Can Bush channel Churchill?

The president admires the World War II leader, but he hasn't yet copied Churchill's candor about the hardships ahead as he prepares the nation for war.


Jake Tapper
September 18, 2001 4:19AM (UTC)

When he was in England in July, President George W. Bush requested a visit to the permanent exhibition of the papers of Winston Churchill at the Cabinet War Rooms in London.

"I've always been intrigued by Churchill," Bush told reporters at the time. "I think he was one of the really fascinating leaders." The British ambassador had recently brought him a bust of Winston Churchill on loan from the British government, "so Churchill is now watching my every move," Bush said.

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Bush couldn't ask for a mentor with a more starkly different way of preparing a nation for crisis. In 1940, faced with bleak news and the prospects of a long, arduous and bloody conflict, Churchill girded England for sacrifice. "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat," Churchill told the British Parliament on May 13, 1940. "We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering." Later that month, in a BBC broadcast, Churchill didn't mince words on the status of the war. "The news from France is very bad," he began.

The current war against terrorism is, of course, very different from World War II, and one of Bush's most winning characteristics is his optimism. Some officials in Washington, however, are beginning to express concern that Bush has yet to begin adequately preparing the nation for what could be a long and ugly "crusade," as he put it on Sunday afternoon.

In a Saturday interview on CNBC, Samuel Berger, former national security advisor during the Clinton administration, said that he wished Bush were cautioning Americans more about what may well be in store for us. While the Bush administration began Saturday to set the stage for a war of some duration, what has not yet been laid out is that this war may well result not only in the loss of lives of American soldiers but in further retaliatory terrorist attacks against American citizens.

In the course of just six days, Bush's rhetoric has changed significantly. In early remarks he appeared to think this was a one-incident crisis, and we could simply "hunt down and find those folks who committed this act." A day later he said the attacks constituted a declaration of "war," and he'd ratcheted it up to a "crusade" on Sunday. In many ways, the evolution of Bush's comments from Tuesday through the weekend tracks the nation's learning curve as it tries to grapple with the meaning of the current crisis.

The curve is steep, but Americans are nowhere near understanding how painful and protracted this battle is likely to be. And Bush isn't taking them there -- yet. The administration has a difficult balancing act, of course. Officials want the economy to rebound and they need the American people to go about their lives -- as did the British, as much as possible, during the Battle of Britain. Thus the White House has chosen to emphasize the importance of America resuming its life -- with caution.

"Our nation was horrified, but it's not going to be terrorized," Bush said Sunday. "We're a nation that can't be cowed by evil-doers. We need to go back to work tomorrow and we will, but we need to be alert to the fact that these evil-doers still exist."

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And yet the question must be asked: Is Bush preparing the nation for the challenges that lie ahead as fully and honestly as he should? "You will be asked for resolve, for the conflict will not be easy," Bush said Saturday in his weekly radio address. But far from "blood, toil, tears, and sweat," Bush has asked for very little from the American people. Asked how much of a sacrifice ordinary Americans should expect "to make in their daily lives, in their daily routines" on Saturday, Bush said, "Our hope, of course, is that they make no sacrifice whatsoever.

War has been declared on us, he said, "so, therefore, people may not be able to board flights as quickly."

And then, on Sunday, asked if Americans should "be ready for the possibility of casualties in this war," Bush offered an odd response. Stating that "the American people should know that my administration is determined to find, to get them running and to hunt them down, those who did this to America," Bush said that Osama bin Laden's organization, al-Qaida, "is in a lot of countries" and is "based upon one thing: terrorizing."

Bush certainly didn't prepare the nation for the possibility that fighting in Afghanistan, for instance, could require ground troops, according to military experts -- and ground troops always mean high casualty rates. (Polls released Sunday showed the nation may be ready for more honesty from Bush: The vast majority of Americans told pollsters they're prepared to endure ground troops and U.S. military casualties to fight bin Laden.)

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While few doubt its necessity, U.S. military action runs the risk of creating new "martyrs" and further uniting various factions against the the country and its allies. Moreover, these terrorists clearly prefer to attack civilians, not soldiers. If this war escalates, is America prepared for the kind of havoc this new warfare is likely to wreak? How does one even emotionally prepare for further attacks against civilians? These are questions that may be too horrible to even contemplate. But that doesn't mean we should ignore them, or act as if they're alarmist. Tragically, they're all too realistic.

