Yesterday, the same day New Yorkers were warned there was a "specific threat" of a bombing on their subways, President Bush delivered what the White House promoted as a major address on terrorism. It seemed, on the surface, like a perfect topic for the moment. But his talk was not about the nation's current challenges. He delivered a reprise of his Sept. 11 rhetoric that suggested an avoidance of today's reality that seemed downright frightening.
The period right after 9/11, for all its pain, was the high point of the Bush presidency. Four years ago, we hung on every word when Mr. Bush denounced Al Qaeda and made the emotional - but, as it turned out, empty - vow to track down Osama bin Laden. Yesterday, it seemed as if the president was still trying to live in 2001. It was eerie to hear him urge Americans to take terrorism seriously. There wasn't any reason to worry about that even before subway riders were being told about the threat of a terrorist attack on their commute home.
He seemed to be reading from a very old and familiar script as he revealed that terrorists recruit "disillusioned young men and women," some of whom build weapons based on information available on the Internet. He shared his conviction that "it is cowardice that seeks to kill children and the elderly with car bombs." He said his team was "reforming our intelligence agency" and reorganizing government for "a broad and coordinated homeland defense."
Americans have seen the Department of Homeland Security in action for several years now, under two directors. The first, a former governor with whom the president had a good personal relationship, was an inept bureaucratic and political player who had a strange obsession with color-coded states of emergency. The current one was at the helm during the Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster in New Orleans, when that agency was overseen by an unqualified political appointee.
The administration is still trying to recover politically from Katrina. The hurricane was not just a bad stretch that could be cured by a promise of federal aid and a demonstration of presidential concern. The hurricane showed that despite four years of spinning, America is still unprepared for a catastrophe. It raised major questions about the caliber of people with whom Mr. Bush surrounds himself.
Ever since the terrorist attacks, the main thing Americans have wanted from Washington is a sense of safety. That takes more than hyperalertness to suicide bombing threats, important as that is. No matter what the terrorists are up to, it is not possible to feel safe if the federal government does not appear to know what it is doing on so many different levels.
Yesterday was an ideal moment for Mr. Bush to demonstrate that he was really in control of his administration. He could have taken any one of a number of pressing worries and demonstrated that he was on the job, re-examining the problems, working on answers. For instance, he could have addressed the crisis facing the overstretched military due to the endless demands made by Iraq on both the Army and the beleaguered National Guard.
The speech came one day after the White House threatened to veto a bill onto which the Senate added a ban on the use of "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment" against prisoners of the American government. This president could not find the spine to veto a bloated transportation bill that included wildly wasteful projects like the now-famous "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska. What kind of priorities does that suggest? If we ever needed the president to demonstrate that he has a working understanding of exactly where he wants to take this country, we need it now.
The president's inability to grow beyond his big moment in 2001 is unnerving. But the fact that his handlers continue to encourage him to milk 9/11 is infuriating. For most of us, the memories are fresh and painful. We mourn the people who died on Sept. 11, as we mourn Daniel Pearl and other Americans, not to mention innocents from other countries, who were murdered by terrorists. The administration's penchant for using them as political cover is offensive. It threatens to turn our wounds, and our current fears, into cynical and desperate spin.