Despite jaunty facade, preoccupation with war is stealing Bush's time, energy WAR IN THE GULF

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Leaving the last stop of his military base tour Friday, President Bush made a deliberate point of taking the stairs up to Air Force One two steps at a time.

When he turned around to give one last wave to the crowd at Hunter Army Airfield near Savannah, Ga., he had the rumpled hair and goofy, little-boy look that normally comes over Mr. Bush when travel and responsive audiences have given him an adrenalin charge.


For a moment, he seemed his old self, the prewar president. But not for long.

The chronic fatigue of round-the-clock phone calls from National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and of war protesters banging drums outside his window all night showed through his enthusiasm.


Even the pancake makeup the president wore for his State of the Union address Tuesday night didn't completely hide that.

And he's had a cold since just after sending the first bombers over Baghdad Jan. 16. By last week, it had turned to the flu and also infected his top aides, including Mr. Scowcroft and White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu. Mr. Bush was still coughing during his address Friday afternoon at Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, N.C., delivered to families of servicemen he has dispatched to the Persian Gulf.

White House aides and Mr. Bush have been pushing the idea that he's coming out of his preoccupation with the war. But it's still by far the dominating factor in his life.

By the most optimistic accounts, the president devotes at least half his time monitoring minute-by-minute events in the rapidly changing war against Iraq and developing strategy with his top advisers.

But the war invades many of his other activities as well. He mentions the war virtually every time he speaks in public -- even, for example, while announcing a new drug strategy last Thursday. The name of Saddam Hussein is rarely off his tongue, usually mispronounced and accompanied by increasingly contemptuous characterizations of the Iraqi leader.

At Fort Stewart near Savannah, Ga., the president told Army families that Mr. Hussein is driven by "an endless appetite for evil."

And Mr. Bush is not spending much time on the athletic anrecreational pursuits that help keep him in balance. Lots of Wednesday afternoons have gone by now without the usual outings for which he always cleared his midweek calendar. For quite a while, there have been no trips to the House gym for tennis or raquetball, no golfing in the rain or jogs along the Potomac.

OC Friends and advisers insist Mr. Bush must be working out in the


White House cabana on his treadmill or his exercise bike.

In any case, Mr. Bush believes so strongly in the moral purpose of the war to liberate Kuwait that he has proceeded despite the protests of Bishop Edmond L. Browning, the head of the Episcopal Church in the United States, to which Mr. Bush belongs. Bishop Browning tried to persuade him that two wrongs don't make a right.

The president finds more comfort with evangelist Billy Graham, who has been an overnight guest at the White House twice during the 2 1/2 weeks of war, invited first on the night Mr. Bush ordered the troops into action.

The president has also made several appearances before religious groups during that period and has proclaimed today a "National Day of Prayer."

"In this moment of crisis, may Americans of every creed turn to our greatest power and unite together in prayer," he said in a radio address yesterday.

A friend who saw Mr. Bush shortly before the order to commence firing was given, found him "bone-tired. His face was puffy. You ++ could tell the pressure of it was on him constantly."


But the friend noted that Mr. Bush has kept his youthful appearance over 66 years by insisting, as he keeps telling others, that no matter what happens, "Life goes on."