How Bush Turned It Around

Men who believe in something, even if wrong, will triumph over those who believe in nothing. That is the lesson of President Bush’s recovery of the past four weeks.

From August, when Cindy Sheehan set up Camp Casey to bedevil his vacation in Crawford — which was cut short by Katrina and then the New Orleans debacle — to November, George W. Bush seemed a man at sea.

Opposition to the war was rising to 60 percent, his approval rating had plummeted to 36 percent, his credibility appeared fatally impaired. There seemed a danger that, for three more years, an America at war would be led by a broken president.

But Bush has one advantage over his adversaries. He believes in the war and has the courage of his convictions. Unlike most of the antiwar politicians and demonstrators, he does not go limp when the nightsticking starts. His defiance calls to mind Lincoln’s:

"I do the very best I know how — the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, 10 angels swearing I was right would make no difference." Bush’s strength is that he has made his peace with the idea that his presidency stands or falls with Iraq.

Thus, he set out in four speeches to defend his war policy, rally the nation, and characterize his opposition as trumpeters of retreat and defeat. By the Thursday of the Iraqi election, he had reduced them to squabbling and acrimonious incoherence.

Friday morning, to undermine the heartening headlines out of Iraq on the successful election, the New York Times plastered on its front page a story it had been holding for a year: that President Bush had authorized secret eavesdropping by the National Security Agency of telephone calls from U.S. citizens to terrorist suspects abroad.

After stumbling for 24 hours, the president came out smoking, dropping his Saturday morning radio address for an eight-minute televised address from the Roosevelt Room that bristled with angry defiance.

In summary, President Bush said: Yes, I authorized the eavesdropping — to protect America in a time of war. I have the authority to do it. I vetted it with Justice. I informed Congress half a dozen times. And those who leaked and who published this state secret destroyed a crucial program, damaged our national security, aided our terrorist enemies and are lacking in patriotism, if they are not engaging in treason.

The president’s political adversaries, save a handful, headed for the tall grass. That left the challenge to his authority to the press. On Monday, Bush used that White House press corps as a foil to repeat his charge that the Times and its leaker-collaborators were engaged in "shameful" misconduct that would almost certainly be investigated by the Department of Justice.

In his Sunday night address, carried by all three networks and all the cable news networks, President Bush altered his demeanor entirely. He made a reasoned and compelling case for why those who opposed the war, and those who disagree with his policy and war leadership, should yet stand by him.

Some Americans, he said, "conclude that the war is lost, and not worth another dime or another day. I don’t believe that. Our military commanders don’t believe that. Our troops in the field, who bear the burden and make the sacrifices, do not believe that America has lost. And not even the terrorists believe it."

Is he not right?

And if our soldiers in the field believe in and wish to fight on in this cause unto victory, upon what ground do we stand to declare them defeated and to deny them that right?

"I also want to speak to those of you who did not support my decision to send troops to Iraq," the president said. "I have heard your disagreement, and I know how deeply it is felt. Yet now there are only two options before our country — victory or defeat."

Is he not right?

President Bush also warned that too rapid a U.S. withdrawal risks a U.S. defeat that would abandon our Iraqi friends to untold horrors, signal a lack of American resolve, undermine the morale of our armed forces, and embolden our enemies across the Middle East and terrorists worldwide.

Again, does he not have a point?

For students of the Oval Office, these last four weeks are an object lesson in how an embattled president who believes in the righteousness of his cause and is willing to put his office on the line can always, especially on an issue of war or national security, rout an adversary, even one with the backing of the national press.

The president has just bought himself another six months to a year to win this.