On Sunday afternoon, two news conferences took place to discuss the heightened terror alert. The mayors of New York and Washington gathered their highest-ranking security and emergency personnel to reassure citizens that, despite the scary warnings, everything is under control. Everything that can be done is being done. Carry on.

Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, the mayors of these two cities have had to add hand-holding to their job descriptions. With each new alert, warning or rumor they must soothe a jittery public. Every time these cities prepare for a major public event, these mayors and their top police officers and firefighters know they will have to stand in the spotlight and tell the public: Don't worry. We're looking out for you.

To keep citizens from fleeing into the hills, these mayors avail themselves of increased police patrols, bomb-sniffing dogs, radiation detectors and other security tools. They also recognize the importance of symbolism. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg didn't just tell people it was safe to come out and watch the Fourth of July fireworks and to attend parades, he dove into the crowds as well.

Symbolism can be more persuasive than the most detailed explanations in the world. Officials can't detail every security measure that is being taken. They can't promise that their system is perfect. All they can do is try to instill confidence with a calm tone, a direct demeanor, a strong posture and an organized appearance.

In New York, attire sent a clear and powerful message. In Washington, helpful symbolism went missing.

On Sunday, New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly wore a somber dark suit, white shirt and tie to the news conference. Kelly is usually attired quite nattily, and so it was not surprising to see him so formally dressed. Still, it was a reassuring image -- suggesting that even on the weekends, the police commissioner is just as rigorously organized and controlled as he is during the week. The underlying message? He never stops working.

Kelly looked like a man who'd had time to prepare himself before looking folks in the eye and asking them to have faith that his department was doing its best to keep the city safe. His polished demeanor reminded one of an unflappable host who greets his guests freshly showered, his shirt starched, the table set, enticing aromas pouring from the kitchen.

Bloomberg, too, was dressed in a dark suit. His white shirt had French cuffs and his tie was perfectly knotted. As he has done many times before, he told New Yorkers to get up on Monday morning and go about their business. Enjoy freedom, he said.

Bloomberg gave the public the impression that none of this had taken him by surprise, that he was braced for this unnerving news, and he did not have to rush about pulling himself or his staff together.

Meanwhile, in the District, Mayor Anthony Williams arrived for his news conference in a gray sportcoat, black trousers and white polo shirt. He was not wearing a tie. He was flanked by Police Chief Charles Ramsey and Fire Chief Adrian Thompson, both of whom looked as though they'd come sprinting in from their back yards. Ramsey was wearing a striped polo shirt and a Gonzaga lanyard. Thompson wore a Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts and sandals.

Alone, Williams's tielessness was not terribly jolting. After all, this news unfolded over a midsummer weekend. Williams's business casual attire was polished and professional.

But the men flanking him were so startlingly informal that the overall impression was not of a fast-acting crew, but of one that had been caught off guard. It was as though the dinner guests arrived to find the hosts with wet hair and uncooked hors d'oeuvres. Their informal appearance did not reflect the seriousness of the message or the level of their preparedness. They lacked the benefit of symbolism's power.

Ramsey had come into the office on his day off to take calls and wrap up other work. While there, he was briefed on the terror alert. He was advised of the upcoming news conference. "Rather than go home and change, he worked through the day and went straight into the conference," says D.C. police spokesman Sgt. Joe Gentile.

Thompson, who lives in the District, was running errands in Virginia when the mayor's office called. He had 45 minutes to get back to town. He hopped on Metro. (Can someone please chain this man to his car?)

"Of course he would prefer to have had the opportunity to be in uniform or other attire that identified him as the fire chief," says Kathryn Friedman, a fire department spokeswoman. "The most important thing is to be available when needed. He didn't have time to go home and change his clothes."

But Washington area residents might have benefited from him taking those few extra moments. Words can provide only partial reassurance. Symbolism helps with the rest.

Police Chief Charles Ramsey, left, Mayor Anthony Williams and Fire Chief Adrian Thompson looked unprepared in casual dress on Sunday. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, left, and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly were dressed smartly in business suits at their news conference . . . . . . while D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams, Police Chief Charles Ramsey and Fire Chief Adrian Thompson went casual.