By Richard S. Dunham A friend recently said of September 11, "It seems like it happened just yesterday. And it seems like it happened years ago." Millions of Americans must have had similar thoughts as they marked the six-month anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. The horror and destruction -- brought home even more vividly in a documentary aired Mar. 10 on CBS -- force each of us to revisit our own very personal reactions to that wrenching day.
In so many ways, large and small, Americans' lives have changed. These lasting changes also extend to the political world, where President Bush retains an extended run of popularity unprecedented in modern times.
As a White House correspondent and longtime Washingtonian, I'm still amazed at how the events of September 11 transformed the Presidency of a man who had won the office but lost the popular vote and had sometimes struggled to communicate with Americans in his first year in office. Bush still finds a particular eloquence every time he refers back to September 11.
"STIRRED TO ANGER." He once again struck the right balance between remembrance and defiance on Mar. 11. "September the 11th was not the beginning of global terror, but it was the beginning of the world's concerted response," he said in a moving ceremony on the White House South Lawn. "History will know that day not only as a day of tragedy, but as a day of decision, when the civilized world was stirred to anger and to action. And the terrorists will remember September 11 as the day their reckoning began."
An ABC News/Washington Post poll released Mar. 11 shows that Bush has had a six-month run of job-approval unmatched by any President since scientific polling began in 1938. The only three to come close: Franklin Roosevelt, just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; Harry Truman, following FDR's death and again after Japan's surrender; and George Bush Sr., in the immediate aftermath of the Desert Storm triumph. About 80% of Americans now approve of Bush's overall job performance, and that number jumps to 88% when it comes to his conduct of the war against terrorism. Moreover, 64% strongly approve of his overall performance.
That's a huge shift for Bush, whose popularity had dropped to the lowest point of his Presidency just prior to September 11 amid recession fears and a federal fiscal free-fall. Democratic strategists are convinced that he has peaked and will slowly descend to mere-mortal levels. That remains just hopeful thinking by nervous foes.
STATUS-QUO POLITICS. However, while Bush remains in the political stratosphere, his popularity doesn't appear to be rubbing off on fellow Republicans. A survey by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg finds the GOP slipping back into a tie with Democrats in the 2002 congressional elections. So while some things have changed in the political world, others have returned to the status quo.
Partisanship aside, it's impossible to live and work in Washington without feeling the changes wrought by Osama bin Laden. The White House remains shuttered to average Americans, who used to be able to walk up to the East Gate for morning tours. The U.S. Capitol -- the people's house -- is open to many fewer people, and with far tighter security. And the city's magnificent museums are emptier than they've ever been, as tourists just stay away.
All around town, streets are closed to traffic and concrete barriers mar the view of handsome public buildings. Protection comes at a high aesthetic price. And you can't use Washington's subway system regularly without noticing those ugly chemical-weapon detectors. It's a daily reminder of the new world we live in.
INFO CONTROL. As a frequent traveler, it's instantly obvious how life has been transformed. The "terrorism tax" that's now levied on every flight to pay for increased security screening is just the beginning. The random searches, the orders for passengers to remove their shoes, and the chaotic queues in some airport terminals all testify to the trade-offs in privacy, freedom, and convenience that many Americans must pay. That's probably why a third of the public remains less likely to fly, even six months after the hijackers struck, according to a Mar. 8-9 Gallup Poll.
For reporters, September 11 has made newsgathering much more difficult. The Bush Administration, already the most disciplined press operation since Richard Nixon's, became even more dedicated to controlling the flow of information. Government Web sites began to take down information that could in any way be considered useful to potential terrorists. The Justice Dept. pledged that it would defend -- aggresively -- any government agency that denied media requests for documents. And Vice-President Dick Cheney decided to wage a campaign of massive resistance to congressional attempts to find out who he met with while putting together the Administration's energy plan.
After Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt warned that "loose lips sink ships." After September 11, President Bush has let it be known that loose lips, or loose Web sites, won't be tolerated during the war on terrorism.
While most Americans say their lives are returning to normal, on balance, that's not the case in New York and Washington -- or for the families of military personnel deployed around the world in the effort to stamp out al Qaeda and its allies. It'll take a lot longer than six months for many of us to free ourselves of the long shadow of bin Laden. I just hope that we never again see such an event. Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BusinessWeek Online