Some days it just doesn’t pay to get up in the morning. President Bush must have felt that way on a growing number of occasions in the last four years as he has watched his presidency slip into the depths of a faltering economy, two wars that have gone on far too long, his administration’s miserable failure in dealing with two hurricanes that nearly wiped out a huge swath of the Gulf Coast, and approval ratings so low they cost his party much of its vitality.
He even told ABC’s nightly news anchor, Charlie Gibson, recently that he wasn’t prepared to be a wartime president and regretted that intelligence failures led him into bad assumptions about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Friends of the beleaguered president have been looking around for something indisputably positive in his tenure to pass on to history and they think they have found one. They contend that there will be at least some historical redemption for Bush in the fact the last seven years have been free of successful terrorist incursions despite long-term predictions to the contrary following the horror of Sept. 11, 2001. In addition they say that the nation’s readiness to deal with such an incident, even those involving weapons of mass destruction, are a thousand times improved over that traumatic day because of the president’s stubborn refusal to be swayed by those who claim his remedies often have gone too far.
So Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff started off a session with reporters recently paying tribute to "the president’s leadership" in the war on terrorism. At the same time he praised the accuracy of a report last week that cited an increasing threat of nuclear or biological attack on the United States both at home and abroad. He said much more has to be done if the nation’s safety is to be maintained. It all had the aspect of man who fell off a 10-story building and was heard to say as he passed each floor, "well, so far so good."
Does Chertoff, a former federal judge, agree that there have been valid criticisms of the White House’s policies for dealing with the terrorist threat, that aspects of the Patriot Act and the use of long banned interrogation methods have tarnished the American image? One doesn’t get everything right in these matters, he said, when "your house is on fire" you do what you can to save it. In hindsight critics might say you would have done better to run through this door or that, but you had to do the best possible at the time.
Bush’s unrelenting detractors argue that the fact terrorist activity here has been relatively benign during the years following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the downing by brave passengers of an airliner on its way to do even more harm is mostly just luck. But that is as unfair as it is untrue because it diminishes the role the president’s policies, like them or not, have played in thwarting further assaults on U.S. soil by al Qaeda and other groups.
The heightened awareness of most local, state and national security forces here is in sharp contrast, for instance, to those in India where only 10 men were able to kill more than 170, wound more than 300 and hold a city of 15 million at bay for nearly three days. Adding to the shame of India’s lack of preparedness was the disclosure that the nation’s authorities had been warned of a pending attack by sea.
One might challenge contentions that Bush should get credit for the absence of major terrorist activity at home. But to do so would be to deny the long-held belief that what happens on a president’s watch accrues to him either favorably or unfavorably. The historic balance sheet for Bush is heavily weighted toward the debit side. It might just be that this important asset –a hiatus in domestic horror –will help to some degree to offset the negatives.
(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)