Thu, Dec 28, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Bush still sleeps well over Iraq

US presidents have used various means to handle the stress of their work. Now that Iraq is eating into this president's credibility, his means is more important than ever

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , WASHINGTON

US President George W. Bush marched into his year-end news conference last week with the usual zip in his step. As always, he professed little worry about his legacy or the polls. As always, he said the US would win in Iraq. The nation might despair, but not Bush; his presidential armor seemed firmly intact.

Yet a longtime friend of Bush recently spotted a tiny crack in that armor.

"He looked tired, for the first time, which I hadn't seen before," this friend said.

Bush has never been one for introspection, in public or in private. But the questions of how the president is coping, and whether his public pronouncements match what he feels as he searches for a new strategy in Iraq, have been much on the minds of Bush-watchers these days.

Can the president really believe, as he said last Wednesday, that "victory in Iraq is achievable," when a bipartisan commission led by his own father's secretary of state calls the situation there "grave and deteriorating"? Is he truly content to ignore public opinion and let "the long march of history," as he calls it, pass judgment on him after he is gone? Does he lie awake at night, as president Lyndon Johnson did during the Vietnam War, fretting over his decisions?

Bush addressed the sleep issue in a recent interview with People magazine, saying: "I'm sleeping a lot better than people would assume."

NO ESCAPE

The president can never really escape the rigors of his job, first lady Laura Bush said in an interview on Sunday on the CBS news program Face the Nation.

"Sure, he lives with it, 24 hours a day," she said. "You don't have his job and not live with it 24 hours a day."

But as to whether he second-guesses himself, Bush gives little quarter, reducing such inquiries to the broad-brush question of whether it was correct to topple former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Nor does the president seem to question his handling of the postwar period.

His friend, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Bush still believed that Donald Rumsfeld "did a great job overall" as the secretary of defense, despite the president's decision to replace him after Democrats swept last month's congressional elections.

"I think he knows it's bad over there," this person said, "but I'm not quite sure he fully appreciates the incompetence of what's gone on."

Of course, it is politically perilous for any president to wallow in the nation's troubles, or his own. The last modern president who did so was Jimmy Carter, in what came to be called his "malaise" speech, during the energy crisis of 1979. He was drummed out of office the following year, crushed by the optimism of Ronald Reagan.

Yet at the same time, presidents can ill afford to appear overly upbeat when the public is down.

"The American public wants their chief executives strong, confident and optimistic, but you can't look like you're detached from reality," said Democratic Representative Rahm Emanuel, who was president Bill Clinton's political director and who engineered the Democratic majority victory in the House.

In Emanuel's view, Bush's talk of victory bumps the detachment boundary.

"He doesn't seem to be addressing the facts on the ground as the rest of us perceive them," Emanuel said.

Some Republicans say much the same.

"The poll numbers that continue to come out show that the American people have turned against this war," Republican Senator Chuck Hagel said.

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