Ever since Jimmy Carter came to be seen as a captive of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980, presidents have been loath to let international events pin them down in the White House.
Reflecting one of the lessons learned from Carter's painful ordeal, President Bush leaves today for a long-scheduled, 25-day vacation at his oceanfront home in Kennebunkport, Maine, where White House officials insist he can manage the crisis in the Persian Gulf as well as he could in Washington.
Thomas C. Griscom, White House communications director during the Reagan administration, said he thinks it is important for Bush administration officials to carry on as normally as possible while dealing with the crisis. "You don't let it disrupt everything you were planning to do," he said. "It heightens everything. . . . It really brings a different level of concern."
White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said the White House was not concerned about public relations problems created by images of a president partly at play while Americans remain detained in Baghdad and U.S. troops continue arriving in Saudi Arabia.
But other officials said White House aides recognize the dangers and are likely to do everything they can to minimize pictures of Bush's golfing, boating, and fishing while they provide ample opportunities to show him at work.
The Reagan administration learned its lesson in 1983 after the Soviet Union shot down a Korean Air Lines plane. At the time, White House spokesman Larry Speakes said that President Ronald Reagan would not cut short his vacation in California, arguing that Reagan had "every facility, every capacity, every capability" to deal with the crisis from his house in Santa Barbara.
But when television networks broadcast pictures of Reagan horseback riding and contrasted those with film of grieving families, White House officials abruptly changed plans and Reagan returned to Washington.
Fitzwater said there is no reason Bush could not do business from Maine. "We believe that the communications system is excellent for maintaining liaison with anyone in Washington or around the world that the president should need to get in touch with," he said.
Although troops continue to arrive in Saudi Arabia and events in the region remain in flux, Fitzwater said U.S. forces are "not involved in conflict and there's not the need for any kind of minute-by-minute or hour-by-hour update that might be necessary if they were actually involved in combat."
Still, Bush may return to Washington next week for a briefing on the military situation in the gulf region.
Neither national security adviser Brent Scowcroft nor White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu will accompany Bush to Kennebunkport today. Scowcroft will remain in Washington, while Sununu plans to go to his home in New Hampshire.
The top officials in Kennebunkport will be Scowcroft's deputy, Robert M. Gates, and Sununu's deputy, Andrew Card. Several White House officials said Bush will have an adequate staff to carry on essential business and noted that because he spends so much time traveling, the White House staff is well versed in how to operate outside of Washington.
Bush works out of his summer home or in an office in a guest house on the grounds. The staff operates out of a motel about a mile away, with a communications system plugged into the White House switchboard and secure phones for sensitive communications. One problem is the relative lack of security at the motel for national security officials, a factor that has raised concerns among some White House officials.
"It's not as secure as if you're sitting in the White House basement," Griscom said of trying to run the White House outside of Washington.
Another official who was involved in nearly all of Reagan's trips called the question of security when the president is out of town "a non-issue. The issue really gets down to meetings. National security crises really require meetings . . . . It is just easier to keep a president where he can gather all (his advisers) at a minute's notice."
Bush White House officials said this is a minor problem because Kennebunkport is a short plane fight from Washington.
The flip side of the vacation issue, however, is whether top administration officials need a break. "They are all exhausted and need a rest and so do many of their top aides," one official said. "It goes beyond the issue of whether or not it is right to go on vacation. It goes to whether the highest officials, nearing the exhaustion point, can manage this situation if they don't get some solid rest."
Staff researcher Bruce Brown contributed to this report.