Shortly after 1 p.m. yesterday, President Bush, described as "totally drained" by a day of "white-knuckle anxiety," returned to the Cabinet Room at the White House to give congressional leaders a glum assessment of Secretary of State James A. Baker III's meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz: "No progress."
That report -- repeated by Bush in his news conference three hours later and in his phone conversations with half a dozen foreign leaders throughout the afternoon -- capped a day at the White House that began with pessimism, turned to hours of anxiety when the Geneva session continued unexpectedly through the day, and ended with what White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater described as "resignation" on the part of the president that he "has done all he can. We now have to take the final steps."
Bush said yesterday he had not yet decided to go to war and still held out hope for a diplomatic solution to the Persian Gulf crisis. But he spent much of the day working on the final steps that may become necessary if a solution is not forthcoming. When Baker called to report the outcome of the session with Aziz, the president was meeting with two dozen members of Congress whom the White House expects to be its "core supporters" in the House debate over the crisis.
"He was wound tight as a drum" before the call from Baker, said one aide. "You could have cut the tension with a knife. Everybody wanted to know the answer to the same question: Why is it taking so long to say no?" When he returned with the "no progress" report after a 10-minute talk with Baker, "he came back somber. His jaw was set. I think he was disappointed, although not surprised," said Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.), one of the group.
Bush went from that meeting and joined much of the White House in an exercise that occurred all over Washington yesterday: viewing an extraordinary sequence of televised news conferences from Geneva that provided a moving backdrop against which the president would prepare his own public statements at 4 p.m.
Bush, White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney and Fitzwater huddled in the small dining room off the Oval Office to watch first Baker's news conference and then the Aziz session.
As he watched Aziz, according to White House officials, Bush was increasingly irked by what he saw as the Iraqi effort to portray the gulf crisis as a battle between the United States and Iraq. He was intent on making the case it was an international argument. He wanted to prepare the country for war, but "keep alive" the possibility that diplomacy would produce a "change in heart" by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. He wanted to assert, on the eve of a historic debate in Congress over his power to make war, that he believes the public, the law and Congress support him.
And he wanted to assert that in proposing the direct talks, it was he, not Saddam, who was walking "the last mile here," as he told the congressional group. Bush also wanted to make the case, which he made to both the congressional group privately and in his calls to leaders ranging from France's President Francois Mitterrand to Canada's Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, that no secret diplomacy was going on. "He told us what you see is what you got. There's no more there there," said one congressional source at the Cabinet Room meeting.
In his news conference, Bush made all those points repeatedly. His pessimism was palpable. "I am discouraged," he said. The Geneva meeting was "a total stiff-arm. This is a total rebuff." Of further diplomatic efforts, he said, "I am not sure I have great hope."
The president held out a mission to Baghdad by U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar as one avenue to avoid war. Aides said this was "no coincidence." Bush, who met with Perez de Cuellar last weekend at Camp David, called him today to discuss a mission to Baghdad.
A senior official said the White House "does not want to totally stop short" on the diplomatic route and believes that if Saddam is going to concede, he will do so not to an American but to a third party. Because Perez de Cuellar represents "the interests of all the coalition, he is our third-party of choice," the official said. He noted that the secretary general's effort, as he and Bush discussed it yesterday, will not differ much from Baker's. "is to carry the message that total withdrawal or war are Saddam's only options," the official said.
As Bush and his senior aides waited out Baker yesterday, much of their effort revolved around managing the congressional debate about to unfold. Bush made the case in the meeting with lawmakers, and then publicly, that the United States needs to "send a consolidated signal to Saddam Hussein" by having Congress approve a resolution authorizing the use of force.
Aides said the "final steps" are so critical now that they have not allowed gloom to pervade the White House, even when the Baker mission failed to produce progress. "We've got work to do, and everybody is focused on it. Nobody has time to be gloomy," said one official.
The president's "energy and focus" over the next few days, said one aide, "is going to be that vote. I don't want to call it lobbying, because it is clear this is a vote of conscience and not something you can involve party loyalty on. But there will be an enormous effort, both one-on-one by the president and in groups and by all his team, to make our most persuasive case that Congress standing with us is the last, best chance to send Saddam a message that could bring this to a peaceful conclusion."
Whether Bush believes there is any chance for a peaceful solution is unknowable in these critical days of message-sending and coalition-strengthening and posturing for audiences foreign and domestic. In mid-December, Bush said his "gut" told him Saddam would, in the final analysis, withdraw and avoid war. Yesterday, the president said his gut was sending a different message.
"I have less of a feeling that he'll come around, but we ought to keep trying," Bush said. "We ought to keep trying right down to the wire."