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WAR WITH IRAQ / PRESIDENT'S PLANS

Bush Spending the Weekend at Camp David

His father was criticized for a similar getaway during the Gulf War, but technology gives the president and his staff instant communication.

March 22, 2003|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush waved and gave a smile as he walked across the South Lawn of the White House early Friday afternoon, climbed aboard a Marine helicopter and took off for Camp David, the presidential retreat in the western Maryland mountains.

To some, the president's cheeriness might seem out of place with bombs falling on Baghdad and reports of Marine casualties.

But the president likes Camp David. He is far less confined there. And so, while White House aides insist that his mood is appropriately grave as the war intensifies, he permitted himself a smile as he shed the claustrophobia of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

The president's father took off for Camp David the weekend after launching the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

At the time, many questioned whether the president should leave the White House during war. The issue is rarely raised anymore.

"It's a nonissue," said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, a Washington research organization. "The president today is totally wired. He is in constant and instant communication with anyone he needs to be in constant and instant communication with."

Bush plans to hold a meeting of his "war council" today at Camp David with most of his top advisors -- some in person, some via a sophisticated video-conferencing system. A few will spend the weekend in one of the compound's many guest cabins.

In other words, Bush will be consulting with the same tight circle of advisors he relies on at the White House: Vice President Dick Cheney, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr.

"Anything he can do at the White House, he can do there" at Camp David, said National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack.

As war was launched this week, aides say, Bush kept to most of his personal routines -- working out daily in his personal gym and sticking to his regular health-conscious diet.

"In these type of times he becomes even more disciplined than usual," a senior White House official said.

During the Gulf War, many believed that President George H.W. Bush, by taking off for Camp David after the bombing began, was trying to send a message to Saddam Hussein that he was confident of victory.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer insisted that this President Bush is not trying to send a similar message.

"There's no message being sent to anybody in Iraq," Fleischer said. "I suggest to you [that] the president is following his normal routine."

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