Mr. Bush and his wife Laura sat in the front pew at St. John's Church across from the White House. It was a beautiful, cloudless day, much like Sept. 11, 2001, the day that an unsuspecting America suffered the cruelest attack ever on its own soil.
Secretary of State Colin Powell and FBI Director Robert Mueller read from scriptures, along with White House deputy chief of staff Harriett Miers.
Later, Mr. Bush led some 2,000 White House staffers in a moment of silent reflection on the South Lawn, reports CBS News Correspondent Mark Knoller. It was staged at 8:46 a.m. EDT, the time the first of the hijacked planes was crashed into the World Trade Center.
Housekeepers and kitchen workers, janitors and military aides were among those who joined the president, along with the first lady, Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne.
The president's recognition of the anniversary this year is markedly more subdued than last, when he participated in memorial events at all three crash sites and engaged in tearful embraces with family members. Aides said the new approach was in keeping with the president's view that the day now should be solely about the families.
Leaving the church Thursday morning, Mr. Bush described his thoughts. "Today our nation remembers. We remember a sad and terrible day, September the 11th, 2001. We remember lives lost. We remember the heroic deeds. We remember the compassion and the decency of our fellow citizens on that terrible day," he said.
"Also today is a day of prayer. We pray for the husbands and wives and moms and dads and sons and daughters and loved ones of those who still grieve and hurt. We pray for strength and wisdom. We thank God for the many blessings of this nation, and we ask His blessings on those who especially hurt today."
In the afternoon, the president, still accompanied by the first lady, was to travel to nearby Walter Reed Army Medical Center for a private session with about 30 soldiers being treated there for wounds suffered in Iraq. Alongside many of their families, Mr. Bush was awarding 11 Purple Hearts during time at the military hospital.
Across town at Arlington National Cemetery, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld presided over a wreath-laying ceremony and, noting the sun-drenched Pentagon behind him, remembered the 184 people killed there.
"In our mind's eye we can see the arsenal of democracy that it represents," he said. "The men and women who died there that day were part of that arsenal, defending democracy as surely as any patriot on the front line."
Solicitor General Ted Olson, whose wife, Barbara, died in the Pentagon attack, told Justice Department employees an unrelenting fight against terrorism is the best way to honor the memory of those who perished. Attorney General John Ashcroft said the United States is making "quiet, steady progress in the war against terror."
Also Thursday, the House approved legislation to set up a memorial within the District of Columbia to honor the victims of terrorist attacks on the United States both at home and abroad. Separately, it passed a measure posthumously awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to emergency responders killed in the attacks and to those who defied the hijackers on the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania.
On Wednesday, Mr. Bush said the day is a time to honor those who still "feel a grief that does not end" over the loss of 3,016 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
Instead of Mr. Bush, Cheney was representing the administration in New York. However, at the request of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who worried about the security requirements that come with a Cheney appearance, the vice president was attending only an afternoon service honoring fallen Port Authority employees, not the World Trade Center observances.
A ceremony at Shanksville, Pa., where a hijacked plane crashed into the ground, was being attended by Interior Secretary Gail Norton.
Most of the Democratic presidential candidates were putting their campaigns on hold for the anniversary of the attacks, choosing to take part in memorial services or simply staying out of the public spotlight for the day.
The lone exception was Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, who planned to address the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. The subject of his remarks: the war on terror two years after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts planned to attend a memorial service in Boston Thursday, then help prepare meals at a veterans' homeless shelter.
Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut planned to attend a memorial with firefighters in Miami and attend a private campaign fund-raiser in the evening.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri plan no public appearances, aides said.
Aides to Carol Moseley Braun, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Al Sharpton said they were unsure what the candidates planned to do.