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With bombs and missiles flying over Afghanistan and with wild, horrifying rumors flying around the United States, hardly anyone has a good feeling about anything right now. And yet this seems like the remarkable emergence of at least a brief era of good feelings.

For a decade, political figures have been governing by looking over their shoulders, wondering obsessively what the public thinks, worrying frantically that their every move had the potential to increase the alienation between Washington and the rest of the country. Politicians, riddled with insecurity, didn't dare lead; they sought merely not to offend.

For the past decade, moreover, nobody had the sense that the nation was looking to Washington. Indeed, the opposite was true. Public polls showed that the country was ignoring Washington, even as the capital trudged drearily through the historic spectacle of impeaching a president for the first time in 130 years. And if anything, Washington was watching the rest of the country -- nervously, warily.

In the past five weeks, all that has changed. Now the country is looking to Washington for leadership. Of all the startling political developments since Sept. 11, none is more striking than the abrupt spike in public trust of government. Seven years ago, only 20 percent of Americans expressed confidence in Washington to do what was right, according to a study conducted by University of Michigan scholars. Now a Washington Post/ABC News poll puts the figure at 64 percent -- within the range of public confidence in 1964, before the Vietnam protest era.

At the same time, a poll by Zogby International for the University of Dayton shows new signs of public confidence in American political leadership. Two weeks before the terrorist attacks, 52 percent of those surveyed said there was a lack of leadership in the United States compared to a quarter-century ago. In a separate poll taken after the attacks, only 28 percent of the public said it felt that way.

"Americans are unique in their fundamental belief in the power and capability of our government to do good things when the moment is called for," said Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass. "Clearly, in the time after Sept. 11, the government did what it was supposed to do. Americans reacted with a great deal of patriotism and pride in their government."

In doing so, they transformed their view of leadership, even as the meaning of political character was being transformed. In the old calculus, character meant fidelity (in marriage), fastidiousness (in personal comportment) and fussiness (in personal finance). These particular virtues have not been diminished in value, only diminished in salience. The new qualities of leadership are courage and commitment.

"We now see there was an older America, the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam America that was consumed with Bill Clinton and Gary Condit," said pollster John Zogby. "I don't think Americans feel they need leaders with virtue anymore. We may be moving into a new era where leadership is virtue."

This is occurring as the nation embarks on an aggressive and perilous campaign against terrorism in which many of the old virtues may be jeopardized, even ridiculed. Before Sept. 11, the United States sought allies with pure hearts and pure intentions -- on human rights, on financial transparency, on adherence to Western principles of democracy. After Sept. 11, the United States is averting its eyes.

Before Sept. 11, U.S. intelligence services, reacting to public revulsion over CIA excesses and legislative constraints, consorted primarily with upright citizens. Now, the United States, eager to infiltrate terrorist cells and establish human intelligence redoubts, is far more willing to deal with creeps willing to snitch or switch for money or protection.

The irony and the danger are that one important American value (security) may be enhanced at the price of diminishing other American values (honesty and democracy).

Across the world, we are in a struggle between domestic security and international terror. At home, we are in a struggle between order and freedom, openness and secrecy, diversity and conformity, individual rights and group safety. Since World War II and its Cold War aftermath, these have been theoretical struggles only. Now the theoretical has become real, the philosophical has become political.

The Boston Globe

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