There's a story about John F. Kennedy that goes like this. Asked how he was going to announce that he had chosen his own brother Robert as attorney general, the president-elect said he would wait until about two in the morning, open the door to his Georgetown house and whisper, "It's Bobby." In this way, and in this way only, George Bush is a Kennedy.
Whispering George said the other day that American forces in the Persian Gulf region would be greatly expanded. Another 150,000 soldiers would be dispatched (nearly doubling the force already in the Gulf) and with them commensurate amounts of tanks, planes and even another battleship, the storied Missouri. This, Bush said in a statement, would provide the United States with "an adequate offensive military option" -- in other words, what it takes to go to war.
And just when and under what circumstances did Bush reveal that the United States might go on the offensive in the Persian Gulf? Was it in a grand televised speech to the nation? Was it in an address to a joint session of Congress, one of those March of Time occasions dripping history? No, neither one. The president held a news conference. In fact, and in greater detail, the president held an afternoon news conference. Chances are you were at work.
George Bush came to the White House determined to be the anti-Reagan. Not for him, this man of detail and acronyms, were the props of the Ronald Reagan years nor the excessive -- even obsessive -- concentration on public relations. George Bush would have no Michael Deaver. His press conferences would be frequent and much more modest events -- none of those grand Reagan entrances with the president like some aging Hapsburg monarch arriving for a court occasion. Like wholesome food, Bush's approach is admirable. Like wholesome food, it is also boring.
Worse, Bush's approach is misleading. A president who holds a daytime press conference, televised though it may be, is signaling that he's not got much to say -- and doesn't particularly care if he isn't going to get much of an audience. The reason daytime television has significantly lower advertising rates is that it has significantly fewer viewers -- and not the sort of viewers, incidentally, who can accurately be called opinion makers. They howl when their soaps are interrupted.
It's one thing for Bush to be the homespun anti-Reagan, quite another for him to essentially duck the American people. This president seems loath to bring the people bad news. Take, for instance, the manner in which Bush reversed himself on taxes. The medium for this announcement was the bulletin board in the White House press room. Had Bush taken to the airwaves, had he bothered to explain his about-face to the American people, both his reputation and his approval rating might not have taken such a beating.
Now the president is doing something similar when it comes to the far graver matter of war. It's not that he need be embarrassed about the course he has chosen. He has led the nation honorably and with some skill in this matter: Saddam Hussein is wrong; Iraq must pull out of Kuwait; the taking of hostages is immoral and the harming of them is unforgivable. Nothing to be ashamed of there -- although that's not to say that the refusal to negotiate (or at least pretend to) and provide Hussein with a way to save face is such a smart move. It's not -- and it ought to be tried.
But war with Iraq, should it come, might well turn into a horror. Washington has its scenario du jour -- everything from a quick capitulation by Baghdad after the Air Force does its work to a prolonged ground war in which many thousands of Americans die. Add to that latter scenario the fears of some experts that a war would convulse the Middle East and no moderate Arab regime would survive, and you have more than enough for the American people to chew on -- and, maybe, question.
Over and over we commentators are told by military experts to watch our analogies: The sands of Araby are not the jungles of Vietnam. True enough. But the U.S. effort in Vietnam suffered from a scarcity of candor and from the reluctance of politicians to operate like honest loan officers: Here are the costs. Full disclosure was warranted then, and it is warranted now.
A president has an obligation to explain as best he can why he may ask some people to die -- and many more to kill. This is George Bush's solemn obligation. A prime-time television speech is in order. How can we read Bush's lips if we can't even see them?