company probably technically owned it. What was the insurance
company going to do with it? I mean, all these things were very muddy, and in
the chaos of that environment and the total breakdown of normalcy, it just was
not shocking that this was going on.

I don't think the people who did it were bad people, actually, and I think
also it needs to be said that very, very few people actually did it. It
doesn't take very many people to have a large effect doing that.

GROSS: You were saying that some of the people who did do it included people
in uniform.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Of course. Yeah, sure. Let's be realistic. Of course it
did. Of course. And--yes. Enough said.

GROSS: William Langewiesche is the author of "American Ground: Unbuilding
the World Trade Center." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm
Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with William Langewiesche
about ground zero. Also, David Bianculli reviews "Journeys with George,"
about how presidential candidate George W. Bush interacted with the reporters
on the campaign bus. The documentary airs tomorrow night on HBO.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with journalist William
Langewiesche. His new book, "American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade
Center," reports on ground zero during the months that the remains of the
World Trade Center were deconstructed and cleared away. He had unrestricted
access to the site. "American Ground" was first published as three lengthy
articles in The Atlantic Monthly which, commissioned the report. Langewiesche
is a correspondent for the magazine.

Now some of the things you say in your new book, "American Ground," have
actually been really controversial, and I'm not sure if you were prepared for
the reaction that you got. In The New York Times, the book review by Michiko
Kakutani described your book as `cold-blooded.' And Rhonda Roland Shearer,
who founded the World Trade Center Living History Project, is even leading a
protest against the book. She says you use `slanderous innuendo to denigrate
uniformed rescue personnel and construction workers.' I'm wondering if you
were prepared for this kind of response and if it's made you think about--if
you feel like you were misinterpreted or if it's made you rethink things that
you've said, just what your response is.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: I'm not at all surprised by it. I expected it. This was a
very tragic thing that happened, and people's emotions were very strong and
still are. It also was something that confused people and I think deeply
frightened many Americans and many New Yorkers. The response of grasping for
a sort of mythological, heroic, somewhat tragic image was a normal thing. I
knew that was there. The hyper emotionalism was driving a lot of the site.
And what has happened since then, and the reaction to this book by relatively
small groups but very vocal groups of people, was inevitable, and I knew that.
My problem is, as a writer, you go into a place like that, what am I going to
write? I mean, am I going to participate, as many writers, did in the
external view and sort of the myth-making, or am I just going to call it like
I see it? Maybe for reasons of personality, but also in response to being the
guy on the inside, I felt that I had to call it like I see it.

And I think the surprise to me has been in the response that the criticisms
seem to be most vocal by--they're coming from people who did not lose family
members but sort of have a very powerful sense of tragedy anyway. And this
reviewer in The New York Times, for instance, seems to be one of them. I was
taken aback by that particular review. As you know, there were two reviews,
and they were quite opposite.

GROSS: One in the Sunday Book Review and one in the daily. The one I
mentioned was in the daily.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: That's correct. And I think you can see in the conflict
between those two reviews you can see the opposing forces here. The other
thing is that at some point--let's go back on this, Terry, for one minute.

GROSS: Sure.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: If you remember that on the day when those airplanes hit
the buildings, you called me.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: I had just arrived from overseas. You asked me what I
thought, and you asked me if I was afraid or worried. And to paraphrase it, I
told you I was not, and I said that the reason I was not was though I was very
concerned about reactions like undue grounding of the airlines or the
Americans who didn't want to fly the airlines afterward, I had this faith in
the fabric of American society and the resilient strength and ultimate
integrity of the United States, and I was, therefore, not worried at all.
It's what I told you then. I did not know I was going into the World Trade
Center at that point. When I got to the World Trade Center, what I found was
very much that.

What I found was this emergence of Americanness, of creativity and innovation
and courage. I did not find a bunch of heroes. I did not find a unified
direction--far from it--anymore than I would expect that we would find that in
the United States. People were not walking in lockstep. They were responding
individually and in chaos and in creativity, much as the United States does.
And oddly enough, I often thought about that conversation during my time there
when you called me because it sort of crystalized thoughts for me about the
United States. I was seeing there at the World Trade Center what it was that
I had predicted the United States would look like to you at the moment of the
impact. And my job as a writer going into that, particularly as an American
writer, is to write about this country and the World Trade Center site in
those terms as honestly as I can. I see no reason to be ashamed of the
discord that happened there within the World Trade Center. I see no reason to
gloss over the problems that existed any more than I see the reason to gloss
over the problems that exist in this country. In fact, this is a country in
which we don't gloss over those things and we don't participate in undo

GROSS: One more thing on the subject. Where there any scenes that you
witnessed that created difficult judgment calls for you in how to describe
that, or was it difficult for you to even figure out what you were witnessing
or what your interpretation was of what you were witnessing?

