If George W. Bush had a highlight reel, last week's World Series performance at Yankee Stadium would bear serious consideration. With New York on so many maximum alerts that they're running out of red lights, here's the President of the United States walking all by himself to the pitching mound before 60,000 people to throw out the first pitch and daring any of the bad guys to do anything about it.

From a geopolitical perspective, it was the consummate "up yours" moment: short, simple, symbolic and not requiring him to actually say anything. Plus, he somehow managed to toss a ball right over the plate. All in all, a fearless display.

So why did it seem so dispiriting? Probably because by now we all know that symbolism cannot replace substance, no matter how loud the Yankee fans shouted U-S-A!, U-S-A! Nor do good intentions replace bumbling executions.

Alas, the secret is out: Washington hasn't a clue.

We'll cut them a little slack on the anthrax front because everyone seems clueless on that one. But most every other response to the events of Sept. 11 has been a predictable lockstep to years of deferral and denial.

You see it in the nation's depleted intelligence network, in the Federal Aviation Administration's longstanding avoidance of security issues by having the airlines hire minimum-wage checkers, and in the government's shameless deal-making with corrupt Middle Eastern regimes all in the name of keeping gasoline prices under two bucks a gallon.

Which helps explain why our elected officials now appear so flat-footed. If they had spent money on security and intelligence and refused to deal with crooked dictators oil or no oil there's a good chance they would no longer be our elected officials. They are, after all, merely a reflection of the people they represent. And before Sept. 11 most Americans simply didn't know or care.

Which also helps explain the current leadership vacuum why, aside from Rudy Giuliani and Pentagon Chief Donald Rumsfeld, everyone holding a press conference these days has that deer-in-the-headlights look, most distressingly our Homeland honcho, Gov. Tom Ridge.

As for the clueless wonders on Capitol Hill, they have reverted to what comes naturally to them being coddled and cajoled by wing-tipped lobbyists in search of a better economic stimulus package for their clients, be they corporate, labor, whatever.

This should not be that big a deal. The nation is in a recession and the government has been called upon to lend a hand. That means providing temporary relief for folks who lost their jobs because of the downturn as well as a way for them to get limited health care coverage until they're back on their feet. It also means targeted and short-term investment incentives for businesses to expand. Plus, government-funded infrastructure projects (building schools, fixing roads) that not only get more people working, but provide the nation with a badly needed makeover.

There will be conflicts on the details, pragmatic as well as philosophical. But in a national crisis, everybody is supposed to give a little goaded, presumably, by a President and a few key legislators who recognize that being a leader involves more than tossing a ball at Yankee Stadium. Because if you're a business owner freaking out over what next year might bring, or a recently laid-off worker scratching for next month's rent, photo ops won't get it done.

Mark Lacter is editor of the Business Journal.

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