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10 years after 9/11, revive America's spirit

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
TSA employees hold hands around a memorial to the victims of the September 11 terror attacks at Los Angeles International Airport in 2003.
TSA employees hold hands around a memorial to the victims of the September 11 terror attacks at Los Angeles International Airport in 2003.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum recalls the shock of 9/11 and the determination Americans had in its wake
  • Today, the U.S. is divided and people are disillusioned about the political system
  • Voters are unhappy with Republicans, Democrats, Congress and the president
  • Frum says anniversary should prompt debate on how to revive America's spirit

Editor's note: David Frum writes a weekly column for CNN.com. A special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002, he is the author of six books, including "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again," and is the editor of FrumForum.

Washington (CNN) -- About 8 o'clock on the night of September 11, 2001, President Bush's staff received word. The president had returned to Washington. The White House had reopened.

The walk back to the White House from temporary staff quarters in a borrowed office building remains one of my most vivid recollections of that terrible day.

The streets of Washington were ghostly empty. Armed troops and military vehicles stood sentry at intersections leading to the White House. Yet the night was still and lovely. The buildings were brightly illuminated. The flags still flew at full height: only the next day would they be lowered to half-staff.

To look back on that day is to see a country in shock, a country in fear, a country in grief.

Yet there was something else too, something else that President Bush was able to reach and channel, if only for a time: a tremendous feeling of national dedication.

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That first night, the strength seemed to surge around us. These buildings, now empty, would next day be filled with purpose: mobilizing the vast resources of the nation for the struggle ahead.

In September 2001, the United States could look back on almost 20 years of national success. It had triumphed in the Cold War and launched an Internet revolution. From 1983 through 2001, the United States had enjoyed a surge of prosperity punctuated only by the two briefest and shallowest recessions in modern history.

Who could doubt America would be fully equal to all that lay ahead?

Flash forward a decade, and the mood has thickened into gloom.

Pollster Bill McInturff has assembled a cluster of data points that painfully document the downcast national mood.

Almost 80% of Americans express themselves "dissatisfied" with the nation's political system, 45% "very dissatisfied." Barely one-quarter of Americans express confidence in the national government to cope with the country's problems.

Pessimism leads to alienation.

Somebody's got to win the 2012 election, but only because the rules do not permit the voters to reject all the candidates at the same time. The Republican brand polls as badly as the Democratic brand. Congress' approval rating has slumped even below the president's.

One classic swing voter in a McInturff focus group -- a middle-aged, working-class, white woman from Florida -- declared her utter disgust with everyone and everything: "I won't even put up my flag any more, it's just the way I feel."

Much of American politics today is an argument about how the United States tumbled from where it was 10 years ago to where it is today. Maybe the poignant anniversary of the terrorist attacks could launch a more productive debate: how does the United States recover the confident strength and power that once consoled a country for its loss and pain?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

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