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: There were some things I saw that I did not write about. I
dearly did not write about personal tragedy here at all. And I saw...

GROSS: Conscious reason why?

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Because I felt it would have been exploiting the situation.
I thought in any case plenty was being written about it and I did not want to
participate in that, you know, because of years of covering, for instance,
airline accidents. When you go up to the families of those who were killed
and you say, `Well, how do you feel?' and the people say, `Well, I don't feel
very good,' and that's hardly surprising, OK? We know how people felt who
lost family members there, and I didn't feel that it was appropriate for me,
although I saw plenty of that, to go into it. I was writing about something
else, which was the larger response of the United States as a group to this

So, yeah, there were things like that that I did not write about. For the
most part, though, I wanted to write, as I said, something like history in the
present tense and I wanted to bring to the subject some of the detachment that
history automatically always does finally bring to a subject. I wanted to do
it in the now rather than in the future. So I--that informs a lot of the
decisions that I made about what to put into the book, and that is that I put
in most of what I honestly thought and that was informed by what I saw.

GROSS: My guest is journalist William Langewiesche. His new book is called
"American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center." We'll talk more after
a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Journalist William Langewiesche is my guest. His new book is called
"American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center." We've been talking
about kind of the human response and human interactions in dismantling the
attack of the World Trade Center. Let's talk a little technically. What, in
your estimation, was the most challenging technical aspect of unbuilding the
World Trade Center?

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: There are many problems there that had to be solved for the
first time. There were no plans. This was a true physical chaos with fire
and toxic smoke laced with enormous significance and tragedy with human beings
lying inside it. It was incredibly difficult from a technical point of view
to do this thing correctly.

It's hard to single out any one thing, but if I had to, I would say that there
was a group largely of engineers and specialized firemen, collapse building
specialists in the fire department, who worked together from the very early
days for weeks and months to survey the underground ruins, to measure the
ever-changing conditions down there seven levels below the street in this
netherworld through which rivers flowed in which there were fires, in which
there were many surprising environments, to measure it and to map it so that
people on the surface who were working at dismantling this huge disaster area
could work with relative safety.

The danger was always collapse. The danger for the people on the surface was
collapse. And for the people who were underneath who were measuring this, the
danger also very much was collapse so that simply from the point of view of
risk, if not of technical difficulty, those are the people I think who were
just way, way out on a limb. It is surprising what they did. Their dedication
was incredible to observe. They're calm under fire. I mean, it was
completely unseen, of course, on the outside, which was focused on the tragic
heroic thing. These guys were not--they didn't think of themselves in tragic
terms. They certainly did not think of themselves in heroic terms. They were
doing unbelievable work there underground, and it went on and on and on
because the conditions changed.

GROSS: One of the risks from underground--I think this was underground that
there was a lot of Freon gas for I guess air conditioning of the building?


GROSS: What were the risks that this posed and how were those risks dealt

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Well, the risks were essentially of suffocation if the
Freon gas remained and no one knew. The risk was of suffocation if the thing
suddenly released, if the gas released. It displaces air, and there were
many, many workers, hundreds of workers--firemen, policemen, construction
workers--on the pile at any given time who might not have had the ability to
escape if suddenly there'd been a rupture of those main tanks which lay in the
bottom of the pile somewhere unseen and unknown. There was also some risk
that if that gas contacted fire, open flame, it would turn into something
similar to poison gas used in World War I and could actually actively go about
killing people. There was no risk to the city from this. The gas would have
dissipated, but there was certainly was a risk to the workers who were
immediately on the pile who might not have been able to move fast enough to
get away had there been a release. That was always a concern, or for a long
time it was.

