MY FATHER was a senior Pentagon official during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the autumn of 1963. My family lived at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington on a street known as ''Generals' Row.'' Our neighbors were the top officers of the Air Force, and during the heat of the showdown with the Soviets my father and his colleagues did not come home for days on end.
When I later asked my mother what that had been like for her and the other wives left behind at Bolling, she told me that they had a way of knowing if the outbreak of war was imminent, and that it never was.
''How did you know?'' I asked. She answered that she and the other generals' wives had organized themselves into shifts. Every hour, one of them would drive to the remote corner of the air base where helicopters were positioned, to see if the rotor-aircraft were still there.
The women knew that those helicopters were poised to ferry the top Pentagon officials out of Washington to the secure command bunker in the Blue Ridge Mountains from which the war would be fought. As long as the helicopters were still parked on the ground, the wives knew that their husbands were still in Washington. The helicopters never left.
My mother told this story with a curl of pride, that her Joe had been one of those to coolly manage the crisis so that the underground command bunker had never been necessary.
I thought of this story when news surfaced last week of the Bush administration's ''shadow government'' - the force of up to 100 senior officials who have been living in Cold War-era bunkers since Sept. 11, the ''National Emergency Management Team.'' As the Globe's Glen Johnson put it, ''Osama bin Laden has done what Nikita Khrushchev, Mao Zedong, and Fidel Castro never could: drive the United States government underground.''
To recall the Kennedy administration's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, especially in light of recently published transcripts, is to have an example of steady, firm resolve. Compared to Kennedy under that ferocious pressure, other presidents do not come off so well, from Lyndon Johnson's erratic obsessiveness at one end of Vietnam to Richard Nixon's bizarre emotional collapse at the other (''The nuclear bomb,'' he said to Kissinger, as we learned last week, ''does that bother you?'')
George W. Bush's frantic, ad hoc ''war against terrorism'' can seem to be yet another manifestation of presidential unsteadiness. Indeed, an air of low-grade panic has been a mark of Bush's responses since the very day the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked.
Since then the president's careless rhetoric and bluster have appalled allies, mobilized new enemies, and turned the US State Department into a damage control center. The vice president's status as the man in hiding has become a national joke. The Defense Department initiated, then dropped, a Soviet-style office of strategic disinformation.
Meanwhile, the ongoing deployment of US troops - the Philippines? Yemen? the former Soviet Republic of Georgia? - has seemed anything but prudent. And the scatter-shot air campaign against Afghanistan was a ''success'' only because of a sleight-of-hand substitution of the Taliban for Al Qaeda as our mortal enemy. Osama bin Laden? Now the administration says he was never that important. Or maybe he's in the caves the renewed air-war is bombing today. Cross your fingers and - what? - hope he dies?
In the context of such unsteadiness, the revelation of US officials ordered into mothballed bunkers might reinforce the image of a callow, frightened president who, after all, spent the first day of this crisis on the run. But is something else at work here? Odd how all of these Bush-sponsored manifestations of a nation under siege shore up the state of emergency on which this government has come to depend for its exercise of power. If officials are in bunkers for the first time in the nation's history, how dare anyone raise questions about the policies those officials pursue?
Last week, congressional Democrats finally wondered aloud about the ''war on terrorism.'' They raised pathetically timid questions, long overdue, yet Republicans slapped them down as offering comfort to our faceless enemies. And the cowed Democrats backed off.
What did my mother see when she drove to that corner of Bolling Air Force Base? She saw evidence of a government that understood the relationship between the appearance of mature judg ment and the actual exercise of it. When a nation's leaders flail about, indulging their fears and insecurities, desperately taking cover against bad things that might happen, they make those bad things all the more likely.
By contrast, those stress-tested women of Generals' Row had good reasons to feel confident. We, their children, with the helicopters gone, have none.