Terrorist attacks put inexperienced President to the test
Like the New York firefighters he has lauded all week, President Bush wanted to be better prepared for disaster but was caught by surprise. Almost forgotten until this week was that the new President--his management training in evidence--worried last spring that the federal government's coordination and response to a terrorist strike in this country needed considerable improvement.
To address these worries, Bush put Vice President Dick Cheney in charge of a top-to-bottom review team and installed close Texas friend and longtime political aide Joe Allbaugh, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as the linchpin of a new Office of National Preparedness. The terrorism-review team, staffed primarily out of Cheney's office, was preparing its report when 19 suicidal hijackers commandeered four passenger jets on September 11 and propelled Bush, his team, and the nation headlong into crisis.
The President, who quickly expanded Cheney's review to encompass last week's events, had anticipated the potential risks. What he did not see was how soon, and in what form, terrorists would strike. He did not expect that "weapons of mass destruction" would mean 19 airline tickets and between 40,000 and 50,000 gallons of jet fuel, and no one thought catastrophe would present itself on Bush's 234th day in office.
"It is clear that the threat of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons' being used against the United States--while not immediate--is very real," the President warned on May 8 when he issued a simple written directive about planning for homeland defense. "That is why we must ensure that our nation is prepared to defend against the harm they can inflict." On the day he got his terrorism assignment, Cheney pinpointed the worry: "One of our biggest threats as a nation is no longer the conventional military attack against the United States but, rather, that it might come from other quarters. It could be domestic terrorism," he said.
But when the predicted horror arrived ahead of schedule, it literally lifted the Vice President off his feet: Secret Service agents picked him up and evacuated him to an underground White House bunker. For Bush himself, a man the Secret Service calls "Trailblazer," the disaster also had the predictable, but still surreal, effect of elevating him in the public's estimation to levels he never dreamed of attaining. Whether he remains there probably depends on how well he wages war against the shadowy "evil-doers" he keeps telling the American people about, and on how well the nation's law enforcement officers and military personnel protect the nation from further attacks. But if Bush himself was inexperienced, the team he assembled to lead his Administration was not. And in the first 10 days of the crisis, it was this experience, plus a fair bit of improvisation, that pulled Team Bush along.
Turning Weakness Into Strength
The 43rd President of the United States had served only six years in public office, all of them as a governor, and boasted no real experience dealing with international affairs when he came to Washington. George W. Bush did not have the extensive foreign-policy experience that Franklin D. Roosevelt had, did not have the experience of commanding men in battle that Dwight Eisenhower had, and did not have the long career in government that Richard Nixon or Gerald Ford had. Bush also did not possess the rhetorical gifts of Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton, or enjoy the advantage of working with a Congress of his own party, as did Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter. Bush also lacked the leverage that comes with being in office a long time or winning office by a large margin. His election was so divisive, in fact, that leading Democrats engaged daily in cheerfully undermining everything from Bush's legislative agenda to his very legitimacy. And when he was a young man, Bush was not tested in battle himself, as were Harry Truman, JFK-and Bush's own father.
Yet in the 10 days following the violent attacks that have engulfed his presidency, Bush has seemingly been able to turn these disadvantages into advantages that have enhanced his ability to lead a stricken nation.
The most obvious example, and one much remarked upon while Bush formed his government, was that precisely because of his own inexperience in Washington--and, really, in GOP politics--Bush had no hesitation in turning to people such as Cheney, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. All were seasoned old Washington hands who had served in previous Republican Administrations, including that of Bush's father. And those experienced officials have had a stabilizing and soothing influence.
"We want, as a country, to focus our attention and our energy and support for one person--our leader, our commander in chief, our President," said Republican Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge. "But in fact, if you've watched very carefully, this has been a team at work."
As the only MBA ever to sit in the Oval Office, Bush possesses the mentality of a successful CEO, meaning he has no difficulty delegating authority and does not see the success of his aides, even his No. 2 man, as threatening; rather, he sees them as complementing his authority.
