The President spoke to an enthusiastic crowd gathered at the Georgia World Conference Center after an afternoon touring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He met with some of the nation's best scientists there, who are struggling to decipher the puzzle of the recent anthrax attacks even as they prepare for the possibility of future bioterror threats.
The President had praise for everyone, and a few suggestions as well: As he lauded the nation's "new heroes" firefighters, police, teachers, members of the armed services and postal workers he called on everyone to engage in volunteer work and even enroll in an expanded Americorps. "We are a nation," he said, "awakened to service and citizenship and compassion."
As he celebrated the bravery of heroes and the righteousness of the American cause, the President echoed many of the criticisms he leveled against the terrorists in the week following the attacks. He emphasized the stark differences between life here and life under the Taliban. "Unlike our enemy, we value life," he said. He emphasized that the Taliban, for example, eliminated all rights for women in their society.
Back to a "new normalcy"
"I came to Atlanta today to talk about an all-important question: How should we live in light of what has happened?" The question, while rhetorical, is very much on the public mind. There is a way, the President went on to say, to live our lives freely while maintaining our vigilance and our dedication to security. This mindset, he adds, is our "new responsibility." He acknowledged that new safety measures around cities, harbors, power plants and bridges have inconvenienced some Americans by making it harder to get to work or school, but urged continued patience.
Without directly addressing the criticism the administration faced after issuing its second high alert in three weeks, the President defended the importance of staying informed and staying calm. "A terrorism alert is not a signal to stop your life," he said. "There is a difference between being alert and being intimidated, and this great nation will never be intimidated." This turned out to be the biggest applause line of the night.
President Bush praised the public's response to the attacks, saying, "None of us would ever wish the evil that has been done to our country, yet we have learned that out of evil can come great good. During the last two months, we have shown the world America is a great nation."
He pointed to the nation's challenge, but also its opportunities. "Our great national challenge is to hunt down the terrorists and strengthen our protections against future attacks," the President said. "Our great national opportunity is to preserve forever the good that has resulted. Through the tragedy, we are renewing and reclaiming our strong American values."
While there were no major breakthroughs to report on the anti-terror front, the President nonetheless struck a confident chord as he sought to encourage Americans. "I am proud of Americans. Our people have responded with fierce determination." Citing this week's successful blockade of terrorists' U.S.-based funding, the President also underscored advances in homeland security and cited the government's ability to track and infiltrate terrorist cells.
But in the line that will be remembered long after the applause from the speech died down, the President quoted the last words of one heroic passenger on the flight that went down in Pennsylvania. The man, the President recalled, intoned the Lord's Prayer, and then, turning to his fellow passengers, "Let's roll." "My fellow Americans," Bush said, his eyes misting slightly, "let's roll."
Ratings vs. responsibility?
Two major networks, locked in a battle over sweeps period ratings, opted not to broadcast the address. NBC chose to air "Friends," the top-rated program on TV, while CBS stuck with the enormously popular "Survivor."
While the White House did not ask for network time, as it does when the President delivers a major policy address, an administration spokesman described the reaction to the decision as "disappointing." Some media experts speculated that by not airing a wartime speech, the networks risked being labeled unpatriotic. Of course, the networks could describe their choice as the very return to normalcy the president is advocating.
As a spokeswoman at the Peacock network told reporters, "Given that the White House did not request time on the network, we thought it was sufficient to cover the event on our cable networks." (CNBC and MSNBC will both broadcast the speech.) At CBS, there was some doubt as to the newsworthiness of the President's address. "Based upon what we've been told about the content, we feel that it's appropriate to cover it as a news event in our news coverage as opposed to live programming," a CBS spokeswoman told the Associated Press Thursday. For its part, ABC decided it would carry the speech live, calling it an "important" event. The network interrupted the sketch comedy show "Whose Line Is It Anyway," which is currently ranked 86th in the Nielsen ratings.