Friday, October 27, 2006

George Bush Talks About 'The Next Attack On America'

By Daniel Henninger
Wall Street Journal
October 27, 2006

Somewhere it is written in the Book of Politics that when the race gets tight, the leaders call in the Scribes. It is for this reason that I found myself at LaGuardia Airport Wednesday enroute to an afternoon meeting in the Oval Office with President Bush. That would be followed by lunch the next day with the vice president. The airport deserves mention because the very small group of writers who sat with the president was in fact exponentially larger than the number of travelers there who stopped to watch his 10:30 a.m. news conference on the TV monitors.

Two weeks from an election, perhaps their minds are made up. The president's certainly is. "This war is different than the other wars we've been in," Mr. Bush said a few hours after his news conference while sitting beneath a portrait of George Washington. "If we leave, they will follow us here."

Meetings with the president at election time are overtly political, but the remarkable irony here was how little election politics came up in our discussion. Mr. Bush talked expansively about Iraq, the Maliki government, Iran, Syria, North Korea and the broader war on terror. When his own party's infatuation with immigration was raised, Mr. Bush briefly ticked off his own thoughts on immigration policy and swung back to this:

"I'm campaigning like mad, and I'm looking at people in the eye and saying, you better have a government that does everything in its power to protect you from attack. You're right here in the office where I get briefed every morning and I'm telling you it's on my mind, and I can't keep it off my mind. I was affected deeply by the attacks of September the 11th. It became clear to me that day that we were at war. I know we're at war."

The room in which Mr. Bush is briefed every morning on the war, the Oval Office, is a cheerful room, full of light along high lemon-yellow walls. There are fine busts of Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Dwight Eisenhower, and the Washington painting. These icons of Mr. Bush's political formation no doubt were chosen after his first inauguration. But it is hard not to notice that the room today is occupied full time by three former war presidents and a prime minister of war.

The Oval Office today is a war room, and this is a war presidency. In these most partisan of times, Mr. Bush barely mentions the media and not once utters the word "Democrats." But as in 2004, we are again going to the polls to vote on national security. With Baghdad a cauldron of violence, this is the fight the Democrats say they want, and the one they are going to get Nov. 7. However many Republican candidates are separating themselves from Mr. Bush's war, the president is guaranteeing that the subject goes to the voters.

What struck me Wednesday was how Mr. Bush's public news conference was almost wholly about the Iraqis and their government, and how his private conversation with us was mostly about the stakes for the American people. Over these war years, there should have been more of the latter. Admittedly, it is difficult to convey in public the urgency about the war on terror that Mr. Bush conveys in private. But it is obvious that he regards the threat to the American people as palpable.

"My biggest issue that I think about all the time," Mr. Bush says, "is the next attack on America, because I am fully aware that there are people out there that would like nothing more than to have another spectacular moment by killing American people. And they're coming. And we've got to do everything we can to stop them. That's why we need to be on offense all the time." This, he insists, is the justification for the terrorist wiretaps, the Patriot Act, the interrogations and the Iraq war.

Mr. Bush goes on offense himself in the kind of plain speech that maddens his detractors but may endear him in the heartland: "Maybe it's not nuanced enough for some of the thinkers and all that stuff -- that's fine. But that's exactly what a lot of people like me think."

On the nation's sense of frustration: "You don't have to tell me people are out there looking for something. I'm from Texas. My buddies are saying, 'Are you doing enough?' -- not, 'Are you doing too little?' They want to know, 'Are we winning?' They want to know, this mighty country, are we doing what it takes to win?"

The burden of war, however, has not sapped Mr. Bush physically as it did Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Recalling the deep toll that war and partisanship imposed on their presidencies, I looked closely at Mr. Bush for similar evidence: none. The hair's gone gray, but there is little sign of fatigue in his face or demeanor. I asked how he stays normal: "Prayer and exercise."

He dismisses the notion that Iraq is a mistake or a distraction: "This stuff about how Iraq is causing the enemy . . . whatever excuse they need, they have made up their mind to attack and they grab onto things to justify. If it's not Iraq, it's Israel. If it's not Israel, it's the Crusades. If it's not the Crusades, it is the cartoon."

Still, it's evident that Baghdad's sectarian violence has sent the U.S mood into a trough. The next day in a similar conversation with Vice President Cheney -- ballast to the energy of his president -- I ask if he senses a nation veering again toward the disillusion of the Vietnam War. He says no. "9/11 changes a lot. It's a watershed event and makes it more difficult for someone to argue that if we just bring the troops home we'll be safe and secure behind our oceans. The threat is there and it's real."

No matter the election results, it's obvious this president won't step back. He says, "We will press and press and press to protect ourselves. . . . If this country lets down its guard, it will be a fatal mistake."

Maybe it's too much. Maybe the country, or most of it this fall, doesn't share Mr. Bush's desire to be on offense all the time. Maybe they think he's exaggerating the threat for political effect. Maybe. But with or without a Republican Congress, if the country has a commander in chief who feels this deeply about protecting American soil from another 9/11 for at least another two years, it's fine by me.

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