WHEN SADDAM HUSSEIN patted 5-year-old Stuart Lockwood on the head last week and asked him if he was getting enough milk and cornflakes, he committed the most preposterous blunder in the history of propaganda since the Germans shot Nurse Cavell in 1915: He created an event with which he could be bludgeoned. Saddam's idea of publicized compassion made most people think of Hitlerian bombast. "Saddam borrows a page from Adolf Hitler's propaganda book!" is the way one news broadcast described the tape.

In fact, a lot of people were thinking about Hitler anyway last week, and no wonder. For one thing, George Bush has repeatedly invoked Hitler's specter as part of his own effort in anti-Saddam political persuasion. And for another, there is a palpable warclouds-gathering anxiety in the air for the first time in almost half a century.

Although the United States has sent its military off on numerous missions, engagements, bombing raids, police actions and even extended wars since World War II, it has been decades since we have had such a drawn-out build-up to potential armed confrontation, complete with extended political justification for our possible military actions, an economy tossed around by the threat of warfare and an effort by the popular media to characterize the potential enemy while simultaneously humanizing our own armed forces.

In other words, the possibility of war with Iraq has created the hottest persuasion environment we've been in for many years. Newscasters and interviewers such as Barbara Walters and Ted Koppel are openly confronting their guests, magazines are flinging epithets at Saddam Hussein on their covers, newspaper headlines have characterized the invaded Kuwait as an "Eden," columnists such as William Safire have openly called for war now, before Iraq gains nuclear capability, and at least one network -- NBC -- has even aired atrocity material: photographs of children who appear to have been tortured. As for the men and women in American uniforms, they have probably not enjoyed so appreciative a press since the Korean war. Bush's own political troubles are forgotten; Republicans and Democrats have united behind him.

Doubting voices have been raised timidly, when they have been heard at all. Though some of what we are seeing now occured during such periods as the Berlin airlift and the Cuban missile crisis, the culture's anticipatory emotions are probably more aligned in terms of confidence and rectitude than they have been since 1941.

But this is not 1941. America's culture and institutions have changed enormously since we actually faced Hitler, and the methods and techniques of persuasion to which we respond have changed as well. The current crisis is illuminating some of those changes. Cultural confidence and the golfcart style of crisis leadership. In a remarkable piece of political theater, George Bush has interspersed his statements about confronting evil with scenes of himself playing golf. Indeed, he seems to have insisted on being seen throughout the Gulf crisis as a man busily putting and driving. Now, that is obviously not the way he is spending his day, and no one has accused him of not attending to business. On the contrary, Bush is widely lauded for the manner in which he responded to the invasion and the apparent threat to the Saudi oilfields.

But the point is that he wants to look like he's golfing and boating. Bush supposedly wants to avoid looking like Jimmy Carter did during the Iranian hostage crisis: "besieged" in, and a "prisoner" of, the White House.

That may be a good idea. But it is less the contrast with Carter that is striking, than the contrast with other postwar presidents who have been presented with crises. Without exception, they sought to appear actively engaged. During the Cuban missile crisis, for example, John F. Kennedy allowed photographers to record White House activities; Kennedy and his staff seem to have kept their jackets on and ties up throughout the ordeal, and wanted to be seen that way.

The fact is, past presidents who did not appear to be taking events seriously enough paid a price for it. Ronald Reagan was sometimes vacationing at his California ranch when international trouble, such as the Soviet downing of the Korean Airlines Flight 007, broke; if he did not return to Washington quickly enough, he was faulted for it.

The most famous such case actually involves presidential golf. Dwight D. Eisenhower was an enthusiastic golfer, and was often pictured on a course. Toward the end of his White House years, however, when such events as the U2 incident had battered his presidency, his continued presence on the golf course became a public relations liability; his critics charged him with having become disengaged. Kennedy, who also enjoyed the game, would not allow himself to be photographed with a club in his hand, on the theory that voters might have had enough of golfing presidents.

As the severity of the Gulf crisis deepened, Bush too has been subjected to some criticism for remaining on the course even as he sent soldiers into potential combat. But not only did he stick by the performance, he made a point of it, going so far as to bark at reporters not to ask him questions about the Gulf while he was on vacation. His approval ratings, thus far at least, have never been higher.

Style and leadership have traditionally been deeply intertwined. The style a people demand from its leaders is often a signal of what a culture thinks of itself. Previous postwar presidents have usually had the Soviets in their crises, and Americans were never overconfident about such confrontations. Bush has apparently has them on his side. The success of Bush's golfing performance suggests a remarkable confidence on the part of Americans during this crisis, and the proof is that Saddam's allies, demonstrating in the streets of Amman, specifically cite his "stupid golf stick" as a vision of arrogance. The adversarial press, the communications satellite, and horizontal propaganda. The wave of material in the popular press supportive of Bush is, from one point of view, no surprise. Popular news media thrive on conflict; not only is conflict relatively simple to comprehend (or at any rate easily reduced), but the interested audience soars. During August, news programs have been drawing larger audiences than have entertainment shows.