Finally, that same group of people I was talking about, some of the same
underground people, the surveyors, the fire department collapsed building
specialists and these engineers went down to the lowest level and found their
way into the main chiller plant room through enormous ruin and discovered
there so much ruin inside that chiller plant that it was concluded that the
tanks must have ruptured at the first moment, and that gas must have vented
harmlessly into the atmosphere, and the problem was considered to be, for the
most part, over. There was always a little bit of uncertainty, so then as the
digging then proceeded from the surface into the chiller plant, there was real
concern. There were procedures that were instituted and in the end, it turned
out that indeed the main chiller plant of Freon had vented harmlessly.

GROSS: I'm wondering if you saw many instances here of people competing with
each other for financial reasons, you know, to get the contract to haul the
stuff or to get the contract to remove--you know, if there were contractors
fighting because there was money at stake.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: No. No. It's surprising how little of that happened. The
reason is that I think there was great concern by the contractors about
liability, and to this day, it has not really been resolved. I mean, all
through that operation, these people were operating without contracts and they
were also exposing themselves to a liability; they were operating without
insurance. Nobody would insure this operation. So I think there were mixed

People, once they got into it--the contractors, once they got into it, did not
want to leave for the reasons that others--whether firemen or policemen--did
not want to leave. But there was, I think--no, there was not a lot of
maneuvering for profit there.

GROSS: Why did the Department of Design and Construction in New York get the
job to oversee the dismantling of the World Trade Center as opposed to, say,
FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management group?

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Strange thing that happened. I mean, that's part of the
story here. It fits the pattern of this creativity that was going on there
and the courage of the American system to allow it to run, to allow the
innovation to run. I mean, everybody was unexpected; the Department of Design
and Construction totally unexpected. But the two guys who run that
department--Kenneth Holden; Mike Burton, his lieutenant--were on the scene,
they happened to be at a meeting in City Hall, they were caught by the
collapse, so to speak, and responded very effectively from the very first
hours, and specifically to bring heavy equipment in to lift the debris to find
survivors in the very first hours after the collapse.

They were so effective at it that they kept going. And every time the federal
government came close to intervening as it normally would, it backed off and
the attitude was, again, very courageous, and it was more or less, `Look,
these guys are doing the job. Give them another hour. Give them another
hour. Give them another day.' And finally, it was formalized. But it was a
surprising show of competence allowed to run.

GROSS: You spent some time underground beneath the World Trade Center. Can
you describe a little bit what you saw?

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: A fantastic place with chaos all around; often very dark,
obviously; sometimes with filtering light, with light coming through the dust
and smoke, through the holes and jagged edges; for the most part, very
collapsed, very small, moving through crevices and corners, diving sometimes
almost head first through the ruins.

And then, you know, that was very hallucinogen, surreal. And then you would
come upon scenes of almost normalcy underneath there. For instance, the path
station; almost half of it remained intact for a long time. And the signs of
abandonment there. I mean, the Comuter Bar, for instance, with its bottles of
beer still on the counter. So you could go, on one hand, from these very
extreme, surreal environments in which you couldn't hardly tell what was up
and what was down in all the smoke and darkness, into equally surreal but
completely understandable environments, scenes, again, of sudden abandonment
and of the old normalcy that, of course, no longer existed.

GROSS: Right. So do you see this as a saving grace, in a way, that when
tragedy strikes, when things are at their worst, when fear is all around,
that, at the same time, there is this possibility for a sense of exhilaration,
a sense of liberation from the ordinary and that, I guess, if you're lucky,
you can live on that for awhile?

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: It's a saving grace. It's a necessary element. If it were
not for that, then this country, of course, would very easily collapse from
things like this attack, and would certainly be weakened by things like this
attack. In fact, what we see--and if you look at the site, what happened at
the World Trade Center honestly, as opposed to engaging in the myth-making,
what you see is that this country emerged stronger after the attack. And the
strength did not have to do with tragic heroes. The strength had to do with
energetic response and problem-solving.

GROSS: William Langewiesche, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Thank you.

GROSS: William Langewiesche is the author of the new book "American Ground:
Unbuilding the World Trade Center."

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, David Bianculli reviews the new HBO documentary "Journeys
with George," about how presidential candidate George W. Bush interacted with
reporters on the campaign bus.

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: New documentary "Journeys with George" airing on HBO

On Election Day, while the broadcast networks and news channels are tallying
winners and losers in prime time, HBO is presenting a political documentary.
It's a behind-the-scenes look at George W. Bush's presidential campaign in
2000. TV critic David Bianculli says it's impressive and amazing for how
behind-the-scenes it actually gets.


