WASHINGTON — This is President Bush's moment in history.
"Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them," that wise old bard William Shakespeare observed.
The unexpected vast economic, political and emotional consequences of Tuesday's acts of terrorism are suddenly the president's to master or muff.
"The world is very different today than when the week began," Bush's father, the former president, said in the aftermath of what is being called "an act of war." The opportunity for greatness has been thrust upon his son.
Indeed, after a hesitant start, the president began to rise to the occasion. During the first two days he was seldom seen in public, and his few appearances were stiff and conspicuously scripted. But by Thursday he seemed very much in charge as he emotionally discussed the situation with reporters in the White House, promised New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani whatever he needs for the recovery effort and visited wounded Pentagon victims in a Washington hospital. First lady Laura Bush too spoke out with compassion and concern.
Bush has much to do to restore American confidence in our safety and security. The political arguments that previously consumed the White House and Congress suddenly seem irrelevant. "This is now the focus of my administration," Bush said firmly.
"I'm a loving guy," he said, fighting back tears, "but I've got a job to do, and I will do it."
Instead of continuing to battle over budget priorities, Congress promptly authorized $20 billion in supplemental funds to help the recovery efforts in New York, repair the damaged Pentagon and beef up security at airports and embassies abroad. Nobody bothered to fuss about whether the money would come from the Social Security trust fund, cuts in other federal spending or tax increases. It seems likely, however, that $20 billion is merely an initial downpayment. Additional tax cuts that would further drain the Treasury seem no longer politically feasible.
Bush is now apt to get hefty increases in military spending, although the crisis does not make the idea of developing an anti-missile shield any more popular than before. Such a system would not have prevented Tuesday's airline hijackings. The major threat to America doesn't come from outer space.
Another seismic change will be heightened security measures. While this might be necessary, it is also potentially alarming. The temptation to take on the officious trappings of a police state will be strong. Privacy rights might be weakened. Gaining access to public buildings might become a discouraging hassle. The Secret Service has expanded the guarded perimeter around the White House, allowing tourists to continue to visit but carefully controlling their movements.
Security around the president, already strict, will be tightened and further isolate him from ordinary people. Bush, who did not countermand the Secret Service order to stay away from Washington on Tuesday, might sometimes have to overrule his protectors if he is to break out of his artificial cocoon.
One good development, however, is that the reckless efforts to reopen Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House are likely to be abandoned. Fearing another truck bombing, the Secret Service closed the street to vehicular traffic after the Oklahoma City disaster. But the 2000 Republican Party platform demanded that it be reopened, contending that the White House was not endangered.
Air travel will be more costly and less convenient. One excessive new security measure even forbids table knives at airport restaurants, suggesting that passengers are expected to cut their meat or butter their bread with their bare hands.
A more useful adjustment would be to improve pay and training for airport guards and baggage scanners in order to attract workers who will do their jobs well.
The president's plan to spend September and October preaching to us about what he feels are our declining ethical values has mercifully been scrubbed, hopefully permanently. This crisis has, in fact, demonstrated that he is wrong about the country's low moral standards. Americans rushed to donate blood, hundreds of volunteers joined the rescue efforts, flags appeared everywhere, people signed up for military service and stories circulated about individual acts of heroism. There's nothing wrong with our compassion or sense of patriotism and pride.
The global economy presents Bush with new complications and dangers. The danger of a recession has dramatically increased, consumer confidence has been shaken, and federal budget assumptions have been shattered. Wall Street always reacts nervously to confusion and uncertainty. All the major stock exchanges closed until Monday to delay what is expected to be bad financial news.
For the moment, Bush is publicly ignoring all those pesky details. He stoutly declared the current crisis to be "an opportunity to do future generations a favor" by eradicating terrorism. It's an enormous task, and we're pulling for him.
(Marianne Means can be reached at the e-mail address email@example.com)
Distributed by King Features Syndicate