By Sandra Sobieraj
WASHINGTON – President Bush led four former presidents and the nation in prayer Friday, declaring America united by a “kinship of grief and a steadfast resolve” to defeat terrorism.
Standing beneath the vaunted ceilings of the National Cathedral, the president said there is a time for prayer and a time for vengeance on behalf of the victims of Tuesday’s terrorist attacks. “This conflict was begun on the time and terms of others. It will end in a way and at an hour of our choosing,” he said.
Although a downpour greeted the earliest comers, the sun broke through the clouds in time for Bush’s address.
Former presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton surrounded their successor in the front pews. The president, arriving with first lady Laura Bush, appeared to fight tears as he greeted his father with a quick handshake.
“Our unity is a kinship of grief and a steadfast resolve to prevail against our enemies,” Bush said. “And this unity against terror is now extended across the world.”
The Rev. Billy Graham, a longtime counselor to American presidents, prayed that the country would “feel the loving arms of God wrapped around us” but told Americans it was all right to be angry. “You may even be angry with God. I want to assure you that God understands these feelings that you have,” said Graham, 82.
“Yes, our nation has been attacked. … But now we have a choice whether to implode and disintegrate emotionally and spiritually as a people and a nation, or whether we choose to become stronger through all of the struggle to rebuild on a solid foundation.”
Graham’s very appearance spoke to the gravity of the national crisis. He has turned down many recent invitations due to badly failing health.
“Those of us who are gathered here – Muslim, Jew, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Hindu – all people of faith want to say to this nation and to the world that love is stronger than hate,” said Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon, opening the service on what Bush had decreed a national day of prayer and remembrance.
Bush, too, spoke in healing tones, praising rescue workers and people who sacrificed their lives to save others in the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon outside Washington.
“In these acts and many others, American has showed a deep commitment to one another and an abiding love for our country,” Bush said.
That love will fuel a tough response to the terrorism, he vowed.
“This nation is peaceful but fierce when stirred to anger,” Bush said.
From the cathedral, Bush was making a grim pilgrimage to New York City “to thank and hug and cry” with survivors and rescue workers at Ground Zero, where tons of debris are all that remain of the once-towering World Trade Center.
Dean Nathan Baxter prayed in his invocation that the president and his national security team, as they plot retaliation on the terrorists, be guided by “the grace of God, that as we act we not become the evil we deplore.”
Most congregants, including Bush’s mother, pinned a loop of red, white and blue ribbon to their lapels.
But for all the hope and solidarity that those ribbons meant to convey, the entire assembly – from the sea of dark suits to the mournful dirges of so many choirs – had the feel of a national funeral.
With all of the Cabinet secretaries, Supreme Court justices, congressional leadership and former presidents assembled under one roof, Vice President Cheney did not appear. The Secret Service had spirited the vice president, first in line to succeed Bush in the event of catastrophe, to the secluded safety of Camp David on Thursday afternoon.
All arrived at the Cathedral under heavy security, carrying umbrellas in the driving rain. Helicopters flew low overhead. Across the street, a lone woman in a yellow rain slicker held a soggy poster: “Pray for America.”
President Clinton clasped daughter Chelsea’s hand. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton face showed the strain and sleeplessness of the trauma her New York constituents suffer.
The Bush administration provided an Air Force plane so that Clinton and Gore, Bush’s rival in last year’s bitter campaign, could fly together from New York, where the two had just returned from overseas travel.
At a separate Pentagon service, military men and women wiped tears from their cheeks as they sang “God Bless America.”
One choir member wore her camouflaged field uniform.
Army Maj. Gen. Robert Van Antwerp Jr. sat with a bible on his lap. At his turn to speak, Van Antwerp told some 250 packed into an auditorium, “My heart pains for you and I pray that God will comfort you.”
The assistant chief of staff for installation management carried his own grief. His secretary and administrative assistant were killed in Tuesday’s attack.
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