President Bush, rising to the challenge

Just yesterday, it seems, so many Americans were questioning the legitimacy of George W. Bush's presidency. And now - as US attacks on Afghanistan have begun - he is drawing record highs in public approval as recorded by the pollsters.

Unity and bipartisanship are in the air. Democratic leaders in Congress are working closely and quietly with the president in settling their differences on domestic issues. And out in Iowa, Al Gore delivered a speech of enthusiastic support for the president that had earlier - before Sept. 11 - been expected to be the former vice president's announcement of reentry into the presidential political arena.

The biggest change is in the president himself. Or is it a change? Did he always have the stuff and now it's showing through as he rises to adversity?

At a pre-Monitor-breakfast discussion the other day, several reporters were observing that this was what had happened. Indeed, the press generally - and certainly the pundits - have come to this conclusion.

I agree with this conclusion. But I must admit that my appreciation of George W. has come slowly.

I met him first at a Christmas party in Vice President Bush's home in the early 1980s. I had walked away from where the main group of guests was gathered into a smaller room where two young fellows were amiably arguing about something or other. When they saw me, they introduced themselves. One was Jeb, the other George W.

Jeb pulled away, and I chatted for a while with George W. He kidded around with me. And I liked him. But when I asked myself afterward whether I saw this fellow getting ahead in politics, I said, "no." He seemed to be too much of a lightweight.

When, years later, I heard that George W. had become the Texas governor, I simply thought that he had made it there mainly on his father's name.

But then he proved himself to be an able governor. And I saw for the first time that he possessed a most valuable political quality: He was a wonder at getting along with people. He could shape compromise when another governor might have only found a fight.

But I wasn't convinced that George W. was of presidential caliber. I had a high opinion of his father. But, like a lot of other people, I felt the son just didn't seem to measure up to the job of running our country.

That was at first, during the presidential primaries of last year. To me, John McCain, with his prisoner-of-war experiences and his record as an effective senator, seemed much more politically seasoned than Bush - much more ready to take over presidential responsibilities.

It wasn't until the general election and Bush's debates with Gore that I began to upgrade my estimate of George W.

We must remember that Gore was the accomplished debater who had won some notable public debates in the past. He was the big favorite. And, in my estimation - and in the pollsters' findings - Bush, the underdog, whipped Gore badly.

Actually, Gore beat himself with his dominating ways and, in one debate, his ridiculous sighs. Bush showed he could remain cool in combat.

But, more than that, he appeared to be just as smart as Gore, if not more so, as he stood toe-to-toe with an opponent who was supposed to demolish him in this battle of intellect and wits.

I've been impressed, too, with the way Bush - a president who didn't have the popular vote behind him - has avoided the prediction made by many observers when he took office: that he would lack the clout to get anything done. This forecast became even more pessimistic when the Republicans lost control of the Senate to the Democrats.

But - somehow - I clung to the feeling that this likeable president, who, indeed, was good at dealing with his political opponents, was lacking something.

Well, my misgivings certainly are gone now. This president is showing everyone that he has the stuff. He's measuring up to this tremendous challenge in a most impressive way.

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