As Thomas Friedman wrote in Friday's New York Times, "I suddenly imagined a group of terrorists somewhere here in the Middle East, sipping coffee, also watching CNN and laughing hysterically: 'Hey boss, did you hear that? We just blew up Wall Street and the Pentagon and their response is no more curbside check-in?'"

But, perhaps because of a feeling that America needs to heal more than it needs to prepare for the worst, on Sunday Bush painted a picture of an America that will regularly be diverted from the headaches its leaders will be facing. "Oh, there will be times when people don't have this incident on their minds, I understand that," Bush said.

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"There will be times down the road where citizens will be concerned about other matters, and I completely understand that." The U.S. government, however, would remain focused on the problem, he said, so average Americans didn't have to.

It has taken Bush himself some time to come to terms with the enormity of the threat to the U.S. that Tuesday's attacks represent. That shouldn't be surprising; after all, those in the government who had been warning that sophisticated terrorist attacks on the U.S. were unavoidable -- from former Sens. Warren Rudman, R-N.H., and Gary Hart, D-Colo., who headed up the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, to Rep. Porter Goss, R-Fla., and Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., the chairmen of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees -- had their words fall on deaf ears. Few of us seemed to understand, before Tuesday, how fortunate the United States had been in avoiding international terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

But even after Bush understood the enormity of the attacks, he was still minimizing the impact on the U.S. and the scope of the need to respond. Later on Tuesday, while Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was on CNN calling the attacks "clearly an act of war," Bush was still speaking of retaliation as if the U.S. would be on a single law-enforcement mission, saying in a taped message from a Louisiana Air Force Base that the government "will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts."

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He wasn't alone in his initial response. "We're going to find out who did this, and then we're going after the bastards," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, on CNN. "It's that simple."

But, of course, it wasn't that simple, as Vice President Dick Cheney revealed Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press: "On the morning of the attack, with a plane headed for the Pentagon, President Bush gave the order "that if the plane would not divert -- if they wouldn't pay any attention to the instructions to move away from the city -- as a last resort our pilots were authorized to take them out."

That didn't happen, but Bush's order exemplifies the horrifying complexities in America's new war, and what it means that battles against terrorists have to be fought on domestic soil. The enemy we are fighting is often faceless. The terrorists do not reside in one particular location but are spread out in cities across the country, and across the globe, aided by various states and financiers. Whatever action the U.S. takes will almost certainly provoke further acts of terrorism committed against Americans and our allies.

Bush began to acknowledge at least some of the nuances of this new world during his third comments after the attacks, in his Tuesday night address to the nation. After stating that "the search is underway for those who are behind these evil acts," Bush pointedly noted, "We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them."

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And by Wednesday morning, Bush's language had gotten even more bellicose. "The deliberate and deadly attacks which were carried out yesterday against our country were more than acts of terror," Bush said to his national security team in the Cabinet Room. "They were acts of war."

For the first time, Bush began hinting about a long-term struggle, about using "all our resources to conquer this enemy," and "rally(ing) the world. We will be patient, we will be focused, and we will be steadfast in our determination. This battle will take time and resolve. But make no mistake about it: We will win."

Later that day, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer was asked about the use of the term "war" on Wednesday. What changed? Fleischer was asked.

"The president will share his thoughts with you as his thoughts develop as a result of the conversations he has with the security team," Fleischer said, "and as he thinks this matter through in his mind, and shares information with the public."

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Bush shared more than information with the public this week; he was sharing his emotions as well, and those also play a role in helping Americans come to terms with how sobering, even shattering, these attacks have been. First came sorrow, then anger, then steely resolve.

At his first press conference Thursday morning, Bush seemed to still be taking in the enormity of the crisis. After a reporter asked him where his heart was, Bush choked up and drew up to the precipice of tears. He turned away from the assembled reporters for a moment, lowering his head. When he turned back, his eyes were brimming. "Well, I don't think about myself right now," Bush said. "I think about the families, the children. I am a loving guy, and I am also someone, however, who has got a job to do -- and I intend to do it."

