Comments from the Catholics who met with him in Washington last month show that many of us are wild about George W. Bush. We should be very enthusiastic indeed, we think. But we should also be careful.

Bush kicked off his presidency by giving a gift to the unborn, delivered in the presence of 200,000 pro-life marchers, a great many of them Catholic. By reinstating the Mexico City Policy of Ronald Reagan, he will ensure that money withdrawn from our paychecks isn't used to pay for abortions overseas. That's one good reason to be enthusiastic.

Here's another: On the sixth day of his presidency, he made an unprecedented visit to the home of Washington Archbishop Theodore McCarrick to meet him, along with Cardinal James Hickey and Bishop Joseph Fiorenza, president of the U.S. bishops' conference.

Then, at a meeting with 37 Catholic leaders earlier this month, the president remarked that the partnerships he has proposed between the government and faith-based initiatives could really be seen as the first step in a pro-life plan.

The picture from that meeting, showing Bush joking with Miami Archbishop John Favalora and Mother Agnes Mary Donovan of the Sisters of Life is enough to make the hearts of politically weary Catholics swell with pride. Such a thing would have been unconceivable in the previous administration, which succeeded in getting all eight U.S. cardinals at the time to Washington — to protest President Clinton's veto of the partial-birth abortion ban.

So let us all appreciate Bush's presidency, and enjoy being respected once again from the powers that be in our great country. But let's also remember two important lessons from political events of the '90s.

Pride Cometh Before a Fall. When Bill Clinton became president eight years ago, his political allies held a weeklong celebration in Washington. The Washington Post triumphantly reported that a new era had begun. Then, the new era never materialized. The administration was rattled by scandal early on, approval ratings for the president plummeted and, in the end, the two policy initiatives his allies like most — government health care and tax increases — tanked. The president lost control of Congress two years later and had to spend his time accomplishing things antithetical to his ideological base.

Likewise, when the Republicans took control of Congress four years later, they declared victory. They celebrated as if they had been made leaders of the free world. Within a year, they, too, saw that they had been over-confident and expected more than they had a right to expect. They also stepped away from the policy proposals they had campaigned on and seemed too gun-shy to accomplish much more.

The political lesson is clear: Getting elected is the first step, not the final victory. Let's be glad that a pro-lifer won the presidency, and be responsive to him when he shows he's on our side. But let's hold the champagne until real, lasting changes have been made in a broad array of areas of concern to us.

Another Catholic president? Another lesson can be learned from an embarrassing essay by novelist Tony Morrison, in which she proclaimed Bill Clinton the first black president. Excited by the promise of the new administration, she made the strange case that his personal history and affinity with blacks made the president a de facto member of her own race.

The “Catholic” circumstances of Bush's election are suggestive. Hundreds of thousands of rosaries were said in a nationwide campaign to defeat his pro-abortion opponent. The key turning points in the election happened on significant Marian feast days. One observer has said of Bush after his election that he has Catholic social teaching “in his blood.”

Such a thing is greatly to be desired. But the wisest course of action is to treat Bush as what he is, a politician, and not to identify him too closely with the faith as such.

Bush is a good politician and, it seems, a good man. He is not the “second Catholic president of the United States.” That's fine. He needn't be to win our admiration, and we shouldn't expect him to be more than he is.

So, yes, let's give Bush the benefit of the doubt — and, more, our greatest regards. But let's make sure he knows that he has to earn our support. Otherwise, we might find ourselves disappointed if we lose him as our ally — and he might find himself just as disappointed if he loses our votes.

----- EXCERPT: Editorial