George W. Bush may want war with Iraq as much as he wants a second term, but it's doubtful he would like to go down in history as the man who wouldn't take "peace" for an answer. So in his brief speech to the nation that amounted to a declaration of war last night, Bush spoke with funereal solemnity and an aura of mournful regret. There certainly was not a trace of bravado in his voice, manner or frozen features.
In a gesture that is bound to be likened to something out of an old movie western, Bush, in effect, gave Saddam Hussein and his sons two days to get out of town. He said that unless the dictator was out of Iraq within 48 hours, U.S. troops would be coming in. But he emphasized that the troops want to be seen as the friends and liberators of the Iraqi people and that they'll bring food and medicine to civilians as soon as the country is safely conquered.
Addressing himself to members of the Iraqi military, who surrendered in droves during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, Bush advised them not to "fight for a dying regime that is not worth your own life." But then, in perhaps an unfortunate bit of timing, he urged, "Do not destroy oil wells" because they are a resource for the Iraqi people. Cynics would be justified in wondering if Bush were more worried about the people or the oil.
In one of his better turns-of-phrase, Bush said, "Every measure has been made to avoid war, and every measure will be taken to win it." The president was nothing if not pithy on the subject of an intransigent United Nations: "The United Nations Security Council has not lived up to its responsibilities, so we will rise to ours."
Bush did not speak as slowly or wearily as he did in his last TV appearance, a prime-time news conference rife with peculiarities, but there was a kind of numbness to his delivery. Gung-ho rabble-rousing would be unseemly, but could Bush have gone too far in the other direction, coming across as lacking the fervor necessary to lead such an epochal event?
Partisans who adore Bush will say he was dramatic and effective, and those who are not supporters will likely say he seemed stiff, rigid and even a little spooky.
All networks, including cable news networks and public TV, carried the speech, but only one of the commercial broadcast networks -- ABC -- devoted much time to the urgent question of war once the address itself was over (in just under 15 minutes). Dan Rather vanished from CBS like a genie going back into a bottle so the network could present its high-rated, high-profit Monday night comedies.
More inexcusably somehow, NBC abandoned the war so it could join its sick and sadistic hit "Fear Factor" in progress -- picking it up in time to air a gruesome sequence in which men and women walked in bare feet over broken glass as part of a repugnant ordeal that had a $50,000 jackpot at the end.
Bush said some Iraqi citizens had access to a translated version of his speech as he gave it, as a way to reassure them of America's intentions.
Rather earlier had revealed on a special one-hour edition of "The CBS Evening News" that Bush would issue the 48-hour ultimatum, except that initially it was reported as a 72-hour deadline. Rather was so apologetic about this that well into the evening, every time he mentioned a 48-hour ultimatum, he would quickly say "not 72 hours" lest anyone be confused. But on ABC News later, one of the U.S. generals on duty in Kuwait was said to have been under the impression that 72 hours was the figure written into the speech.
Thus Rather needn't have felt so guilty about the error, which may simply have resulted from a change of mind at the White House.
ABC seemed the most public-spirited of the networks by devoting its entire prime-time lineup, all three hours of it, plus "Nightline" at 11:35, to the speech and reaction to it and to possible ramifications of warfare in the Mideast. Of course, it just so happens that ABC's Monday night prime-time schedule is a ratings catastrophe, so the network wasn't sacrificing all that much by ditching the scheduled programming.
And ABC News put rather a negative spin on the story, too. Anchor Peter Jennings characterized the apparently imminent conflict as Iraq vs. "the most powerful nation on Earth," and ABC titled its three-hour report "When Diplomacy Fails."
Jennings, who anchored the ABC coverage in another of his trademark drab suits, was not able to repress completely his knee-jerk hauteur. Or maybe he didn't even try. Hopscotching about the Mideast to query reporters who have been "embedded" with U.S. troops for war coverage, Jennings referred to "Nightline" anchor and ABC superstar Ted Koppel as merely "one of" the "reporters" on the team. Koppel spoke by satellite from somewhere in northern Kuwait.
"What have you done today?" Jennings asked Koppel, in the manner of a teacher demanding that a homework assignment be produced. "It's 5 o'clock in the morning here, Peter," Koppel said, "so as you can imagine, people have been sleeping."
While the commercial networks aired their evening newscasts, C-SPAN, cable's invaluable Network of Record, was airing live debate about Iraq from the Canadian Parliament. C-SPAN had been bringing viewers thoughtful discussions of the issue all weekend, though not without dismaying mishaps. At a seminar Saturday night in Los Angeles, journalist Robert Scheer was ticking off succinct and persuasive arguments against going to war when the picture began to break up. Suddenly a C-SPAN announcer declared that technical difficulties made the telecast impossible (in fact, the audio could still be heard) and so the seminar was yanked and replaced -- by Army-supplied footage of military maneuvers.
An antiwar speech from the British House of Commons yesterday afternoon was also abruptly interrupted. Parliamentarian Robin Cook was giving reasons to avoid the war when he was replaced suddenly on the screen by a color test pattern and the words "Fox News Qatar." C-SPAN deserves credit for putting this programming on the air but might try a little harder to keep it there.
ABC, too, had a report break up, this one from Baghdad, during last night's coverage, and Jennings told viewers that transmissions that are "not perfect" are "something we're going to have get used to" in the days ahead. What else we're going to have to get used to is a matter of speculation and conjecture and has a pretty prominent fear factor itself.
Bush did nothing to calm fears last night, but at least he suggested the back-and-forth debate about whether to wage war -- debate so repetitious that many Americans may by now be ignoring it -- was about to end. End, as it were, with a bang.