Jewish World Review Sept. 17, 2001 / 28 Elul, 5761
The first requirement of a war president is to assure the nation he's in charge. And Bush's three-minute soliloquy put him on the way to meeting it. His comments to the press the next day brought him further. The media had been summoned to the Oval Office to observe a staged phone conversation between Bush and New York governor George Pataki and New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. The phone chat fell flat, but Bush's response to press questions afterwards didn't. Eradicating terrorism "is now the focus of my administration," he said. "Now is an opportunity to do generations a favor by coming together and whipping terrorism, hunting it down, finding it and holding [terrorists] accountable." A day later - Friday, three days after the attacks - Bush addressed a prayer service, now more confident in his role as a war president. America has "a responsibility to history: to answer these attacks."
Being in charge, of course, isn't the only test of an effective war president. There are two others. One is bringing events under control and restoring stability and a reasonable amount of calm. The other is crafting a strategy that's likely to work, plus the will to carry it out. The model for meeting all three requirements is Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, in Desert Storm. The negative model is President Jimmy Carter in the Iranian hostage crisis. He fell short on all three counts.
George W. Bush stumbled on day one in establishing himself as a man in charge, comfortable as commander in chief. But it could have been worse. Security officials wanted him to spend the night outside Washington. After stopping at two air force bases and dropping off a taped statement to the nation, Bush insisted on returning to the White House, despite the risk. Bush's taped message was weak. He looked harried and unsure. That night from the Oval Office, his speech was marginally better. The president looked stiff, gesticulated in a wooden manner, and failed to create the impression he's up to the task ahead. The feedback from Republicans on Capitol Hill, outside advisers, and even some White House aides was less than positive. Bush hadn't risen to the occasion.
Neither did his father on day one of Desert Storm. Bush senior initially put out a wishy-washy statement, then told reporters he wasn't considering the use of military force (even though he was). It wasn't until four days after Iraq had seized Kuwait that Bush settled on a firm position and declared the Iraqi invasion "will not stand." From that moment, Bush was palpably in command. For Bush the son, it took about the same amount of time.
Requirement two - bringing events under control - was a critical problem for Bush senior and is for George W. The fear in 1990 was Saddam Hussein would attack Saudi Arabia and its oilfields before enough American troops and planes were deployed to stop him. So it was Saddam who controlled events early on, but he balked at invading Saudi Arabia. Once the build-up in the gulf commenced, Bush senior grabbed control.
Now, Bush the son is hard pressed to assert full control. Three days after the strikes on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, he proclaimed a national emergency "by reason of certain terrorist attacks." The day before, the Capitol had had to be evacuated briefly and the vice president had been shipped to Camp David to make sure a terrorist couldn't take out both Bush and Cheney in a single attack. Suspected terrorists remained at large in this country. The worst fear at the White House was of another terrorist assault, which would raise doubts about Bush's (or anybody's) ability to bring terrorism under control, ever. As for Carter, he was never in control in the Iranian hostage case.
Whether Bush will satisfy requirement three of a war president - having a strategy and the will to carry it to a successful end - is unknowable. But Bush and his advisers, notably Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, have created the strong impression they actually do intend to extinguish terrorism aimed at America. That's a tall order. But Bush had one (and only one) strong line in his Oval Office address: that groups or states harboring terrorists would be held responsible. Others have echoed it. Wolfowitz said the Bush policy is to "end" states that aid terrorism. Buttressing the talk were real actions: a call-up of military reserves, coalition building on a world scale, and $40 billion in new military spending, just for starters.
The question is whether Bush will stay the course when, say, bombs aimed at terrorists kill women and children, or Saddam Hussein must be confronted forcibly, or complaints mount about "profiling" of Arab Americans, or allies drop by the wayside. My guess is Bush will stand firm. As a war president, he has something he didn't have before. It's a purpose for his presidency. Cutting taxes and trying to reform education are worthy goals. Wiping out terrorism is a noble cause, a crusade, if successful, that transforms a run-of-the-mill presidency into one of historic importance.
What's not required of Bush is that he become a rhetorical president. Yes,
it would be nice if Bush's speeches stirred the nation. But he's no Winston
Churchill and never will be. His choice of microphone as he spoke Friday
afternoon beside the debris of the World Trade Center was a bullhorn. It
worked. When someone yelled, "I can't hear you," Bush instantly shouted
back, "I can hear you and the rest of the world can hear you, and all the
people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon." The
crowd burst into a chant of "USA, USA, USA." And at that moment
Bush's transformation into a war president, capable of inspiring without
being eloquent, was
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