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A president's point of view

It was a fluke that President George W. Bush happened to be on camera when an aide whispered to him that the country was under attack.

Much has been made of the president's reaction as he sat for nine minutes, listening to children in Sarasota, Fla., work on their phonics. But what was he thinking? What was it like for him on 9/1 1?

National Geographic Channel's "George W. Bush: The 9/1 1 Interview," airing at 10 tonight, offers a rare and intimate glimpse into the president's point of view about the terrorist attack.

Everyone has a story about where he or she was on that cloudless Tuesday; this is his.

"I went from being a president primarily focused on domestic issues to being a wartime president," Bush says in the film. "That was something I never anticipated, not something I wanted."

Filmmaker Peter Schnall, who had met the president before and has tackled 9/1 1 in other documentaries, had remarkable access, and it took him four months to land this interview.

Over two days, Schnall interviewed Bush for five hours. Bush was not given the questions first, and he is the only person featured in the documentary.

Schnall's timing was fortuitous; Osama bin Laden was killed the night before the interview began. On camera, Bush talks -- for the only time -- about how President Obama called him with the news.

"I felt a sense of closure and jubilation," Bush says.

Regardless of politics, this is a fascinating window into the president's mind-set. Politics aside, there are lingering questions, such as: Why doesn't the president address that the administration knew bin Laden planned to use hijacked airplanes as bombs?

"That memo did come out several weeks before the attacks on 9/1 1," Schnall says. "He took a very apolitical and personal approach. The line that he took was at that moment, on that day and the days that took place after 9/1 1, 'I was not going to sit around and point fingers. I wasn't going to blame the intelligence community or the people involved. At that moment what we needed to do was move forward and find out who was behind the attacks. We needed to stop them from continuing to happen.'"

It's very easy for people to second-guess how they would have conducted an interview, but Schnall relies on his experience as a documentarian.

"He would only take it to so far," Schnall says. "If I had pushed it too far, he might have shut down a bit more, and my goal was to get him to talk about those four or five days. I was less interested in facts than how he was feeling."

Though Bush remains measured, he's quite clear about how he felt.

"My first reaction was anger," he says. "Who the hell would do that to America? And then I immediately focused on the children. And the concept between the notion of the attack and the innocence of the children clarified my job, and that is to protect people."

Bush is somber as he recounts the day. He was able to watch from Air Force One.

"The most powerless I ever felt was watching people jump to their death," Bush says. "And there was nothing I could do about it."

Once all planes landed and Bush gave the order to shoot down any plane that hadn't, he heard about the last terrorist attack, hijacked Flight 93, which crashed in rural Pennsylvania.

"For a moment I thought it was because of the order I gave," he says.

The hour is riveting, and ultimately it is a peek behind the curtain.