America is desperate for leadershipSteve Hammer

The president of the United States, as you may know, will be in Indianapolis Thursday for a luncheon address at Indiana Black Expo. For all of the division he's caused, he still has time to unite the country. By standing up to the radicals on both the right and left, he could yet make history.

This is a good thing for the city. A presidential visit to Indiana is rare enough and an appearance at Indiana Black Expo, one of the nation's premier cultural events, is unprecedented.

It's surprising in several ways. Normally, this president doesn't attend a luncheon for less than $5,000 a plate, so we're fortunate to get him at such a discounted rate.

The venue is also surprising. Usually, he gives his speeches at military bases, despite the fact that when he was actually in the military, you couldn't get him anywhere near a base.

It's also interesting that he's reaching out to the African-American community, a constituency he's consistently ignored over the past five years, and one that gave him only 10 percent of its vote last year.

It's easy to be cynical about his motives. His popularity is at an all-time low. His programs are stalled in Congress. The war he started is now thought to have been a mistake by approximately 60 percent of the people. His radical nominees to the court system can't even get a yes-or-no vote in the Senate.

So while his visit is welcomed, he's not coming here because he wants to enjoy Black Expo. He's coming here out of necessity. He needs to get at least some support from the 49 percent of the people who didn't vote for him last year.

He's visiting a city hit hard by his economic programs. Perhaps on his way to the Convention Center, his limo will pass by one of the homeless shelters or soup kitchens his policies have helped create.

Still, a visit from Mr. Bush at this time can't hurt. The most polarizing and divisive figure in modern politics, Bush elicits either devotion or anger wherever he goes. Maybe he's trying to mend some fences.

It didn't have to be this way, you know. When the Supreme Court stepped in and appointed him president in 2000, after the closest election in history, he had an opportunity to build bridges to his opponents and serve in a bipartisan capacity for all people, Democrats and Republicans alike.

Instead, he began his term by giving away the trillion-dollar surplus his predecessor had left him and by taking a sharp right-hand turn on all policies.

Then came the attacks of Sept. 11, and once again all Americans stood by him. Mr. Bush will go down in history for the strength and courage he showed in the days immediately after the attacks. There were no Democrats or Republicans on Sept. 12, 2001, only shocked and stunned Americans desperate for leadership.

The nations of the world rallied to America's side in those dark days with sympathy and a willingness to help find the people responsible for those barbaric attacks.

When he bombed Afghanistan in search of Osama bin Laden, all of America cheered him and supported him.

But once again, the president squandered the opportunity. Our troops had bin Laden cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora and somehow let him escape to plot the deaths of more Americans.

Instead of concentrating on that task, he then began preparations for a war with Iraq, a country unconnected to Sept. 11 or even weapons of mass destruction, while ignoring Iran and North Korea, both of whom were and are building nuclear weapons.

Even then, a majority of Americans supported him and believed his dire warnings that Iraq was the next fight in the war on terrorism. Congressmen and senators of both parties approved of his war plans.

Our heroic troops marched into Baghdad, toppled the statues of Saddam and all of America cheered again. This president made a staged-for-TV appearance and said the mission was accomplished, a statement we now know to be untrue.

Why anyone would now believe any statement he makes is beyond me. But let's not dismiss the president so quickly. After all, we have three more years to suffer under his rule.

More than that, he still has an opportunity to right his wrongs. For all of the division he's caused, he still has time to unite the country. By standing up to the radicals on both the right and left, and by acting in a manner designed to help all citizens, he could yet make history.

By acting in consultation with our allies, and the majority of nations opposed to him, he could become one of the great presidents of our time.

It is said that only Richard Nixon, a rabid anti-Communist, could have gone to China. In the same way, perhaps only Mr. Bush can stop the radicalism endangering our country.

Other presidents have taken such courageous steps. Lyndon Johnson, who was more or less a closet racist, turned out to be the most progressive civil rights activist president since Lincoln. Bill Clinton, pegged as a tax-and-spend liberal, helped eliminate the budget deficit in the 1990s.

For as much as this president is distrusted by so many, he holds the fate of the world in his hands. It's better to have a dialogue with him than to scream at him.

In that spirit, Indianapolis should welcome the president, listen to his message and treat him with personal respect. Maybe this time he'll have something to say.


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