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Jewish World Review Oct. 31, 2001 / 14 Mar-Cheshvan, 5762

Chris Matthews

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Bush's command impresses supporters and critics

This column is the second of three articles serialized from Chris Matthews' new book, "Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think" which is out this week. Ordering this book, by clicking on the title, helps fund JWR. -- SHAKESPEARE wrote that "some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them."

Few presidents are given the historic duty to lead America through a crisis like the World Trade Center horror. Not since Vietnam had the country felt so violated. Not since World War II had we felt such resolve. We wanted orders, and we looked to one man to give them.

In the days following Sept. 11, 2001, George W. Bush displayed a presidential COMMAND that warmed his supporters and impressed even his nastiest critics. "Tonight we are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom," he told the Congress and the country. "Our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done."

In Bush, the country discovered it had a young leader rising to the occasion, an easy-going Prince Hal transformed by instinct and circumstance into a warrior King Henry. A president who once suffered daily questions about his legitimacy now commanded the backing of nine in 10 Americans.

It was not the first time Bush displayed an unexpected audacity. In 1994, he took on Texas governor Ann Richards when she was a national icon and beat her.

When he saw the TV networks prematurely calling Florida for Al Gore in 2000, he invited the national cameras into the family hotel suite. There, in the presence of the former president and first lady, parents George and Barbara, he scolded the press into backing down. "The people actually counting the votes have come to a different perspective," he told the country, especially those supporters in the Western states still heading to the polls. "I'm pretty darn upbeat about things."

Had events gone a little differently that night, George W. Bush could have been BARBECUED by the media for hiding behind Daddy and Mommy. It was such a personal call on his part that I credit him with bold leadership. With that single risky performance, he changed the election night's dynamic. Instead of being seen as a loser the morning after and throughout the five weeks of recounts and legal arguments, the man hunkered down on his Texas farm seemed to most Americans like the winner.

So we knew Bush had nerve. What we wondered about was how much depth there was to the guy. Was he more cerebral than he seemed? Was he a sneaky "grind" who went off and studied things when nobody was looking? Did he possess some special instinct for leadership, some unexplained knack for calling the shots under pressure?

Like so many others, I carried this conflicted view of George W. Bush right into the World Trade Center and Pentagon crisis. At times, it seemed that others, led by Vice President Cheney, were calling the shots.

One reason for this perception may be Bush's executive style. As a manager, he follows the "hidden hand" pattern of President Eisenhower. Like Ike, he has filled his cabinet with CEOs and governors. Like Ike, he INVESTED in each cabinet member. Look at the way Bush handled the Chinese government's retention of the downed EP3 reconnaissance plane. He left it to Colin Powell to use the language and cultural expertise of the State Department to find the right words to appease Beijing. Then, once the crewmen were home, he let Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld defend the honor, performance, and morale of the military by telling the world that our guys were right, and the Chinese fighter pilot was wrong.

But for many months in 2001, the new presidency seemed to stall. With an entire country ready to know and like him, Bush clung to familiar company, familiar geography, familiar thinking. He acted as though the only Republicans were Southern Republicans. Why did he spend so much time down on his Texas ranch when he could have been forging new alliances that could give him a clear majority in 2004?

I have to admit that during that August vacation in Texas, Bush managed to pull a head-fake on the American press corps. Under the cover of a four-week vacation, he delivered a primetime speech on stem cell research that won a 70-percent approval rating. Even more successful were his Jimmy Carter-like house building with Habitat for Humanity and his Ronald Reagan-like brush clearing in the Rockies. Those who denigrate such vivid imagery as "form over function" ignore how this Yale-educated cowboy got his job.

I noticed something else about George W.: He was operating at a 180-degree angle from his father. The 41st president raised taxes; the 43rd couldn't wait to lower them. Forty-one emphasized foreign policy; 43 began his presidency with a narrow focus on the home front. The father kept remote from the religious right; the son has kept this particular alliance fresh.

Every time you lower the bar on this fellow, the easier it becomes for him to clear it.

When he spoke to the nation about stem cells, for example, President George W. Bush admitted right up front that such issues are not solvable by brainpower alone. Good people disagree on the subject. Nobody's necessarily right; nobody's necessarily been proven wrong. We're all in this together, trying to square our religious views with our medical hopes, our deepest human values with our scientific potential.

Before the World Trade Center and Pentagon tragedies, however, Bush had failed to project a clear sense of national purpose. There was no music to his presidency. I'm talking about that optimistic cadence that has lifted the nation in the past. I'm talking about an American MISSION.

On Sept. 11, 2001, that mission was thrust upon him. Through instinct and compassion, he stood in the rubble of the World Trade Center and forged an almost sacramental bond with the American people. Surrounded by New York firefighters, he seemed exactly where he belonged.

"I will not forget this wound to our country, or those who inflicted it," he told the country later. "I will not yield. I will not rest. I will not relent in waging this struggle for the freedom and security of the American people." As no president before, he united the American people on a course of both purpose and peril.

Whether success for the country and greatness for the president will follow depends on history not yet written.

JWR contributor Chris Matthews is the author of "Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think". and hosts a CNBC show of the same name. Comment by clicking here.

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