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W. Bush

A president finds his mission

George W. Bush enters the Oval Office for the first time as president in January, 2001.  

(CNN) -- President George W. Bush entered the White House following a bitter election dispute that divided the nation. But eight months and 22 days into his job, the country and the presidency were transformed. Political differences were put aside in the wake of the September 11 terrorism attacks, as a surge of patriotism united everyone from the humblest of citizens to the man occupying the highest office in the land.

"Great harm has been done to us. But in our grief and anger, we have found our mission, and our moment," Bush said in his riveting September 20 address to a rare joint session of Congress. "Freedom and fear are at war. Our nation, this generation, will lift the dark threat of violence from our people."

Bush warned Afghanistan's ruling Taliban that unless they acted to break down suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network within their borders and hand over bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders, they could expect swift, decisive punishment at the hands of the United States and its allies.

He said that freedom and fear are at war and declared a fight for civilization.

"Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign, unlike any we have ever seen," Bush said.

He also told Americans to respect those of different ethnic groups or religious faiths because America's enemy is a radical network of terrorists, not "our many Muslim friends."

The reaction was unprecedented. Former Bush critics applauded him for his urgent and delicate diplomacy.

"I have been impressed with the president's desire and his motivation and his energy to lead the country and be our president in a very difficult and important time," said House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Missouri).

Former President Bill Clinton also asked the nation to stand behind Bush.

America attacked

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Bush was visiting a school in Florida when the second plane hit New York's World Trade Center on the morning of September 11. His Chief of Staff Andy Card gave the stunning news to the president -- America is under attack. Bush did not immediately return to Washington, with the administration citing security concerns.

But the public rallied behind Bush. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released on September 16 showed that he had an approval rating of 90 percent, an all-time high.

Bush was riding a wave of support in his address to Congress -- a defining moment of his presidency.

"The Taliban must act and act immediately. They will hand over the terrorists, or they will share their fate," he said.

Declaring war against an elusive enemy is no easy task but many agree that Bush managed to do so effectively.

"The American people needed someone to say look, 'We are in charge. We're a great nation. We can do well. We will do well. We will bring these people to terms'. And the president, I think, said it exactly right," said Rep. Dick Armey (R-Texas).

On October 7, Bush's words became a reality as the United States and Great Britain began strikes against military bases and suspected terrorist training camps in Afghanistan.

"We're going to have to grow as a country," said David Halberstam, a long-time Washington journalist and author of "War in a Time of Peace." "He's going to have to grow as a president. And we're probably going to make this journey together. And we're going to stumble together. And we're going to learn together. And I hope we all grow well together."

A young George W. enjoys a hug from his father in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1947.  

'I'd rather be underestimated'

The nation's 43rd president is the son of its 41st president and the grandson of a U.S. senator.

"I'm proud to be called George Bush. Some people say, 'He is just running on his daddy's name.' And that's okay. That just makes me underestimated in the political arena," Bush said. "I'd rather be underestimated than overestimated."

George Walker Bush was born on July 6, 1946 in New Haven, Connecticut, to George and Barbara Bush. His was the oldest of six children, including: Dorothy (Doro), Marvin Pierce, Neil Mallon, John Ellis (Jeb) and Pauline Robinson (Robin).

When young Bush was two years old, the family moved to Texas, where his father made his first million as a pioneer offshore oilman. George Senior spent a lot of time on the road, leaving Barbara Bush in charge of the family.

"She was the frontline of discipline, and pretty tough when she needed to be, but was always loving," Bush said in a 1989 interview. "And I can remember being banished to my room as a little guy there in Midland, Texas. I can't remember why. I'm sure I was innocent."

When Bush was 7, his 3-year-old sister Robin died of leukemia.

"I'm sure George did not realize at the time what a momentous thing it was toward his personality and his place in the family," said Joe O'Neill, a friend from Midland. "He tried to fill that void created by the loss of one sibling by being all things to his family."

George W. joins his father at the commissioning ceremony for an offshore oil-drilling platform in 1956.  

At 15, Bush left home to attend an elite prep school in the east, Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Then, like his father and grandfather, he went to Yale University.

He was well liked and became president of his fraternity. He didn't participate in the debate over both civil rights and the Vietnam War that roiled college campuses during the late 1960s. But Vietnam got his attention when he graduated in 1968 and his draft deferment ran out.

Bush opted to join the Texas Air National Guard, a safe haven from combat in Vietnam. He told the Guard commander he wanted to be a pilot, like his father in World War II.

Meanwhile, after a few unsuccessful attempts at winning elective office, his father won appointments to a series of high-level government jobs, including U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, ambassador to China and director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

In 1981, the elder Bush was sworn in as the country's vice president, under President Ronald Reagan.

Marriage and business

Laura Bush joins her husband as he campaigns for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1978.  

In 1975, George W. received his MBA from Harvard University and returned to Texas to work in the family oil business. Two years later he married Laura Welch, a librarian from Midland, after a three-month courtship.

The marriage produced twin daughters in 1981 -- Jenna and Barbara -- and provided Bush with a grounding element that he apparently needed.

