WASHINGTON -- In what he calls this ''time of testing'' for the nation, George W. Bush has gathered for himself a confidence and command unseen in the first eight months of his presidency.
The man once stumped by the names of foreign leaders has, as president, huddled with 19 presidents, chancellors, prime ministers and emirs to plot an international response to the Sept. 11 attacks.
For the crisis-stunned president who, in the early hours of that dark Tuesday, struggled to label the perpetrators (he called them ''folks''), ''evildoers'' now rolls off the tongue with a hiss. His order to see Osama bin Laden captured ''dead or alive'' could have come off too cowboy but sounded all commander-in-chief.
''This time of testing has revealed the true character of the American people,'' Bush said Thursday night.
It's revealed something of his own true character, say his allies.
''The worse things are, the better he is,'' said Mark McKinnon, a media adviser and friend to Bush.
''Those of us who have worked with him and seen him in private have always thought that it might be in a crisis that people were able to see the full measure of the man.'' What critics once saw as disengagement, now looks like the virtue of a leader who does not overreact on impulse.
''Slowly but surely'' goes his manhunt, he said.
The last month has been full of firsts for the country.
The first mass murder by foreign terrorists on American soil. The first time a vice president is forced into hiding by security threats. The first time NATO radar planes have been called on to patrol U.S. skies. The first war of the 21st century.
And, on Thursday, Bush's first formal prime-time news conference.
Until now, it was a venue that Bush had explicitly rejected. Aides had said he was more comfortable taking reporters' questions informally, in the press briefing room or during brief photo opportunities with other heads of state.
Even critics acknowledged he was ready.
''He seems much more self-confident today than he was even three weeks ago,'' said Joe Lockhart, press secretary in the Clinton White House.
In the aftermath of attacks on New York and Washington, Bush's job approval rating soared above 90 percent and, no matter how pollsters phrase the question about Bush's handling of the crisis, nine in 10 Americans say they heartily approve.
''He's come almost to fill the job,'' said Charles O. Jones, president of the American Political Science Association. It has helped, Jones said, that the terrorist crisis has muted Bush's partisan opponents. ''He's found that comfortable; there's no competition.''
Lockhart credited Bush with deftly juggling his high-stakes roles: military commander, cheerleader for struggling U.S. businesses, soother of unabating American fears.
On Thursday, the bar was pushed even higher.
Bush strode a red carpet into the East Room to face live TV cameras on the heels of an FBI warning of more terrorist attacks in the United States and abroad in the next several days.
In plain English and a calming matter-of-fact tone, Bush walked the country through what happened when the government suspected crop dusters might be retrofitted for the spread of biological weapons.
He put a light twist on the dark fact that Vice President Dick Cheney mostly works from a secret hideout these days. ''I shook hands today with the vice president in the Oval Office. I welcomed him out of his secure location,'' Bush chuckled.
McKinnon, well aware of Bush's resistance to the formal news conference, said it was the best venue left to him for reassuring a scared country. By fielding reporters' questions in an unedited, unfiltered session broadcast live nationwide, ''it's almost like taking Americans' questions by proxy,'' McKinnon said.
After two half-hour practice sessions, Bush leaned comfortably into the lectern and spent 40 minutes on 13 questions on live television.
A few colloquialisms were quintessentially him. He told Afghanistan's ruling Taliban there was still time to turn over bin Laden: ''Cough him up.''
But Bush also had an eye to history and his legacy. He said he wanted his anti-terror campaign today to be a roadmap for future leaders here and overseas.
It has been 6 1/2 years since the East Room -- and the nation -- saw such a forum. That was President Clinton on April 18, 1995, talking about welfare reform and the Republican Congress.
The following morning, the Oklahoma City bombing woke Americans to the horror of terrorism.
Sandra Sobieraj has covered Presidents Clinton and Bush for The Associated Press.
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