KENNEBUNKPORT, MAINE, AUG. 19 -- President Bush appears to have adopted the same attitude toward his Maine vacation that he has taken toward the Persian Gulf crisis: He's grimly determined to see it through.
Bush returned to Washington this afternoon for a dinner meeting with some of his national security advisers, the second time in a week he has come back to the capital from his summer home on the Maine coast.
On Monday, after two meetings at the White House, a defense policy speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Baltimore and a Republican fund-raiser in Rhode Island, he will return to Maine to carry on with his 25-day vacation.
White House aides do not rule out another quick trip to Washington if events in the gulf warrant, but they say Bush has no plans to cut short his vacation, which is not scheduled to end until Labor Day.
Determined not to be held hostage by the crisis, as White House officials believe President Jimmy Carter was during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980, Bush now appears hostage to his vacation plans. Any indication that he is cutting short his stay in Maine will be seen as a concession to events in the gulf; every attempt to relax and enjoy himself may leave him open to criticism that he is shirking his duties.
White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater, en route back to Washington today, told reporters the president thinks it is good for Americans to "see that he is able to continue carrying on the business of government at the same time worrying about this situation in the Gulf. . . . He carries on the work of the White House wherever he goes, and it's important for the American people to see that he's not holed up in the White House, as has happened in the past. So we're comfortable with the American people seeing that he's combining his work and his vacation."
Not all Americans may be happy with the notion of the president at play while U.S. soldiers walk the desert sands of Saudia Arabia in 100-plus-degree heat and while Navy ships fire warning shots at Iraqi tankers in the Persian Gulf. But Robert Teeter, the president's pollster and political strategist, argued today that it is only journalists who are upset with the idea of Bush vacationing while the gulf crisis deepens.
"It looks like the press is going crazy and nobody else is," Teeter said. "It's not an issue."
Teeter said Bush will be judged on "what he does and what the results are" in the Middle East, not on whether he plays golf or goes fishing during the crisis. Network newscasts have carried clips of Bush at play as the crisis unfolded, but Teeter insisted that the public supports the president's policy and does not begrudge him some time for relaxation.
Only if public support for the policy wanes, Teeter said, is there a danger of widespread criticism of Bush's vacation.
During his stay in Maine, Bush has mixed pleasure with business, often with a vengeance. On Friday and Saturday, he was on the golf course here by about 7 a.m. for his patented speed-golf, in which he finishes 18 holes in about two hours, half the normal time. Other mornings he is in his speedboat Fidelity early in the morning. Between meetings, he jumps back in the boat for more fishing -- or for rides for his grandchildren.
During the first days of his vacation, he was often chatty with reporters who accompanied him to the golf course, answering questions about the gulf crisis and bantering a bit about his game. "Silence on the first tee," he said Friday. "Mr. Smooth is back."
By Saturday, however, as the Iraqis issued ominous threats about Americans and other foreign nationals held in Iraq and Kuwait, Bush became tight-lipped, and his son George curtly urged reporters not to talk during the players' backswings. This morning, as the president left services at St. Ann's Episcopal Church, he appeared subdued and ignored reporters' questions.
White House officials repeatedly point to all the work Bush is doing in Maine, such as meeting with Jordan's King Hussein and Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Faisal. He has signed bills, gone over speech drafts and met with Cabinet members.
But some of the work, especially when he has returned to Washington, appears hastily organized, with some key officials absent.
If last week is any guide, Bush will resume his vacation Monday within minutes of returning to Maine. Last Wednesday, after his speech to Pentagon employees, he arrived in Kennebunkport about 2 p.m. By 3 he was teeing up. Lining up a putt on the 18th green, the president said he "never felt more confident," then missed the putt. It's been that kind of vacation.