President Bush prayed Tuesday for the peace that few around him thought would come.
“It’s no longer a question of whether, but when,” said a senior White House official, reflecting the deep gloom that settled over the Executive Mansion as those closest to the President braced themselves for war.
However, White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said, “The President is at peace with himself, is ready to make the tough decisions ahead that are necessary. He’s reflective and resolute, and I would say that he’s confident in the correctness of our course and in the strength of our coalition.”
Among the telephone calls placed by the President, one went to Bishop Edmond Browning, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States, the church to which Bush belongs, and another went to the Rev. Richard C. Halverson, chaplain of the U.S. Senate.
“He told them both that he had been praying for peace during these troubled times. They both offered prayers on behalf of the President and the country,” Fitzwater said.
Browning has been active in clergy groups opposing use of force in the Persian Gulf--he took part in a large peace demonstration in Washington on Monday evening. Bush, said Fitzwater, “has always looked to Bishop Browning for spiritual guidance, and he would in this case as well.”
As Bush approached the midnight deadline for Iraq to withdraw its troops from Kuwait or face the threat of war, the rhythmic drum-beating of anti-war demonstrators across Pennsylvania Avenue in Lafayette Park served to count down the dwindling hours.
At the White House, a concerted effort was mounted to make the day appear normal: Economic advisers were summoned to a meeting that, one official said, was not much more than a prop to provide a business-as-usual tint to the tense day.
But soon after the advisers departed, the President began a 90-minute meeting with the key members of his national security team: Secretary of State James A. Baker III, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin L. Powell, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, Scowcroft deputy Robert M. Gates, White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu and Vice President Dan Quayle.
At 7:15 a.m., as usual, Bush arrived in the Oval Office. But five minutes later he walked out, alone, for an uncharacteristic stroll around the finely trimmed South Lawn as the intense pinks of the winter dawn turned to pale gold.
Hundreds of protesters marched in Lafayette Park, mingling with the homeless who live there and office workers who walked by to view the Executive Mansion at a time of crisis. Police said they cleared away 55 young protesters who sat or lay down on the sidewalk on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Other than the milling crowd and the beefed-up security provided by uniformed Secret Service officers inside the tall, wrought-iron fence that rings the White House, there were few visible signs that the President might be on the verge of taking the nation to war.
But in the White House West Wing, where staff offices are located, the scene was far from normal. Throughout the day, there were “a lot of unscheduled meetings and huddles in the Oval Office,” said one senior White House official.
Bush avoided public comment, turning aside questions from reporters he encountered. He dispatched a letter congratulating Portuguese President Mario Soares on his reelection “in this time of crisis,” discussed the Persian Gulf situation by telephone with South African President Frederik W. de Klerk and met in the Oval Office with Della Newman, a friend who is the U.S. ambassador to New Zealand.
During the day, the President taped a message to be broadcast during halftime of the Super Bowl football game on Jan. 27, offering a salute to the families of the troops serving in the gulf.
Within the White House, the President’s thinking was “a close hold,” a White House official said. “A lot of people don’t know what will happen. A lot of talk. Everybody’s looking for signs. The prevailing opinion seems to be that things are imminent, but there’s a counteropinion--that it may drift a few days.”