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For those who are the praying kind, pray for President George W. Bush.

It is our president, not Congress, or any media second-guesser, who is going to have to make the excruciatingly tough decisions in this conflict.

Don't waste time worrying about Bush's preparation. Other than George Washington, no president facing a crisis this broad and deep could be graded highly qualified when the war started.

The biggest thing Harry Truman ran before 1945 was an artillery battery. Franklin D. Roosevelt was dismissed as a lightweight and a "feather duster" as he entered the White House.

Woodrow Wilson had been a college president who narrowly weathered a campus crisis. Abraham Lincoln, who sneaked into Washington the night before his inauguration because of death threats, had been a failed politician and a lawyer for the Illinois Central Railroad.

Among Bush's unenviable tasks are:

1) Drawing the fine line between wartime civil rights and national security.

2) Overhauling the nation's failed $30 billion international intelligence system.

3) Finding a middle ground between the country's instincts for massive indiscriminate retaliation and the diplomatic necessity of being surgically precise in any moves against an enemy with no headquarters and no borders.

4) Modernizing a creaky and quarrelling military establishment into a cohesive whole.

In pursuit of these aims, Bush will have two things in common with Abraham Lincoln, unfortunately.

Other than the Civil War president, no American leading a war effort faced such a resentful and covetous Senate.

As a byproduct of the times and because most of the leading media voices backed his Democrat campaign opponent, Al Gore, any newspaper and television support of Bush will be grudging at best.

For example, the search for bodies in the cratered Pentagon hadn't even started when one network anchorman sniped at Bush for not returning immediately to Washington from Florida.

Just hours after the administration abandoned hope for survivors from that scarred symbol of America's might, a Democratic senator broadly implied that Bush was a coward for staying in Louisiana and Nebraska until the skies had been secured.

Still smarting over the 2000 presidential election, statements of support for the president from Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., have been notably dry, and stingy.

The coordinated Democratic rhetoric leaves plenty of room for extracting maximum political advantage from any White House misstep or unexplained delay in taking appropriate action.

Most Democratic comments about the White House have carried the bitter aftertaste of concern for so-called congressional and constitutional prerogatives.

But in a conflict of this kind, this Congress doesn't have a clue.

At first, most members, Republican and Democrat, treated the brutal series of attacks like some kind of natural disaster, an earthquake or tidal wave -- a calamity with no perpetrators.

Their pathetic singing of "God Bless America" from the Capitol steps had the tone of resignation and defeat sounded in the playing of "Nearer, My God to Thee," by the ballroom orchestra of the ill-fated ocean liner Titanic.

With few exceptions, their speeches were self-aggrandizing and pusillanimous.

Only Sen. Arlen Spector, R-Pa., seemed to grasp the enormity of what has happened and will continue to happen.

Spector called for a declaration of war against governments and political entities that harbor and have "given aid and assistance" to the terrorist organization of Osama bin Laden.

It sounds great, but it will be the president's job to decide where to strike among 31 nations that host bin Laden's Al-Qaeda cells, almost all of which are friendly to the U.S.

Political finger-pointing has already started, with Republicans and other conservatives blaming former president Bill Clinton for allowing the Central Intelligence Agency and the rest of the intelligence establishment to fall into disarray.

The fact is that the nation hasn't liked the CIA since the Vietnam War, and many called for its abolition.

Like the rest of the nation, Congress and the White House have been throwing themselves a party for the last two decades. Congress hasn't taken a hard look at the CIA for 25 years, and Congress has resisted every attempt to streamline the Pentagon.

Most members, needing to raise $1,000 to $15,000 a week in campaign money, are on automatic pilot, led by their political and legislative directors from one reception or committee hearing to another.

Few of them, literally, have time to think.

So it falls to the president -- and nobody else -- to make the tough choices, to rally the nation at the same time and hope he can still win re-election despite having to tell the country that the party is over.

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