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Sunday, 20 January, 2002, 11:02 GMT
George Bush's pivotal year
President Bush hugs a fireman at Ground Zero
A winning performance at Ground Zero boosted Bush
Paul Reynolds

Two days after 11 September, I and a few dozen other news refugees were forlornly waiting at the UK's Stansted airport for American airspace to reopen so that we could fly to the US to join in the coverage of those momentous events.

I was asked to sketch out my thoughts on how President George W Bush might handle the crisis. I concluded that he had the potential of handling it well.
President Bush gives a speech from Camp David after 11 September attacks
Camp David: Bush said the war on terror would be 'phased'

I came to that conclusion because I had interviewed Mr Bush twice and felt that he was much smarter than his public image would suggest.

He is not intellectually smart, but he is street smart.

Nor, I came to believe, was he an extremist. I did not think that anyone who was Barbara Bush's son could be!

I felt that, given the right issue, Bush could rise to the occasion.

When I first met him, on his campaign bus as he ran for re-election as governor of Texas in late October 1998, he laid out his style of leadership.

He would set the goals and let a strong team around him carry them out.

Determined but shrewd

This is what he has done in his war on terrorism.

He has been determined (aggressive, in the view of his critics) but he has also been shrewd.

President Bush swearing-in ceremony
Bush's inauguration took place amid high security
He told UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and other supporters right from the start, for example, that he would not attack Osama Bin Laden or Afghanistan until there was evidence - which was not difficult to come by, in fact - and until the Taleban had been given an ultimatum to hand Bin Laden over and close his training camps.

Mr Bush countered accusations that this was a war on Islam by visiting an Islamic centre and inviting Muslim leaders to the White House.

He overcame a mistake he made when he called his war a "crusade". Perhaps he had not heard of the real crusades.

He also rejected pressure from some in the US Defence Department to go after Iraq as well.

As early as the Sunday after 11 September, he decided at Camp David that this would be a phased effort, starting in Afghanistan, and not a package deal trying to remove Saddam Hussein at the same time.

Looking weak

Yet his initial reaction to the crisis had faltered.

George W Bush has succeeded far beyond the expectations of many - perhaps even himself

The day of the attacks found him in Florida. He referred bizarrely to the perpetrators as "folks".

He could not get back to Washington for fear of an attack on the White House itself and spent many hours flying around, touching down at two airforce bases before finally getting back to a deserted capital that evening.

His address that night did not do the business. He looked weak.

But he recovered with a winning and human performance on the rubble of the World Trade Center, his arm around one of the firefighters, and with a rousing speech to Congress.

Bush had established himself as president.

Difficult start

The year began quite differently. He had won the presidency only after the intervention of the US Supreme Court stopped the Florida recount.

On the cold and stormy day of his inauguration, Washington was like a military camp, with police facing the crowds as the new president drove to the White House.

Protester against President Bush's environmental policies
The US stance on climate change sparked protests abroad
At one stage, the convoy had to stop while the secret service checked that the way was safe.

How different from the relaxed walk which Jimmy Carter took when he assumed office.

George Bush's first decisions made him enemies abroad, though far fewer, it must be said, at home.

His blunt rejection of the Kyoto climate accords was badly handled.

He dismissed it out of hand while the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was sitting quietly next to him in the Oval Office.

His arguments for missile defence produced huge arguments with the Russians.

Domestic concerns

He also got Congress to cut taxes and was accused of wasting the budget deficit.

I always thought that Mr Bush's actions could be explained by his determination not to suffer his father's fate.

George Bush senior, too, got very high ratings during the Gulf War but lost the subsequent election to Bill Clinton.

Protests in Florida during disputed election count
Bush took power after the Florida vote controversy
Why? Because he neglected the American domestic interest.

The son did not want to make that mistake. So the American interest, at home as well as abroad, was to prevail. And it has.

George Bush junior is much more of a politician than his father, the patrician.

You might, or might not, like his policies. You might, or might not, think that the price paid in the war on terrorism has been too high.

But George W Bush has succeeded far beyond the expectations of many - perhaps even himself.

Republican Congressman Joel Hefley
"I think most Americans are pleased with him [Bush] now"
See also:

02 Oct 01 | America attacked
George W Bush: Wartime president
16 Sep 01 | Americas
Bush leads US into 'war'
02 Oct 01 | America attacked
Analysis: Bush counsels Bush
14 Dec 00 | Profiles
George W Bush: Like father like son?
13 Sep 01 | Americas
Bush's leadership test
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