A President Takes Charge; How George W. Bush Reconfigured Himself after September 11.(BOOKS)

Article excerpt

Byline: Roger Fontaine, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Bill Sammon, a senior White House correspondent for The Washington Times, has it all: a good beat, a bestseller already under his belt, and oh, yes, access. In this case Access.

"Fighting Back: The War on Terrorism from Inside the Bush White House" is the story of September 11 and the aftermath, but unlike most books pouring off the nation's presses about our generation's Pearl Harbor, Mr. Sammon concentrates on the view from the Oval Office or wherever President George W. Bush happened to be during this national nightmare.

When the attention is on the president and his national security team the story is well told. When it wanders, less so. The two Sperling breakfasts featuring Democrat strategists James Carville. Bob Shrum, and Stanley Greenberg are entertaining enough, but go on for too long - although the irony of the three amigos crowing to the Fourth Estate over the vulnerabilities of W. on the morning of September 11 is too rich in irony not for Mr. Sammon to dwell on. So is former President Bill Clinton's shameless scene stealing during the memorial service at the National Cathedral.

So fair enough. Furthermore, to Mr. Sammon's credit, he notes that Mr. Carville (to his credit) having learned about the fate of the Twin Towers hit the delete button on everything he had been saying. At least for a while. As for Bubba . . . what else can we expect?

The chapters on Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda also are perfunctory, leaving the reader hoping the author will return to the scene he knows best. And these chapters are very good indeed. In them, Mr. Sammon draws a portrait of a president who performs under fire with no little grace - the vignette of him sitting through the Sarasota elementary school classroom gives all of us another reason why we never wanted to be a president faced suddenly with some earthshaking news.

How the president transformed himself from pol to commander-in-chief while listening to school kids doing their lessons is fascinating, leaving anyone wondering what he would have done in his place. Mr. Sammon also traces the president's journey that first day in detail, an account that pretty well demolishes the carping critics who accused Mr. Bush of cowardice for not returning immediately to the stricken capital - surely one of the most idiotic critiques of a president since the press description of Abraham Lincoln as a baboon.

In doing so the author also captures the jumpiness of a White House in crisis, something that if experienced is not easily forgotten; it simply rewrites everything one once believed about how men and women in high places act when fear is in charge.

There is a moment recorded by Mr. Sammon that is especially revealing. On the evening of September 11 with the president "safely" in the White House, the Secret Service informed Mr. Bush that he would be sleeping in the underground bunker. The president refused, believing rightly the danger was minimal and he needed a good night's rest in his own bed and not on the lumpy foldout provided in the shelter. He almost didn't get it - just before dozing off in the residence, the Service hustled him and the entire staff into the bunker once more after reports of an unidentified aircraft nearby. The jitters turned a patrolling F-16 into a life threatening menace.

Mr. Sammon makes no secret of his admiration of the president - which is fine - there is plenty of the opposite from other journalists and pundits who don't fare too well in this account. …