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The President Who Wasn't There

When all the banks have been bailed out and all the debts paid off, the big takeaway for the historians from the financial crisis will be the complete and utter failure of President Bush as the nation's leader. Set aside the blame for the mortgage meltdown. Set aside whether the Paulson plan is a good idea. At a time when American taxpayers and global investors need to see a strong, confident president in the White House, they simply don't have one.

This morning, finally, comes word that President Bush will go on television to address the country tonight. In the meantime, it's been Paulson and Ben Bernanke on the frontlines, while Dick Cheney and Josh Bolten are in the backrooms trying to rally their party's rank-and-file (and, according to press reports, largely failing to do so).

Within minutes of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination on April 4, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson had his aides cancel a trip to Hawaii and book airtime on the networks. Within 24 hours he had gone on television twice, met with Congressional and civil rights leaders, and made a high-profile appearance at the National Cathedral. And this was a man so unpopular that he had pulled out of the presidential race just four days earlier (his poll numbers had since shot up, but he was still a lame-duck president). Johnson's appearances didn't prevent the ensuing riots, but as a demonstration of grief and concern from the nation's political establishment, they likely had a dampening effect on further outbursts of violence.

I don't mention Johnson as a paragon of presidential virtue, but simply as an example of what real presidents do in moments of national crisis. They instinctively reach out to the nation in a show of confidence and leadership, even if they don't have a very good idea of how we'll get out of a particular mess. Bush did it after September 11. But there's no evidence that this time he even understands the need for such a move.