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President Bush's Defining Hour

The terrorist attacks in Washington and New York have been compared to the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor in 1941 that brought the United States into World War II. Are they comparable? And if they are, how will historians and political experts compare President Bush to President Franklin Roosevelt, the nation's chief executive in those dark days almost 60 years ago?

Two crises, two eras, two presidents. In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt spoke to Congress and asked for a declaration of war against Japan. "December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy," immediately became a phrase that continues to echo across American history.

Professor Patrick Maney, a leading Roosevelt scholar and Chairman of the University of South Carolina's Department of History, says the Japanese air assault against Pearl Harbor in 1941 differed from the terrorist attacks against Washington and New York. Professor Maney said, "Pearl Harbor, as much as a shock as it was to Americans, it was still fairly remote from American shores. So I don't think there was kind of feeling of personal vulnerability that people felt."

Mr. Maney says President Roosevelt and President Bush faced similar clamorings from the American public for swift and punitive action. But President Roosevelt, he points out, had to resist pressure for a military strike against Japan to focus on the country he thought was the greater enemy. "In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor," he said, "the vast majority of Americans, including the vast majority of members of Congress wanted the United States to retaliate against Japan. Roosevelt and almost all of his military advisers, believed that the greater danger was Germany."

Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg says that like President Roosevelt, President Bush must fashion a military response to the attack on the country. But the modern political age, he adds, demands President Bush do more. He said, "He has to show great empathy for the families of people who lost their lives, he has to show thanks for the help that the police, the firefighters and their efforts. He has to make certain that the country understands that he's in charge, that the government is fine, the country is bouncing back and he's got to really promise some sort of retaliatory action. His job is both to rally the country but also to figure out what to do next from a policy point of view."

But unlike President Roosevelt, who had great rhetorical skills, President Bush is not viewed as a gifted public speaker. That, Stuart Rothenberg says, could hamper the president as he leads the country in the wake of the attack. But Congress and the American people, he notes, quickly rallied behind him much as they supported President Roosevelt in 1941. "He is not a great speaker," Mr. Rothenberg said, "he is a reader. He reads copy that he may have helped write, or somebody else may have written. I think it comes across, it lacks an extemporaneous quality and some emotional quality. Obviously, he has to be his own man. That means using his own words and speaking his own way. But look, the events to some extent have already rallied the country. The anger that we see in all parts of the U.S. as a result of the terrorist activities."

Professor Maney says that in his famous "Fireside Chat" of 1942 which explained the aims of the war to Americans, President Roosevelt chose to forsake rhetorical flourishes for simplicity and directness - something he thinks President Bush did as well, in his address to the nation on Tuesday. He said, "This was not a speech with great rhetorical flourishes, its most notable characteristic, as it most of FDR's 'fireside chats,' was its simplicity and directness of language. And I certainly think President Bush would be capable of that."

The defining moments in President Roosevelt's four terms centered around his stewardship of American economic policy during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and his role as commander-in-chief in World War II.

Likewise, Stuart Rothenberg believes that President Bush's entire administration may be measured by the effectiveness of the response to this week's terrorist attacks. "It's hard for me to imagine," he said, "any other presidential decision eclipsing this, or overshadowing it.

President Roosevelt had four years of war in which he was judged one of America's greatest leaders and one of the architects of the modern world. President Bush is just beginning to lead the nation in a time of shock, fear and outrage. How he reacts will likely cement a lasting image for the American public and for history.