That's often been the case. What distinguishes modern pop news from its predecessors is that it is no longer willing to be part of a continuing effort in organized persuasion; it has become adversarial. In other words, it isn't necessarily a Bush-versus-Saddam conflict to which it is committed. The conflict story it chooses to pursue could change suddenly, and the Bush administration or the military could easily end up on the wrong side of it.

In the past, by contrast, reporters for the mainstream press often came to identify themselves with the beat they were covering. Police reporters were virtually part of the force; White House reporters were part of the administration; and war correspondents might as have been enlisted grunts. It was only infrequently that such journalists revealed stories that fundamentally undercut the institution they were covering. They frequently knew embarrassing things about the White House or the military, but they kept the material out of the papers and the newsreels, and off the radio. In short, their perspective of these institutions was an insider's perspective.

The result was that the news was often interchangeable with what information specialists call "horizontal propaganda." Horizontal propaganda isn't lies; it isn't even What distinguishes modern pop news from its predecessors is that it is no longer willing to be part of a continuing effort in organized persuasion; it has become adversarial.

necessarily an organized effort. It is merely part of the process by which any culture perpetuates its ideals and beliefs. In the press, it the process tended to suggest that our institutions were sound, and our leaders capable. There is certainly nothing sinister about such a process; a culture that failed to perpetuate its precepts wouldn't survive. But much of the American press has, in the years since Vietnam and Watergate, decided it could better serve the culture by playing another, more adversarial role; it is now an outsider. The outsider's reflex that mass journalism has developed in the past 20 years has already appeared in reporting about Iraq coverage: Dan Rather's coverage of anti-American, pro-Saddam demonstrations in Amman, Jordan. One can expect to see more of it as the crisis matures.

The media have another important role they didn't formerly have: They can be a conduit for the other side. The arrival of communications satellites has made it possible for a potential enemy to go over the head of the U.S. govenment and address the American people directly, whether on such programs as "Nightline," or by making tapes or feeds avilable. Spokesman for hostile -- or once-hostile -- goverments such as the Soviet Union, Nicaragua and Iran, have availed themselves of this whenever they wanted to start a "charm offensive," and others made a habit of such appearances. Spokesmen for such governments who know what they're doing can make a difference in the popular American perception of their own governments. Some of them, like the Soviet spokesman Vladimir Pozner, have become virtual celebrities; Pozner's written a book and gone on the U.S. talk shows. Even the less-successful spokesman can at least make their best case without it being filtered through somebody else.

Saddam Hussein's government too has used this conduit in the course of the Gulf crisis, but its media ineptness is historic. Koppel presumably gained access to Baghdad so that Saddam's foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, could present Iraq's point of view. What Aziz did, however, was threaten the audience, telling it that Iraq didn't want to "humiliate" the United States. (Saddam's own milk-and-cornflakes tape is, by the way, not at all Hitlerian; Hitler understood propaganda. When he surrounded himself with children, as in the 1934 film, "Triumph of the Will," it was with children who literally licked their lips in affection for him.)

What we are seeing from Iraq is actually typical of the internal propaganda of dictatorships, by which tyrants maintain themselves by projecting terror and their own power. But that is another story. By the way, does anybody remember the tale of Nurse Cavell, the woman the Germans stupidly shot in 1915? She was a British Red Cross nurse serving in Belgium, a World War I martyr and one of the first subjects of modern propagandistic exploitation. Tried by the occupying German forces for helping captured British soldiers escape into Holland, Edith Cavell chose not to try to save herself, but instead to face execution. While the firing squad waited, she made what was to be among the most well-known declarations of the war. "Standing before God and eternity," she said, "I realize this -- patriotism is not enough. I must be free from hate and bitterness."

Famous last words. The blast that killed her was also one of the opening rounds of the 20th century's professional propagandizing. Cavell was martyrized, a prime example of the barbarism of the "Hun." Cavell's last words notwithstanding, she became a major part of a campaign marked by hate, bitterness, half-truths and total fabrications. When the war hysteria passed, and the British and American publics came to realize how they had been manipulated by their governments, the very word "propaganda" achieved an odium it has yet to lose. The concept is still despised, though very little happens without the process of persuasion taking place.

There stands today a monument to Cavell in London's Trafalgar Square, with the nurse's last words about patriotism inscribed on its pedestal. Among the Londoners who regularly passed the statue in the 1930s was Sidney Rogerson, a British student of psychological warfare who in 1938 wrote the prescient book, "Propaganda in the Next War." According to the letter of military law, wrote the honorable Rogerson, Cavell "deserved death." It was not barbarism of which the Germans had been guilty, he observed, but martyr-making. Rogerson never saw the words, "Patriotism is not Enough," he wrote, "without reflecting that after the inscription should be added, 'Propaganda is also Necessary.' "

Charles Paul Freund is an Outlook editor.