Four years ago last week I sat in the National Cathedral when President Bush spoke of our nation meeting in the "middle hour of our grief." I watched his address to a joint session of Congress a few days later, following along with one of the final versions of the speech in hand: "Tonight we are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom. Our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done." After 9/11, the president seemed as big as the office he held.
I expected him to reach those same heights during his primetime speech from New Orleans' French Quarter on Sept. 15. But as he has for the last few weeks since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf States, he seemed as overwhelmed as the city and region he is trying to rescue.
Four years ago, he was still a new president and a vibrant man. At first he stumbled, but then he quickly found his footing. In New Orleans, he seemed like an old president and a tired man, worn down from the trials he is facing: Iraq, terror, the Supreme Court, gas prices, a squishy economy, and three weeks of Hurricane Katrina blunders up and down the government. He stepped before the cameras and into the living rooms of Americans stunned and shaken from three weeks of images of our fellow citizens begging for food, water, sanitation, clothes, and basic order in our own cities and towns.
I waited for him to lift my sights with words and passion and fervor. I wanted that same ferocity he had when he vowed to protect all that was America. But between the repeated 1-800 number and the pitch to visit a website, it felt more like an infomercial. Americans needed a great vision, because what Katrina highlighted wasn't just a failure in the mechanisms of government but the disturbing realities of race and poverty in America. Those with middle-class means and above escaped the storm and its aftermath. Those below that line didn't possess the means to save themselves. Their physical immobility echoed their economic or social immobility: They were stuck where they were in every sense. This was true for their parents and their parents before them. No area of America has been so poor for so long as people in the Gulf Coast area.
But maybe this is where God's mercy for President Bush's policies come into play. Maybe the hound of heaven is steering him back to earlier promises.
It is famously said that even the great presidents are known by just a few phrases. Some are lamentable: "I am not a crook"; "I did not have sex with that woman."' "I have committed lust in my heart." Others are stirring: "A day that will live in infamy"; "Ask not what your country can do for you"; "America is a shining city on a hill"; "The era of big government is over."
Where Bush has been and where he needs to go
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Much of the past four years has been about the former. Government's first duty is to protect our borders, and he has done what he has seen fit in that area. The efficacy of those choices is passionately debated elsewhere.