You can watch the evening news or "BBC World News." You can watch the public
affairs shows on Sunday mornings or the screaming talk shows on cable. You
can get a sense about how the very serious game of politics is played from
"Nightline" or from C-SPAN or from "The West Wing." Sooner or later, it all
starts to look pretty much the same.

But tomorrow night's documentary on HBO, which follows the campaign of George
W. Bush from the day he announced his candidacy for president to the day he
actually won, looks remarkably different. Alexandra Pelosi, an NBC producer
in her late 20s, shot the film as a personal video diary of her 18 months on
the road with the Bush press corps. The documentary is called "Journeys with
George," and one way to demonstrate how much access and playfulness she got on
film is that its title was suggested by Bush himself, on camera.

It's worth noting that Pelosi is a Democrat from a connected political family.
Her mother, a California congresswoman, is Nancy Pelosi, the minority whip.
It's also worth noting that Pelosi, though a behind-the-scenes producer, is a
character. She always dresses in purple with fingernails painted to match.
She has a master's degree in media studies, and she's a bit of an outsider.
She's not swept up in Bush's politics, but she's not really a central part of
the press corps, either. She's an outsider in both camps, which makes her
film from the inside that much more revealing.

"Journeys with George" was shot on a small handheld video camcorder. At
first, it was just Pelosi's video diary of her days and nights on the press
plane, or in the back of small-town auditoriums listening to Bush delivering
the same stump speech. But when Bush lost the New Hampshire primary to John
McCain, Bush's handlers instantly made him more accessible and put the
reporters and the candidate together on the same plane.

That's where Bush first interacted with Pelosi's camera. He joked about her
filming, but he not only allowed her to continue, but played to the camera.
From that point on, Pelosi had a real documentary on her hands. On one
occasion, she even had it in his hands. When the candidate's bus breaks down
on the way to one campaign stop, he's herded onto the press bus. Bush sits
with Pelosi as she films him, then he takes her camera and begins filming her
and asking her some personal questions.

(Soundbite of "Journeys with George")

Governor GEORGE W. BUSH: OK, let's be serious.

Ms. ALEXANDRA PELOSI ("Journeys with George"): OK, let's be serious. If you
were a tree, what tree would you be?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Gov. BUSH: Exactly. I'm not; I'm a Bush.

(Soundbite of moaning and laughter)

Gov. BUSH: See, I'm a little quicker than you think, Alexandra. Let me have
that thing.

(Soundbite of moaning and laughter)

Unidentified Man: There you go.

Gov. BUSH: I saw you walking along a secluded road the other day with...

Ms. PELOSI: Here it comes. Here it comes.

Gov. BUSH: ...a Newsweek man. Now it's none of my business what your private
life is like, but let me ask you this question: Was that just a social
encounter with Newsweek man?

Ms. PELOSI: That was strictly professional.

Gov. BUSH: Professional? Nothing social about it?

Ms. PELOSI: As another fellow member of the press corps...

Gov. BUSH: Yes?

Ms. PELOSI: ...we were discussing your alternative minimum tax and...

Gov. BUSH: And...

Ms. PELOSI: ...your tax plan vs. the McCain tax plan.

Gov. BUSH: And you felt like you had to hold his hand in order to be able to
have that--to amplify the discussion.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: "Journeys with George" does film Newsweek man and Financial Times
man and Dallas Morning News man and lots of other members of the journalistic
pack. Sometimes it's funny, with the reporters exhibiting wit and charm.
Other times, it's not flattering at all. Bush comes off the very same way.

What's most striking about this documentary is how candid it all is. The
closest thing to it is Timothy Crouse's landmark book about the 1972
presidential campaign, "The Boys on the Bus," and that was 30 years ago and in
print. For Pelosi to capture so much of the actual process and actual
candidate on video is something I wouldn't have thought possible, especially
in a setting where everyone around her is painfully aware of the impact of
being filmed. I'm still not sure how she got away with it, but she got such a
good film out of it, I'm really glad she did.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for The Daily News.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

We'll close with a track by the Dutch jazz musician and composer Wilem
Breuker, who is 58 today. This is Breuker's arrangement of a movement from
Erik Satie's composition "Parade," which was first performed in 1917 during
World War I by the Diaghilev Ballet, with a libretto by Jean Cocteau and
costumes and sets by Pablo Picasso.

(Soundbite of "Parade")
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue