WASHINGTON - It's an axiom of historians that an American president needs a national crisis of major proportions to prove his mettle. Such a crisis faced President Bush as he addressed the nation last night and defined the challenge and his objectives in the impending American war on terrorism.
For Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 it was the Great Depression, and in 1941 the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. For Harry S. Truman in 1950, it was North Korea's attack on American ally South Korea. For John F. Kennedy in 1962, it was the Cuban Missile Crisis, and for Jimmy Carter in 1979, it was the taking of American hostages in Iran.
In each of these tests of national and presidential resolve, the presidents addressed the country, sometimes memorably. FDR declared there was "nothing to fear but fear itself" in dealing with the Depression and promised revenge for the "date which will live in infamy." Later, Kennedy somberly notified his countrymen of Soviet missiles in Cuba and his determination that they be removed.
In these cases and others, the presidential words and demeanor sought to prepare Americans for an unavoidable confrontation and instill confidence that the challenge would be met.
Bush set out to do the same last night and made a powerful start with a sober and resolute speech that struck a balance between toughness toward the enemy and compassion toward victims of the tragedy Sept. 11.
But it was the toughness that dominated, with a direct declaration that "we condemn the Taliban regime" in Afghanistan that is said to be harboring Osama bin Laden and a demand that the regime turn him over, along with "all the leaders of Al Qaeda," his terrorist network, "who hide in your land."
The president also demanded that all Americans and other foreign nationals being held by the Taliban be released and that the regime close "immediately and permanently every terrorist training camp in Afghanistan." He also said, "Hand over every terrorist, and every person in [the terrorists'] support structure, to appropriate authorities."
There was nothing equivocal in the demands, which he said "are not open to negotiation or discussion."
"The Taliban must act and act immediately," Bush said. "They will hand over the terrorists, or they will share their fate."
Criticized in some quarters before the speech for overheated rhetoric to the point that some expected he would back off last night, he did no such thing. While there was no formal declaration of war, the president's stern language left no doubt of his determination to wage an unremitting fight to rid his country and the world of the scourge of terrorism.
Bush also in all probability raised his own personal and political stock with his forceful words, forcefully delivered. In the wake of the New York and Washington attacks, his public approval rating had already jumped from 50 percent to 86 percent in the most recent CNN/Gallup poll, and it is likely to climb even higher now.
In this speech that seemed to commit the nation to military conflict, Bush managed at the same time to emphasize that his and the nation's quarrel is with violent Muslim extremists and not with other followers of that religion, in this country or elsewhere.
"We respect your faith," he said, noting that "it is practiced freely by many millions of Americans, and by millions more in countries that America counts as friends. Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah. The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself."
At the same time, the speech deftly used the spectacle of the joint session of Congress to tell Americans why "they hate us."
"They hate what we see right here in this chamber - a democratically elected government ... they hate our freedoms, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."
Bush also took pains to warn the American people that "this war will not be like the war against Iraq of a decade ago, with its decisive liberation of territory and its swift conclusion," or like the air war over Kosovo in which there were no American fatalities.
"Our response involves more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes," he said. "Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any other we have seen."
Presidential speeches that commit a nation to armed conflict of whatever nature need to have a certain amount of patriotic fervor to stir the people.
Bush on this night contributed his share, but he went well beyond that to provide a lucid rationale for impending military actions and his call on Americans to prepare for the long haul, while striving to go on with their "normal" lives, in a time that promises to be anything but normal.
But words must be followed by actions, and whether this crisis proves to be the stuff of which great presidents are made will depend on whether Bush can implement his words with the same resolution and patience he urged upon his fellow citizens. But for one night's work, it was a most impressive start, presenting George W. Bush as a caliber leader not seen in his eight previous months in office.