Friends and officials who met with President Bush at the White House this week said they were surprised to find him upbeat and chatty despite a barrage of diplomatic setbacks, and said he seemed to be at peace with the clear path he has set toward war with Iraq.
The guests' descriptions of Bush's mood contrast with the studied solemnity that marked his East Room news conference Thursday night, when he appeared bent on convincing American and overseas audiences that he would be a reluctant, not rash, warrior.
During a White House breakfast for congressional leaders on Wednesday, Bush brushed off Western Europe's rising opposition to war and instead crowed about the previous weekend's capture in Pakistan of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the al Qaeda operations chief.
One of the leaders described Bush as "cocky and relaxed" and said he conveyed the clear impression that he had concluded that attacking Iraq was inevitable. Another lawmaker described Bush as being "in high spirits." This leader said that at the congressional breakfast a month earlier, Bush had "seemed to have the weight of the world on his shoulders."
The lawmakers' accounts were echoed by Bush's aides, who said he is still an optimist in settings unrelated to the war. People close to Bush said he has kept to his usual schedule of sleeping from roughly 10 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. And they said he continues to work out for at least half an hour, at least five or six days a week, alternating between weight-lifting and running -- sometimes on a treadmill and sometimes on an outdoor track.
"I do work out daily. And I'm sleeping well at night," Bush told a roundtable for regional newspaper reporters Monday.
Officials said he still makes time for long, spontaneous bull sessions with old friends and senior staff members. A meeting with student delegates from a Senate program was scheduled to last 15 minutes but stretched to half an hour. After answering the 14 regional reporters' questions for 35 minutes, he eagerly led them on a tour of the Oval Office.
Bush, who has eaten out only a handful of times since taking office, ventured into Northwest Washington last night for a social dinner.
"His general disposition as a person, and somebody we work for, hasn't changed," a senior administration official said. "He's still able to poke fun at staffers and poke fun at himself."
Another aide said there is "less joshing, less ribbing" than usual, in keeping with a White House that faces momentous decisions. When Bush speaks tonight at the Gridiron Club dinner, he will not deliver the light-hearted remarks that are standard for presidents at the annual gathering of elite Washington journalists. An official said that, instead, Bush will give "a serious speech, reflective of the serious time we're in today."
The aides said Bush's tone at Thursday's news conference was deliberately understated, but added that he had not been heavily coached. Instead, they said, his demeanor reflected the somberness with which he talks about war in private.
"When the discussion turns to these issues, it's all business, very matter-of-fact," the senior official said. "The president understands that these are tough issues with great historical consequences to our country and the international community."
Bush made it clear from the start of the news conference, the second he has held in prime time during his 25 months in office, that his folksiness had been put on hold for the night. He spoke softly and formally, calling on Richard Keil of Bloomberg News, who is 6-foot-6, as "Dick" instead of "Stretch," the nickname that Bush habitually uses.
Repeatedly saying he has made no decision about war, Bush said he prays daily, including praying for peace. He told the regional reporters he also is reading the Bible every day.
Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, said Bush's East Room bearing seemed designed to allay one of the biggest vulnerabilities that polls are showing in his public image -- the impression of many people that he has rushed to war, has pushed Iraq too hard and has done too little diplomacy.
"If a war doesn't go well, those are the kinds of things that would chip away at American resolve," Kohut said.
Behind the scenes, though, Bush is still Bush. Although he has ordered his aides to postpone the start of his formal reelection campaign until after Iraq is disarmed, Bush has permitted quiet planning to continue. And he admitted to the regional reporters that he does not expect to be in a non-political mode forever.
When asked what he thought about the mushrooming field of Democratic presidential candidates, Bush at first said, "I have no idea; I really don't. Frankly, I'm not paying that much attention to it."
He paused and added mischievously, "But I bet I do at some point in time."