Crumbling Under Crisis

What 9/11 should have taught us about the importance of leadership.

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It's difficult to remember just how ho-hum the political stakes felt in the 1990s, a time when our country's prosperity and stability made leadership seem secondary to things like ideology, faith and personality. People who came of age in that era could still debate deep, academic questions like whether history is shaped by the person or the moment, whether great times or great leaders define us.

Back then, there was nothing to force the scary question of what happens when leaders crumble amid great crises.

On the seventh anniversary of Sept. 11, we don't have to speculate.

The 9/11 anniversary will inevitably prompt many to take stock of George W. Bush's soon-ending tenure. For many, his presidency will be cast in the moment those planes crashed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and by the high-stakes political battles that followed that frightening morning. But the most crucial lessons of both 9/11 and the Bush presidency lie in neither national security nor partisan politics.

The most urgent truth for us to understand is that the Bush era has been defined by our president's steadfast refusal to be in command and by our nation's collective unwillingness to value real leadership. As we finally end our white-knuckle ride with Bush, we must realize that our future turns on our ability to differentiate between someone seeking to take power and someone committed to lead.

Early in his term, people were fond of calling Bush our first CEO president. He certainly was a master of the bait and switch, of promising one thing and delivering another. He marketed leadership flawlessly—the bullhorn bravado atop the wreckage at Ground Zero, the flight-suited declaration of victory aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. America bought the product, but what Bush actually gave us was something different entirely.

He has lurched from one massive, deeply consequential decision to another with remarkable disinterest. As Bob Woodward has reported, he checked out of the war planning process from the start. He didn't notice the danger Katrina presented until it was way too late. He's slept through the building global consensus on climate change and the citizen uproar on fuel costs. Now The New York Times reports that while Henry Paulson has been frantically trying to stave off a global economic collapse—spawned by the housing crisis Bush ignored for years—the president has once again been chilling out back at the ranch.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Bush has also stood so steadfastly against accountability in government. The administration's storied drive for unchecked executive power and obsession with secretiveness is congruent with the president's disinterest in leading. If you're not interested in actually being in charge, the last thing you want is someone minding the details of what you're doing.

The issue is not one of Republicans and Democrats or of business people over public servants. Take the Republican, business-bred, New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg. There's plenty not to like about Bloomberg, not least of which is that he's never seen a top-down, big-box development project he can't support. But the self-made billionaire is every bit the steady, capable chief executive who Bush marketed himself to be.

When the city's budget busted after 9/11, Bloomberg spiked property taxes for the very voters who put him in office and slashed spending across the board, even dipping into sacred coffers like those of the police department. When racial tensions flared after cops shot an unarmed black man at his bachelor party, Bloomberg threw himself between the community and the police and made it clear he'd be accountable to both.