War in the Gulf: The Mood in Washington

Reporter's Notebook

Washington Goes to War,
Besieging the TV Set

Special to The New York Times

WASHINGTON, Jan 27- In a city where Administration officials do not feel well dressed unless they are clutching a folder marked "Secret,"' this has been a frustrating war.

White House officials still pretend to know a lot, of course, and go about murmuring in hushed Important tones about the latest inielligence information from the "Sit Room."

The Situation Room is a windowless cell in the White House basement where cables and telexes and secure faxes come in from military commanders and world leaders and spies and diplomats. In the era of an electronic war beamed instantaneously on television to George Bush in the Oval Office, Saddam Hussein in his bunker and the rest of the world in offices and living rooms, it seems somewhat outmoded

The First 11 days of the Persian Gulf war have had the feeling of a surreal spectator sport here, with the President constantly flicking (he television vision channels In the study off the Oval Office and with other senior ofticials gathered in semicircles with sandwiches around television sets.

`'There is a quality of watching the war "from an armchair" said Marlin Fitzwater, the President's spokesman. Unlike other wars, this one has brought no parade of limousines carrying military brass, diplomats and Cabinet officers to the White House; most communications move at light. ning speed by phone or by computer.

. Journalists who have visited the few lonely diplomats left in the Iraqi Embassy, ringed with police officers and F.B.I. agents, report that they, too, are sitting in a semicircle around the television set, watching stories of war and terrorism.

Robert M. Gates, the deputy national security adviser, has found the obsessive television watching at the White House so distracting - and perhaps diminishing to the myth of privileged information - that he refuses to even turn on his office television set now, loyally waiting for the reports from the Situation Room.

But even that top-secret intelligence, widely presumed to be fuller and more accurate, has been Infected by the television vision coverage

"The problem is that it's hard to sort out the information because the CNN stuff has a way of trickling into the intelligence," another Bush adviser said, referring to Cable News Network, the potent new entry in Washington's alphabet soup. "Whe get the intelligence reports, and they include the stuff that's on CNN. Then we get another report that seems to confirm what the first report said, but it turns out that they're just using a later CNN broadcast. CNN confirming CNN."

Bush and the Drumbeats

After the tocsin of war come the drums of war.

"Those damned drums are keeping me up all night," the President told a gathering of Republicans on Friday.

The antiwar protesters camped in Lafayette Park across the street from the WhiteHouse have beer. beating a drum round the clock since the war began, like an Edgar Allan Poe heartbeat intended to pierce the President's conscience as he sleeps in a room above Pennsylvania Avenue.

But unlike Lyndon Johnson, who used to stare out the window of the White House at the Vietnam War protesters and say, in anguished [ones, testers are they doing this to me?" tones, Bush, while he may nor like the noise is unfazed by the sentiment.

WhiteHouse officials like to say the President is the calmest man the Washington, and there is some truth to that. Unlike politicians like Mario Cuomo and Jimmy Carter, President Bush is not a very introspective man, and he is not one who likes to explore moral gray areas. Once a decision is made, he never looks back. Every time Saddam Hussein orders a military action to cause psychological terror the Presidenl feels even more confident.

"Maybe this will help everyone realize why this guy needs lo be stopped," he told aides after the first Iraqi Scud missiles hit Israel.

The rest of the White House may be engaging in wild mood mood swings as officials try to determine whether the deepening conflict will buoy the President or destroy him.

But except for an angry outburst over the tapes of allied prisoners of war, Mr. Bush's mood has stayed relatively stable, causing a daily problem for his press secretary, Mr. Fitzwater, who spends a lot of time at his morning staff meeting trying, to decide on new "mood words" for reporters eager to know how the president is holding up.

"I've used rested and resolute Mr. Fitzwater mused. "Calm and resigned. Determined and vigilant. Steady and strong."

Mr. Fitzwater will sometimes pick up the beige phone with the Presidential seal on his desk and the President will be on the other end, asking in a teasing tone: "So, Marlin, I see you had me 'steeled' yesterday. What mood am I in today?"

No New Agencies, Anyway

Washington's jump from provincial to boom town came a few wars ago. This time there is no need of new agencies or new acronyms. As David Brinkley noted in his memoir, "Washington Goes to War," World War II spawned "the O.P.C., W.P.B., O.P A., W.M.C. B.E.W., N.W.L.B., O.D.T. W.S.A., O.C.D., O.E.M. and many others."

"One office, issuing wartime regulations for plumbers, was the P.W.P.G.S.J.S.I.S.I.A.C.W.P.B."

Mr. Brinkley talked about the sight at the antiaircraft guns on on the roofs of Government buildings They looked impressive but were mostly for show, many were wooden copies and the ones that were real had stocks of ammunition the wrong size behind them.

On the surface, everything seems fairly normal in the capital. Washington is not yet the tense, divided city it became at the end of the Vietnam years. There is still a sense of unreality with occasional epiphanies of horror and confusion.

Politicians here are still working out how they feel and how much they can criticize without seeming disloyal to the Presiden in time of war.

Democratic Senators in the Senate dining room priviately grumble about published reports of draft-age Kuwaitis lounging around Cairo discos all night and about Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi Am bassador to the United mood States, spending his Christmas holiday at his newly completed 55 55,000 -square-foot, reef 28-bedroom house in Aspen.

The immediacy of the television war and the threats of terrorism have left people feeling tired and jittery.

Brent Scowcroft, the President's hard working national security adviser, who is famous for catnapping in the Oval Office and even standing against walls, has taken to outright sleeping on his couch

"During the Vietnam War," a top Bush adviser said about the menace of terrorism, "people never thought there was the remotest chance that the North Vietnamese could actually reach out and touch someone."

There are new concrete barriers outside the Senate office buildings, the wooden shutters are drawn over the windows of Congressional leaders on the first floor of the Capitol and the Capitol Hill police are now carrying shotguns. Some White House officials with corner offices have taken to keeping their blinds down.

White House staff members have been told not to leave the schedules of the President and Vice Presidenl lying around on desks and to consider taking alternative routes to work . Members of Congress have been briefed on how protect themselves from the the threat of letter bombs.




If you're an editorial cartoonist, what you remember about Mitchell is the glasses. It looked more like a State of the Post Office. "

Republican media adviser Mike Murphy, on Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell's state of the union address

"The people that want to talk down to me can kiss my white butt."

Rapper VANILLA ICE, lashing out at critics at The American Music Awards

'Peering out of his bunker, Saddam Hussein sees his shadow, meaning six more weeks of Allied bombing'

Cartoon, Syracuse Herald Journal.

"I don't know about that. His speech did sound a little bigheaded. Like maybe America's head is getting a little big."

Sgt. William A Redides, stationed in Saudi Aribia after watching President Bush's State of the Union address

"I will remember I was in the desert."

Alabama Rep. SonnCalahan, recalling where he was the day war began--at a luxury -resort in Palm Spring, Calif.

"Those damned drums are keeping me up all night."

George Bush, on the drumbeat kept up by antiwar activists across from the White House

"Money is not an issue when you believe in what you're doing."

New York hairdresser Roger Thompson on business he's lost by trying to steer women away from big, blond hair at his new salon in Dallas

"Goodnight, Steve.. I miss you. I love you. You're a hero." "

Carol Bentzlin, widow of marine Cpl. Stephen Bentzlin of Yellow Meadow, Minn., in a letter she wrote just before her husband was killed in the gulf war

"B-52 bombing from 30,000 to 40,000 feet is very accurate. They hit the ground every time."

Retired Adm. Eugene Carrol, now deputy director of the Center for Defense Information, on B-52s

Exhibit 6