It's New Year's Eve. Do you know where your president is?
President Bush has been seldom seen in the waning days of 2002. On Friday, while North Korea was spreading nuclear panic in Asia, a White House spokesman announced that the president spent the morning "clearing brush" and then went jogging; yesterday it was fishing and more brush clearing.
Bush retreated to Camp David on Dec. 21, emerging on Dec. 26 just long enough to wave to the cameras as he boarded his plane to Texas, where he has been holed up on his ranch ever since. The White House has grown so confident that Bush will not emerge from his secluded compound that it has ceased the usual practice of designating reporters to be on call in case he goes anywhere. Bush, meanwhile, has taken a total of one question from the press in the past 26 days, and that wasn't about North Korea or Trent Lott. A typical effort to get his views, on Dec. 10, went as follows:
Q: Mr. President, can we ask you about your pension guidelines, sir?
THE PRESIDENT: No.
Q: Any initial reaction to the Iraq declaration, sir?
THE PRESIDENT: Have a good day.
On Dec. 18, another attempt was made:
Q: Why shouldn't Senator Lott resign, sir?
PRESIDENT BUSH: Vamos a verles en la fiesta en la noche.
Q: No comprende.
PRESIDENT BUSH: I said, I'll see you at the party tonight.
All of which raises various questions. With all the time the president has spent clearing brush, how is it possible that there is still any brush left on his ranch? And what is he doing about North Korea's nuclear shenanigans?
Bush's absence of public comment is no accident. In the two major stories of the last few weeks -- Lott's downfall and the North Korea controversy -- Bush aides calculated that opening the president to questions would only magnify stories the White House would rather keep quiet.
"Sometimes those factors come into play," a senior Bush aide said yesterday, explaining that sending Secretary of State Colin L. Powell out on Sunday to talk about Korea was less alarmist than a presidential appearance.
Bush "doesn't need to be out there every day on every development," the official said. When Congress returns and the standoff with Iraq heats up, expect Bush to return to more talkative ways.
Of course, Bush, even when hidden from view and clearing endless brush, continues to work the phones and do his day job. Still, his aides feel compelled to remind the public of this. "The president immediately engaged on this issue," Powell told Tim Russert on Sunday regarding North Korea. "President Bush has been engaged from the very beginning."
The administration has found it useful to provide such reminders, at regular intervals, that the president is paying attention to the issues of the day.
International environmental concerns? "The president has already been very engaged in these issues and plans to be engaged," Paula Dobriansky, undersecretary of state for global affairs, said in August. The India-Pakistan standoff? "The president is fully engaged," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said in June. The review of military resources? "The president has been engaged," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld attested last year. The China spy plane crisis? "He has been very engaged," said a senior Bush aide, briefing reporters.
This president, it would seem, has been engaged more often than Elizabeth Taylor.
The attestations of Bush's private engagement appear to be proffered in inverse proportion to Bush's public engagement in a subject. Administration officials have rarely, for example, found it necessary to stipulate that Bush has been engaged on Iraq or tax cuts.
Bush's engagement is most frequently noted on the Middle East, an area in which Bush's interest is routinely questioned. "The president is heavily engaged," Vice President Cheney said in August. "The president is deeply engaged," Powell said in March. "We have been engaged in the Middle East ever since I got sworn in," Bush himself said in August 2001, while playing golf.
The president's isolation on his ranch and at Camp David may explain his peculiar affinity for citizens he calls the "shut-ins." Probably no group has received more attention in presidential rhetoric this year. Since Jan. 14, when Bush first mentioned those elderly Americans who cannot leave their homes, Bush has urged listeners no fewer than 76 times to love, care for, help or otherwise entertain a shut-in. Even Bush's aides acknowledge they are surprised by his constant reference to shut-ins, and they wonder how many Americans actually know what the term means.
A collection of his recommendations:
"You can go to a shut-in's home and say, 'I love you.' "
"If you want to help this country, go across the street to a shut-in's house and say, 'What can I do to help you?' "
"You can serve something greater than yourself by just walking across the street to a shut-in and saying, 'I love you; is there anything I can do to make your day better?' "
Find "somebody shut-in and [say] 'I think I'm going to spread a little love today.' "
"[Find] somebody who's shut-in and [say], 'I'd like to just love you for a second.' "
Is it possible that Bush, so often homebound himself, has come to see himself as a shut-in? After all, the intense security makes it prohibitively difficult for presidents to leave home, whether he's here, at the White House or Camp David. Maybe he just wants somebody to visit him at home and tell him, "I'd like to just love you for a second."
But as long as Bush has access to his motorcade, helicopter and 747, he can't qualify for shut-in status. "No, I'm afraid not," said Melody McDermitt, director of the Waco-area Meals on Wheels. "He's not really homebound."