Certain dates in America’s collective memory ring with anguish: April 12, 1861…December 7, 1941…September 11, 2001. We always remember who was in the White House in a crisis. We have Sandburg’s description of Abraham Lincoln when he learned of the firing on Fort Sumter. It was barely a month after his inauguration, yet already he was weighed down by impending war and brooding on the “fiery trial” through which the nation would have to pass.
We have the newsreel of Franklin Roosevelt before Congress, resolute in his determination to take the fight to the Japanese and declaring that the attack on Pearl Harbor would be “a date that shall live in infamy.”
Then we have the most unrehearsed image of all: George W. Bush amid wriggling second graders at a Florida elementary school, his face tightening the moment he learned of the second plane careening into the second tower of the World Trade Center. He thought: They have declared war on us, so we are going to war.
The images of our presidents at moments of crisis impress themselves on our visual memory and to twist a presidential line — we feel their pain.
In a crisis, Americans instinctively identify with the president. He is our nation’s head of state and commander in chief, the only person in whose election all the people have a part. Justice Robert Jackson once observed that the man in the Oval Office is “the focus of public hopes and expectations. In drama, magnitude, and finality his decisions so far overshadow any others that almost alone he fills the public eye and ear.”
In some ways, George W. Bush was an unlikely person to become the focus of epochal hopes and expectations. It is now a commonplace to say that he won the closest election in U.S. history. Actually that is misleading. As David Frum points out, if Al Gore had won Florida, the result would not have been the closest election, since the vice president got half a million more votes than Bush. The 43rd president hardly came into office enjoying a mandate.
Recall how bitterly divided our nation was in the eight months that followed: how President Bush was reviled by Democrats as an accidental president; how he became the butt of jokes on late-night talk shows; how he had trouble getting his agenda off the ground; how he disappointed conservatives for seeming too willing to compromise. Many Republicans, in private, were wondering whether the 43rd president had the “gravitas,” the “heft” to make his mark.
Frankly many Americans were tuning out everything inside the Beltway. Although there had been sex in the Oval Office, there was no romance in politics. Washington was a well-oiled machine that could reliably produce only gridlock and cynicism.
Then time pivoted with breathtaking suddenness. Interrupting America’s vacation from history was the dies irae, the Day of Wrath that signaled the start of a new war and a new century. As we watched the smoke rise from lower Manhattan, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, something happened that most Americans had never experienced. Faced with the enormity of September 11, people willingly suspended their political allegiances and looked to their commander in chief: Tell us who did this? When’s the payback and how crushing can it be?
At 9:30 A.M., the president made a brief statement at the elementary school. “Terrorism against our nation will not stand,” he said, appearing shaken but determined. At 12:36 P.M., from Barksdale AFB, he held another press conference. This time he looked even more grim. There followed hours of silence. He did not return to the White House right away. There were questions — about the victims, about their killers, about the president. Where is he? What can he tell us? His invisibility was not reassuring.
It was only later, as the drama of those days unfolded, that Americans were able to take a better measure of George W. Bush. We watched as he visited the Pentagon on September 12th, and Ground Zero two days later. Standing on the rubble, he put his arm around an old firefighter, grabbed a megaphone, and shouted to the rescue workers: “I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!” The crowd roared as one. America was more united and determined than at any time since World War II.
Eight days after the attacks, the president delivered an historic address before a joint session of Congress. That speech erased any doubts about his capacity to shepherd the nation through a world of wolves. With the pinpoint accuracy of a laser-guided missile, his words penetrated deep into the American heart. People from across the political spectrum reported that they had heard the greatest speech in decades, the greatest speech in their lives.
This dramatic rise in Americans’ confidence in their president has echoes across our history — one thinks of Lincoln and Truman — but George W. Bush’s rise may, in the end, be the most dramatic. After September 11, he struck Americans as just the right leader to express our collective sorrow, rage, and resolve to defeat a loathsome enemy.
During the fall of 2001, several characteristics made President Bush look right for the job and for the times.
