KENNEBUNKPORT, MAINE -- On the day that President Bush announced the first call-up of American military reserves since the Vietnam War, the flags near his home on Walker's Point snapped in a bracing, cool Atlantic breeze. The palette of his cherished maritime landscape was all vivid blues and greens -- the sea and sky and trees and lawns glowing in the bright afternoon sunlight.
As the president, self-consciously formal in business suit and tie, announced the latest mobilization step in the escalating struggle against Saddam Hussein, the contrast between setting and action was painfully evident.
I had been inclined to dismiss the arguments about the propriety of Bush ''vacationing'' at such a moment as meaningless. But I found that no one watching history unfold on this beautiful coast can avoid thinking about how the men and women Bush has sent to the airless heat of the brown Arabian desert would welcome even five minutes of furlough in the windspray on Walker's Point.
The paradox is unique. By every available measure, the American public is fully behind Bush as he leads an impressive international response to Iraq's naked aggression and its bid to seize control of the world's vital oil supplies. The speed and skill with which Bush has moved command nearly unanimous respect. But he is bothered -- and so are others -- by a seemingly trivial but politically troublesome controversy about his vacationing during the biggest challenge of his presidency.
On the day before his meeting with Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney and Gen. Colin Powell, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Bush attended a golf outing that raised $200,000 for the reelection campaign of Maine Gov. John R. McKernan Jr. McKernan found the president preoccupied, not with the military or diplomatic situation in the Persian Gulf, but with the controversy, ignited by a series of newspaper and television stories, about his determination not to cancel his holiday plans because of the tension in the world.
''He kept coming back to the subject,'' McKernan told me the next day. ''He said the public didn't disapprove of what he was doing, but the media keep harping on it. He said, 'They're even polling people on whether I work hard enough.' He's really sensitive about it.''
McKernan said he marveled at the effort Bush was making not to react to provocative questions. When a reporter who was part of the small journalistic ''pool'' allowed close to the fund-raising event shouted at the president's golf cart, ''Saddam says you're like Hitler; what do you say to that?'' McKernan said Bush bit his lip but stayed silent. But when another reporter said, ''Oh, I see we're getting the cold shoulder today,'' the governor said the president winced.
The tension was confirmed in a brief visit to the summer White House press camp here -- where reporters wince at what they take to be the Bush's insensitivity to appearances.
No one suggests that the president has lost control of the Persian Gulf situation by coming here or that his decision-making is hampered by his location. His communication with others in government is unimpaired, and his worldwide telephone diplomacy has continued at a breakneck pace.
The reporters here know that, and yet they are bothered -- as some Republican politicians I've talked to are bothered -- by the appearance that a notably luxurious lifestyle goes on unaltered for the president while thousands of others are being wrenched out of their routines and sent to distant and dangerous battle stations.
Bush's reasons are plausible enough. He does not want to give Saddam Hussein the satisfaction of thinking he preoccupies the attention of the American president -- even if he does. Bush also does not want to become another Jimmy Carter, held captive in the White House by a Middle Eastern aggressor.
But the reasons go deeper than that. Bush is plainly reluctant to put America on a wartime footing or even to suggest that what's happening in the Gulf demands sacrifice by other than military families. Prompted by a reporter, he gave a most perfunctory plea for energy conservation and immediately undercut it by saying he'd certainly continue to enjoy spins in his speedboat.
That kind of exchange -- which was demeaning to Bush and bad for the country -- would never have occurred if he had not been so determined to vacation as usual.
But it is his decision, one that he has earned the right to make and one for which he will ultimately take the consequences. If Bush's Gulf policy succeeds, the question of where he was standing when he ordered up the reserves will properly fade to insignificance.
If it fails, then there's not a doubt in the world that the Democratic nominee in 1992 will be heard saying, "I will never order American troops into a war zone and go off on vacation the next day!"
For now, though, it's a lot more important to concentrate on reporting the policy decisions and their implication -- and let the setting speak for itself.