9/11 Presents Historic Challenge for President Bush

Untested no more, the new president faces a historic challenge.

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As Marine One choppered west from Andrews Air Force Base toward the White House, racing across the grand panorama of official Washington, President Bush gazed out the left window and saw smoke billowing from the Pentagon. Grimacing, he sadly shook his head and told aides: "You're seeing the face of war in the 21st century."

The world had been transformed in an instant, and it was George W. Bush's job to cope with it. Not since Harry Truman took over for a fallen Franklin Roosevelt during World War II has a president faced such public doubt about his ability to fill the role of commander in chief. And rarely since Truman's time have the potential stakes been so grave. But Bush and his aides say that, like Truman, he will prevail over his doubters. "This is clearly a defining moment not only for America and the world but for George W. Bush," says Ken Duberstein, former White House chief of staff for Ronald Reagan.

Though his start in handling this crisis was hardly seamless or commanding, Bush moved quickly in an Oval Office, prime-time address, and on Wednesday in additional public comment, to reassure a nation about American resolve in a time of chaos. Condemning the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as "acts of war," the freshman president declared, "This will be a monumental struggle of good versus evil, but good will prevail."

Center stage. If his first response in the hours immediately following the attacks seemed tepid and strangely low key, friends say no one should have expected inspiration or eloquence. That's not Bush's way. At heart, he's a behind-the-scenes deal maker, not a public motivator. So it was no surprise that in the first hours his posture was essentially a private one, organizing the federal response rather than taking a more dramatic role.

His advisers realize that he must change that style and be more out front in the face of a world that is waiting to see how the United States will respond to the worst act of terrorism in its history. Though Bush strongly prefers a linear management style that sets an agenda and sticks to it, the events of this week dramatically reinforced that he also needs to be highly adaptive, politically nimble, and ever flexible.

He had prided himself on a scrupulous adherence to the policy agenda that carried him through the campaign—which includes cutting taxes and reforming education and Medicare. None of that seemed to matter much near week's end.

The new commander in chief learned of the unfolding disaster as he was shaking hands with teachers and administrators at an elementary school in Sarasota, Fla. White House Chief of Staff Andy Card took him aside in a corridor with news that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. A few minutes later, as Bush sat waiting to speak at the school, Card whispered that there had been a second crash at the same site. Bush's face tensed, he bit his lip, and he nodded slowly.

After his brief remarks, he talked by phone to Vice President Dick Cheney and FBI officials in Washington, and his mood turned extremely sober. "We're at war," he told the traveling staff after hanging up the phone.

He cut short his scheduled two-day visit to Florida, where he was promoting education reform, and told aides he wanted to return immediately to the White House. But Secret Service officials pointed out that there was at least one credible, specific threat against the president himself and Air Force One, U.S. News has learned. Federal officials argued that many commercial flights were still in the air and that no one could rule out the possibility that one of them might be on a suicide course for the White House. Bush agreed to delay his return trip until the security threats against him could be clarified.

In determining his first responses, U.S. News has learned, Bush relied heavily on the advice of Cheney, who had moved with other U.S. officials, including National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, to a bunker under the White House. Cheney, a former defense secretary, suggested that the commander in chief fly to a secure military base rather than risk returning to Washington. Bush reluctantly agreed.