He'd rather deal with Saddam Hussein than Danny Rostenkowski, the president admitted ruefully. He'd rather go to the Wailing Wall than to Capitol Hill. We knew that. His news conference was shrewdly shaped to show the foreign policy genius yearning to be free of the petty bonds of tax policy and fractious congressmen. His game is tennis, a civilized pastime. With Congress, often, mud-wrestling is involved.

George Bush took a terrible fall over the budget agreement. But so, he quickly and several times pointed out, did the Democratic leaders. Usually he does not equate himself with them. He allows his chief of staff, John H. Sununu, to treat members the way a 19th century Russian landowner treated the serfs. The premise is that the lout understands only the knout. But for the purposes of appearing serene and unruffled after the melodrama of the weekend, the president pretended that on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue the people in charge were all standing hip-deep in "broken china" -- Sununu's euphemism for the congressional feelings he trampled on.

But Bush knows that Congress is always out of favor, a permanent target for voters who may dote on their individual lawmakers but find the aggregate a collection of buffoons and dolts. The president, on the other hand, has been floating in the upper reaches of the polls.

House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, whose troops blamed him for being too eager to get a budget agreement, came back strong after a healing Sunday afternoon caucus, with a brilliant new idea, which was to return to the old ways of making a budget, turning it over to Rostenkowski, the House Ways and Means Committee chairman.

It was a little hard to believe the president's burst of news conference "candor," a moment of sharing his only regret in the farcical process. He should, he said, have kept Congress in town to wrestle with the budget problem -- the existence of which he had so long denied. But the leadership warned him off, and he went along. What makes this implausible was his own clamorous insistence on a vacation, his determination to manage the Persian Gulf crisis from the golf course and the cigarette boat.

But the general impression he made was of a charming, accommodating, chastened club steward who has made a major error in forgetting to put a family special on the menu, but would immediately make amends.

Yes, the bubble -- that anomaly in the tax code that permits rich people in a certain bracket to pay at a lower rate -- could be burst. Yes, a swap for a capital gains tax cut was "on the table."

Gratefully he took a few questions about the Middle East. The killing of 19 Arabs in Jerusalem at holy places had just been reported.

The president was prepared. He was "very, very saddened by this needless loss of life." Israel would hear from the world at the United Nations.

He was crisp and commanding. He had moved with great speed. He had assessed the risks. If he did nothing, he would risk the loss of Arab countries in the gulf coalition. Of course, it is always risky -- although less so now -- to criticize Israel to American Jews. But weighing one potential loss against another, he came to a conclusion with no agony.

The decision was announced and acted upon. It stuck.

Not so, the bubble and tax decision. It did not last the day. By sundown, a group of Republican senators had gone to the White House and told him he was all wet. He could not bear the idea of their defection. Sure, he would lose Democrats and possibly the whole budget agreement, but while he is pretty sure of what Saddam Hussein will do next, he simply cannot predict the conduct of those wild and crazy Hill people. Maybe he cannot stand opposition in close quarters.

Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon came out of the meeting and announced how easily the leader had been led. "We all put up our hands and said, 'No deal on {income tax} rates at all.' "

The Republican senators were extremely pleased that they had pulled the president away from an abyss, but they were beside themselves the next morning when they saw headlines so inappropriate for the oncoming election.

"Bush Wavers on Taxing Rich as Senators Protest," said The Washington Post.

"Bush: Yes, then no on taxing rich," said USA Today.

The Democrats were enchanted. Bush has done what he could to avoid the domestic side of the presidency. He ignored it. He put Sununu in charge. But the great beast of the deficit is following him, growling, and Sununu will need an emergency course at charm school before he can go back up the Hill.