For Bush, War Anguish Expressed Privately

President Bush hugs Anita Kukkola after presenting her son, Pfc. Jason Kukkola of Fountain Hills, Ariz., with a Purple Heart at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2005.
President Bush hugs Anita Kukkola after presenting her son, Pfc. Jason Kukkola of Fountain Hills, Ariz., with a Purple Heart at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2005. (By Paul Morse -- White House Via Associated Press)

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By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 25, 2006

FALMOUTH, Maine -- They sat on two frayed chairs in a teacher's lounge, the president and the widow, just the two of them so close that their knees were almost touching.

She was talking about her husband, the soldier who died in a far-off war zone. Tears rolled down her face as she mentioned two children left fatherless. His eyes welled up, too. He hugged her, held her face, kissed her cheek. "I am so sorry for your loss," he kept repeating.

She told him she considers him responsible for her husband's death and begged him to bring home the troops. "It's time to put our pride behind us and stop the bleeding, for all of us," she recalled saying. The president demurred, unwilling to debate a mourning woman. "We see things differently," he said.

But Hildi Halley, a self-described liberal antiwar activist who met with President Bush in Maine last month, said she believes he felt her grief. "It wasn't just a crocodile tear," she said in an interview at her home. "I felt like I moved him. I don't think he's going to wake up tomorrow and say, 'Oh my gosh, I've been wrong this whole time and I'm going to change all my policies because of my meeting with this woman.' I just hope that with each soldier, he remembers my pain."

He has a lot of pain to remember. Now more than five years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush has served as a wartime president longer than any occupant of the White House since Lyndon B. Johnson. He has presided over more U.S. military casualties than any since Richard M. Nixon. While he travels the country defending his policy and arguing to stay the course in Iraq, he also confronts the human burdens of wartime leadership.

The two sides of Bush as commander in chief can be hard to reconcile. His public persona gives little sense that he dwells on the costs of war. He does not seem to agonize as Johnson did, or even as his father, George H.W. Bush, did before the Persian Gulf War. While he pays tribute to those who have fallen, the president strives to show resolve and avoid displays that might be seen as weak or doubting. His refusal to attend military funerals, while taking long Texas vacations and extended bicycle rides, strikes some critics as callous indifference.

Yet the private Bush comes across differently in the accounts of aides, friends, relatives and military family members who have met with him, including some who do not support him, such as Halley. The first question Bush usually asks national security briefers in the Oval Office each morning is about overnight casualties, aides say, and those who show up for the next round of meetings often find him still stewing about bad news from Iraq.

Bush seems to separate these aspects of war in his mind, advisers say. He expresses no regret even in private for his decision to invade Iraq, they say, while taking seriously the continuing consequences of doing so. "Removing Saddam, he never revisits that in his mind or his heart," said one adviser, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because Bush does not want them to discuss his feelings. "Sending troops into harm's way, that's something that weighs on him."

If he does not show that publicly, it's in keeping with a White House practice of not drawing attention to the mounting costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have killed more than 3,000 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of civilians. Advisers worry that sending the wrong signal would further sap public will and embolden the enemy and Bush's critics. Aides say that Bush does not attend military funerals because the presidential entourage would disrupt solemn events and that, out of respect, the media have been banned from photographing coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base. But they also know it would focus a spotlight on the price of the president's policies.

Bush is less reticent about public displays of grief for victims of Sept. 11. During the recent events marking the fifth anniversary of the attacks, he teared up several times and at one point had to concentrate just to finish a speech. "Your heart breaks for somebody who suffered," he later told Charles Gibson of ABC News. "Tears can get contagious as far as I'm concerned."

For those who have suffered losses in the wars he initiated, Bush prefers to offer comfort in private. He writes letters to families of those killed, visits soldiers at military hospitals and meets with relatives of the dead. Altogether, according to the White House, Bush has met with 1,149 relatives of 336 dead service members. These sessions generate little attention because the White House bars journalists, but some relatives have described them.

"It's absolutely painful for him," said Beth Karlson, 63, a retired school food-service manager whose son died in Iraq and who met with Bush in Wisconsin last month. The president hugged her and held her hand. "He's a genuine person. He wants to reach out to the families and let them know how he feels."


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