At 9:05 last night, George Bush strolled into a packed congressional chamber amid thunderous cheers to take a place previously occupied by only a few other presidents.

At that moment, as cheers rocked the house, Bush became in history's book a true war president -- a leader who in an hour of national danger and uncertainty would be linked in public memory with his ability to rally government and country in prosecution of a major war.

His theme last night was an America in peril, standing at a defining moment in its history and representing something "larger than ourselves."

And something more: a hint, in his repeated evocation of the challenges and burdens of "the next American century," of America's destiny as the world's leader, the "only nation on this Earth that could assemble the forces of peace" and assume "the burden of leadership."

There was much more than ordinary political rhetoric in those words, and the solemn setting reinforced them. This, everyone present understood, was a moment that people would remember.

Once again, America was at war, and once again a president had made the short journey from the White House to Capitol Hill to tell leaders of the other branches of the American government what he thought about the state of the Union.

Outside, the Capitol was an island, a throbbing political center surrounded by a moat of security. The grounds were still, their silence broken by the sound of barking police dogs. The shadowy figures of armed police flitted through the night, their surreal presence contrasted by the brightly illuminated Capitol dome above. Inside, it was a hothouse of expectations and emotions.

Checkpoints stopped people yards before the Capitol. They were searched -- and then stopped and searched again -- as they passed, one by one, inside. Still again, before taking seats in the galleries, they were searched once more.

All these scenes contributed to the sense of history last night.

Normally, these State of the Union messages are synthetic affairs, canned presidential speeches presenting a predictable laundry list from a chief executive's legislative wish book, greeted by canned applause from presidential partisans and polite response -- or stony silence -- from political opponents.

So dull were these addresses considered in past decades that from the beginning until Woodrow Wilson, no president personally delivered his address; instead, they sent written messages up to the Hill to be read aloud by droning clerks before benumbed legislators. So ordinary have they become in the Television Age that viewers today are accustomed to seeing politicians dozing, daydreaming or even, on occasion, napping during delivery of the presidential address.

That was not so last night. The predictable political boilerplate expressions about checking bureaucracy, turning government over to the people and producing other promised wonders, were present, but they were not what riveted the hall and everyone in it.

When Bush turned to the war and the future, a deathly silence hung over the chamber. His remarks of praise for American combat forces deployed in the Persian Gulf drew a thunderous standing ovation that roared through the room. It was followed, in quick order, by more moments of absolute silence -- and more standing ovations when Bush reiterated his conviction that the war would be won and that then peace would prevail.

Here, without doubt, was genuine emotion, of a kind seldom seen in this place so often derisively dismissed as "the cave of the winds." War had produced such emotions in that chamber in the past, and war again reignited them last night.

There was, however, a difference between Bush, the war president, and his four presidential predecessors who articulated war messages and expressed war aims in that same place in this century.

Woodrow Wilson, in 1917, struck a typical note of missionary idealism as America entered World War I. A quarter of a century later, Franklin D. Roosevelt, speaking scarcely a month after Pearl Harbor, sounded the imperial war commander as he spelled out his plans for total mobilization of America's personal and material resources, even citing exact numbers of tanks, planes and ships to be produced in order for the nation to win victory in World War II.

Harry S. Truman's tone at the advent of the Korean War, was more somber as he warned Congress that it faced "as grave a task as any Congress in the history of our Republic" in order to meet the challenges of a Cold War turned hot.

Later, Lyndon B. Johnson still held out hope that America could have a Great Society at home and win a war abroad when he delivered his first message of the Vietnam era that began in 1965.

George Bush's words sought to signal the end of a period of American failure -- failure in Vietnam, failure in a hostage rescue mission, failure even in domestic economic planning -- and held out an almost fervent belief in a resurgent American future.

It was the burden of leadership that he expressed last night, and if taken at face value, it symbolized an America that is further willing to take on global burdens rather than retreat from them.

Whether the country will share that vision as this war proceeds is the question that history will later have to judge.