Buying Time, And Cooling Off, In Crawford

The temperature was probably 100 degrees in the shade at Bush's Crawford ranch today. It was cooler than yesterday. The press pool had been summoned for brief comments by the president and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about their meeting this morning. On their agenda: military restructuring. On ours: Iraq.

In case we needed a visual of how punishing the weather can be down here, we spotted a dead cow engulfed by buzzards en route to the rendezvous. As we waited for Bush and Rumsfeld to arrive, White House image wranglers moved hay stacks to artfully block the TV cameras' view of an unsightly propane tank. We amused ourselves by checking out the huge poisonous spiders that have set up shop along a fence. (A couple Secret Service agents tested one spider's reflexes by tossing crickets into its web). By the time Bush rolled up in his white Ford pickup truck with Rumsfeld riding shotgun, we were bored and hot.

First thing Bush did was throw cold water on us--or at least our notion that he had been having intense discussions all morning about Iraq. More and more allies are saying they won't support a war against Saddam Hussein, a reporter ventured, will you go it alone? "Are you asking about Iraq?" Bush asked. "The subject didn't come up in this meeting." He clearly was eager for a chance to talk about not talking about Iraq. "I know there is this kind of intense speculation that seems to be going on, a kind of--I don't know how you would describe it? It's a kind of a churning..." Bush said. Rumsfeld offered up "frenzy." Bush liked it: "Frenzy is how the secretary would describe it."

The frenzy, of course, started with Bush naming Iraq as part of the "axis of evil" in his State of the Union speech. It's never really calmed down--and that's not just because the bored, hot press is "churning" the "intense speculation." It has come from within the administration and the Republican Party as well. Military sources have been leaking war plans with a sense of urgency. Prominent Republicans like Brent Scowcroft and Henry Kissinger have joined in the debate in op-eds and the Sunday shows. In fact, it's Republicans, not Democrats, who have been raising the most serious questions. Rep. Dick Armey--not exactly a dove--has urged restraint. Meanwhile, fellow Texan Rep. Tom DeLay, came out in favor of taking out Hussein today.

Bush himself has fed the frenzy. The president, for example, knows that reporters always ask about his summer reading list. He told an Associated Press reporter that he was reading "Supreme Command," a new book by Eliot Cohen, who favors getting rid of Hussein sooner rather than later. Cohen sits on the Defense Policy Board--a conservative advisory group for Rumsfeld led by uber-hawk Richard Perle. It's probably no coincidence that he's reading it; it was widely interpreted as a hint about his thinking on Iraq.

Or course reporters tend to read a lot into little details (that's what happens when you have to make a meal out of scraps). Many interpreted the fact that Secretary of State Colin Powell was not at the ranch for the meeting with Rumsfeld and other military honchos today as a sign of that the war council was ignoring his cautionary input. The White House insists that it was not a war-council meeting. After all, Bush pointed out, "I want you to note that General Franks is not here." (Tommy Franks is the man who would run the war.) The emphasis on who wasn't there was second only to the emphasis on what they didn't talk about.

Bush and Rumsfeld clearly relish dashing our assumptions. They both have a sparring relationship with the press corps. "Mr. Secretary, would you like to say a few words," Bush asked his counterpart at his ranch. "I want to learn how you answer questions; they tell me you're quite good at it." Bush finds Rumsfeld's dismissive and sarcastic style with the press endearing. White House aides will occasionally read Rumsfeld's briefings and point out highlights to the president for comic relief. At the ranch, Rumsfeld quibbled with a reporter over her choice of words and told another he "looked good" because he was the only other person wearing a suit.

Whoever whipped up the "frenzy," Bush and Rumsfeld tried to cool things down this week to buy the president more time and to get both critics and allies off the president's back--for awhile.