WASHINGTON - When reporters asked President Bush yesterday whether Saddam Hussein was dead or alive, and then pressed for details about how the war was going, the president indicated he was not the right person to ask. Such questions, he said, should be directed to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
"Secretary Rumsfeld will be briefing today," Bush said before aides ushered reporters out of the Oval Office.
Bush is determined, his aides say, not to micromanage the war. He will not answer questions about developments in Iraq, leaving that to his advisers.
They say Bush is also content to let military commanders make operational decisions now that they have broad orders from him, their commander-in-chief. And, confident of success, he does not feel the need to review minute-to-minute details.
The approach is consistent with Bush's style of leadership. America's first president with a graduate business degree has long said he prefers surrounding himself with loyal, seasoned advisers - then allowing them, with flexibility, to carry out the duties he gives them.
But with American lives at stake, and with television viewers watching thunderous U.S. bombing raids in Iraq, White House officials stress that Bush is hardly disengaged.
The president left yesterday afternoon for the Camp David presidential retreat in the Central Maryland mountains, where he will spend the weekend. Aides went out of their way to stress that sophisticated communications technology at the retreat will keep the president fully informed and in close touch with senior advisers at home and abroad.
Today, for example, Bush will chair a meeting at Camp David with his senior national security team, officials said.
White House aides struggled with questions about whether Bush, along with Americans around the country, had watched television about 1 p.m. yesterday, as air attacks on Baghdad intensified, destroying buildings and sending smoke and flames high into the air.
Bush's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said initially that the president had not been engrossed in those images and did not feel it necessary to closely monitor news accounts. He did not rule out that Bush might have seen some of the footage. But Fleischer said he was with Bush just after 1 p.m., and that he was not tuned in.
"I don't know that the president needed to watch TV to understand what it means to authorize military force and to know that the mission has begun and the mission is under way," Fleischer said.
A few hours later, aides returned with an addendum, perhaps concerned that Bush might seem to be paying too little attention to a U.S. bombing campaign that could kill or injure civilians. Shortly after Bush had been with Fleischer, they said, the president did in fact watch television images from Baghdad, with his chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., by his side.
White House officials say Bush is satisfied to exercise a light hand because he thoroughly reviewed war plans before he executed them Wednesday and is fully confident in his military commanders.
A hands-on approach
As it happens, Bush's father spent the first weekend after the start of the 1991 Persian Gulf war at Camp David, too. But the younger Bush's style seems to stand in contrast to that of some other former presidents, such as Lyndon B. Johnson. Some historians have written of how Johnson, under enormous political pressure, immersed himself in Vietnam War field operations, sometimes choosing bombing targets.
Johnson was also known to walk in the middle of the night to the White House Situation room. There, in pajamas and slippers, he obtained the latest reports on bombing raids, casualties and missions in specific Vietnamese villages.
Yesterday, Bush offered only general thoughts about the war, saying not once but three times during his three-minute public appearance that Rumsfeld would be briefing reporters later at the Pentagon. The president spoke in the Oval Office as he prepared to discuss the war privately with congressional leaders.
"We're making progress," Bush said.
He added, "All of us involved here in Washington are extremely proud of the skill and bravery of our young Americans who are willing to sacrifice for something greater than themselves."
The president also held a National Security Council meeting and met with Rumsfeld. And aides say he offered condolences to the families of U.S. and British soldiers who became the first war casualties this week.
In addition, Bush formally told Congress that he could not predict the duration or scope of the war. Invoking the Vietnam-era War Powers Act, he wrote to lawmakers of his conclusion that only force could disarm Iraq, protect Americans and stabilize the Middle East.
"It is not possible," the president said in his letter, "to know at this time either the duration of active combat operations or the scope or duration of the deployment of U.S. armed forces necessary to accomplish our goals fully."
Radio address today
In the early afternoon, Bush taped his radio address, which will air this morning and will mark the president's most extensive remarks on the war since his speech to the nation Wednesday night, announcing the first strikes in Baghdad.
At just about the time that the fiercest bombing raids in Baghdad were taking place yesterday, Bush emerged from the West Wing, walked to his helicopter and departed for Camp David. He waved and smiled at reporters. But he declined to answer any questions.