This morning—September 11, 2001—I sat down to write about the decision by U.S. senator Phil Gramm to retire after serving out his term, and what his career and the end of it meant for Texas. The subject had mesmerized the political community for more than a week. But what seemed so important yesterday has receded from public consciousness today, to be replaced by images of airplanes flying into skyscrapers and buildings falling from the sky. Tragedy has but one benefit: It puts things in perspective. It reminds those of us who assign great importance to the Gramm retirement, or the Dow Jones average, or our favorite football team’s next game that what really matters is life, love, safety and the faith that the world we know will be pretty much the same tomorrow as it is today.
And yet, in a crisis, politics in its largest sense—the art of public leadership—assumes its greatest importance. No other forum so enables a single individual to seize the reins of history. Not every leader has the knack. Herbert Hoover did not, but Franklin Roosevelt did; a pessimistic Jimmy Carter did not, but an optimistic Ronald Reagan did. In the days and weeks ahead, we will find out whether George W. Bush has that knack. Rhetoric and symbolic actions have never been his chosen methods of leadership, but now he has no choice. All of us should hope that our fellow Texan proves worthy of the task.
This test could not come at a more difficult time for the president. We are entering the closing stretch of the political season, a time when all of the issues that have been working their way through Congress must be resolved. Except for the tax cut that passed this spring, Bush’s agenda faces an uncertain future. His education package, energy plan, faith-based initiative, and military overhaul, including a missile shield, do not have the backing of large, organized constituencies. Had the terrorist attacks not occurred, the news in the upcoming weeks would be dominated by intense politicking, finger-pointing, and blame-placing.
But the attacks did occur, and the country is different now. This is not a time for politics as usual. The president could do the nation no greater service than to announce that he is suspending the battle for his legislative program until next year. In an effort to prevent the budget from becoming a divisive issue, he