With the landmark World Trade Centre towers and a part of the Pentagon in rubble last night, George Bush confronted not just the biggest crisis of his presidency, but a national crisis greater than any faced by any American President since the Vietnam war, perhaps even since Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
In a statement to the nation from Barksdale air force base in Louisiana, Mr Bush said terrorism would not prevail and vowed to pursue and punish the perpetrators.
Mr Bush was on his way back from a curtailed visit to Florida. But with the White House and most official buildings in Washington evacuated for fear of further attacks,information was released about his whereabouts only after he left.
From Lousiana he went to another base at Omaha, Nebraska, Cold War home of the Strategic Air Command, from where he was said to be heading back to Washington.
He said: "We have taken all appropriate security precautions to protect the American people." Looking sombre and concentrated, but slightly diffident, he went on: "Make no mistake, the United States will hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts." In an earlier statement, less than half an hour after the attack on the World Trade Centre, Mr Bush had struck a less felicitously presidential note, vowing to hunt down "the folks" responsible.
US air space and all its land and sea borders were closed last night, as the authorities set about seeking those responsible for the worst act of terrorism.
Thereafter Mr Bush vanished from television screens. The task of assuring the country that the federal government was still functioning and that the President was in control was left to his close aide Karen Hughes, in a televised statement after which she took no questions. A presidential broadcast was expected later in the evening.
With the United States public still trying to grasp the scale of the disaster, Mr Bush was spared immediate pressure for retaliation, but he left no doubt that he would retaliate once the individuals or group responsible were identified.
His predecessor, Bill Clinton, reacted to the 1998 bomb attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania by bombing buildings in Sudan and presumed terrorist camps on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. As anything other than a gesture, however, the retaliation was a failure: the owner of the supposed bomb factory in Sudan was paid compensation by the US government, while the attacks on the Pakistan camps missed the hide-out of the suspected terrorist mastermind, the Saudi-born Osama bin Laden. Whatever the temptations to mount a show of American strength, Mr Bush must weigh the merits of striking soon against a familiar suspect, such as Mr bin Laden, and risking error or failure, or biding his time to be as certain as he can be of the target's identity and of success.
After such a massive tragedy, politically he cannot afford to fail. The Oklahoma City bombing also stands as a warning of premature rushes to judgement: the automatic assumption was that a well-funded and organised Middle East terrorist group was behind that attack.This time, in the unlikely event that disaffected Americans are to blame, the law rather than military action is the only option, though a less dramatic one.
Above all, Mr Bush must appear presidential in a way that has so far eluded him. The Oklahoma City bombing was seen as the making of President Clinton, in that he found words and a voice that articulated the feelings of America.
"Feeling their pain" became a cliche of Mr Clinton's political style, but it saved him from being removed from office after his impeachment, and it endeared him to many Ameri-cans, including some political enemies.
Nine months into his presidency, Mr Bush has yet to find as persuasive a voice or to stamp his character on the presidency. His speeches on national occasions, from his Inauguration address to his oration on the anniversary of the Oklahoma bombing, have lacked both resonance and depth. Americans have yet to feel that he is "one of them".
Even before yesterday's cataclysmic events, Mr Bush's White House was already revising the President's programme for the autumn in an effort to make him more "presidential".
Republican polls showed that, just as his father was, he was blamed for the ebbing economy, even though the decline had set in before he took office.Domestic issues will now be thoroughly eclipsed in the current political term. Foreign and security policy, which has focused until now on missile defence and military reform, will demand immediate attention.
Mr Bush will be pressed to abandon his wariness of the outside world, and engage America abroad once again. And critics of missile defence will soon come out of the woodwork to argue that the billions of dollars earmarked for defence against missiles would be better spent against a more immediate problem: detecting and countering random terrorist attacks.Reuse content