Using a first-grade classroom as a national living room, President Bush reached out Wednesday to comfort New York City children in a school near the destroyed World Trade Center--and, by extension, give the country a hug.
He led the children in the pledge of allegiance. ("OK, are you ready? Put your hand over your heart.") He told them their teachers want to help them. ("They do?" one child interrupted. "Yeah, they do want to help you," the president replied.)
But mostly, he was just there. Left hand on one boy's very round, close-cropped head. Right hand resting comfortingly on a girl's back. Head tilted to the right, in earnest attention. Lips held tightly together, a sympathetic expression most decidedly not a smirk.
Bush had been in an elementary school classroom in Florida listening to children read aloud on Sept. 11 when his chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., leaned toward him and whispered, "A second plane hit the tower and America's under attack."
Here he was Wednesday morning, in another school, P.S. (for public school) 130, on the edge of Chinatown in lower Manhattan. It was three weeks later, and his public and private time had been devoted almost exclusively to the repercussions of the tragedy. He had issued demands; he had worked on building an international coalition; he had dispatched his troops.
Now it was time to talk to the children.
Bush steered clear of New York City during the first six months of his presidency. His first visit after taking office wasn't until July. But he has been back twice since Sept. 11, flying there three days after two airplanes struck the trade center to view the damage and meet with families of the victims.
He spent part of Wednesday with business leaders just blocks from the attack site, and with Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Gov. George Pataki, who accompanied him to the school. He shared pizza with the firefighters of Engine Co. 55, which lost five members at the trade center.
But his primary mission was to speak to the children at a school where life had been turned upside down.
Like youngsters throughout New York and its suburbs, these first-grade students had encountered the tragedy in personal ways. Smoke damage forced their school to close for nearly a week.
Drawings in a corridor reflected the trauma: Airplanes crashed into buildings. A bulletin board dealt with "The Day We Were Very Sad."
In Debra Nelson's classroom, with the 23 children at their small desks and reporters and photographers crowded in the back, Bush talked quietly about the role of teachers--first, in helping students at schools close to the disaster find safety, and now, providing sympathetic ears to fearful youngsters.
"You know, there's a lot of talk about heroes in our society. A hero is somebody you look up to, of course," Bush said. "And the teachers of New York City were very heroic. They were not only heroic in taking boys and girls your age out of the buildings and helping them find places to stay at night, or making sure nobody got hurt--they're heroic today."
"You know why?" he asked, quickly answering, "Because they love you, and if you've got any worries about what took place at the World Trade Center, they want to help you."
The president, who is often eager to move on to his next appointment, could not quite pull himself away.
Among the tasks that go with the job of chief executive is that of "giving comfort and reassurance to the country," said Michael K. Deaver, who was one of President Reagan's closest advisors.
"The classroom is a venue to do that for all of us," he said. "It's a balancing act for the president. With all he has got on his plate, it's this reassurance we all need. Americans are fearful for the first time in a long time. We want our president to understand that, and accept that as part of the job."
Before leaving the classroom, Bush added his thoughts to a poster-size paper. At the top was written, "Why We Love America."
A girl named Luisa had written, "I love America because we fight off anything that stands in our way."
Ezra Louvis wrote, "I love America because the flag is nice and because it has good restaurants."
The president, felt-tip pen in hand, wrote this: "I love America because I love freedom." He signed it "G.W. Bush."