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."
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.
"The Republicans are no longer in charge of the Congress because of this war," Hagel said. "Those are the realities, and I don't think the administration has quite accepted those realities yet, nor the realities of how bad it is on the ground in Iraq."
ON HIS MIND
Yet the war is clearly very much on the president's mind. When Bush met privately last week with a dozen rabbis and Jewish educators, they expected he might open the conversation by talking about Israel. Instead, the president greeted them in the Roosevelt Room of the White House with a discourse on Iraq, and why he still believes it can be a beacon for democracy in the Middle East.
"I got the sense of a man who feels very heavily the weight of history," said Robert Wexler, president of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, who attended the meeting. "But I didn't get the sense of someone who feels he's doing the wrong thing. He said, `I might change tactics, but I'm not going to change the way I feel about it.'"
That conviction may simply be a necessary part of the presidential armor, a kind of psychological protection against what Doris Kearns Goodwin, a historian and biographer of presidents, calls "the unbearable burden" a commander-in-chief would have to face if he came to the painful realization that he wrongly sent troops into combat.
Bush was asked last week if he had experienced any pain, given his own acknowledgment that things in Iraq had not gone according to plan. He spun the question toward the military families' pain -- "My heart breaks" for them, he said -- before turning it back to his own: "The most painful aspect of the presidency is the fact that I know my decisions have caused young men and women to lose their lives."
Being commander-in-chief means learning to cope with stress. Abraham Lincoln went to the theater to relax. Franklin Roosevelt, paralyzed from polio, lulled himself to sleep by imagining himself as a boy sledding down a snowy slope at Hyde Park.
Bush sweats out his stress on weekend mountain-bike rides. On weeknights, the Bushes watch football or baseball on television, "to try not to worry a little bit," Laura Bush told CBS.
Presidents in trouble often look to history for solace, and Bush is no exception. He has sometimes likened himself to Harry Truman -- a second-term president who prosecuted an unpopular war, but whose reputation was redeemed after his death.
Bush also appears to have Lincoln on his mind; he told People magazine that Goodwin's recent book on Lincoln and his Cabinet, Team of Rivals, was his favorite book this year.
Goodwin, though, sees a comparison to another of her subjects, Johnson.
"Even toward the bad days of Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson still believed this war had to be fought," she said. "He couldn't argue in the end that it was working, but what he could argue to himself was that if it hadn't been fought, that somehow we would have been fighting the enemy somewhere else."
That is the argument Bush has been making all along about Iraq, even as public opinion polls show that as many as 70 percent of Americans disapprove of his handling of the war.
Wexler, for one, is convinced that Bush believes it. There in the Roosevelt Room, the university president said, he felt as if he were witnessing the president have a conversation with himself.
"I'm a judge of sincerity -- I think rabbis are pretty good at that," Wexler said.
"If you didn't tell me this was the president of the United States, I would say this was a man with something on his mind who was very, very sincere about what he was saying," he said.
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