By Friday, at the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance Service at the National Cathedral, Bush seemed less sad and emotional and more angry and resolute, saying that "our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil."

No small thing, to rid the world of evil, but there it was. Our new task. "War has been waged against us by stealth and deceit and murder," Bush said. "This nation is peaceful, but fierce when stirred to anger. This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way, and at an hour, of our choosing."

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Later that day, at the site where the World Trade Center towers once stood, at the corner of Murray and West streets, Bush spoke to police, firemen and rescue workers. He began speaking through a bullhorn. When the audience began shouting that they couldn't hear him, Bush shouted back:

"I can hear you!" Bush said. "I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!"

The crowd cheered. "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" There was something proud and cathartic in the cheering, but there was underneath it something disconcerting, too. This is a war that will assuredly get bloodier and uglier. While the photo of the three New York City firefighters hoisting an American flag atop the WTC seems to echo the famous shot of Marines raising the flag over Iwo Jima, there's one crucial difference. The flag over Iwo Jima was raised on Feb. 23, 1945, after the deaths of 6,825 Americans in the 36-day battle for that island, less than seven months before the end of that war. The FDNY flag raising marks our latest war's dawn, not its sunset.

By Saturday, Bush's rhetoric finally began to approach a level of gravity appropriate to the horrible new protracted-war paradigm. But he still seemed unclear about just how much sacrifice and suffering would be required of the American people.

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"I will not settle for a token act," Bush said in his radio address on Saturday. "Our response must be sweeping, sustained and effective. We have much do to, and much to ask of the American people.

"You will be asked for your patience, for the conflict will not be short. You will be asked for resolve, for the conflict will not be easy. You will be asked for your strength, because the course to victory may be long." At a meeting with his senior advisors in Camp David, Bush said that the war "will not be short" and "will not be easy." But then, when it came to how this would affect American citizens, once again airline security was the only point he touched upon.

"I urge people to go to their businesses on Monday," Bush continued. "I understand major league baseball is going to start playing again. It is important for America to get on about its life. But our government will be on full alert and we'll be tracing every lead, every potential to make sure that the American people are safe."

Major league baseball? It's clear Bush feels the need to protect the U.S. economy from meltdown and the national psyche from breakdown, but some of his reassurances have seemed unrealistic. On the other hand, he seems to be letting other administration officials be more explicit and sober about what may lie ahead.

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On CBS's "Face the Nation," Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged that "we have to be worried about any of these threats: chemical, biological, radiological. I think this is going to require a full-court response on the part of the American government, the American people, state and local governments to prepare ourselves for whatever eventuality might be out there. We can't dismiss that possibility."

Said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in a Sunday briefing, "The reality is that a terrorist can attack at any time in any place using any technique, and it is physically impossible for a free people to try to defend in every place at every time against every technique."

It could also be that Bush is reflecting not just optimism, but reality. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, seemed to echo the president's way of looking at the world on "Face the Nation." "I don't think we should frighten the American people into thinking that there are a number of these incredibly wide-ranging sophisticated cells and organizational structures like bin Laden has around the world," Biden said. "It's not like there are five or six or seven other bin Ladens." Not right now, at any rate; "the likelihood of something like this happening quickly, I believe, is very, very remote," Biden said.

And maybe Bush is doing what Churchill would have done in the situation. The prime minister's candor with the British is famous, but he wasn't always candid. By June 1940, when France had fallen to Nazi Germany and British morale was staggeringly low, just one day after France signed its armistice with Hitler, Great Britain suffered one of the largest single maritime disasters, in terms of loss of life, in the history of the world. The Lancastria troopship, packed with 7,500 to 9,000 Britons -- including women and children -- was bombed by the Luftwaffe. There were fewer than 2,500 survivors.

Churchill, working on his "Finest Hour" speech -- in which he called for the nation to "brace ourselves to our duties" -- hid the news of the Lancastria's sinking, fearing the nation couldn't handle it. Britons didn't learn of it until more than a month later. Sometimes there are hard truths that even the Churchills of the world think need to be hidden, for a time. Only history reveals whether they were right.


Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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