Richard Reeves

Bush Is Taking Saddam and Kim Too Personally

WASHINGTON -- "Time is running out on Saddam Hussein," said the president of the United States, turning toward television cameras last Tuesday, almost hissing. "He must disarm. I'm sick and tired of games and deception!"

It was quite a moment. He seemed less the president than plain old George W. Bush, as if he took all this personally. This is the man who had said, not on television, but in an interview with Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, "I loathe Kim Jong Il."

Not that I disagree. I loathe the North Korean dictator and am sick and tired of the Iraqi dictator. But I don't take their malice personally. And I don't have an army, navy and air force. I prefer a president like Franklin D. Roosevelt, who said first that what he hated was war itself.

In this frenzied capital, there are not many people who believe that the United States is not going to war. "It's quite amazing, isn't it?" said one important correspondent. "Everyone outside Washington seems to think that there will not be a war. But everyone here knows there will be."

Why is that?

"Because we know Bush wants a war."

This is a scary place. Not many people here believe Bush when he says he sees war as a last resort. From here, Bush the impatient, Bush the hater, seems ready to go to war no matter what happens -- as if sending tens of thousands of soldiers far from home out there in the desert is reason enough to attack. Words, as we know, are not the president's strong suit. He actually seems to have little use for them. One example is news conferences: Basically he does not have them, the actual number being seven in two years.

So he does not like reporters; that sentiment more often than not comes with the office. But he is not saying much even to his own people. He was contemptuous when he was asked, again by Woodward, whether he talked with staff and advisers about what he was doing.

"Of course not," he said. "I'm the commander. See, I don't have to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being the president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel like I owe anybody an explanation."

There are words he likes; "commander" is one. Even his weird talk, the jumbled stuff, is sometimes revealing. Exactly a month before taking office, after the chaos of vote-counting in Florida, the new president-elect talked of the job this way: "If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier. Just as long as I'm the dictator."

That is from one scary Texan. There is some kind of anger in the man alone, hostility that sometimes seems barely under control -- as if he were, in street language, being "disrespected."

I came across a newspaper clipping I had stuck in my pocket last July when I was passing through Fredericksburg, Va. I always get the paper there because I love its name, The Free Lance-Star. The clipping was a column by Donnie Johnston, who covers the Culpepper area, that began:

"Well, here we go again. President George W. Bush is getting ready to stir things up with Saddam Hussein. ... From what everybody says, he's a cussed sort with a mean streak a mile wide. ... But Saddam has never spit in my face, kicked my dog or insulted my wife, and as long as he stays on his side of the pond, things are going to be just fine. ... Mainly the people in my neighborhood don't like Hussein because the Bush family doesn't like him. ...

"The truth is, I don't think the Bush family has ever quite forgiven Saddam for not getting killed in the Gulf War. His survival seems to have irritated the family to no end."

Johnston proceeded to say that maybe Bush and Saddam could duke it out themselves: "They could square off in the grove of trees out behind my barn if they like and get this settled once and for all. ... That way a lot of innocent people on both sides wouldn't wind up getting killed."

I kept Johnston's column for laughs. But I'm not laughing now. This has gotten too personal for me.

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