The White House portrayed President Bush this week as a wartime CEO at a dignified remove from the twists and turns of the attack on Iraq, with his staff insisting that he pays little attention to the televised bombing.
Administration officials report that Bush vetted the war plan before handing off its execution to the Pentagon. That is consistent with Bush's longtime image as a delegator more concerned about the big picture than about details.
But analysts say the decision inside the White House to accentuate that image in the opening days of the war also looked like an effort to insulate Bush from temporary setbacks while setting him up for credit if the invasion ends as the big success his aides say they expect.
The packaging was similar to the White House's approach during Afghanistan, when Bush emphasized his patience and made it clear that he was not worried, even when his aides began to doubt the strategy and wrangle privately.
For the second day in a row, White House officials invited journalists to photograph Bush at work, but he curtly waved off their questions about how the first strikes were going and told them to ask Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
"The president is not going to be a play-by-play commentator," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said. "The president has a long approach to this."
Bush's aides, contending he is setting an example for the country by hewing to his routines, said he was not wakened to be told of the first casualties in the war, reported by networks and news services at 10 p.m. Thursday. An official said Bush was told yesterday during the 6 a.m. phone call in which national security adviser Condoleezza Rice updates him on overnight developments.
A senior administration official said that while working on a war speech on the flight back from last weekend's summit in the Azores, Bush took a break to watch "Conspiracy Theory," the Mel Gibson movie.
Bush has told visitors he is sleeping well and exercising regularly. And the official said Bush has given up desserts to try to bring down his running time. "In these type of times, he becomes even more disciplined than usual," the official said.
The official said Bush's executive style was on display during the Situation Room meeting Wednesday that ended with Bush giving the order to execute Operation Iraqi Freedom. The official said Bush used a video link with eight commanders in the Persian Gulf region to ask each one , "Do you have everything you need to win? And are you comfortable and pleased with the strategy?"
Bush's longtime aides feel strongly that one of his biggest political assets is his image as a down-home Texas rancher, despite his privileged upbringing and two Ivy League degrees. Their description of Bush in briefings and interviews this week set him in sharp contrast to several predecessors -- Richard M. Nixon the loner, Jimmy Carter the micromanager and Lyndon B. Johnson, who was so emotionally tortured by the Vietnam War that he would visit the West Wing at midnight or telephone the Situation Room at 5 a.m.
Fred I. Greenstein, a presidential historian at Princeton University, said Bush's posture of distance from the war may be recalibrated in coming days. "It could make him seem out of touch," Greenstein said. "And it may not do him justice because every evidence is that his learning curve since 9/11 has been dramatic."
At his briefing yesterday, Fleischer was asked whether Bush had watched any of the footage of the missile attacks on Baghdad, which the military calls the "shock and awe" phase of a campaign designed to intimidate the enemy.
"Obviously, the president, having authorized the mission, was aware of the mission, knew when it would begin," Fleischer said. "The president of the United States did not need to watch TV to understand what the American people think about the decision to use force to disarm the Iraqi regime."
Reporters were so puzzled by Fleischer's answer that he was asked nine questions about the subject. Later, a Bush spokesman called to say Bush had very briefly watched the shock-and-awe coverage in his study with White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr.
As his father did on the first weekend of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Bush is spending the first weekend of the war at Camp David. White House officials stressed that the compound is equipped with the latest electronic communications, and said that Bush's senior advisers, including Rumsfeld, would travel there to attend a National Security Council meeting this morning. To underscore the point, White House officials plan to release a photo of the meeting.
In keeping with the White House determination to leave all substantive information on the progress of the war to Pentagon officials, either Rumsfeld or Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will appear on all five major Sunday television talk shows.
Although Bush remained largely out of view, senior members of the administration and department spokesmen sought to emphasize disarray in the Iraqi leadership and U.S. interest in the welfare of Iraqi civilians.
Rumsfeld, at the same time he denounced the leadership in Baghdad and called on Iraqi forces to surrender, emphasized that the U.S. war plan was designed to spare as many innocent civilians as possible. As viewers around the world watched live pictures of the bombardment, Rumsfeld insisted there was "no comparison" between what was happening in Iraq and the bombing campaigns that wiped out cities in Germany and Japan in World War II.
"The weapons that are being used today have a degree of precision that no one ever dreamt of in a prior contact," Rumsfeld said. Television images, he added, could show only slices of the war, "that particularized perspective that that reporter, or that commentator or that television camera happens to be able to see at that moment."
Fleischer made the same point. "The president's approach is to gather the information about what is happening in its totality," he said. "The president does not watch a lot of TV."