In this crisis, history offers Bush few lessons
In spite of its experience, his team is forced to improvise the war on terrorism.
WASHINGTON — With setbacks in Afghanistan and a confused response to the anthrax attacks, President Bush and his administration are showing the difficulties of managing a dual-front war that is virtually unprecedented in US history.
Much of the misstepping is understandable. The president is being forced to rally a nation behind a war overseas for which there may be no end, while trying to reassure Americans about a public-health threat at home - not to mention alerting them to other dangers unknown and perhaps unimaginable.
It's like trying to oversee the Gulf War, the leak at Three Mile Island, and the uncertainty of the cold war all at the same time.
Yet, so far, the White House can take some solace in one enduring characteristic of the American people: They tend to be long-suffering with leaders, at least in times of crisis. The question now is: for how long?
"We're a patient people, but not when the war is brought right into the daily mail," says presidential historian Henry Graff.
Indeed, a new poll by Newsweek shows that while 88 percent of Americans approve of the president's military action overseas, only 48 percent think the administration has a well thought-out plan for dealing with bioterrorism at home.
"This is obviously the first kind of domestic war we've had to confront, so it's not like there's a lot of precedent," says Leon Panetta, former chief of staff to President Clinton. But officials must quickly adjust, he says, "because they can't afford to go through too many weeks like the last one we went through."
Mr. Panetta is referring to the confusion that reigned as federal officials switched their characterization of the Washington anthrax attack from "run of the mill" to "highly concentrated," "pure," and "more dangerous." Additionally, postal workers were aggrieved at the belated attention they received in the attack that took the lives of two workers.
None of this is to mention the mixed messages that came out of the administration last week about the progress of the war in Afghanistan, nor the near obsessive focus the threat of terrorism is demanding of Washington.
To its credit, the administration seems to recognize the communication confusion, and the president for the first time on Monday is meeting with his full homeland security team, headed by former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge. Mr. Ridge is now expected to brief the media almost daily.
Interestingly, the Newsweek poll, taken late last week and released over the weekend, shows a high degree of empathy for the administration. A 65-percent majority said government officials made an honest mistake in underestimating the risks involved in handling contaminated mail.
It's the same point historians make as they emphasize the uniqueness of the crisis facing Mr. Bush. Not only is the nature of the threat unprecedented, but its timing so early in an administration makes it particularly unusual. Franklin Roosevelt had two terms behind him before he had to face Pearl Harbor. Woodrow Wilson had one in before confronting World War I. Bush had eight months.
Complicating the calculus is that Congress remains split, at least below the surface. This was not something Roosevelt needed to worry about, nor Lyndon Johnson, too much, when he began ramping up in Vietnam.
Yet even on some legislation related to the attack, Bush and lawmakers are divided over issues like airport security and an economic stimulus package.
All of this helps explain some of the bumps and blunders along the way. "No one anticipated the anthrax incident, or, indeed, Sept. 11," says historian Arthur Schlesinger, a senior aide to former President Kennedy. "You've had to improvise."
While the uniqueness of the challenge has helped mollify the public when it comes to mistakes, it hasn't offered the White House many parallels to study for lessons on governing. Moving the nation's capital, as the founding fathers did when yellow fever swept Philadelphia in 1793, isn't an option. Nor are the massive troop call-ups required by both world wars. "There's nothing more complex and challenging as this to compare it with," says Mr. Graff.
Yet there are things the Bush team can learn, and in some cases is learning, from history. While Bush may not possess the eloquence of Roosevelt, he recognizes the need to communicate regularly with the public about the war. This is critical, says presidential expert Charles Jones, because, as Vietnam taught Johnson, policy can't be maintained without public backing.
"I am really stunned at the extent to which Bush has been able to do this," says Mr. Jones. "My low expectations were in part a consequence of a mistake I and others made, that speaking well is the same as communicating well.... He is a terrible orator, but he gets the message across. Folks up and down the street understand what he's saying."
To his advantage, Bush does have an experienced coterie of advisers on foreign and military affairs to lean on. Fred Greenstein, a presidential scholar at Princeton University, compares Vice President Cheney and Bush's overall national-security team to what Truman had with George Marshall, his revered secretary of State who authored the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II.
Others, such as Graff, discount the experience of the national-security staff, arguing it only knows how to fight the last war, the Gulf War, while this one is completely different. Together with homefront generals like Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, as well as Ridge and the new FBI director, "we have a very inexperienced staff," says Graff.
Most experts agree that the one thing that Bush needs to avoid is setting vague goals with no hope of achievement. While Mr. Greenstein describes Bush as results-oriented, he is concerned about the generality of goals like, "rid the world of evil."
"It's hard to see where this thing is going to come out," he says. "There is the danger of a Vietnam sort of thing."