"The President takes great pride in building a team," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said in an interview. "I can tell you a story going back to the day he picked the Vice President.... [Bush] turned to me and said, `Just you watch. There will come a crisis one day, and Dick Cheney is exactly the type of man you want to have at your side when the crisis hits.' "
Traditional political operatives such as White House aides Karen P. Hughes and even Fleischer himself have gone to great pains to persuade reporters that Bush was in total command of everything. This week, Hughes was actually peddling a sheet of paper in Bush's handwriting as a way to show that the President himself wrote part of one of his speeches.
This misses the point. The strength of Bush's leadership in the minds of Washington political professionals--and probably much of the country as well--wasn't only visible in the natural way he related with the ironworkers atop a pile of rubble in New York who yelled "USA! USA!," nor was it solely apparent in the well-crafted speech he gave at a National Cathedral service. It was also in the no-nonsense presence of Cheney on NBC's Meet the Press, Powell's calm descriptions of his negotiations with foreign leaders around the globe, and Rumsfeld's steely briefings at the bombed-out Pentagon. Rumsfeld's immediate reaction on September 11 was to run out of his office to the site of the carnage, where he helped load Defense Department employees onto stretchers.
"The individuals are very strong and knowledgeable on their own, but they're also very good team members," Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said of the top Bush team members. "Their maturity and experience has, I think, given a lot of confidence and stability to the whole operation."
Mineta's very presence in the Cabinet underscores another way in which Bush turned a weakness into strength. Having lost the popular vote to Al Gore by half a million votes, Bush was under some pressure to choose a Democrat for his Cabinet. He settled on Mineta, a holdover from Bill Clinton's Cabinet. It was a fortuitous choice.
Mineta is not only an aviation expert, but a longtime liberal and former California congressman with close ties to the Democratic congressional leadership. Moreover, Mineta is a living symbol of the spirit of ethnic tolerance that Bush invoked Monday when he went to a mosque and bluntly told Americans to treat Muslim Americans "with respect." When he was an 11-year-old Nisei boy in San Jose, Calif., Mineta and his family were rounded up and sent to the relocation camps set up for Japanese immigrants during World War II.
Bush told this story when he nominated Mineta as Transportation Secretary, and he returned to it again while meeting last week with congressional leaders. Mineta recalls that in that meeting, Rep. David E. Bonior, D-Mich., voiced concern about a backlash against Muslims and Arab-Americans, and he recounted Bush's response:
"David, you are absolutely right, because we don't want another situation like Norm Mineta was in, in World War II."
"So, he was very cognizant about that issue," Mineta told National Journal. "And I think that's the reason he went to the mosque, why he has continued to speak out on this issue."
There was another way in which bringing Mineta into his government showcased a Bush trait that has served the President well during this crisis. Bush has repeatedly said he wants to lower the volume and vitriol of partisan dialogue in this city. This determination turns out to be worth more than just style points. Much has been made in the days since the crisis about how Democrats and Republicans have set aside their differences and rallied around the nation and the President. But the fact that during his first eight months in office Bush eschewed personal attacks--even while some were directed at him--has made this easy for Democrats to do, both politically and personally.
In other words, the bipartisan airs weren't just for show; the cooperation has brought tangible results. At an Oval Office meeting with the four Senators who represent New York and Virginia, Bush was extraordinarily warm and solicitous toward the two Democrats from New York, Charles E. Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton. At that point, Congress and the Bush Administration had agreed on a $20 billion emergency appropriation to deal with the disaster, but in consultation with New York Gov. George Pataki and New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, it was clear that that amount wasn't even sufficient for New York. The Senators asked Bush for $40 billion.
"Yes," Schumer said.
"You've got it," Bush replied without hesitation.
What Is He Asking For?
But if the nation was suddenly unified--and unified behind Bush--it was also clear that the President and his team realized they face the task of communicating with a multitude of audiences, each of which has a different concern. It was also clear that this President, who early in his term declined to appear before the cameras just for the sake of being seen, now understands how large a part of the job description communicating really is. And each day, Bush appeared in one or more of the roles a modern President must play: commander in chief, consoler in chief, steward of the economy, titular head of NATO, America's top elected official.
In his Friday visit to New York City, Bush was speaking primarily to the rescue workers and to the angry residents of the damaged city. When a man yelled, "I can't hear you," Bush responded: "I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you, too. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon."
