Washington Treasury Secretary Paul H. O'Neill was reading a statement in the White House Rose Garden the other morning, warning that the United States would punish foreign banks "that make these evil acts possible," and as he spoke President Bush stood silently beside him, his chin up remarkably, prominently, noticeably so. It was perhaps the most powerful statement of the day.
In a nation that is now red, white, but blue, the president's chin is up, and so is his confidence, and so, too, is the public's confidence in him. In his greatest trial, he's showing patience and standing for principle, projecting discipline and personifying determination, and if he hasn't yet emerged, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt did in his wartime years, as a father figure, then he surely he can lay claim to being an uncle figure right now.
Thomas Jefferson, reflecting the terrible toll the White House takes on its occupants, once said that "no man will bring out of that office the reputation which carries him into it," but the days following the terror attacks suggest Bush may reverse the pattern. Only weeks ago, Republicans were expressing private reservations about the president's mastery of his job, and Democrats were feeling a surge of partisanship and growing confidence they could retake the House.
All of that is gone now. On Capitol Hill, a Congress stocked with lawmakers who came of age in the Vietnam era and who are accustomed to second-guessing a president, even in wartime, is quiet and cooperative. Democrats, who have programmed the phrase "we'll see how this turns out" into a save/get key in their most private thoughts, have nonetheless sublimated their doubts in public.
Bush believes he has found his mission. "This war on terrorism is my primary focus," he said Monday, and the nation shares the view. Like the rest of the country, he was off-balance amid the shock waves of the four airplane hijackings, but now he has his footing. The fulcrum may have been the simplest of gestures, his father's firm grip after the remarks at the National Cathedral prayer service. Since then, he has been in command.
Though perhaps not in control. In a letter he wrote in 1864, in the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln confessed that "events have controlled me," and in a way that applies to Bush as well. Events terrible, unforgettable events have controlled Bush, propelling him into a situation that he could not have contemplated even in his most somber moments alone late at night in the White House. The Supreme Court decision at the end of the overtime election made him the president, but the disasters at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon made him a leader.
It would have happened, with equal caprice and force, had it been Bill Clinton or the first George Bush in the White House, but this peculiarly American pivot in the nation's mood and affairs occurred while Bush was president, and the response to it is purely his: Resolve. Toughness. Teamwork.
And dedication. Only weeks ago, the president's preference for Crawford, Tex., and his predilection to take vacation time was something of a national inside joke. Now no one doubts that Bush, like James K. Polk, another wartime president, is, as Polk wrote in his diary in 1847, "the hardest working man in the country."
He has been learning on the run, to be sure, but most presidents do; all of the last five chief executives except for his father had been governors, full of brave talk about foreign affairs but with little more experience than trade missions and mind-numbing briefings. When Bush said this week in unscripted remarks that the United States intended to oppose "those who challenge freedom wherever it may exist," he indicated that he has been giving serious thought to the nature of freedom and to its costs.
Indeed, there is a new sharpness to the president's remarks and bearing. "They have raised the ire of a great nation," he said this week. There were no cue cards present. The other day Shakyh Hamzah Yusuf, an imam who is the director of the Zaytuna Institute in Hayward, Calif., told Bush that the original military mission name "Infinite Justice," when translated into Arabic, referred specifically to an attribute of God, not man. The president said that military officers choose the names of their missions and added, almost wryly, that the Pentagon doesn't have theologians who understand Arabic.
Now Bush has a challenge for a noble cause, one that he clearly believes ennobles him and his presidency. "Bush didn't need to rally the country to pass his tax bill," said Paul Begala, a former Clinton adviser and an avowed partisan. "But, by God, we're rallying now. I take a back seat to no one in my general criticism of him, but I'm pulling for him big time right now." The president's approval ratings higher than Franklin Roosevelt after Pearl Harbor, Harry S. Truman after V-E Day and his father after the Gulf War is currency to spend, and before long he will.
David Shribman is a columnist for The Boston Globe.