No gloating," read the e-mail that greeted euphoric Republican leaders as they sleeplessly stumbled into work last Wednesday. The command came directly from the White House, which hours earlier had pulled off the biggest presidential triumph in a midterm election in nearly a century. George W. Bush and his strategists were worried that excessive celebration by congressional Republicans could infuriate Democrats, polarize the electorate and poison the slim, precious mandate the President had at last won. And so on Wednesday, White House aides fanned out across Washington holding strategy sessions and conference calls with congressional leaders and top G.O.P. operatives. Even as they discussed what to do with their new power, Administration officials conveyed the directive Bush had handed down that morning: Don't overreact. Stay calm. No gloating.
But in private some Republicans just couldn't resist. At 2 a.m. on election night, shortly after incumbent Missouri Democrat Jean Carnahan conceded defeat, an aide to Trent Lott sneaked into his empty Capitol office and placed a bronze plaque engraved with the words MAJORITY LEADER on Lott's desk. The plaque had been stowed in the bottom drawer of the desk since the Republicans lost control of the Senate 18 months ago, when Vermont's Jim Jeffords abandoned the G.O.P., but Lott never threw it away, just in case he returned to the Senate's top job. "I just feel exhilarated about having another opportunity," he told TIME.
Even at a White House determined not to appear self-congratulatory, the sense of elation was inescapable. In the Oval Office early Wednesday, Bush surprised his senior staff by bounding in on five hours' sleep for a 7 a.m. meeting and laying out his postelection strategy. "Right off the bat he said we're going to focus on the economy and unfinished business," says an official. Bush instructed the aides--Karen Hughes, Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, chief of staff Andrew Card, communications director Dan Bartlett and strategist Karl Rove--to "tone it down. Let it speak for itself." But the President was smiling. "This," he said, "is a great day."
Until last week, the presidency of George W. Bush was not so much historic as shaped by history, created out of the mold of an extraordinary election and given form by the terrorist attacks of September 2001. Despite broad support for his campaign against al-Qaeda, Bush, in the eyes of his detractors, has never fully shaken his image as a fortunate son whose approval ratings would eventually collapse under the weight of a sagging economy. Democrats figured that would be enough to at least hold their ground, but last week Bush's appeal blindsided them. After securing control of both houses of Congress and then winning unanimous approval for a new Security Council resolution against Iraq, Bush has the potential to become the most powerful American politician since Ronald Reagan.