In an Oval Office photo op with the president of Indonesia eight days after the attack, Bush was speaking to the Muslims of the world and the heads of state of their nations when he said: "I've made it clear, Madam President, that the war against terrorism is not a war against Muslims, nor is it a war against Arabs. It's a war against evil people who conduct crimes against innocent people."
In his visit to the Islamic Center mosque in Washington, Bush's goal was to reassure Arab-Americans and all those of the Muslim faith living in the United States, and to deter any trigger-happy rednecks who might mistake bigotry for patriotism. "America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country," Bush said. "In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect. Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes. Moms who wear cover must be not intimidated in America. That's not the America I know. That's not the America I value."
In some of his communications, particularly those that were unrehearsed, it's not always been clear whom Bush had in mind. When he invoked the lingo of an old Texas lawman, saying he wants Osama bin Laden "dead or alive," he could have been appealing to the fighting spirit of the U.S. military, or perhaps sending a message to terrorists themselves.
But despite the varied messages for his different audiences, one central theme was still murky 10 days after the attack: It was not clear exactly what Bush was asking his fellow Americans to do. The suggestions Team Bush made in the aftermath of the slaughter included giving blood, flying flags, supporting charities, praying, going to work, and being patient. But there was an uneasy consensus in America that this will hardly be enough.
On Wednesday, Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser in the Carter Administration, noted this gap, and called on Bush to address a joint session of Congress, to spell out in some detail what his Administration plans to do to fight terrorism. Within hours, Bush himself announced that he would do just that on the following day.
But all along, Team Bush warned that waging this war won't be easy. "We'll have to deal with the [terrorist] networks," said Rumsfeld in a Tuesday briefing. "One of the ways to do that is to drain the swamp they live in. And that means dealing not only with the terrorists, but those who harbor terrorists. This will take a long, sustained effort. It will require the support of the American people as well as our friends and allies around the world."
In some cases, members of Team Bush were given tasks to which they are particularly well-suited. Laura Bush was dispatched to the somber memorial service in Pennsylvania for those aboard United Airlines Flight 93. Mrs. Bush also flew to Chicago on Tuesday for a live appearance on Oprah Winfrey's syndicated talk show, to discuss how adults can console children during these trying days. Mrs. Bush, a former educator, also conveyed deep empathy for the nation's schoolteachers, who have struggled with how and how much to tell their students, especially the young ones. "We're asking them to console our children," Mrs. Bush said of the nation's teachers. "We need to pay attention to them-and console them."
As the days progressed, Team Bush appeared at times to encompass virtually every elected official, every prominent American in the land. Winfrey herself greeted Mrs. Bush on her show by holding both her hands while introducing her, in a poignant show of solidarity. Team Bush includes not just Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld, and Mineta. It also includes Oprah and the Rev. Billy Graham and Spencer Abraham, Bush's Energy Secretary and an Arab-American.
Team Bush became Team Washington or, perhaps, Team America. Sometimes its pronouncements were calibrated to bolster other members of the team. Joe Allbaugh, FEMA head, used his time before the cameras to extol Mayor Giuliani's efforts to pull his city together. So did Sen. Clinton, Giuliani's one-time bitter enemy, who told America, "The mayor has been superb in every way."
Mrs. Clinton went to the victims' assistance shelter in lower Manhattan on Wednesday to personally thank the workers there. Then she volunteered that Pataki and Bush had been "great" in their responses. When Mrs. Clinton's husband arrived in New York City--he'd been in Australia until Bush dispatched a military jet to bring him home--he was besieged by New Yorkers wanting a hug and a kind word. Bill Clinton obliged, but when one woman asked him what he'd do if he were President, he quickly reminded her that "the important thing" for her to understand is that he's not the President and that all Americans must rally around the man who is.
Clinton was one of four ex-Presidents who--along with an almost-President, Al Gore--heeded Bush's call to attend last Friday's service at National Cathedral. One of them, former President George H.W. Bush, is a charter member of Team Bush, and after his son finished speaking and took his seat, Bush 41, without a word, and in fact without a glance, reached over and grabbed the hand of his eldest son. The President swallowed hard, in gratitude.
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