WASHINGTON - It's about the children.
As energetic, determined, and compassionate as President Bush has been since Sept. 11, his encounters with children perhaps have revealed the most about his thoughts.
Thinking about the children - the many who are now orphaned, those with T-shirts that read “Please help me find my Dad,” those awakened by nightmares, the thousands who have lost their houses and their innocence - wrings passion from the President. A decade ago, his father fought tears and vowed action when he was told, erroneously, it turned out, that Iraqi soldiers were dumping Kuwaiti babies out of incubators before the Persian Gulf War.
When a second hijacked airplane was deliberately crashed into the World Trade Center, Mr. Bush was sitting in a little chair in Sandra Kay Daniels' second-grade classroom in Sarasota, Fla. When his chief of staff whispered in his ear that America was under attack, Mr. Bush looked serious but did not frighten the children by rushing out or barking questions. He nodded to Andrew Card and went back to engaging the children in a reading exercise.
“Really good,” Mr. Bush smilingly told the 7-year-olds. “These must be sixth-graders.” When he saw the phrase “more to come” in the book, he asked the children, “What does that mean - more to come?”
A few days ago, Mr. Bush went to another classroom, Debra Nelson's first-grade class at DeSoto School in Manhattan. Earlier in the day he talked with politicians and CEOs about New York's staggering economic losses. But it was at DeSoto School, just blocks from the destroyed World Trade Center, where he lingered and seemed to recharge his batteries.
“I love America because I love freedom,” Mr. Bush wrote on a poster board under the title, “Why we love America.” He signed, “G.W. Bush.”
He told the children that “you live in a great country. You know that. You're telling me you are learning about patriotism. ... Do you know what? There are a lot of people who love America today.
“One of the things that we're learning out of our sadness is what a great country this is. The best way to realize (how great) this country is to learn how to read and write. And that's what you're doing here. Study hard because this country says, you work hard, you can realize your dreams. And that's what we're here to say to you.”
He said he wanted to talk about heroes. “A hero is somebody you look up to, of course. And the teachers of New York City were very heroic,” he said.
The teachers, he said, “were not only heroic in taking boys and girls your age out of the building, helping them find places to stay at night and making sure nobody got hurt; they're heroic today. You know why? Because they love you. And if you've got any worries about what took place at the World Trade Center, they can help you.”
Mr. Bush recited the Pledge of Allegiance with the children and posed for a picture with them. He seemed reluctant to leave, patting children on the head and asking their names.
Since becoming President, Mr. Bush has delighted in showing children around the Oval Office, letting them pat his dog Barney, laughing as they scramble to surround him at a Rose Garden ceremony.
When he is with children, he is at his best, his friends and aides say; he is teasing, funny, affectionate, and vulnerable. Mr. Bush lost his sister Robin, 3, to leukemia when he was 7, and it devastated his family. His parents have said that he felt it was his job to cheer them up and that he sometimes refused to go out to play because he thought his mother needed him.
Now, he sees children whose world has come apart as his seemed to years ago. In New York, he said he wants American families to resume traveling, “to take their kids on vacations,” to “go to ball games.”
Just as he once wanted his life to go back the way it was before his sister died, he wishes he could make life for America's children the same as it was. When he is with children, he feels comforted. “A lot of people love you,” he told the children at DeSoto, a school that filled with smoke on Sept. 11 and had to close for most of a week - a week where many of the bewildered children watched chaos on their TVs.
As he left the school to eat pizza with firemen who lost comrades, the President paused at a bulletin board titled, “The Day We Were Very Sad.” He studied children's drawings in crayon; some showed planes crashing into buildings.
In DeSoto's classrooms are new signs called “Shelter Drill Rules.” The rules say: “During a shelter drill we find a spot in the hallway. Do not stand next to a door or glass window. Face the wall to protect yourself.”
The next day, Mr. Bush vowed, “We'll be tough and resolute as we unite, to make sure freedom stands, to rout out evil, to say to our children and grandchildren, we were bold enough to act, without tiring, so that you can live in a great land and in a peaceful world.”
Ann McFeatters is chief of The Blade's national bureau. E-mail her at email@example.com.