WASHINGTON — I was sitting on a cot in an Army barracks in New Jersey back on Dec. 7, 1941, when I learned via the radio about the Pearl Harbor sneak attack.
It was a Sunday afternoon, and I was getting a little respite from training. That evening, I sat with about a hundred of my fellow trainees to hear President Roosevelt's solemn words: that this was "a date that will live in infamy" and that we Americans would always remember "the character of the onslaught against us." And we never did forget it - just as we will never forget the murderous attacks on New York and Washington.
What is sometimes forgotten, however, is that Roosevelt himself became such a different president after Pearl Harbor and our entry into the war. Yes, he had won the White House again and again since his landslide victory in 1932. However, he had been a controversial president, loved by the "have nots" but hated by most of the "haves." Furthermore, FDR's critics charged that his programs that helped the poor weren't putting an end to the Great Depression. And they were right: Historians now agree that the Depression's end came only with the stimulus of the war economy.
But the anti-Roosevelt feeling in this country that centered on his domestic programs was dwarfed by the anti-FDR fervor of millions of Americans who were opposed to US involvement in the war and were convinced that Roosevelt was dragging the country in.
Then came Pearl Harbor. Shocked and angry Americans rallied behind Roosevelt. It was a new day for him. Backed by a unified populace, he was able to be more effective, at home as well as in the war. We all know the story: a humanitarian president who moved to greatness as a war president.
This brings us to the terrorists' attacks on the US - and to President Bush.
I had just come out of a meeting with a pollster at a Monitor breakfast at the St. Regis Hotel when a colleague told me that a plane had rammed into New York's World Trade Center. I then watched the terrible tragedy unfold on a TV screen.
The poll, put together by the Democracy Corps, a group with democratic leanings, had found 45 percent of those questioned said they thought that President Bush "seems to be in over his head." (Fifty-one percent didn't agree.)
Even after discounting a possible Democratic bias in the poll, I believe it points up a fact: There are millions of Americans, most of them Democrats to be sure, who simply don't think Mr. Bush is up to the job.
And I've talked to several Republicans of late who, while delighted to have one of their own in the White House, seemed uncertain as to whether this personable, likeable fellow had the stuff to be a truly effective president.
The late-night TV shows underscored that critical public view of the president, as they continued to draw big laughs when joking about Bush's habit of mispronouncing words and making gaffes in speeches.
So this war against terrorists is Bush's big opportunity to show the doubters that he's up to his job. He's certainly got the American people behind him - and the politicians, too. Democratic Sens. Chris Dodd and Tom Daschle were soon on TV, pledging their support in this war effort.
Dodd pointed out how insignificant the "lock-box" Social Security controversy is in the wake of the horrendous attacks on the United States.
It doesn't have to be mentioned, it is so obvious: George W. is no FDR. Roosevelt had been elected almost a decade before Pearl Harbor. He was an old president, with the assets but also the scars of all those years in the presidency.
And here is this new president, trying to make his mark on a nation still badly divided, after an election in which he fell short in the popular vote.
So here's his opportunity. And everyone - Democrat as well as Republican - is pulling for him.