WASHINGTON — Washington. The internal White House sound system was left on just a moment too long the night President Bush announced that allied forces had gone to war against Iraq. It caught the commander-in-chief punctuating his somber televised remarks with an exuberant private aside to aides with him in the Oval Office.
The near glee in his voice seemed to reflect not so much a lov of combat, but the exhilaration of one of those rare instances in which a U.S. president can wield real power -- almost on his own.
George Bush was the central character in the Persian Gul conflict almost as soon as Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2. Although there were many supporting actors -- the crafty Secretary of State James A. Baker III; the colorful Army commander, General H. Norman Schwarzkopf; and the unpredictable Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev-- not even the demonized Saddam Hussein upstaged him. Mr. Bush's usual antagonists on Capitol Hill were reduced to bit parts.
The president decided to respond with military intervention th first morning after the invasion and called all the other crucial shots as well. He never wavered in his determination that the takeover of Kuwait would not be allowed to stand.
To be sure, Mr. Bush consulted, cajoled and smoothed ruffle feathers where necessary. Many hours were logged on trans-Atlantic phone calls, particularly to Israel, where quietly accepting Iraq's Scud missile hits required enormous restraint, and to the Soviet Union, where Mr. Gorbachev kept muddying the allies' message to Iraq with proposals of his own.
And congressional leaders were invited to vent their doubts an suggestions at White House sessions so lengthy the lawmakers left praising Mr. Bush for his openness. But he was quite prepared to go to war without them if it came to that.
Though there were moments when it seemed his bold venture i the Persian Gulf might doom his presidency, the conflict turned out to be fortuitous for George Bush. In fact, recent polls show he is now far more popular than any president in the half-century that such surveys have been taken.
The war rescued him from a no-win domestic quagmire over th budget that worsened with the onset of the recession. It allowed him to showcase instead his three decades of diplomatic experience and international network of contacts.
And Operation Desert Storm pumped Mr. Bush full of the adrenalin that had made the earlier days of his term seem so joyful. The bounce in his step reappeared, the giddiness returned to his public performances.
Mr. Bush recently acknowledged the war's end had not brought with it for him the same rapture displayed by other Americans.