Richard Reeves

Don't You Know There's a War On?

DENVER -- United Airlines Flight 1240 to Washington last Wednesday had just pulled out of the clouds when the captain's voice came over the loudspeaker, saying:

"Good afternoon ... Unfortunately our country is at war. People are out to destroy us. Political correctness is out now. If you see anything suspicious, be ready to fight. Do not act like sheep and be led to your death. Be ready to fight ..."

I didn't get all the rest of it before he wished us a pleasant flight and reminded us to remain in our seats until he turned off the seatbelt sign.

It is a strange time. We had all gotten to the Denver airport hours early to be poked and prodded by people who, we are told constantly, are paid just $6 an hour (with no benefits and a 400 percent turnover rate) and don't know what they're doing. The president came on television the next night for a national pep talk on the war, and only one network, ABC, carried his words live. Other networks told newspaper television writers that ABC has a weak Thursday schedule anyway and by putting on the president without commercials, their lousy prime-time audience would not be counted aginst them in sweeps week.

"No rating is better than a bad rating," an anonymous television executive told The Washington Post, to make sure that no one thought ABC might be more patriotic than NBC or CBS. Even PBS did not carry the speech, delivered before an audience of policemen, firefighters and other rescue workers in Atlanta. But, in fact, President Bush did not have anything specific or mind-changing to say. The words sounded a bit empty, about the same as what you hear on prime-time television shows most nights: "Our cause is just. ... Let's roll."

Roll where? The president told us to be vigilant, though his language was less colorful than that of the captain of UAL 1240.

I don't think Americans need either scare talk or pep talks. As far as I can tell, traveling around the country, Americans know we are in a new and difficult situation that will take a long time, great effort and great sacrifice to set right. We're ready.

But we are not sure the government is. And I think many of us are not sure our leaders trust us. The government, it seems to me, has tended to minimize military difficulty in Afghanistan and exaggerate medical knowledge at home -- as if people are not grown-up enough to take the hard news with the easy, the bad with the good.

Despite contradictory messages from Washington (and some state capitals), the nation is solidly behind the president. In fact, I think the nation may be ahead of the president. Americans have been hurt badly -- and they do want to strike back -- but they do not have to be told to live normal lives, go to the store and spend money, and all the other baby talk going around.

Anthrax is scary stuff, but people can keep that danger in perspective. Perhaps we cannot prevail in Afghanistan once the winter comes; then we will wait until spring. Perhaps Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Egypt are playing double and triple games behind our backs, but there will be plenty of time to take care of them, too.

Whatever television executives think, the president has the only voice that rises above their babble, and he should use it to speak simply and factually about these situations as they change. Americans can take care of the rest -- and of themselves, too. The British magazine The Economist, which can sometimes be condescending about New World cousins across the Atlantic, seemed to get it right last week in a long piece on American reaction to these troubles:

"Are Americans concerned? You bet. But are they in a state of tight-sphinctered panic? Not a bit ... The can-do pioneers who tamed a wild continent and then helped to win three world confrontations have not disappeared after all."

4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600

More like Richard Reeves