George Stephanopoulos gives an inside look at what happened off-camera as networks scrambled to cover the 9/11 mastermind's death
I normally get up around 2:45 a.m. So when I first got the call [that Osama bin Laden had been killed], I was long asleep. I had read Do Princesses Wear Hiking Boots? to my daughter around 8 p.m. and then [nodded off]. My phone started ringing around 9:45. I got a message from the White House saying, ”Get to work.” So I did.
On a story like this, you don’t have scripts. You quickly review the basic facts on bin Laden and go to work. It’s a lot of instinct, experience, and just staying in the moment. We went on the air around 10:45, and the president came out around 11:35. The president was the one giving the real news. He was telling us how it happened. And that was fascinating, to know this was something that had been in the works for almost nine months. To know he was juggling all this as the tornadoes hit throughout the Southeast — while he was preparing to travel to Alabama.
This is why we do our jobs, these moments where the world is tuning in to something momentous. I was just trying to keep the story moving. What we were trying to balance all night long were the facts of what happened, the thrilling details of how this operation came off, and the emotion for the families who were most affected [by 9/11] and for all of us whose lives were changed by this one man. It was a real juggling act. I was going as long as everybody up in that control room told me to keep going. Finally, I was told to go to 12:57:45 and then say goodbye.
For me, watching the crowds gather at the White House really started to bring it home. Hearing that ringing phrase ”Justice has been served” after so long, and seeing the actual compound, started to bring it home even more. And then to think back to Saturday night at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner when we were sitting with [Chief of Staff] Bill Daley and talking to [National Security Advisor] Tom Donilon. They had incredible poker faces. I made a joke before dinner with Tom, who I have known for years and years, about bombing. I was referring to the comedians! He had sort of taken a jump. I joked at the time and said, ”Wait a minute. I’m on to something!” Then the moment passed. But looking back, you go, Wow.
After the telecast, I went home, got in bed for an hour [before heading to Good Morning America]. My wife [actress and comedian Alexandra Wentworth] was zonked because she had just gotten back from the royal wedding. She told me that morning that she thought she had just dreamed that bin Laden was killed.