Those who lived through the Cuban missile crisis may remember that when President John F. Kennedy heard about Russian missiles on Castro's island, he cut short a political trip to Chicago and hurried back to the White House.
President George W. Bush is approaching nuclear danger differently. He is vacationing in Crawford, Tex., cutting underbrush and, according to White House correspondent, Dana Milbank, being ''engaged'' in a variety of world problems. And he's sending his secretary of state to the television studios to say that North Korea's nuclear fit is not a crisis.
That is in itself a message. He is definitely not calling 911. The situation may be "grave" and "dangerous," said Colin Powell on five networks, "but it is not a crisis." He was emphatic about that. We may talk to the North Koreans informally, but we will certainly not negotiate, Powell says. We must not "reward bad conduct." That is true with small children and other difficult human beings, but it is not necessarily a principle in dealing with a nutty little nation that has gone nuclear, having produced two bombs and acquired the makings for as many as one a month.
Playing it cool may be good for Bush's war -- it won't unduly divert people -- but it doesn't do a lot for world peace. Negotiating with a paranoid Kim Jong Il might be the equivalent of dealing with a kidnapper or a hostage-taker, but surely some allowance could be made for weapons that could wipe out the world.
But the buzz is that if Bush sent someone to the North Korean capital, we would be giving the maniac in charge "just what he wants" -- that is, attention. Apparently little thought is given to the possibility that a U.S. envoy might be successful in convincing crazy Kim Jong Il that North Korea needs other things more than plutonium to make it a serious country.
Powell spoke compellingly of "the full range of capabilities -- political, economic, diplomatic and, yes, military" we have at our disposal to prevail upon Pyongyang. You want to ask him why the repertory might not work equally well with Iraq.
Powell, good soldier that he is, even attempted a little irony in his "Meet the Press" manifestation. "Everybody seems to say, you know, 'Why don't we go start a war right away?' . . . What fascinates me as the secretary of state . . . is constantly being accused of being an administration that wishes to act unilaterally and reach for your gun at the drop of a hat."
His wordsmiths got it wrong. People don't want him to go to war with North Korea, don't want him to go to war with Iraq or anybody else. And what gave his performances their schizophrenic cast was that while he emphasized care, caution, prudence and patience in dealing with North Korea, he was representing a president who is raring to go on Iraq.
Every week another large contingent of fighters is dispatched to the area, and military maneuvers show our troops being trained in the desert or in urban warfare, presumably the kind imminent in Baghdad. A hospital ship steams to the Persian Gulf. Powell dutifully said that war is ''not inevitable.'' He does this against a backdrop of preparation that suggests that it is. The subtext is that war is no big deal, or at least certainly not the worst thing that could happen.
When Iraq submitted its voluminous but incomplete report of its weapons of mass destruction, the administration went ballistic and charged "material breach," a radioactive phrase in the inspection universe. Powell declined to apply the fateful phrase to North Korea, which has torn up the framework no-more-nukes agreement that North Korea signed with the Clinton administration.
How do we know the Iraqis aren't reporting their real stash? An awkward silence followed the question. It was answered by Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs, who wrote a carefully documented story that shows we sold them their deadliest stuff. Sage Mark Russell is singing a new song, "We've got receipts."
In the face of all these contradictions and material breaches of common sense, the country is calm and the cowed Democrats don't open their mouths. George Bush's approval ratings remain at 75 percent, and the Nov. 5 elections drove home the point that it is unpatriotic and impolitic to oppose him.
Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) has thought of a way to cool war-fevered brows in Congress: Reinstate the draft. If members realized that their sons and daughters could be sent to these godforsaken locations, they might be as wary as the secretary of state hopes they will be about sending the 82nd Airborne to relive "M*A*S*H" in North Korea or "Lawrence of Arabia" in Saddam Hussein's backyard.