First, it was apparent that Bush had “the vision thing” — in abundance. While he had delivered an eloquent acceptance speech at the nominating convention in Philadelphia in 2000, and while his Inaugural Address the following January was inspired, people were not sure how much of the oratory was his. But in the days following September 11, he revealed a pietistic devotion to the United States, identifying America’s cause with civilization, freedom, and hope. He continually painted America’s destiny in bold colors rather than pale pastels. Ours was a country worth serving and preserving.
Second, throughout the autumn of 2001, Bush showed the American people that he had an unclouded view of good and evil. There was not an iota of moral ambiguity about September 11. Bush labeled the terrorists and their allies “evil doers,” and thereby demonstrated why he’s sometimes called the “is president,” as radio talk-show host Michael Wright likes to put it.
And — although it was politically incorrect to say so — America had set out on a crusade to crush evil (reminiscent of Eisenhower’s “Crusade in Europe”). Bush was determined to take the fight to the enemy, and never let up, no matter what the sacrifice. In Bush at War, Bob Woodward quotes the president as saying that September 11 would be his generation’s great test: “Just like my father’s generation was called in World War II, now our generation is being called…. I’m here for a reason, and this is going to be how we’re judged.” The president added, “I will seize the opportunity to achieve big goals. There is nothing bigger than to achieve world peace.”
Third, it helped that Bush surrounded himself with a first-rate team of advisers. Collectively Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and other key insiders had more than a century of national security and defense experience from which to draw. Several writers have described the fierce debates that took place in the White House after September 11, when the president would push his staff to think boldly and imaginatively about fighting a new kind of war on many fronts. Dramatically rapid victories in Afghanistan and Iraq vindicated the battlefield strategies and tactics that were developed. The CIA and FBI did their part. As of this writing, al Qaeda has apparently been kept off balance, unable to launch another attack on U.S. soil on the scale of 9/11.
Fourth, after 9/11 Bush seemed to be the right man for the job because of his ability to deal with crises. It helps that his disposition is action oriented; he is no Hamlet paralyzed by a decision tree. He has often said that he relies a lot on his gut instincts. While he seeks the counsel of advisers, in the end he checks his gut, makes his decision, and does not look back.
This past winter and spring, the majority of Americans agreed that Bush seemed to be the right man to lead the war on terror. The warm days of summer, however, have given rise to increasing political heat. Doubts mount about the wisdom of the administration’s policies in Iraq especially.
While George W. Bush goes through his “fiery trial,” it is much too soon to get into the business of ranking him among the presidents. 9/11 defined his mandate and drew out his capacity for leadership, to be sure. But whether he will someday be seen in the company of other wartime leaders like Lincoln and FDR remains an open question. History will be the judge.
The president’s stature will rise or fall depending on the forks he encounters — and takes — on the rough road ahead. As the nation’s chief negotiator, Bush has strategic decisions to make regarding our allies and enemies, as well as how to deal with fence sitters, recalcitrant Europeans, and a toothless U.N. In some ways, the Cold War world was an easier environment to cope with.
As commander in chief, Bush has tactical decisions to make as he tries to finish off the Taliban, al Qaeda, Baathists, and others in the Axis of Evil who would do us harm. How does the greatest military power in the world fight a war without fronts?
And as head of state, Bush has philosophical decisions to make about America’s destiny in the world, about the nature of our republic, and about the perils of empire.
Whatever the decisions, we know this: 9/11 wholly recast the Bush presidency. Bush, through gutsy leadership, is recasting the post-9/11 world. It is an unexpected role for a president who was barely elected, and then mostly on his domestic agenda. But that is the drama of the presidency. As John F. Kennedy observed, “It is impossible to foretell the precise nature of the problems that will confront you or the specific skills and capacities which those problems will demand. It is an office which called upon a man of peace, Lincoln, to become a great leader in a bloody war; which required a profound believer in limiting the scope of federal government, Jefferson, to expand dramatically the power and range of that government; which challenged a man dedicated to domestic social reform, Franklin Roosevelt, to lead this nation into a deep and irrevocable involvement in world affairs.”
— Gleaves Whitney is director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.