With the single-mindedness of the pounding, icy surf along the crag-filled Maine coast, George Bush is pursuing a vacation in the face of all odds. And he's acting as though there's nothing to it.
A decade after the country was racked by the Iran hostage crisis--and a driven presidency symbolized by a chief executive who refused to leave Washington for six months--President Bush is dogged in his determination to carry on business as usual despite the Persian Gulf crisis.
That has meant hewing to a long-planned 25-day vacation at his home on a promontory jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean.
Twice he has interrupted the vacation, which began Aug. 10, to return to Washington for meetings with national security advisers and budget experts.
But after each meeting, he returned to Maine as quickly as possible--stopping once at the Pentagon to rally Defense Department workers and once, two days ago, to keep longstanding commitments to address the Veterans of Foreign Wars and a GOP fund-raiser.
As seen in nightly news reports, the President appears to be spending his days here much as he has every summer of his life, save for 1944, when he was a Navy pilot in the South Pacific during World War II. He is engaged in what can perhaps best be called aggressive relaxation.
Bush's political advisers concede that the televised images of the President on a golf course or crashing over the waves in a speedboat may be sparking some resentment among an electorate that is worrying whether the next night's TV news will carry grisly footage of soldiers dying.
But the advisers, too, are unrepentant:
"I think everybody knows he keeps in touch with what is happening," White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu said Tuesday. "I'd rather have a President that kept the whole thing in perspective than one that locked himself behind closed doors and brooded about the problem."
So far, the polls seem to have turned up no cause for alarm. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey, completed Saturday and Sunday, found that of the 805 polled, 72% approved of his handling of the Middle East crisis, 16% disapproved and 12% were not sure.
And a majority also approved of his decision to take a vacation--53% voiced support, 39% disapproved and 8% were unsure.
But there is some evidence that the public is beginning to question Bush's continuing vacation. Larry King, host of national radio and television talk programs, said he has begun to hear such sentiment in the last two or three days.
"There is a general feeling that you want your President at the helm," King said. "It looks funny to have him in a golf cart and talking about deploying troops."
Marjorie Walterscheid of Jacksboro, Tex., had a more personal reaction. Her husband, Rainard, who is an oil worker, was seized by Iraqi authorities in Kuwait shortly after the Aug. 2 invasion. He is now one of about 3,000 American hostages in the two countries.
"My husband's not on vacation--my husband is not having recreation time," she said. "I want him home."
To be sure, it has not been a relaxing time for the President--despite his insistence that he is able to separate work from play and that he can "recreate" between his briefings, transoceanic telephone calls and urgent messages from the Pentagon, State Department and CIA.
Over the last week and a half, as the crisis atmosphere took hold in Washington, the boundaries have become blurred.
Work, play, work, play--one blends into the next as this whirling dervish of a President is at play one moment, jogging from golf cart to green, and deep in serious conversation the next; taking his grandchildren to look for seals, or meeting with King Hussein of Jordan.
Here he is using a cellular telephone on a golf cart, there he is learning of the latest angry declarations from Iraq via another telephone aboard his speedboat Fidelity.
Those who know Bush well insist--and those who have worked closely with other presidents during times of crisis insist--that particularly at such moments it is important for a President to demonstrate he has not himself become a hostage to crisis.
"A President can't become so consumed that he appears trapped," said Thomas C. Griscom, who was the White House communications director when President Ronald Reagan's aides were seeking to pull him out of the depth of the Iran-Contra crisis.
Otherwise, he said, the public "sees a President who is hamstrung--and that translates into a feeling the country is leaderless because the person they look to for direction is unable to move."
But for Bush, the need to get out of the White House, and in this case spend time in Kennebunkport, is doubly important, says a longtime friend.
"That physical activity is very important in terms of his physiological set-up. He gets itchy. He's got to get that excess physical energy out," he said.
What it amounts to is that for George Bush, Kennebunkport is a special place--perhaps even more so, his aides argue, at just such moments as these, when it is all the more difficult for him to be here.
"There is a certain amount of benefit to the kind of peaceful thoughtfulness one has out on the ocean," said Deputy White House Press Secretary Alixe Glen, who has served Bush for more than a decade. "The President has said this is the place where he has time to think."
"I think it's important to him from the standpoint of perspective," said author Vic Gold, a longtime adviser. "The danger is--it was shown with Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter--that if you sit in Washington and all you have is people coming in with reports and you're getting hammered, it narrows your perspective."