When White House aides tacked the president's public schedule on the bulletin board early yesterday morning, it differed little from those of the sparse postings of recent days and offered no clue that Jan. 16 would be the day George Bush would order the United States into war in the Persian Gulf.
But there was an air of inevitability in the White House, and presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, who has solemnly spoken for two presidents through four middle-of-the-night military actions, made it clear that this president had no hope for peace this day.
The president's mood, Fitzwater said yesterday morning, was one of "resignation."
Briefing reporters at day's end, Fitzwater offered the strongest clues that Bush had prepared himself weeks ago for probable military action. And while the president would explore every diplomatic avenue, as he said in his television address last night, he believed the words of a senior adviser who had said Tuesday it was clear "Saddam will respond to nothing but force."
According to Fitzwater, Bush began drafting his television speech for the night of the attack over the Christmas holiday, a period before he would propose the "final step for peace" -- the meeting between Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Iraq Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz -- and before he would endorse yet another final step, the mission of U.N. Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar to Baghdad. Over the three weeks from Christmas to this historic day, a flurry of diplomatic moves would erupt across the globe, and to all of them White House officials would say privately they had a sliver of hope -- but only that.
Over the last three weeks, Bush would arrive on the White House lawn from his weekends at Camp David and call meetings in the family quarters to refine the military and other plans being put in place, officials said. The statement Bush read yesterday, Fitzwater said, had been drafted Tuesday. The decision he announced yesterday, Fitzwater added, had been made "several days earlier" based on "military priorities."
Bush spent much of the day yesterday with Baker, his longtime friend whose five months of diplomacy had failed to produce a peaceful end to the crisis that erupted Aug. 2. The two men met in the morning for an expanded session of the routine presidential national security briefing, and Bush and Baker later had lunch together in the White House family quarters.
A White House photographer would capture a picture of the two, allies in political battles over more than three decades, walking after lunch along the White House colonnade near the Rose Garden as a cold drizzle fell.
Looking at the picture, Fitzwater said, "You can see the lines of concern" in the president's face. The president, earlier in the day at a photo session with educators, had scoffed at the notion he looked grim. "Lighten up," he told a reporter. Asked how he felt, he had said, "What you see is what you get."
According to Fitzwater, Bush was "calm and expectant" when the first U.S. planes were over Baghdad, watching, as much of America did, live TV reports that included the sounds of sirens and bombs in the background.
Gathered in the small study that is just of the Oval Office, Bush was flanked by Vice President Quayle, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and Chief of Staff John H. Sununu. Across town, Baker was watching his TV screen as he went through a list of calls to leaders across the world.
As an ABC correspondent announced he could see from his hotel room the first shells falling on Baghdad, the president turned to the group, which by then included Fitzwater, to say, "Just the way it was scheduled," according to Fitzwater.
Prepared for the usual questions reporters ask at historic moments, Fitzwater offered the president's words, describing him as in shirtsleeves as he watched what his decisions had brought. Another official described the "eerie feeling" of watching on TV a scene that, he said, "had been played out a dozen times in our heads."
Bush watched the correspondents in Baghad report the start of war only a few hours after Fitzwater, on the president's orders, gave one final warning that the correspondents in Iraq should get out soon.
Fitzwater said the president strolled back to the family quarters late yesterday afternoon to relax in the final hours before the attack began. Bush came back to the Oval Office before 6 p.m. to inform congressional leaders in the solemn series of calls that presidents make, usually long after the warplanes have taken off.
As he made the calls, aides said, he clicked the buttons on his remote control to try to catch the live reports from Baghdad. For Bush, Fitzwater said, it was the "end of a process" that began Aug. 2, and the beginning of a new one.