"By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 25, 2006; Page A01
FALMOUTH, Maine -- They sat on two frayed chairs in a teacher's lounge, the president and the widow, just the two of them so close that their knees were almost touching.
She was talking about her husband, the soldier who died in a far-off war zone. Tears rolled down her face as she mentioned two children left fatherless. His eyes welled up, too. He hugged her, held her face, kissed her cheek. "I am so sorry for your loss," he kept repeating.
She told him she considers him responsible for her husband's death and begged him to bring home the troops. "It's time to put our pride behind us and stop the bleeding, for all of us," she recalled saying. The president demurred, unwilling to debate a mourning woman. "We see things differently," he said.
But Hildi Halley, a self-described liberal antiwar activist who met with President Bush in Maine last month, said she believes he felt her grief. "It wasn't just a crocodile tear," she said in an interview at her home. "I felt like I moved him. I don't think he's going to wake up tomorrow and say, 'Oh my gosh, I've been wrong this whole time and I'm going to change all my policies because of my meeting with this woman.' I just hope that with each soldier, he remembers my pain."
He has a lot of pain to remember. Now more than five years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush has served as a wartime president longer than any occupant of the White House since Lyndon B. Johnson. He has presided over more U.S. military casualties than any since Richard M. Nixon. While he travels the country defending his policy and arguing to stay the course in Iraq, he also confronts the human burdens of wartime leadership.
The two sides of Bush as commander in chief can be hard to reconcile. His public persona gives little sense that he dwells on the costs of war. He does not seem to agonize as Johnson did, or even as his father, George H.W. Bush, did before the Persian Gulf War. While he pays tribute to those who have fallen, the president strives to show resolve and avoid displays that might be seen as weak or doubting. His refusal to attend military funerals, while taking long Texas vacations and extended bicycle rides, strikes some critics as callous indifference.
Yet the private Bush comes across differently in the accounts of aides, friends, relatives and military family members who have met with him, including some who do not support him, such as Halley. The first question Bush usually asks national security briefers in the Oval Office each morning is about overnight casualties, aides say, and those who show up for the next round of meetings often find him still stewing about bad news from Iraq.
Bush seems to separate these aspects of war in his mind, advisers say. He expresses no regret even in private for his decision to invade Iraq, they say, while taking seriously the continuing consequences of doing so. "Removing Saddam, he never revisits that in his mind or his heart," said one adviser, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because Bush does not want them to discuss his feelings. "Sending troops into harm's way, that's something that weighs on him."
If he does not show that publicly, it's in keeping with a White House practice of not drawing attention to the mounting costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have killed more than 3,000 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of civilians. Advisers worry that sending the wrong signal would further sap public will and embolden the enemy and Bush's critics. Aides say that Bush does not attend military funerals because the presidential entourage would disrupt solemn events and that, out of respect, the media have been banned from photographing coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base. But they also know it would focus a spotlight on the price of the president's policies.
Bush is less reticent about public displays of grief for victims of Sept. 11. During the recent events marking the fifth anniversary of the attacks, he teared up several times and at one point had to concentrate just to finish a speech. "Your heart breaks for somebody who suffered," he later told Charles Gibson of ABC News. "Tears can get contagious as far as I'm concerned."
For those who have suffered losses in the wars he initiated, Bush prefers to offer comfort in private. He writes letters to families of those killed, visits soldiers at military hospitals and meets with relatives of the dead. Altogether, according to the White House, Bush has met with 1,149 relatives of 336 dead service members. These sessions generate little attention because the White House bars journalists, but some relatives have described them.
"It's absolutely painful for him," said Beth Karlson, 63, a retired school food-service manager whose son died in Iraq and who met with Bush in Wisconsin last month. The president hugged her and held her hand. "He's a genuine person. He wants to reach out to the families and let them know how he feels."
Not everyone agrees. Cindy Sheehan, who would later launch antiwar protests near Bush's Texas ranch, met with him in 2004 and left alienated. She said he came across as overly casual and immune to her pain, referring to her as "Mom," yet uninterested in stories about her dead son, Casey, and calling him "your loved one" instead of by name. When she later sought another meeting, Bush refused.
Said Missy Beattie, a fellow member of Gold Star Families for Peace whose nephew died in Iraq: "He only meets with people who support him. I don't know what I'd say to him. I almost feel like he's not worthy of time and thought because I don't think he cares. I don't think he has any human qualities. I don't think he would listen to me or anyone who's lost someone and feel any empathy."
Many presidents confront the burden of ordering troops into danger. Johnson was tormented by the Vietnam War, padding down to his war room in slippers and robe at night to check on casualty numbers. Taped telephone calls, published by historian Michael Beschloss, reveal the depth of anguish. "I want to be called every time somebody dies," Johnson declared. He took to bed, depressed. Aides consulted psychiatrists. "He suffered," biographer Robert Dallek said. "It certainly took a toll on him. You could see it in his face at the end of his term. He was so old and careworn."