Although he made a name for himself in the oil business, his career began to falter in the early 1980s. Some oil companies went under, while Bush held on. His company was bought out twice and he began to drink heavily. He had been arrested in Maine in 1976 for driving under the influence of alcohol.

"He often said, 'You know, Laura said, "It's me or the bottle,"' recalled Doug Wead, a former adviser to Bush's father. "He'd often say that."

Bush eventually gave up drinking altogether and quit smoking as well. As he was turning around his life, his father ran for president and won.

While his father was in the White House, the younger Bush stayed in Texas. He bought a share in the Texas Rangers baseball team and the public began to notice his influence in the state.

Governor of Texas

When President George Bush lost re-election in 1992 it was devastating for the family.

Two years later, George W. made a bid for a major office: Governor of Texas. He ran as a Republican against the popular Democratic incumbent, Ann Richards, who made the mistake of underestimating him, referring to him as "Junior" or "Prince George."

Laura Bush stands by her husband's side as he is sworn in as governer of Texas.  

Bush campaigned on a four-point program: Education, juvenile justice, tort reform and welfare reform. He stressed the four points, simply and directly, over and over again, and won.

The new governor reached out to Democrats, who controlled the legislature.

During his term, education reform made an impact. Scores on state and standardized tests went up, especially for minority students. He signed a welfare reform into law, including time limits and work requirements. With the help of jobs produced in the strong economy, welfare rolls in Texas were cut nearly in half.

Other items on the Bush agenda included the legalization of carrying concealed weapons, anti-sodomy laws and strong support for the death penalty.

He called himself a compassionate conservative.

Some Texans accused Bush of living up to only the conservative half of that label. They argued that his policies too often reflected the interest of his biggest campaign contributors.

When Bush took office, 800 industrial plants in Texas were exempt from provisions of the federal Clean Air Act.

George W. fishes with his father in Kennebunkport, Maine, in 1991.  

"His own environmental agency, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, said, 'We need to clean up these plants if we're going to solve our air pollution problem in Texas,'" said environmental activist Peter Altman.

Those petroleum, chemical and manufacturing plants accounted for nearly 35 percent of the state's air pollution. However, they did not want regulators mandating a cleanup.

"They went to Gov. Bush and complained about it," said Altman. "And Gov. Bush pulled the reins and said, 'No, we're not going to make these plants clean up, we're going to give them the option of voluntarily reducing their emissions.' And he literally asked Exxon Corp. and Marathon to draft up that kind of policy for him. And then he pushed that all the way through the legislature."

The result: Hundreds of companies can clean up on their own terms. Many of these same companies gave generously to the governor's campaign. The air over Texas still ranks among the foulest in the nation. Bush supporters insist a voluntary cleanup program is better than none at all.

"They're taking a cheap shot," said Republican State Sen. David Sibley. "They had their governor, you know, Gov. Richards sure didn't get anything done about it. And now they're going to go after the guy who is doing something about it, even though it's not as much as they wanted."

Bush's health care and death penalty policies also brought criticism, but Bush continued to receive support from most Texans. He ran again in 1998 and won easily.

The presidency

Talk of moving to the White House began and in 1999, Bush announced his candidacy for president of the United States.

"I believe in grace because I've seen it, in peace because I've felt it, in forgiveness because I've needed it," said Bush at the Republican National Convention in August 2000.

In November, months of intense campaigning by Bush and former Vice President Al Gore, ended with controversial results over who won the electoral votes from the state of Florida.

Adding fuel to Democrats' complaints about the Florida election process was the fact that Bush's brother, Jeb, was governor of the state.

After 35 days of court battles and recounts, Bush prevailed, with a 271-267 edge over Gore in the Electoral College -- where 270 votes are needed to claim the nation's chief executive office.

After inauguration, Bush continued to fight for approval and the spotlight, which seemed still focused on the departing President Bill Clinton.

"There was an obsession with following what Clinton was doing," said former Clinton White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart. That attention continued for weeks as lawmakers and the media scrutinized Clinton's last-minute presidential pardons.

Bush faced his first international crisis in April 2001 when a U.S. reconnaissance plane was forced to make an emergency landing in China after a mid-air collision with a Chinese fighter jet. China released the American crew 11 days later and Bush received a 72 percent approval rating in a subsequent CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll.

But the U.S.-China plane fiasco was nothing compared to what Bush faced on the second Tuesday in September.

Bush made a promise to the American people during an October 11 news conference, four days after the strikes in Afghanistan began.

"Our war on terrorism has nothing to do with differences in faith. It has everything to do with people of all faiths coming together to condemn hate and evil and murder and prejudice," he said.

"Your government is doing everything we can to recover from these attacks and to try to prevent others. We're acting to make planes and airports safer, rebuild New York and the Pentagon," he said.

"All is strong and united on the diplomatic front."

Now, more than ever, the American people from all parts of the political spectrum are hoping that Bush's presidential legacy will be a positive one.

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4:30pm ET, 4/16