There was a serenity that he may never again see in his presidency, but a pettiness as well. He was chided for staying on vacation too long, bollixed in his domestic programs because the Senate had gone to the Democratic Party, and opposed in his foreign policy because foreign leaders doubted his maturity and skill. After eight months in office his presidency had not found a core and was heading, many felt, to the graveyard of the undistinguished.
In a trice it was all changed.
Nineteen young Arab men -- men Bush had never heard of and perhaps never even contemplated -- hijacked four airliners and drove three of them like bombs into buildings filled with men and women just starting their working day. The fourth jetliner slammed into a Pennsylvania field during an apparent revolt by hijacked passengers. To this day rescuers cannot say with certainty how many people were killed, and for many of the victims' families, nothing will ever be found.
The lives of every American changed, and for Bush, the changes both personal and presidential were astounding.
For a president best known for the clumsy phrase, Bush has crafted and delivered the two most effective addresses of his life, one at a memorial service for the victims at the National Cathedral in Washington and the tour de force before a joint session of Congress. He will never have the eloquence of British Prime Minister Tony Blair or of the model for all political eloquence, Winston Churchill, but by working diligently with his speechwriters and his mainstay, adviser Karen Hughes, he has fashioned his own style, with the strong tone of the American prairie, in the straight-forward, slightly gruff way in which points would be made in Texas.
He is working desperately hard. Having prided themselves at the White House as being so carefully orchestrated a presidency that everything would be done 9 to 5, there is an urgency now that keeps the lights on late and the weekends long. The president has met more than daily with national security advisers, made telephone calls to a score of world leaders, some of which can be delicate and difficult. Leader after leader has come to White House, and each meeting must be worked through with care.
Bush never liked the White House compound. He likes his Crawford, Texas, ranch and the open land in which to traipse. Now security keeps him more shut off than ever, with only short hops to presidential retreat Camp David and an occasional trip elsewhere. His most important trip was to the World Trade Center site -- Ground Zero -- where he ended up with his arm around a gnarled New York fireman in a picture that will last as long as that of Ronald Reagan at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate.
Bush has found a new pragmatism, too, jettisoning the Republican bias against big government by proposing nearly $200 billion in programs and tax cuts to relieve the economic impact of the terrorist attacks and to pursue the war against terrorism.
He has made Washington again the political center of the nation and the world. One budget expert said the sweep and swiftness of Bush's moves were reminiscent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal.
The Bush administration has scratched "going it alone," too, reaching for treaties and promises around the world to avoid pursuing a war in obscure places with nobody watching its back. Bush has lost the "my way or the highway" manner which so many world leaders found offensive and immature, and with the help of Secretary of State Colin Powell he has built a range of coalitions.
As always, an external threat brings people together. It may not last, but for right now, Congress is more united and willing to work with the president than it has been since the 1960s, and Bush's foreign policy team is working smoothly. There are no more jibes at Powell, and no more rumblings that national security adviser Condoleezza Rice runs foreign policy.
Bush's stature in relation to his advisers has matured as well. He is the president, and he is running the country; he is not some front person guided by puppeteers. Gently, not obviously, the power within the White House has shifted to the president.
In part this is because his advisers failed. Not one of the Bush administration's team anticipated the magnitude of the terror attacks that befell the United States on Sept. 11, despite a decade of previous attacks that should have made it the top priority.
In the past weeks, suddenly, terrorism experts have been added to the National Security Council and the State Department, and Bush has created a special Homeland Security Council and a Homeland Security Office to close this gap.
Having taken hold in these first weeks of the war, Bush knows that the hard part, the excruciating part, is ahead. His repeated descriptions of the nature of the war reveal the difficulties. He must marshal and sustain the national spirit against an enemy that cannot be seen and with whom no open battles will be fought. He has to restore the confidence of the country so that it can go about its business and ignore terrorism even in the face of another possible terrorist attack.
Bush knows that the spirit the country now shows will wane if there are not enough tangible signs of progress, and he has to weigh that against the need to keep operations in this sort of war secret. He probably made a misstep this week by saying he wouldn't brief many members of Congress, and he back-stepped quickly.
In a way, the president is the commander-in-chief, but he has to constantly convince Americans that the price in dollars and blood are worthwhile. After three years, President Lyndon Johnson couldn't do that.
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