President Bush was hardly alone in hoping that America would emerge from the
terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 a stronger and more cohesive nation. Yet nobody
framed the challenge better than he did in his State of the Union address last
January. "In the sacrifice of soldiers, the fierce brotherhood of firefighters,
and the bravery and generosity of ordinary citizens," he said, "we have glimpsed
what a new culture of responsibility could look like. We want to be a nation that
serves goals larger than self. We've been offered a unique opportunity, and we
must not let this moment pass." In later speeches he pounded on the same theme,
urging Americans to forswear the "culture of selfishness" and embrace a "new ethic
What has Mr. Bush made of that moment of opportunity, which may have passed
us by? Sad to say, not much. Most of us had expected the country to be in a different
place by now, and the fact that it is not can be attributed largely (though by
no means exclusively) to Mr. Bush's failure to leverage the political and moral
capital Sept. 11 provided.
Mr. Bush had the words right. His problem was his failure to give them meaning,
either because he did not know what had to be done or because what had to be done
exceeded his political will. Sept. 11 summoned Americans to think differently
about basic problems and to reach out to one another as never before. It was a
moment to begin thinking about less wasteful energy policies, to envision new
economic and social strategies, to examine programs of national service for the
country's young people in short, to entertain genuine sacrifices linked to an
elevated vision of America's possibilities. Despite lots of oratory, however,
no real sacrifice has been demanded, no vision offered.
In his defense, Mr. Bush has been a busy and burdened man, and as the nation's
leader, he has pushed us forward on several fronts. He has proposed a new architecture
of homeland defense that could do much to rationalize our quarrelsome and porous
security agencies. Abroad, he has prosecuted the complicated war on terrorism
with patience and resolve. He certainly did not anticipate the explosion of exposés
about appalling corporate behavior that has helped make 2002 a peculiarly "low
dishonest" moment in American history (to borrow W. H. Auden's observation about
the 1930's), instead of the year of fresh beginnings we wanted.
Nevertheless, the most glaring missed opportunities are directly linked to
the president. For instance, it is hard to imagine a sharper reminder of America's
dependence on the volatile regimes of the Middle East for their oil than the events
of Sept. 11. Yet instead of charting a new course, one requiring major investments
in energy efficiency and the development of alternative energy sources the two
surest roads to greater energy independence Mr. Bush clung stubbornly to the
notion that the United States could drill its way to self-sufficiency. Absent
presidential leadership, a timid and unimaginative Congress did little better,
rejecting modest efforts to tighten fuel economy standards while showering producers
of traditional fossil fuels with a staggering array of subsidies and tax breaks.
Likewise, Sept. 11 seemed to have little impact on Mr. Bush's economic thinking.
Everyone makes sacrifices in times of war, including leaders. Franklin Roosevelt,
for instance, set aside cherished domestic initiatives after Pearl Harbor because
he knew the country could not afford them. In a similar fashion, Mr. Bush might
have postponed or even rolled back his tax cut and redeployed the money in more
meritorious ways, perhaps to underwrite a serious program of foreign assistance
to encourage the growth of democratic institutions in countries where poverty
and corruption breed terrorists and cynicism about an American government that
supports tyrannical leaders. It would have asked much of Mr. Bush to ask him to
give up a program so central to his thinking and political strategy. Yet in clinging
to the tax cuts as if they were holy writ, as the former presidential adviser
David Gergen recently observed on the Op-Ed page, the president has sent a clear
signal to the public that we can have both war and business as usual.
Finally, Mr. Bush has come up short in the one area where he seemed most determined
to succeed: creating from the wreckage of the World Trade Center a new sense of
purpose in our national life. Robert Putnam, an authority on American community
life and the author of "Bowling Alone," argues that the attacks of Sept. 11 connected
Americans in ways they have not been connected since World War II, creating a
sense of solidarity that manifested itself in a heightened political consciousness,
a surprising burst in trust for the federal government, an increase in racial
and religious tolerance, and a rise in public-spiritedness in general. Mr. Bush
himself noted the change immediately and marveled at what he called "the gathering
momentum of millions of acts of decency and kindness."
Unfortunately, though, the vehicle he created to capture this spirit and enlarge
upon it the U.S.A. Freedom Corps seems to have drifted into irrelevance. It
was little more than a gussied-up collection of existing programs to begin with,
programs like John Kennedy's Peace Corps and Bill Clinton's AmeriCorps, and so
far it has reached only a tiny fraction of America's young people. The administration
hopes to double the size of the Peace Corps, to 14,000 from 7,000, and expand
AmeriCorps to 75,000 from 50,000. Set against the manifest idealism inspired by
Sept. 11, this seems a trivial response. Mr. Bush, as a longtime enemy of big
government, seems unable to embrace wholeheartedly a challenge that requires making
government programs grow.
If surveys by Mr. Putnam and others are any guide, the mood of sacrifice is
fading, the window of opportunity for bottling the patriotism generated by Sept.
11 slowly closing. Mr. Bush continues to extol the virtues of voluntary service,
and this is admirable. But it is hardly enough to resist the erosion in the level
of public engagement as people return to everyday routines.
In retrospect, Mr. Bush would have been better served and the civic enthusiasm
of the moment would have had a far greater chance of surviving if he had called
for something truly bold, like a year of mandatory national service for everyone
of college age. Of course, that might have kicked up a political storm. But of
what use is political capital unless you spend it? Mr. Bush had plenty of capital
to spend after Sept. 11. Sadly, on issue after issue, most of that capital is
still in the bank, depreciating by the day.
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company