WASHINGTON — When President Bush led the nation in prayer for victims of the worst attack on U.S. soil, the first hand to grasp his in quiet solidarity was that of a man who also had faced a singular crisis: his father.
George Herbert Walker Bush, president No. 41, and George W. Bush, No. 43, are a rarity of U.S. history — repeated only one other time by John and John Quincy Adams — a father and son who ended up running the White House.
And like his father before him, Bush is headed into what appears to be a large military operation with an uncertain outcome, in fact the biggest such action since Operation Desert Storm 11 years ago.
While the elder Bush knew where the target was, to some extent the current president faces an invisible enemy — terrorist cells that operate in shadow in pockets around the world.
"This act will not stand," Bush told reporters Saturday, echoing the famous line his father used on Aug. 5, 1990, in talking about Iraq's invasion of Kuwait: "This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait."
Both presidents faced some carping early on in how they were dealing with their respective crises.
Bush the younger raised some eyebrows by not rushing back to Washington when the twin towers came crashing down, instead being persuaded to go to air bases in Louisiana and Nebraska for security reasons.
Bush the senior, meanwhile, drew fire for having a relatively tepid reaction to the Iraqi invasion, saying at first only that no options had been ruled in or out before using tougher rhetoric days later.
Perhaps in a lesson learned from his father, Bush has used strong language throughout the crisis, and he raised the level even further Saturday by saying, "We will find those who did it, we will smoke them out of their holes, we will get them running, and we will bring them to justice."
Bush senior had masterful diplomatic skills, pulling together a disparate group of nations into a cohesive coalition using money and materiel to roll back Iraq's invasion.
His son, however, has focused on domestic issues throughout his political career as Texas governor and now president. The crisis is forcing him to engage more broadly on an international scale than any other time in his first eight months in office.
He, too, is developing a coalition, and just as his father made Iraqi President Saddam Hussein the object of frequent invective, Bush himself Saturday named Saudi exile Osama bin Laden a prime suspect in the New York and Washington attacks. Bin Laden, who was indicted in the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Tanzania, is once again a frequent image on U.S. television.
Aides say Bush has quickly grasped that confronting the crisis is a defining moment for his presidency and that the task at hand, in the words of one aide, is to "use this terribly painful moment to try to make the world better the next time around."
"I think it was much quicker with him than it probably was with any of the rest of us," said national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
The elder Bush benefited politically for driving Iraq from Kuwait, his job approval numbers reaching 90 percent at one stage, only to drop way down during the re-election campaign that he ultimately lost on economic issues.
The younger Bush is also getting high marks for his response to date, even as the U.S. economy sputters.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said father and son keep in close touch while not disclosing the content.
"They talk to each other often, and as both a father and a son would always talk. They can also talk to each other the way a former president and a successor may talk," he said.
Like a protective dad, Bush Sr. took umbrage at the criticism his son was getting for not returning to Washington as soon as the crisis erupted, citing the White House's insistence that there were legitimate security reasons for the route Bush took home.
"He does know what he's doing. He's blessed with this strong team. And I think he's lifted by the prayers of the American people and the prayers of people around the world. And so, I ask you to keep our president and the victims in your prayers," the elder Bush said in a speech last week.