Usually, the president's public demeanor fits the prescribed description. But when it doesn't — as was the case last Thursday at Camp David, when Bush fidgeted and scowled during a brief press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair — his aides have to improvise. Asked the next morning why the president had seemed so irritated, a senior administration official did what the occupants of his office have done for eons: he blamed the media. In particular, the official said, Bush took exception to questions suggesting the war against Iraq wasn't going as smoothly as the Administration had predicted. The President, he explained, thinks such questions are "silly."
Bashing the press is a time-honored, bi-partisan tradition when White Houses don't like what they see and read in the news. The public, which feels about journalists the way they do Internet pop-up ads, tends to back the president in such disputes, at least initially. But Bush's irritation and the White House's calculated use of it to beat back questions about the war's progress are just the latest examples of how this president has become mired in the debate about the daily ups and downs of the Iraq conflict.
This was not the plan. The plan was to make Bush look above the fray, to de-link him from the inevitable second-guessing and finger-pointing that accompanies an operation as large and unpredictable as the invasion of another country. But the White House's painstaking efforts to maintain that image of the president began to fail even before the bombs started falling on Baghdad. On the day Bush would issue his 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam Hussein in a nation-wide address, a CNN camera crew filmed him playing fetch with his dogs, Spot and Barney, on the South Lawn. Bush was not pleased. That evening, as he was rehearsing his speech, he yelled at his press secretary, Ari Fleischer. Bush didn't think the image of him playing with his dogs was appropriate at such a solemn moment. "Aren't there rules against that?" he demanded.
Perhaps because he didn't appreciate what he saw of himself on television, the president stopped watching. Or did he? While much of the nation and the world was riveted by the opening scenes of the intense air assault on Baghdad, Fleischer suggested that the president was not tuned in. "I don't think he needs to watch TV to know what [is] about to unfold," Fleischer explained. The president was that confident in his plan and that cool in his carriage. He didn't need to watch how it unfolded either out of curiosity or to feed some need for confirmation. But when that answer left the impression that Bush was too detached, other top Bush advisers quickly leaked a counter-anecdote. The president, they said, had watched some of the war coverage in his private study, along with Chief of Staff Andy Card.
Bush is a long way from morphing into Lyndon Johnson, who was so obsessed with Vietnam that he personally selected bombing targets from maps in the White House Situation Room. But this president is wading into the details more than he'd like, at least when it comes to managing expectations about the war. Within the White House last week, anxiety about the fierceness of Iraqi resistance was exceeded only by indignation at accusations that the Administration had oversold the idea that the war would be quick and easy. "This is not an administration full of second-guessers," complained one Bush aide. "No one's going around saying, 'Gee, we're one week into this and I'm having doubts.' No one's gonna back off what they said. The war is still gonna be short. Do we have to lower expectations? Yes. Do we have to lower expectations because the media have a short attention span and they're turning this into a story when it's not? Yes."
Even though he thinks the questions are silly, or worse, Bush is reacting to them. As the president flew to CentCom headquarters in Tampa, Fla., last week, Fleischer told reporters aboard Air Force One that when he arrived Bush would declare that the war was progressing "ahead of schedule." But the President, it turned out, decided to scratch that sentence out of his speech, for fear that it might fuel expectations of a quick end to the war. "He was being conservative," says one aide. But, as another official said, the fact that Bush himself was shown to be lowering expectations was bad for the White House. "It made it sound like we were less optimistic than we had been," the official said. "It looks like we're succumbing to the doom and gloom, which we're not."
After days of busted plays, the White House is back on message. Describing the week and the president's direction to his staff, a senior White House adviser was back to using one of their favorite words. "The messaging point that he wants when this stuff is being reported is one word: 'resolve'," said the aide. "That's what the families want to hear. That's what people who have loved ones who are POWs and what the guys in the field who are fighting this thing want to hear. And he is going to hammer it home and hammer it home and hammer it home."