WASHINGTON - He rode into office on plain speech and core conviction. In the years following the Sept. 11 attacks and throughout the Iraq War, that persona of tough resolve only hardened.
But Thursday, President Bush found himself almost wistful, conjuring a rocking-chair moment at his Texas ranch when he will reconcile his unpopularity with the knowledge that he honored his principles about the war.
In a notable departure from his typical approach, during a White House news conference beamed out to the world, the president acknowledged the personal toll of sticking with his beliefs when they were so profoundly in opposition to those of the American people.
"You know, I guess I'm like any other, you know, political figure - everybody wants to be loved," the president said. "Just sometimes the decisions you make and the consequences don't enable you to be loved.
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"And so when it's all said and done ... if you ever come down and visit the old, tired me down there in Crawford, I will be able to say I looked in the mirror and made decisions based upon principle, not based upon politics. And that's important to me."
Since the war began, his script has rarely varied: The United States must take the fight to the terrorists or the terrorists will bring the fight to the United States. Insurgents in Iraq are terrorists. Al-Qaida is supporting insurgents. The fight must continue because to leave Iraq would make the United States more vulnerable. And unfailingly he argues that the war can be won.
Whiff of weakness
Washington, D.C., has an acute and cynical sense of smell for weakness, and Bush seems ever more vulnerable and alone because of the war. And it can be heard now in the new level of ferocity of the opposition.
The president seemingly called the news conference to get the first cut at shaping public perception of the report that the White House had sent to Congress about certain benchmarks for progress in Iraq. Even if graded on a most forgiving curve, it was difficult to see the marks as anything better than near failing. Some critics were even harsher, suggesting that the administration was trying to tie a nice red bow around a bloody disaster.
Like students complaining about the questions on a test, the Pentagon tried to help the president, arguing that the benchmark tests set by Congress were in effect designed in such a way as to ensure they would not be met.
Even those areas the Pentagon counted as satisfactory could hardly be seen as unqualified successes.
More troubling for the administration might be the fact that the Iraqis are coming up so stunningly short on achieving political success. That is particularly important because the U.S. military strategy is designed to give Iraqis the time and security to make political progress.
Failing to do so is likely to render even brilliant military precision ineffectual.
It has been many, many months since Bush has been able to convince a majority of Americans not only that Iraq was going well, but that it was worth the cost in any event. Some in his party, like Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, had been talking privately to the White House for months, with no success. So Lugar went public, and several others followed him. That makes it all the easier for even more Republicans to adopt a view counter to the president.