Special Report

Bush’s challenge

The President’s foes unite behind him—for now

DAVID M. SHRIBMAN September 24 2001
Special Report

Bush’s challenge

The President’s foes unite behind him—for now

DAVID M. SHRIBMAN September 24 2001

Bush’s challenge

The President’s foes unite behind him—for now

DAVID M. SHRIBMAN

The White House and other government buildings closed. Members of Congress standing together, holding hands and singing God Bless America on the steps of the Capitol, the black plumes from the fire at the Pentagon hovering in the background. President Bush flying from Florida to a secure bunker under the Nebraska plains and finally returning at dusk to a virtually empty downtown Washington that was patrolled by officers with automatic weapons.

Those were the unforgettable images. Now come the political challenges faced by a nation that prides itself on its openness, and by an untested president who, like so many of his predecessors, came to office expecting to emphasize domestic concerns. Bush has a world of trouble to deal with, while operating in a political arena that was, at least until last week, marked by an atmosphere of partisan distrust that he had done little to defuse. The political establishment rallied around the President in the wake of the terrorist attacks, with members of both parties vowing to “stand shoulder to shoulder to fight this evil that’s been perpetrated on this nation,” as House Speaker Dennis Hastert put it. Will it last? “The American system weathers things like this very well, and the American people come together behind the president no matter who he is,” says L. Sandy Maisel, a political scientist at Maine’s Colby College. “That will hold for a while. But how it plays out politically in the long run is still up in the air.” For the moment, leading American po-

litical figures adopted wartime rhetoric. At the same time, Washington went on a wartime footing, which in political terms means that criticism of the President in the following weeks will be muted, if expressed at all. But doubts and resentments linger beneath the surface. Despite reasonably healthy approval ratings before the terrorist acts, Bush hasn’t yet won the confidence of his fellow Republicans and was earning the outright disdain of the Democrats. Moreover, until this month his style has been confrontational, not conciliatory, an approach that may serve him well in responding to this attack but one that has left many wounds in Congress.

There was no resistance to providing the President the emergency authority he requested to “spend whatever it takes” to rescue victims, help citizens respond to the grief and dislocation caused by last week's destruction, and to protect American security. But by the time the issue is addressed in any comprehensive way, the President’s free pass in Washington will likely have expired. The season of sadness will almost certainly be followed by a season of further confrontation, investigation and, perhaps, political retribution. The question likely to be asked as angry lawmakers conduct hearings to examine what permitted the gathering conspiracy: who lost the World Trade Center?

The intelligence network—Bush’s father was once the director of the Central Intelligence Agency—is certainly under the microscope. Senator Richard Shelby, the Alabama Republican who is vicechairman of the Senate intelligence committee, called last week’s attacks an intel-

ligence “failure of great dimension.” For the first time in a quarter century—since Gerald Ford created a commission to investigate covert CIA activities within the United States—all the preconditions are present for secret American intelligence operations to become a bitter public issue.

The terrorist attacks could also damage Bush’s determination to erect his controversial missile defence shield. Shortly after news of the attacks broke, Democratic lawmakers, including senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joseph Biden of Delaware, both possible presidential contenders in 2004, were arguing that no missile defence can protect American interests against terrorists in hijacked planes—or armed with chemical or biological weapons. Counterterrorism experts at the state department point out that terrorist groups around the world will not sit idle as the U.S. thirsts for revenge. The biggest fear, one government expert told Macleans in a private briefing, is that terrorists will strike next time by scattering a deadly poison like sarin in the New York and Washington subways or by releasing vials of deadly anthrax bacteria into the air.

For now, Bush has summoned the United States to what he called “a monumental struggle of good versus evil.” But for all the brave talk, Washington was still a jittery place at week’s end, and likely will be for some time to come. “People feel very shaky and vulnerable,” said Rev. James Somerville, pastor of First Baptist Church of Washington, a short walk from the White House. “They wonder whom to blame and how to go on. We need more than politics in the next weeks. We—all of us, including our politicians—need prayer and some sense of God’s presence, in spite of all that has happened.” [¡3

David M. Shribman is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington bureau chief of The Boston Globe.