U.S. finds comfort, kinship in Bush's down-home style

Unscripted moments garnering accolades

Terrorism Strikes America

The Nation

September 19, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The famously informal, backslapping style that President Bush brought to Washington is being well-received in the midst of tragedy.

As they recover from the shock of the terrorist attacks Sept. 11 and brace for war, many Americans say they take comfort in having a leader who mingles with average citizens and seems able to soothe their pain and rally their spirits.

The president has spoken in formal settings during the crisis - for example, he delivered a televised address from the Oval Office the day of the attacks. But he has spent far more time with no podium and no script.

Bush showed up this week at the White House cafeteria, where he chatted with workers, drank a cup of coffee and posed for a photo with a woman who was so surprised she did not have time to put down her sausage biscuit before the cameras clicked.

At the Pentagon, he made a side trip to the cafeteria after a meeting with his military advisers. When a woman spontaneously broke into "God Bless America" and others joined in, the president quickly became part of the impromptu chorus.

He then spoke for five minutes with the pregnant widow of a man killed when a jetliner slammed into the Pentagon, draping his arm around her and rubbing her back the whole time. He finished the conversation by planting a kiss on her cheek.

And last week in New York City, amid the rubble of the World Trade Center, the president grabbed a bullhorn and began pumping up exhausted rescue workers.

`One of the people'

In interviews yesterday, Americans said Bush has appeared natural and honest, whether he is trying to heal the nation with words of compassion, or rally its citizens with angry words of war and retaliation.

"It's good to feel like he's associating with us," said Barbara Cruise, 59, who was eating a cheeseburger yesterday afternoon at the Dew Drop Inn, a restaurant in Scottsville, Va.

"Rather than being like a king or God, and saying, `I'm the man in charge,' he is being one of the people," she said. "He can be one of the guys, as long as he realizes that he is, and acts like, our leader. And so far he has."

Popularity soars

Since the terrorist attacks, Bush's popularity has soared. In a CNN/Gallup poll last weekend, 86 percent of Americans approved of the job he is doing as president, up from 50 percent a month ago.

The nation typically rallies around presidents in times of war or crisis. The president's father hit a peak of 90 percent during the Persian Gulf war, and Franklin D. Roosevelt had an 84 percent approval rating after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

"The country has pulled together, and we have to keep it together," said Mike Messer, owner of Mike's Barker Shop in Olathe, Kan. "And Bush is not going to do that with a formal speech. He had to come down to earth."

Bush mastered down-to-earth as governor of Texas and he's used it as president. This summer, he traveled the country, presenting himself as a stranger to Washington, unfamiliar with and distressed by all the political bickering.

Some say Bush's down-home style has been inappropriate at times in the current crisis. On the day of the air assaults on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Bush called the killers "those folks." (He has since been calling the terrorists "barbarians.")

And, at the Pentagon on Monday, Bush, asked if he wanted accused terrorist Osama bin Laden killed, said that "there's an old poster out West, as I recall, that said, `Wanted: Dead or Alive.'"

`Not the Old West'

"This is not the Old West," said Mike Morang, 37, a floor installer who was sipping a beer yesterday at the Black Diamond Tavern in Augusta, Maine.

"I mean, use some couth," said Morang, a Republican who voted for Bush. "You don't need those words being splashed around the world - we're not a vigilante country."

But Earl St. Hilaire, 26, a bartender from Lewiston, Maine, said he likes Bush's tough, unscripted talk. "Taking a bullhorn? Saying things like, `Dead or Alive'? I've never heard that talk from any president," he said. "He's comforting a lot of people, and he's comforting me, by saying he wants to do something about this."

St. Hilaire added, however, that those words could come back to haunt Bush. He said he thinks Bush now has no choice but to deliver bin Laden to the American people. "He's in a position where he definitely needs to find him - dead or alive," he said.

Bruce Buchanan, a professor of government at the University of Texas who followed Bush as governor, said there are risks involved in speaking off-the-cuff and unscripted at such a sensitive time.

"It's not his informality, but the lack of care in word choice," Buchanan said. "You don't want to create more difficulties in what is already a monumental problem."

Since taking office, Bush has tried to use informality to his advantage, using backslapping and a breezy personal charm to win over lawmakers. For some, especially Democrats, that style has worn thin.

Now, though, in the midst of crisis, ordinary Americans seem to be taking to it.

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