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Patriotism helps rally support for president

Posted: Thursday, September 12, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Americans' love of country was on full display. Buses flashed ''United We Stand'' messages, Congress sang ''God Bless America'' and millions of U.S. flags fluttered across the nation Wednesday.

The wave of patriotism, still strong a year after the terror attacks, has helped rally support for President Bush and shake the United States out of the self-absorption of the booming 1990s. The administration is trying to keep the momentum going.

Politicians and historians argue over how long Bush can count on such an outpouring of sentiment and support. He is pondering an expansion of the war on terrorism into Iraq and warning of a drawn-out struggle on many fronts.

''People stand tall at ceremonies and they get tears in their eyes and so on,'' said Fred Greenstein, a Princeton political science professor. ''But I think it mostly doesn't have any fundamental and continuing effect on what gets done and who gets elected.''

The United States always has been among the most patriotic of nations. The attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania only intensified such feelings, unifying the public in shared outrage and commitment to defend the American way.

A year later, polls show that eight in 10 people are optimistic about the future of the country. Seven in 10 say they daily display the American flag. Also, 69 percent said they consider themselves ''extremely proud'' to be Americans, compared with 55 percent before the attacks.

The Army and other military services are reaching recruiting goals early, reversing a slump in the late 1990s.

The passengers who tackled the hijackers on Flight 93 have become new folk heroes, joining firefighters, police and rescue workers. White-collar corporate executives who fleeced their companies and left with fat retirement deals have drawn universal scorn.

The United States drove the Taliban out of Afghanistan in short order and repaired the Pentagon so quickly that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld could tell those assembled Wednesday at the Defense Department: ''Were we not here, now, in this solemn ceremony, a visitor passing would see no hint of the terrible events that took place here but one year ago today.''

Across the Potomac River, worshippers at Washington National Cathedral heard from South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. ''You are a great people. You are generous to a fault,'' he said. The world watched ''with awe'' as cleanup workers and charities stepped in to help the victims' families and the world recover, he said. ''It made us proud to be human.''

But behind the continuing show of patriotism and upbeat attitudes about the future, Americans are troubled about the present.

Bush's approval ratings have slipped into the 60s and low 70s, respectable but far below the nearly 90 percent levels right after Sept. 11.

The shaky economy and Wall Street upheaval weighs on minds. While military recruitment is up, voter turnout has been down so far in primary elections in this midterm election year.

''Patriotism doesn't translate into politics,'' said Curtis Gans, director of the nonpartisan Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.

He said one thing different this time is that there is no shared sacrifice involved to further unify people, as there was in the days following Pearl Harbor and during certain other times of national calamity.

''Americans haven't been asked to sacrifice, period. We were asked to return to normalcy, to give to charity, to buy stocks and buy consumer goods,'' Gans said.

''Americans need to go about their lives,'' Bush said as recently as Tuesday, when the government raised its terrorism warnings and put U.S. forces on high alert ahead of the anniversary.

Americans are less certain now than a year ago about the nation's ability to prevail in the war on terrorism, to prevent further terror attacks or to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, polls suggest.

Still, for the most part, such concerns were put aside Wednesday as the nation waved flags, lit candles, sounded bells, sang songs and shared moments of silence. ''The murder of innocents cannot be explained, only endured,'' Bush said.

Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973.



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