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A work in progress

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Bush is growing--and graying--before our eyes. An inside report on the making of a leader

You probably want to know if I'm O.K.," George W. Bush said to a friend the other day. "Don't worry. I'm doing fine. I'm totally focused on what I have to do."

It shows. The President is growing before our eyes--not morphing into some completely new kind of leader but evolving in fits and starts and in real time, which is what makes the spectacle so compelling. The changing President is the perfect mirror of a changing country. He's trying to become the leader that America needs right now, just as America is trying to become the nation it needs to be. Though his hair seems grayer since Sept. 11, his face a touch more careworn, Bush has told a number of friends and advisers that he has never known such clarity of purpose, such certainty that he is the right person for the moment. He is buoyed by his faith that God has chosen him to lead the country during this perilous time. As if to prove his mettle, he has been boasting--to a group of Islamic clerics, among others--that he has shaved his three-mile run to a speedy 21:30.

He hasn't lost his sense of humor. Bush and his top advisers gathered last Thursday in the Treaty Room of the White House so the aides could grill him before his first prime-time news conference. They sprayed him with questions. Should Americans be afraid? What will the U.S. do in Afghanistan after the Taliban is defeated? It was the second prep session of the day, and Bush was getting impatient. Then came another question: How could he possibly leave the U.S. Wednesday to take a scheduled trip to China? Bush clenched his jaw. "Well, Mrs. Bush and I want to encourage Americans to go out shopping," he said. "And I broke a plate last week."

It took a moment, but the room burst into laughter--and it wasn't the nervous laughter that sometimes comes when Bush isn't focused on his work. The President didn't need to cram for this test. He has spent every minute of the past month living the subject. At the press conference he was calm, and knew better than to promise too much. He assured Americans of ultimate victory over terrorism even as he acknowledged that there are limits to the government's ability to prevent every heinous act. If he occasionally made side trips through his syntax, he also showed a level of introspection and analysis that surprised even his close aides. Instead of offering platitudes drawn from talking points, he ruminated on the generational experience of war and bluntly warned Americans not to take out their anger by picking on "someone who doesn't look like you." And where he used to talk about "this Administration" or "our Administration" or what "we" plan to do, now he is talking about "my Administration" and what "I" plan to do.

Bush's aides sputter at the suggestion that he has been transformed by Sept. 11. "It's not like his IQ rose 50 points just because the World Trade Center was attacked," says an annoyed adviser. But the change in the man and his policies is too stark to deny. The President who wanted to go it alone in the world--and had nothing but disdain for "nation building"--now says "we should not simply leave after a military objective has been achieved," and sees a role for the U.N. in "the stabilization of" a new government in postwar Afghanistan. As a candidate, Bush couldn't name the President of Pakistan; now he speaks of General Pervez Musharraf and other crucial Muslim leaders with the fluency of someone like, well, his father. He used to campaign against Washington bureaucrats, and he promised to balance the budget by keeping government spending in check; now he is building new federal agencies and pushing for new investigative powers, proposing billion-dollar bailouts and unemployment programs, putting the federal budget in the red for the first time in five years. "We're in a very different time," explains presidential counselor Karen Hughes. "He's always talked about the need for an active but limited government. This is one of those times when an active government is important."

It's also a time for speed. Bush took months to decide whether to provide federal money for stem-cell research; now he makes decisions about war and terrorism on an almost hourly basis. When he heard last Friday that another case of anthrax had been discovered, in New York City, Bush waited for local and federal authorities to make their statements before he said anything. Then he calmly dropped his thoughts on the matter into his remarks at an event honoring Hispanic Americans at the White House as if he had been penciling in the name of a late-arriving guest he needed to thank.

Bush can still remind you of the regular guy he used to be. When he insists that he's "amazed" by the hatred toward the U.S. in some parts of the world, he displays a powerful faith in American goodness and a naivete about the way the U.S. is perceived abroad. During an event at the CIA, he said three times that the terrorists had "misunderestimated" America and its leader. He was right.


Cover Date: October 22, 2001


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