While Congress held another hearing about the abuse of detainees in Iraq and negotiated to view explicit photos and videos, President Bush flew into the South on Tuesday to joke with a mayor about filling potholes and to lavish praise on a junior high school with strong test scores.
Bush spoke in a gymnasium so steamy that the locals fanned themselves with checkbooks, snapshots and paper cups all through his talk. The floor was slick with dripped sweat. The president joshed about his "hot air" as he defended his No Child Left Behind education program from Democratic charges that it is underfunded and that it penalizes schools heavy on students with special needs.
After his speech, a heavily perspiring Bush shed his coat and worked the crowd at Butterfield Junior High School for 14 minutes, longer than usual -- as though the homeward-bound Air Force One did not have its usual magnetic tug on him. Bush looked grateful for an excuse to get out of Washington, just as he said he was relieved to be away from the capital last week for a campaign bus trip through the Midwest, as the prison scandal was erupting.
But heavy media and congressional attention to the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison are drowning out the desired messages of the White House and the Bush-Cheney campaign. Bush's approval rating has dipped to territory that some of his closest advisers consider dangerous.
Bush and his staff face a predicament that in some ways parallels that of President Bill Clinton during the imbroglio over Monica S. Lewinsky that led to Clinton's impeachment. They are trying to get on with the business of government by pushing preordained messages when official Washington and much of the nation is focused on something else.
Joe Lockhart, White House press secretary at the end of Clinton's presidency, said there are some limited parallels between Bush's situation and Clinton's.
"The lesson from the Clinton administration is that, while you have to address controversy, the biggest mistake you can make is creating the perception that you're not doing your job and while it may not break through on the front page of the newspaper and the network news at night, the very fact that you're out there performing business as usual is an important thing," he said.
White House communications director Dan Bartlett insisted that Bush's strategy differs from Clinton's because this president intends to address the prisoner abuse issue repeatedly. Clinton, he suggested, sought not to talk about the Lewinsky scandal. "The public expects us to confront this issue and address it, and we will," Bartlett said. "They also expect us to focus on other important issues that they're concerned about."
Bush's plan, Bartlett said, is to "give equal attention to the specific issue of the prison abuses, as well as the broader issue of Iraq, but also other important priorities like the president demonstrated in Arkansas."
Yet Lockhart said there are clear differences between the situations. "The situation with Clinton was a personal mistake he made that became a huge political issue," he said. "The situation here is the fundamental violation of human rights, which is impacting our position in the world and our ability to prosecute the war and has also become a political issue. The underlying facts, it's very different to compare them."
Even a president can become bound by his schedule. Moving Bush around the country requires significant planning, and the White House and his campaign coordinate carefully not only on where the president travels but also on what his message should be.
Bush's campaign trips this month were planned long ago, with campaign officials eager to have him on the road in battleground states now, knowing that his June schedule will be dominated by foreign travel and a summit with the leaders of other industrialized nations.
But when crises intervene, the president can find himself in a sequence of incongruous events. On Monday afternoon, Bush was joshing around at the White House with the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots immediately after he returned from making a grim statement at the Pentagon.
"Congratulations for getting back here to the Rose Garden," he said. "My hope, of course, is that I'm back here again to see you next year."
For the White House, this is education week, with events in Arkansas on Tuesday, Bethesda on Wednesday and West Virginia on Thursday. The campaign plans to announce Wednesday the creation of its National W Stands for Women Leadership Team. On Tuesday, campaign officials also announced their National Veterans Leadership Team in Tampa, along with the formation of a group called Medal of Honor Recipients for Bush-Cheney '04.
But Bush aides had no illusions about how much attention any of those events will receive beyond the local television markets where they occur. The scandal over the U.S. military's handling of Iraqi prisoners has poisoned White House relations with Capitol Hill and turned skeptics into critics in nations around world. Administration sources say Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is still considering resigning, which would rupture Bush's war cabinet in the middle of a war.
"We're just going to have to ride this out," one Bush aide said. "It could be weeks."
Balz reported from Washington.