The Blog

The State of the Capitol

As President Bush returns to the Capitol tonight, he finds a city--and a nation--that is different than it was on September 10.

11:01 PM, Jan 28, 2002 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

THE DAY OF SEPTEMBER 11 I spent at the office watching TV with colleagues, dumbstruck. Around 6, I walked home through the deserted city to my house five blocks past the Capitol, on Capitol Hill.

Washington was silent that clear, balmy evening. Police barricades blocked my normal route, past the White House, but by about 13th Street, I could get onto Pennsylvania Avenue. I had it to myself. The grand boulevard where, as a native Washingtonian, I'd watched inaugural parades starting with Eisenhower's in 1956, was empty, the stillness broken only twice--when a cluster of helicopters whirred and clattered overhead carrying the president back to the White House, and a few minutes later, when a motorcade sped up the hill to the Capitol, presumably delivering members of Congress. Shortly they would gather on the Capitol steps to sing "God Bless America."

It's the route President Bush will travel tonight for his State of the Union.

The nation he will address in this Washington ritual has changed since that day last fall. For one thing, it has taken the measure of its leader, and likes what it sees.

George W. Bush has shown himself decisive, judicious, and in tune with the American people. In his last speech to a joint session of Congress, on September 20, he defined the country's mission in terms that were large but not impossibly open-ended: We will find and stop and defeat "every terrorist group of global reach." He offered a view of the perpetrators of the September 11 attacks that has only seemed more penetrating as we have learned of their warped thinking and ambitions: He called them "heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century," their cause destined for "history's unmarked grave of discarded lies."

Since that evening, the United States has taken effective action, overturning the Taliban regime faster than expected, routing al Qaeda, destroying its arsenals, and launching a process directed toward establishing a new government in Afghanistan. It has done this without triumphalism, but instead with continual warnings from the president and the secretary of defense that the struggle ahead will be long and arduous.

On the domestic front, we are knuckling down to the unpleasant business of heightened security, looking forward to the day when tweezers and nail clippers are no longer seen as threatening in airplane carry-on luggage, and precautions against bombs in cargo holds are reliably in place. Planners wrestle with innumerable perplexing issues like protecting bridges and strengthening visa approval procedures and training rapid-response teams to deal with biological attacks.

Given Bush's performance during recent months, one assumes going into tonight's speech, that he will handle the big picture relating to the war on terrorism well, even beautifully. One is left wondering what he will say about Enron, unemployment, campaign finance reform, the deficit, and energy.

The Capitol that awaits Bush is different from the one I walked past last September. Then, it sat casually atop its gracious slope. It, too, is barricaded now. Huge ugly concrete planters surround the perimeter, and the west terrace with its magnificent panorama of the city is barred by metal fences, forbidden to neighborhood dog-walkers, joggers, and tourists alike. The Capitol police say the closure is indefinite, though this seems intolerable, both as symbolism and as public amenity.

Bush said on September 20, "We're in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them." Maybe it's sentimental to make a principle out of American informality and openness, but they are us, and--especially now, in this period of adjustment--it hurts to give them up.

Claudia Winkler is a managing editor at The Weekly Standard.