President Bush yesterday put aside his standard remarks on the Persian Gulf and gave a group of Republicans a revealing glimpse of how he dealt with the moral issue of war in the days leading up to his decision to send thousands of Americans into combat against Iraq.
"The room got incredibly still," said one person who attended the meeting in the Old Executive Office Building. "Everyone's eyes were locked on Bush because he was telling you how he could justify in his soul all the killing this might bring."
As he has done repeatedly during the crisis, Bush cited the behavior of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and compared the situation in the Persian Gulf with Europe at the beginning of World War II. Recounting a private meeting -- apparently in late October -- with the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Rev. Edmond L. Browning, Bush told of how Browning had questioned the morality of going to war.
"And," said a Republican, "he quoted himself as saying, 'Well, how can you say it is not moral to stop a man who is having children shot in the streets in front of their parents, how can you say it is not moral to stop this man?' "
" 'Was it moral for us in 1939 to not stop Hitler from going into Poland?' " Bush said he told Browning, according to the Republican. " 'Perhaps if we had, hundreds of Polish patriots would have lived, perhaps millions of Jews would have survived. . . . ' "
Mary Matalin, a party official who was at the session for members of the Republican National Committee who were here for their semiannual meeting, said she was "awestruck" by Bush's remarks. "He is a man obsessed and possessed by his mission" of getting Saddam out of Kuwait.
Bush's performance occurred at the end of a week when televised images of battered prisoners of war and streaking Scud missiles brought the reality of war -- and the possibility that it could be a long one -- home to the president and millions of other Americans. Through it all, according to another person at the meeting, Bush has been "totally, absolutely, 100 percent certain" that he had made "the only moral choice" in leading the country to war.
White House aides describe Bush as being preoccupied with the war, but intent that day-to-day functions of the government continue. At a news conference yesterday to announce the nomination of Rep. Edward Madigan (R-Ill.) to be the new agriculture secretary, Bush sought to emphasize that point.
At the end of the session, the president virtually pounded a lectern in insisting that "life goes on" and that neither the Super Bowl Sunday nor his trip to the U.S. Capitol next week to deliver his State of the Union address should be canceled for fear of Iraqi terrorism.
"We are not going to screech everything to a halt in terms of our domestic agenda," Bush said. "We're not going to screech everything to a halt in terms of the recreational activities . . . and I am not going to screech my life to a halt out of some fear about Saddam Hussein."
His mind still clearly on Saddam, Bush then turned the podium over to Madigan, introducing him to the perplexed reporters as the new education secretary before recovering and correcting the title.
A senior official, describing Bush as he proceeded through this crisis filled week, said he is "pretty serious these days. He is not grim, he does not seem particularly worried, but there is very little joking around and he is very preoccupied."
Facing a series of meetings on domestic policy with the State of the Union speech looming Tuesday, Bush was described as "frankly, bored" in one session "but trying to engage even though you could almost see his mind wandering to the gulf."
What most interested Bush this week, according to several officials, is trying to figure out what motivates Saddam and, as one official put it, "how to understand a leader of a nation who plays by no rules you ever played by. The president is a rational man. He can't quite understand why he can't find any rationality in some of the things Saddam is doing."
No one among more than two dozen officials and friends interviewed this week could cite Bush as expressing any doubt in their presence about the course he chose. Daniel E. Lungren, the attorney general of California who was at yesterday's meeting, described it as "the most I've ever seen George Bush talk from what really moves him." The president was talking "from the moral dimension," Lungren said, "there was this emotion in his voice. It was like listening to him thinking out loud."
Bush has had several conversations with Browning, who opposed the Persian Gulf War and demonstrated in a candlelight vigil outside the White House the night before Bush launched the attack on Iraq.
In early October, before the meeting that Bush was apparently referring to -- also attended by Secretary of State James A. Baker III -- Browning issued a two-page letter to Episcopalians that he also sent to Bush. The letter posed a series of rhetorical questions and concluded that a war over cheap oil, as he saw it, would not be morally justified. That, officials said, prompted an invitation from Bush "to debate the morality of the war as they each saw it."
Staff writer Gwen Ifill contributed to this report.