Before and after

Before and after

National unity: Although generated by crisis, we should make the most of its great benefits.

October 02, 2001

SO MUCH has changed, it is difficult to remember how things were before Sept. 11.

Then, President Bush was pushing parts of his agenda for which he had the least mandate. Now, he is a president for all Americans, avoiding controversy.

Then, his legitimacy was questioned as no president's had been since Rutherford B. Hayes. Now, former opponents and critics have rallied around his leadership.

Not only that, but some potential challengers to congressional incumbents have sworn off the 2002 campaign for fear of breaking unity.

In New York City, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani had worn out his welcome. Now the city loves him. So he has been trying to figure out how to extend his term despite the city charter.

Before, President Bush was spurning New York, as he had campaigned against Washington. He had just returned from a month in "the Heartland," that geographic middle and political right of the country, where foreigners and Democrats are sparse.

After, Mr. Bush's regional bias disappeared. He led the national empathy for New Yorkers.

Before, Mr. Bush kept denouncing the idea that government is the answer. Now, he is a champion of government as the answer to international terrorism, the personal safety of Americans, the reliability of air travel and the economic health of the nation.

Before Sept. 11, the Bush administration's foreign policy had a unilateralist if not isolationist edge. Immediately after the attack on the Pentagon, its first temptation was to send a bigger bomb back, somewhere.

As the days progressed, the best plans against terrorism were international, not national -- in the police, not military, realm. Now, the administration is forging an international coalition, at the cost of constraining its own freedom of action. The first place it looks is the United Nations.

Before the terrorism, much of Europe felt estranged from the Bush administration and the electorate that chose it. Now, travel is as paralyzed in Europe as in the United States, and most Europeans consider themselves "American," with respect to the crisis.

Before all this happened, much of the country disputed the president's economic program. After it, with recession firming its grip, the tax-cut stimulus and flirtation with deficit spending appear appropriate, even to previous critics.

Disagreements will return as normal life resumes. The duration of national political unity will depend on the president.

Support for his leadership against terrorism cannot be maintained for domestic policies that were and will again be divisive. Whether and when to return to that agenda will be up to Mr. Bush.

Until then, there is much to treasure in this unity, a welcome tolerance for others.

The terrorists have brought Americans -- and the people of the world -- together. Some of this should be made permanent.

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