Bush rallies the nation, though concerns linger

November 12, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - In terms of bolstering patriotism and public confidence, President Bush again demonstrated his talent as a national cheerleader in his speech on "homeland security" the other night. When it comes to accentuating the positive, he is peerless, and that fact may well account for much of his great personal popularity.

His job approval rating in the Gallup poll 10 days after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon hit an unprecedented 90 percent. At last count, despite uncertainty about the progress of the war on terrorism, continued concern over the anthrax threat and the slipping economy, that rating was still at an amazing 87 percent.

Confidence in his administration's handling of the war so far, however, and in its efforts to cope with real or perceived threats on the home front seems somewhat less solid. Mr. Bush rightly continues to inform the public that patience is required for what will be a long challenge, but the American people in a can-do society are not famous for patience.

The president's reminder that of 30 billion pieces of mail delivered in this country since Sept. 11, only three have been identified as containing anthrax and only 17 people have been infected and four have died, hasn't quelled public concern over the safety of the mail, especially in the areas already targeted.

And while 55 percent of those surveyed in the latest Gallup poll said the government was right to issue alerts about possibly impending terrorist acts, considerable confusion has been sown by the very general nature of those alerts.

The warning about possible attacks on bridges in Western states, sent to key public officials and made public by California Gov. Gray Davis to the consternation of the administration, later was declared by the Justice Department not to have been "credible."

Early, overly optimistic assurances from Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson that there were adequate supplies of anti-anthrax medication on hand, and conflicting advice from government officials on who should take it and who shouldn't, also ruffled public confidence.

In his speech the other night, Mr. Bush said the country "will not give in to exaggerated fears or passing rumors. We will rely on good judgment and good old common sense." It is counsel that some of his own subordinates, in inadvertently fanning such fears and in displaying poor judgment in the early stages, need to take to heart.

Failure to provide treatment to many postal workers potentially exposed while members of Congress and their staffs were being treated created an unsettling climate within the Postal Service. Mr. Bush Thursday night made a point of thanking those public servants "who never enlisted to fight a war but find themselves on the front lines of a battle nonetheless: those who deliver the mail, America's postal workers."

His national pep talk was full of such praise for all those segments of the society involved in the physical recovery efforts from the events of Sept. 11 and in dealing with the war on terrorism in Afghanistan and at home. He included Tom Ridge, his appointee as director of the new Office of Homeland Security, but Mr. Ridge, a neophyte in this business, has not been particularly reassuring as the front man for the effort.

Civil liberties defenders are deeply troubled by the new law-enforcement powers given to Attorney General John Ashcroft, and by the detention of more than 1,000 unidentified individuals for questioning not arrested or charged with anything directly related to the terrorist threat.

And on the war front, it is proceeding largely uncovered on the scene by American reporters, on legitimate grounds of protecting classified information and troop safety. Reporters have been permitted on naval vessels from which attacks have launched, with no apparent concern that they are security risks.

The president not surprisingly addressed none of these concerns in his positive, upbeat speech on homeland security. His purpose clearly was to rally the country for the long pull he foresees. That certainly is a legitimate function for him, and he has done it well. But if the war on terrorism lasts as long as he says it will, he will need to deal with the criticisms, too.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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