- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 2004

I do not live in Washington, D.C., and I come here only on occasion. On the other hand, I have done this for a long time, having been brought here when less than one year old, to live with my parents during World War II. My father, a physician from Erie, Pa., had volunteered for the army after Pearl Harbor. But being over 40 he was not allowed overseas and had to settle for a post in charge of a small Signal Corps military hospital at General George C. Marshall’s headquarters at Fort Myers.

We actually lived in Fairlington in plain brick barracks built for officers (they are now high-priced condominiums).

Our neighbors in Fairlington, who became good friends of my parents, were William and Elizabeth Friedman, perhaps the most famous American codebreaker team of all time. They worked in nearby Arlington Hall, where much of the secret activity of the war took place. I spent much of this period in a diaper. My brother Tom, who was ten year older than I was, had all the fun.

So I may now be a transplanted prairie editor living in Minnesota, with roots in Erie, Pa., but Washington still is a special place for me, especially when I again return to it in another wartime.

It is also that curious period in American political life between a presidential election and the moment when a new president is sworn in on January 20. It is a chaos of sorts when this interregnum separates an outgoing president and a new one, especially of a different political party, but today it is only the transition of the first term of President George W. Bush to his second term.

Nonetheless, the president is reconfiguring his administration in preparation for an intense effort to reform the federal government, an ambitious undertaking that has perhaps not seen its like for more than 70 years.

Many Americans, in the wake of his unexpectedly decisive re-election, are reappraising George W. Bush.

After the end of the Cold War, and his leaving office, a lot of Americans had to re-examine the conventional assessment of Ronald Reagan. The recent publication of his personal writings and correspondence has further evaporated any notions that Reagan was merely an actor who spoke the words given to him and carried out the decisions of others.

In the case of George W. Bush, this reappraisal is happening even as he embarks on the most far-reaching phase of his presidency, with the most significant challenge of his first term, the war on terror, unresolved. His previous initiatives on Medicare and education were only partly realized, and his economic and tax policies have only begun to show their consequences. His pledge to reform Social Security has not begun.

None of us knows what will happen in the world, or whether this man’s presidency will even be fairly judged a success or not. The entire world, and not only official Washington, is in yet another and new state of in-between.

I have always wondered what it was like to live in that very long and extraordinary state of in-between after Pearl Harbor and before V-E and V-J days. Now I believe I have some idea of what it feels like.

In those war years, 1942-45, my father worked in proximity to the man who many believe really won World War II, General Marshall. He admired him greatly, but only met him a few times. He once received a phone call from the general’s aide late one afternoon that Gen. Marshall would be inspecting his little hospital the next morning. He showed up on time, of course, and made the inspection with my nervous and somewhat overwhelmed father at his side. At the end of it, Gen. Marshall turned to my father, and said, “Major,” pausing for a moment as my father, up to that time a captain, realized he was being promoted on the spot. He then went on: “In this army, it’s not what you know; it’s who you know.” At that, Gen, Marshall smiled and departed, leaving my father saluting and stunned.

Other generals, especially those closer to the battlefields, received much more of the popular credit in World War II, including Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur. Gen. Marshall himself often said he wanted to be closer to the action, and not stuck in his “desk job.” Every American war leader has problems with his generals. It began with General Washington, continued with Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (with the generals under Marshall) and Harry Truman. Those were wars (until Korea) that we won. In Vietnam the problem was not so much the generals as the politicians. As with all wars, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Some say President Bush has no George Marshall at his side nor has he found a Ulysses Grant as Lincoln did. But we don’t really know that.

The battle yet goes on. The end of the period of in-between is not quite in sight, but like World War II and unlike Vietnam, we know what we’re looking for.

Barry Casselman writes occasionally for The Washington Times.

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