Until his televised speech to a joint session of Congress, George W. Bush had been occasionally wobbly, somewhat tentative, and -- especially in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack -- diminished in stature. He seemed unsure of himself, somehow shrunken in his clothes, and -- understandably -- scared by the responsibilities that he suddenly faced and for which he was, by background and intellectual habit, almost totally unprepared.
Little by little, though, he gained confidence. He seemed emboldened by the heroism of others -- those New York City firefighters, for instance. They did what they had to do because it was their job to do it. So it would be with Bush and so, at least in that speech to the nation, did he rise to the occasion.
The words were perfect, occasionally eloquent, as when he said that the terrorists would follow other extremist groups "to history's unmarked grave of discarded lies."
The speech was also utilitarian, outlining what needs to be done and why the United States has to do it. Details were lacking, but one suspects it is not just because they were withheld. It is because the plans are not yet anywhere near complete.
But a speech is more than words. It is theater. Winston Churchill understood that. His words set an unsurpassed standard for eloquence -- he was downright Shakespearean during the Blitz and he coined, of course, the phrase "Iron Curtain." But it was his effect that also mattered -- his delivery, his pauses, and his determination to venture out into still-smoking London. He would become the face of Britain.
This -- or something like it -- was what Bush displayed last Thursday evening. He seemed steadfast. He seemed determined. He seemed confident. He was the master of the moment, as much the leader of that room as a conductor is of his orchestra. He seemed -- this is our American word for it -- "presidential."
Walter Lippmann, the great columnist and public intellectual, scathingly dismissed Franklin Roosevelt when he first ran for the White House. Eleanor Roosevelt, who knew the great men of her times, similarly dismissed John F. Kennedy. Others, too, considered JFK a dilettante whose father had bought him a political career.
It is too soon and too silly to liken Bush to Kennedy or Roosevelt and to say that he, like them, has grown to match his responsibilities. Bush has a long way to go and his task is imprecisely defined. It is called a war, but it is both something less and something more.
The world has turned upside down on Bush. He came to Washington to shrink it, to diminish the role of the federal government in almost all areas, if only by depriving it of money. He made missile defense the centerpiece of his foreign and defense policies. He pushed through an ideologically conceived tax package that was unfortunate in its inception and would be just plain catastrophic in its implementation.
Now he has created a whole new Cabinet-level post, the oddly named Office of Homeland Security. Now he is recalling retired federal workers. He is asking Congress for more and more money. He is intervening to save the airline industry, and missile defense, which is not such a crazy notion in its place, will just be part of a larger package.
As for the economy, he will need to turn his tax package on its head. It is now back-loaded and it benefits the wrong people, mostly the affluent. He needs to front-load it so the money gets into the economy as fast as possible. And he needs to give that money to the people who are most likely to spend it --the middle class.
All that in time. Meanwhile, the man who was a middling student, a boozer and towel-snapper, an incurious and intellectually inert businessman and governor who back-slapped his way into the presidency, emerged Thursday night as something we terribly needed. He was always the president. Now he is the commander in chief.
Richard Cohen is a member of the Washington Post Writers Group. His columns frequently appear in the Flyer.