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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Day of Horror Will Define Bush's Presidency

WASHINGTON -- In the hour that it took for terrorists to demolish the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and devastate the seemingly impregnable Pentagon building in Washington, George W. Bush's presidency changed indelibly.

The nightmare scenario of the post-Cold War era -- terrorism at home aimed at innocent civilians -- hit with a terrible swiftness and frightening power that even the experts hadn't imagined, and it's clear that Sept. 11 has become the defining day of Bush's presidency.

Bush now faces a test of leadership few presidents have ever known. Even Roosevelt after Pearl Harbor could see a clearly defined enemy and chart a clearly defined course. The enormity of what confronts Bush is difficult to overstate, demanding skills that would challenge any president, let alone one who's served just eight months in office and just seven years in public life.

Almost simultaneously, Bush must assess the threat and secure the country against further attack, rally the confidence of a nation gripped by a sense of insecurity and vulnerability, identify the perpetrators and produce a swift, effective and sustained response, lead the country through a period of mourning and rebuilding, correct what appears to have been a massive intelligence breakdown and develop a long-term plan for combatting terrorism.

Crises help to define presidents. Jimmy Carter's inability to solve the hostage crisis that immobilized his presidency eventually cost him the White House in 1980. Bill Clinton's eloquence in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 helped restore his standing with the American people and turn around a presidency that was on the ropes. Bush's response to Tuesday's events no doubt will determine how history judges him.

Presidential historians said there's no road map for presidents in situations like this. "It does seem to call for a very strong, rhetorical, inspirational, courage-building response, as well as vigilant but not hysterical activity in terms of increasing defenses," said Fred Greenstein of Princeton University. "Short-run vigilance and long-term planning."

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recalled that Franklin D. Roosevelt, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, produced "the right combination of anger, indignation and confidence that we would prevail" as he rallied the country to prepare for entry into World War II. Bush must find a similar combination of words, resolve and judgment to lead the country forward in the coming days and weeks.

What makes this moment unique is the combination of the scope of the devastation -- the attacks may leave more dead Americans than the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor -- the insidious nature of international terrorism and the demands on the modern presidency brought about by instantaneous communication. "Here it's not clear even to the people in power exactly what they're going to do," Goodwin said. "If they had known what to do before, they would have done it."

Bush has often resisted using the bully pulpit of the presidency, preferring to maintain a lower profile at moments when others presidents took center stage, such as his decision not to join the welcoming celebration for the crew of the captured U.S. spy plane when they returned after being held hostage by the Chinese last spring.

Now, say those who have studied other presidents, Bush will have no choice but to assert himself, to command the stage provided by the office he sought, and not just in one speech but as an ongoing and integral part of his presidency.

Bush won high marks when he assembled his national security team. Few new presidents have been surrounded by the kind of experience that Bush can draw on from Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. But Greenstein said the key to success will be Bush's ability "to pull your team together and think about and really focus on immediate options and longer-run issues."

Another part of Bush's operating style also will be challenged by this crisis. He has prided himself on establishing a governing agenda and sticking with it no matter what. Senior aides have lamented that what they worry about most is distractions that cause Bush to lose focus on the core issues of his agenda.

Tuesday's events will demand a wholesale reevaluation of his agenda and the overnight remaking of his presidency. His focus will necessarily shift, not for a few days or weeks but for months on end. The attacks will test his capacity to adapt and change.

Bush has often spoken of the threats posed by a world filled with "determined enemies who hate our values and resent our success." His response largely has been to advocate the development of a robust national missile defense. Tuesday's attacks suggest he will be forced to focus on the threat of terrorism more than the threat of ballistic missiles from rogue nations.

"This brings home the nature of the threat and the nature of the threat is very different than the one that has been articulated by this administration and it's going to have to make a real change," said Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution.

Senator John McCain said the nation will rally behind the president in this moment of crisis, but he warned that the response to what he called an act of war could bring significant changes to the country. "It's an example of what can happen in a post-Cold War era and the lesson that we still live in a very dangerous world," he said.

Clinton's national security adviser Samuel "Sandy" Berger described what happened Tuesday as "not just a terrorist attack but a full-scale assault on the United States" that is "qualitatively different than anything we've ever seen." Rather than hitting U.S. embassies abroad, those responsible launched their terror on American soil. Past presidents have responded to terrorist attacks with retaliatory strikes. Berger said much more is needed now.

"There's no swift, simple response here," he said. "This has to be a firm, sustained response. ... This is going to require a level of sustained, coordinated effort -- military, economic and political -- with our allies, if that's where the path leads."

But that will bring further response from the other side. "The American people have to be prepared for that," he added. "We're in a new phase here."

Bush has already promised to retaliate. His decisions on how, when and against whom will change the face of the United States.

Such decisions are more than most presidents bargain for when they seek the Oval Office. As historian Robert Dallek said, "You can't prepare for this, but it is without a question a defining moment for his presidency."