'Strong And Steady'

Every president, in wartime, has an image he wants to project. During World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt was confident, even cocky, with his jaunty cigarette holder and fireside chats. John F. Kennedy wanted to be effortlessly cool. "I guess this is the week I earn my salary," he winked as the Cuban missile crisis broke. Lyndon Johnson wanted to be tough and resolute in Vietnam, but he became self-pitying and obsessed, spending his nights in the basement of the White House picking bombing targets.

George Bush wants to show self-control. According to his advisers, his model of how not to behave is Alexander Haig, the former secretary of state who announced to the nation, "I am in control" when Reagan was shot in 1981. Haig meant to reassure the public, but to George Bush--Reagan's vice president and constitutional successor at the time--Haig seemed hyper and panicked, unable to control his own emotions. Bush wants to appear unruffled and unflappable in times of stress. To openly grieve or gloat, he has been taught since school days, is a poor show.

The problem is that Bush is, by nature, an emotional man. He is an enthusiast with a kind of rambunctious, goofy charm. He can also be sentimental, weepy or blue. His private moods have swung in very human ways over the months of the crisis--from fear to resolution to impatience to calm and back to edginess again, say his aides. They picture him communing with God at Camp David during Christmas, weighing the burdens of command. But an equally telling picture was of him horsing around in the snow. With Arnold Schwarzenegger at his side, the Leader of the Free World careered down the hill in a toboggan. "Bail out!" he gleefully shouted as his wife Barbara's sled veered toward a tree. (She didn't, and broke her leg.)

In private, Bush speaks movingly about the horrors he saw in World War II. During his August vacation in Kennebunkport, he recalled his anguish at seeing a friend decapitated by a plane crashing on the flight deck. Yet when it came time to address the nation last week, Bush cut out any mention of his own combat experience. He thought it was too boastful and hokey, says his aides. He also cut out several sentences referring to the "innocents"--civilians on all sides--who might suffer in the war. In practice sessions, his voice caught every time he delivered the lines. "George Bush believed it was important he be as strong and as steady as he could be," said a senior White House official. "His emotions were not relevant here. In fact, it was important to him that they not show."

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To choke up in public, at a time of crisis, would be unforgivable to Bush. But he has a poor poker face. As he often does in televised addresses, the president fixed an anxious half grin on his face last week as he spoke to the nation of subjects that are grave--and obviously emotional to him. His pursed lips curled up in a kind of grotesque good cheer as he recounted how Saddam had "maimed and murdered innocent children." The speech, largely written by Bush himself and seen by the largest American television audience in history, was straightforward. But it was oddly flat for so momentous an occasion. Bush's reticence must seem puzzling to a public that reads about his occasional outbursts, like his vow to legislators that Saddam would get his "ass kicked."

The president is taking pains to show the American people that he is keeping to the normal routine. As H-hour approached last week, Bush met with a group of education advisers. "Hey listen, life goes on," he told reporters. When UPI reporter Helen Thomas said, "You look grim," Bush replied, "Come on, Helen,lighten up." The Rev. Billy Graham spent the night at the White House on the evening war began, and Washington cynics assumed the evangelist had been summoned to stage a photo-op prayer with the president in his hour of crisis. (Lyndon Johnson used to call on Graham, he said, when he needed some "good tall praying.") But Bush often turns to ministers for support, and presidential aides noted that Graham, the president's close friend of 20 years, is a frequent house guest. At the weekend Bush returned to Camp David, presumably for more sledding in between briefings on the war. He cautioned against "euphoria" over the early returns from the gulf but declared that routine life, and even the Super Bowl, should go on.

Bush knows that he is a poor public speaker, at least when he's staring into a camera. He does better when he can talk face to face. That explains why he has given 91 press conferences and only five televised addresses in the past two years. Asked by UPI's Thomas why he was so outraged by Iraq's retaliation against Israel, Bush shot back, "Against a country that's innocent and not involved? That's what I'm saying." Bush was firm and formidable. At these moments the public can sense his basic decency.

Bush doesn't really need to be an inspirational spokesman as long as the war seems to be proceeding with push-button efficiency. But if the military bogs down in the desert, Bush will have to summon up more than his personal stoicism to call on the nation for sacrifice.

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'Strong And Steady' | News