Drawing a line in a maze

September 26, 2001|By Maureen Dowd

WASHINGTON -- In the lost world, when New York's twin towers were still standing, in fact the day before they were diabolically demolished, a friend e-mailed to suggest a column about why George W. Bush didn't seem to like his job.

What's your evidence? I asked.

"He doesn't look happy on TV," my friend replied. "Plus the long vacation. Plus him complaining about all the work involved in the stem cell decision. Maybe what would make him happy is having been president. But not being president."

It was true that Mr. Bush did not bound through the White House the way his father and Bill Clinton did. This president seemed happiest escaping the White House, flying down to whack brush on his isolated ranch.

It was clear early on that Mr. Bush did not like tumult. He cringed from the election muddle, recoiled from the abortion miasma, suffered through the stem cell debate.

After the Technicolor chaos of Mr. Clinton, Mr. Bush tried to paint his White House -- and world -- in black and white. Unilateral and punctual. With certainties and without disruptions. With restrictions on informal dress and cell phones.

It is an astonishing knuckleball of history that the president who abhors mess is presiding over a spectacularly messy conflict. A devout believer in the simple and short is hunting down a devout believer in the murky and metastasizing, an unholy demon who creates an endless loop of malevolence.

Mr. Bush's administration might have been clinging to a Cold War mentality, but America's new foes in Afghanistan are clinging to a medieval mindset in a country so ravaged that Clinton officials said they tried to "bomb them up to the Stone Age" (a bombing that only succeeded in lionizing Osama bin Laden).

Women are not allowed to go to school, and television, music and even kites are banned. Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Taliban, is reputed to be so crazed that when shrapnel hit his eye in a battle with the Russians, he simply cut it out with a knife and kept going.

Washington's organization man is confronting the unknown, abruptly shifting his attention from T-ball and lock boxes to the amorphous and impenetrable. The homebody, who always preferred a more sheltered existence than his father, the peripatetic internationalist, has courageously committed to ripping the homeless terrorists from their cells.

Mr. Bush distinguished himself in the Capitol on Thursday night, with an impressive speech impressively delivered. He looked, for that searing half-hour, as if he really wanted to be the president who delivers us from this "autumn of tears," as the writer Leon Wieseltier calls it.

Those close to the president say he has left his political self behind to take on his life's mission.

But Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's political strategist, is in the middle of our national security crisis.

First, he called around town, trying to sell reporters the story -- now widely discredited -- that Mr. Bush didn't immediately return to Washington on Sept. 11 because the plane that was headed for the Pentagon may have really been targeting the White House and that Air Force One was in jeopardy, too.

Then Mr. Rove apparently grew livid when Dick Cheney's dramatic retelling of the scene in the White House relegated the president to a footnote.

Mr. Bush seems aware that fate has brought him to an amazing juncture. The scion who started as an Ivy slacker, getting serious about politics late in life, the candidate who loped into the White House, propelled by daddy's friends and contributors, the good-natured guy who benefited from low expectations, has taken on a campaign that would chill even Churchill: annihilating nihilists in the cradle of civilization who want to wreck civilization.

The president's inner circle was drawn from the bunker of the Persian Gulf war. He has used the same language about good vs. evil, but no one is claiming this conflict is about oil. Poppy's video game war provides him with little guidance.

America has never tried to protect itself from the inside out. The Bush team says this is a different kind of war. The country is hoping the Bush crew won't fall back on conventional thinking.

Mr. Bush promised, as his father once did, to draw a line in the sand. But how do you draw a line in a maze? How can you be definite in these mists -- smallpox and anthrax and shape-shifting suicide bombers?

We know about the fog of war. Now we learn about the war of fog.

Maureen Dowd is a columnist for the New York Times.

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