Bush Casts off Doubts about His Leadership. (Political Notebook)

Article excerpt

The doubts have receded, the poll ratings are sky-high and George W. Bush is fitting more comfortably into the presidency. The surprised glance at the corner of the room, the goofy grin and the deer-in-the-headlights gaze of his early days in Washington are gone and the country is witnessing the making of a presidency.

Even former advisers to Bill Clinton have noted the ongoing transformation. From the measured demeanor to surer communication skills, from military restraint as planning was under way following Terror Tuesday to convincing resolution and deft diplomacy. "Bush has surprised the heck out of me. I think Clinton would have shied away from what has to be done," a Friend of Bill tells political notebook.

Bush may not have Clinton's extemporaneous adeptness and ability to project any lie as authentic, but he has the advantage of sincerity that overcomes verbal fumbles. And even on that front there has been a dramatic improvement, as was evident during the president's prime-time news conference of Oct. 11. Sitting in the back of the room, even Bush's longtime adviser, Karl Rove, seemed impressed and looked to be less the handler than the aide.

The oratory, of course, never was going to be a problem. Dwight Eisenhower was no speech maker, but he turned his simplicity of language into a strength, sometimes avoiding danger with opaque remarks, a useful skill for a president. But from the moment hijacked airliners tore into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon it was clear this crisis would be the making or breaking of George W. Bush.

The start for Bush wasn't auspicious. The scuttling around the country on the day of the attacks and his delayed return to a targeted Washington gave the impression of indecision or (worse) hiding out. A president who had been longer in office would have known to ignore extreme caution by the security people when the country needed him. His wide-eyed videotaped remarks from an air base in Louisiana made him seem unnerved.

Privately, congressmen of both parties questioned whether the neophyte president was up to the awesome task ahead. For the sake of national unity they kept their worries to themselves. Those doubts since have been allayed.

The first sign that the president was digging deep and becoming surer was his ignoring the initial warrior impulses to strike at Afghanistan immediately and refusing what he sneered at as a "CNN strike."

The second was the president's quick awareness of the dangers of a lynch-mob mentality at home and his warnings against attacks on American Muslims and Arab-Americans. He sounded that note frequently, with grace, and yet again during his prime-time news conference while urging Americans to be alert and to report suspicious activity. …