THURMONT - President Bush huddled with his national security team yesterday in the quiet hills of Maryland, monitoring the action in a war raging a world away.
Bush held the 90-minute morning meeting in a rustic cabin at Camp David, the presidential retreat about six miles west of this Western Maryland town.
Descending on Frederick County was a high-ranking cast that included Vice President Dick Cheney, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, CIA Director George J. Tenet and Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The president conferred after the meeting by phone with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The two allies, whose political futures could hinge on the outcome of the campaign in Iraq, spoke for a half-hour about the war and about providing humanitarian aid to the Iraqi people, White House officials said.
Bush was said to be receiving frequent updates on the continuing hostilities in Iraq from his advisers. But he was also carving out personal time, exercising in the afternoon and relaxing with his wife, Laura. Bush planned to spend most of today with his wife and does not intend to hold another meeting with his war cabinet today.
The president, who has often said he values time away from Washington and does productive thinking in bucolic settings such as Camp David and his Texas ranch, enjoyed near-perfect weather yesterday. Officials at Catoctin Mountain National Park, which borders Camp David, said warm temperatures and crystal-blue skies were drawing one of their biggest crowds to date this year.
Indeed, Bush and his advisers were discussing war in an atmosphere that could not be more different from Baghdad, the Iraqi capital city now under fierce bombardment by U.S.-led coalition forces.
"It's such a peaceful scene today," said Josie Wawrzyniak, 55, who lives about two miles from Camp David.
She said people here are accustomed to visits from the president, who almost never leaves the highly fortified compound and flies in and out by helicopter. But Wawrzyniak added that she has grown slightly more anxious about having him around at a time when officials say the nation is under an enhanced threat of terrorism.
"Maybe this is extreme," she said, taking a break from gardening in her front lawn. "But suppose some terrorists were planning some attack on Camp David and needed a base of operations. It would not be hard to knock down our door and do away with us."
At the national park visitors center, a notice informed the public that about one-third of the park was closed, to create a secure perimeter for the president. A park ranger, who asked that his name not be used, said most visitors understand that section of the park is restricted when Bush is at Camp David.
"It gives him an area to walk around," the ranger said. "The White House is so confining. How would you feel if you couldn't leave your house? He can't even go outside and play with his dogs there, without the media swarming around him."
Whether they support Bush or not, regardless of their views on the war, people here generally say they enjoy having him make visits, as they did presidents before him.
"I've been seeing Camp David a lot on TV now," Deanna Shuff, a Thurmont native who works at the Little Creek Side Cafe here, said with pride. "And I say, yup - I live there."
Shuff said she finds it "kind of scary," though, that Bush is visiting when there are warnings of retaliatory terrorist strikes on America. "Because if they are going to do something, they'll do it where he is," Shuff said. "And they announce it, they make no secret where he is."
But Paul Hahn, a 58-year-old barber who trims the hair of U.S. Secret Service agents when they're in town, said he hears military planes patrolling the skies whenever Bush is at the presidential retreat. "With all those fighters going by up there," he said, "this right now is the safest town in Maryland."