George H.W. Bush wrote an angst-ridden letter to his children before the Gulf War: "I guess what I want you to know as a father is this: Every Human life is precious. When the question is asked 'How many lives are you willing to sacrifice' -- it tears at my heart. The answer, of course, is none -- none at all." He did not sleep well before the bombing began and prayed that an Iraqi child shown on television would not be hit. "There's no way to describe the pressure," he said in a diary entry, later published in a volume of personal correspondence. "I've been plagued with the image of body bags."
Warren Finch, director of the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, said the former president's service as a pilot shot down over the Pacific shaped his outlook. "The fact that he had served in World War II and lost two crewmen meant he experienced it firsthand. That weighed heavily on him."
His son never served in combat and gives no public indication that he anguishes like his father. White House spokesman Tony Snow said the president, like his predecessors, "lies awake nights asking himself the question: How can I get this done and get our people home?" But Bush controls his feelings around associates. "He keeps a lot of that very, very locked up inside himself," said a longtime friend. "I don't raise it with him. I just don't feel comfortable doing that."
Bush is more open with confidants about his aggravation over events in Iraq. "He's unbelievably candid in person," said another person close to the president. "Of course it frustrates him. You can't not be frustrated by four car bombs a day and that sort of thing. But I think he's confident it's going to work out. I think he also thinks there's not much of an alternative." Does the president confide much in his father? "Nobody knows," the person said. "It's a steel wall."
Bush deals with stress through vigorous exercise, working out six days a week. When he goes for long bicycle rides, he often invites others to join him, but he asks them not to ride in front of him so he can have the illusion of solitude. "Riding helps clear my head, helps me deal with the stresses of the job," he told reporters last month after an 80-minute ride.
To those angry over the war, that can seem cavalier. "It's important for me to be thoughtful and sensitive to those who have got something to say," Bush said last year when Sheehan began her protest. "But it's also important for me to go on with my life, to keep a balanced life. . . . I'm mindful of what goes on around me. On the other hand, I'm also mindful that I've got a life to live and will do so."
Aides see the impact on Bush after meetings with "families of the fallen," as the White House calls them. Bush typically meets each family separately, joined by one aide, often Deputy Chief of Staff Joseph W. Hagin. He offers commemorative coins, poses for photos or signs autographs. "I do the best I can to cry with them or, you know, laugh with them if they wanna laugh, and hug them," Bush recently told Katie Couric of CBS News.
Karlson, whose son, Staff Sgt. Warren Hansen, died in a helicopter crash in Iraq in 2003, asked Bush for help in obtaining an investigative report. "I just felt I was being stonewalled, I wasn't getting anyplace," she recalled. "He said it will be taken care of. And it was. The next Wednesday, the report was hand-delivered." In the end, the report confirmed what she had been told about her son's death. "It has brought some peace," she said.
After such meetings, aides said, Bush often seems drained. During a trip to Fort Bragg, N.C., last year, he spent three hours with dozens of relatives of troops who were killed. One of them, Crystal Owen, asked him to wear a metal bracelet in honor of her dead husband. He put it on, then went to deliver a nationally televised address. With the widows still on his mind, Bush seemed flat as he began to speak, aides said, and at one point his eyes became watery.
Halley, 41, lost her husband, National Guard Capt. Patrick Damon, also 41, in June in Afghanistan to what officially was ruled a heart attack. When Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) called to offer condolences and asked if she could do anything, Halley requested a telephone call from the president. Instead, when he came to Maine to visit his parents in Kennebunkport, the White House invited her to meet him at a school.
When Bush walked in, Halley told him about Patrick, how they had met at American University, moved to Maine and had a family. "After I spoke about my husband for quite some time, I said, 'And now he's dead. For what? Why? I've lost my soul mate.' " She asked her children, Mikayla, 14, and Jan-Christian, 12, to leave the room, then wept as she told Bush how hard life had become for them. "He started crying. I said, 'These two children do not like you and they have good reason for that. And I hold you responsible for the death of my husband.' "
Bush seemed surprised that she opposes even the war in Afghanistan, and he cited the Taliban. "And I said, 'Who put them in power?' And he got a little defensive and said, 'I'm really not here to discuss public policy with you.' And I said, 'That's probably wise, and I'm not here to talk about public policy, either.' "
Bush said he hoped their meeting helped her healing. "You know what would help my healing?" she recalled responding. "If you change your policies in the Mideast." Bush smiled, she said, but did not reply.
Halley said the meeting did not change either of their minds. She would still vote against him. But she said she appreciated that he opened himself up to her. "I don't think he's a heartless man," she said. "I think he's pulled in a lot of different directions by very intelligent people. . . . I don't think it's going to change his policies, but I hope it does make him think about it. I hope I'm in his dreams.""