When the Chinook helicopter was shot down on Sunday in Iraq, killing 15 Americans, President Bush let his defense secretary do the talking and stayed out of sight at his ranch. He has not attended the funeral of any American soldiers killed in action, White House officials say. And, as violence in Baghdad dominated the headlines this week, the president used his public appearances to focus on the health of the economy and the wildfires in California.
But after some of the deadliest attacks yet on American forces, the White House is struggling with the political consequences for a president who has said little publicly about the mounting casualties of the occupation. The quandary for Bush, administration officials say, is finding the balance between expressing sympathy for the victims without being drawn into commenting daily on every new death.
White House officials say that their strategy, for now, is to avoid having the president mention some deaths of soldiers but not others, which they say would create a situation of inequity. Bush does write a personal letter to the family of every dead soldier, and has met privately with victims' relatives at military bases.
"He never wants to elevate or diminish one sacrifice made over another," said Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director.
Republicans also acknowledge that White House officials, mindful of history, do not want the president to become hostage to daily body counts, much like Lyndon B. Johnson was during Vietnam. Concern about being consumed by the headlines, administration officials said, was another reason the president did not specifically address the downed Chinook on Sunday.
"If a helicopter were hit an hour later, after he came out and spoke, should he come out again?" Bartlett said. The public, Bartlett added, "wants the commander-in-chief to have proper perspective, and keep his eye on the big picture and the ball. At the same time, they want their president to understand the hardship and sacrifice that many Americans are enduring at a time of war. And we believe he's striking that balance."
So, for now, Bush is continuing to refer as generically as possible to the sacrifice of all, as he did when reporters asked him on Tuesday in California to comment directly on the helicopter attack. "I am saddened any time that there's a loss of life," Bush replied, then added that the soldiers had died "for a cause greater than themselves," which he said was the campaign against terrorism.
Some Republicans say they are concerned that the White House strategy leaves the president open to charges from Democrats that he is isolated from the real pain of war. "I have to say, I think we have to note tragedies of this magnitude," Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., told reporters on Tuesday, referring to the helicopter attack.
David R. Gergen, a Republican who worked in the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton White Houses, called the subject a "tender" one. He said he understood the White House concern.
"Even so," Gergen said, "we're now encountering deaths at rates we haven't seen since Vietnam, and I think it's important for the country to hear from the president at times like these, and for families to know. I think the weight is on the side of clear expression."
Others say that the White House strategy can add to the anguish of families who have lost loved ones in Iraq. Thomas Wilson, an uncle of Staff Sgt. Joe N. Wilson, 30, of Crystal Springs, Miss., who was killed in the helicopter attack, went so far as to tell a reporter on Monday that Bush and members of his family needed to go and experience Iraq for themselves. "Then he'll realize what's going on," Wilson said. "As long as they ain't over there, he don't care."
Bartlett would not discuss how much concern comments like Wilson's had created at the White House. "The president writes a letter to every family of a fallen soldier, and meets privately with families of soldiers at military bases," Bartlett said. "He grieves with them, he understands. I'm not going to judge anybody's comments made in such a difficult period. People say a lot of things."
People close to the president say that another reason Bush has not been more willing to express more public sympathy for individual soldiers killed in Iraq is his determination to let families have their privacy. Bush was offended, his friends say, about what he saw at times as President Bill Clinton's exploitation of the public's grief for political gain.
Clinton, like other presidents, appeared at some military funerals. In October 2000, Clinton attended a memorial service in Norfolk, Va., for the 17 sailors killed in the bombing of the USS Cole. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan attended a service at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina for 241 Marines killed in Beirut. President Jimmy Carter attended ceremonies for troops killed in the failed hostage rescue mission in Iran.
Marlin Fitzwater, the first President Bush's press secretary, said that he recalled that the 41st president "went to a number of memorial ceremonies" in which he met with families of soldiers killed in the 1991 war in the Persian Gulf.
But at the time of the war, the Pentagon banned media coverage of coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. The ban was relaxed during the Clinton administration, but then reinforced by the second Bush administration in the runup to the current hostilities in Iraq.