WASHINGTON — He may be a wartime president, but President Bush was hardly solemn during a meeting at the White House with a handful of lawmakers last month, days after he threw out the first pitch of a World Series game at Yankee Stadium.

"He said, 'I didn't know then that New Yorkers could wave with all of their fingers!' " recalled Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who is close to Bush.

"This is serious business," Blunt said of the burdens on the president, "but he has definitely not lost his sense of humor."

While he still cannot resist a joke or two (even ribald ones), dozens of friends and advisers who have spent time with Bush said in interviews that since Sept. 11 he has conducted himself far more seriously than he had before.

Friends say that while Bush usually appears outwardly upbeat — and is trying to convey a sense of normalcy — the terrorist attacks have weighed on the 55-year-old president far more than the lowest moments of the grueling presidential campaign a year ago.

"Look at his hair; look at the lines on his face," said Gov. William J. Janklow of South Dakota, a Republican who for years has been close to Bush and his parents. "It's incredible, the toll. He's the only guy in history who had to take lessons to get that smirk off his face. He's a jokester. But right now he's probably consciously trying to avoid that stuff. He sees the mortality of himself and others. The fact that he lives in a building where an airplane may have been heading to blow him up, that would weigh on you enormously."

Describing the demands on Bush as unimaginable, Janklow said: "Good grief. He goes to bed at night not knowing when the next suicide idiot is going to blow himself up in the Middle East, in New York City or Timbuktu, Indiana."

Given the solemnity of the times, several of Bush's friends say he has restrained his natural jocularity but also sought a balance so as not to set too gloomy a tone.

"It's a little more somber when you're dealing with life-and-death issues instead of the patients' bill of rights," said Karl Rove, Bush's chief political adviser. "I don't think the genuine warmth and charisma are gone. But being a wartime president means you're dealing with war. There's a clear command presence. When those admirals and generals leave the Oval Office, you can see they've been with the commander in chief."

Events have left Bush little choice but to rise to the challenge, but many loyalists say they are nevertheless struck by how much more comfortable and engaged he seems than he did three months ago.

In a White House that prided itself on punctuality and brevity in meetings and memos, aides say Bush has become even more businesslike and less patient with long-winded advisers. Meetings that in more tranquil times ran 45 minutes now often take about 20. But people who have met with Bush say he speaks intensely about his religious beliefs and what he views as his mission to guide the country through war.

While Janklow said Bush "will acknowledge the pressures" when asked privately, most of his friends say he conceals any stress he may have.

"Quite frankly, he's very low maintenance," said Marc Racicot, the former Montana governor whom Bush last week named chairman of the Republican National Committee. "The president is a humble person, and he is not one to wear his feelings on his shirt sleeve. I've never seen him agitated or anxious. His heart is heavy for the pain, there's no question about that, but everyone's is."

Racicot said that when he and his wife, Theresa, had dinner with the Bushes a few weeks ago in the White House, Bush acknowledged that he was "moved by the extraordinary heroism" displayed on and since Sept. 11. But he said the president comfortably went on to chat about his twin daughters, who are in college, and who earlier this year were cited for alcohol-related violations.

"He knows my children; I know his," Racicot said. "We just talked about the impossibility of raising young children. He has two daughters and I have three, and we were just commiserating about the challenge of 50-year-old fathers with 20-year-old daughters."

The big picture

Some of Bush's friends say his strength lies in what he was often ridiculed for during the campaign: seeing the big picture and not delving into details.

"My personal view is that complexity in a leader is not a helpful thing," Blunt said, "and certainly not a helpful thing in a crisis."

Bush's advisers insisted that he was quite engaged in the day-to-day war operations. But they conceded that he was not by nature as hands-on as presidents like Jimmy Carter, who during the Iranian hostage crisis was intimately involved with such details as the number of helicopters needed for a rescue mission.

Like President Ronald Reagan, who honored the released hostages at the White House, Bush went to hospitals to console some of those injured after the attacks on Sept. 11. Aides said he had not met with the families of three soldiers killed in Afghanistan last week and instead would probably write them letters.

Former Sen. Alan K. Simpson, R-Wyo., a confidant of former President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, said the current President Bush had displayed a fortitude that comes from having overcome his drinking problem more than a decade ago.

"Once you've licked one of those things, there are no phantoms out there — and you're ahead of the game emotionally," Simpson said.

White House officials and Bush's friends are extraordinarily sensitive to observations that the president has grown into the job. They argue that people never gave him enough credit during the campaign.

"All the doubters and cynics will say he's changed," said Gov. John Rowland of Connecticut, chairman of the Republican Governors Association. "He's not changed. I'll argue that till death. What you see is what you get. After all, he is a Bush. He comes from pretty good stock."

On the run

Yet others who have known the president for years remarked about his maturation.

"If you look at pre-September 11, he was getting his sea legs, he was dealing with a change in the Senate majority," said Gov. Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho. "He was realizing that it is a rough-and-tumble world of politics in D.C. He was experiencing for the first time that it is a contact sport. But the pressures of the terrorist attacks have really enhanced the maturing. All the potential was there; it's now harnessed into reality."

Recalling that Bush was a cutup at governors' meetings not so long ago, Kempthorne said the transformation had been striking. "At the National Governors Association meeting, he'd be one of us sitting at the table and there'd be a twinkle in his eye," he said. "You knew there was something he was thinking that would be humorous, always lighthearted. There's still going to be a joke, but it's followed by the harsh reality of what he's dealing with."

Gov. Bill Owens of Colorado said the president did not display "quite as much of the hale fellow well met." At a recent meeting with some governors, Owens said, Bush displayed a new stature. "It wasn't our friend the president who used to be a governor," he said. "It was the president. We all looked at him a little differently that day, given what he was in the middle of."

When Bush does tease people, the subject often involves one of his passions, baseball. Just before Thanksgiving, on a trip to Fort Campbell, Ky., to buck up the 101st Airborne Division, Bush bounded out of his cabin on Air Force One to greet his guests, including Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., a former major-league pitcher.

"The president appears in the cabin, very confidently, and there's Jim Bunning, and the president says he threw a fastball at the World Series that Bunning would be jealous of," Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., recalled.

For all the people saying that Bush has aged visibly — a view that is not universally shared by his friends — he has channeled his energy since Sept. 11 to working out even more rigorously.

"The fact that he's running a seven-minute mile now attests to the discipline he's bringing to his whole life right now," said Mark McKinnon, Bush's chief media consultant during the 2000 campaign. (Before Sept. 11, McKinnon said, Bush was 27 to 30 seconds slower.)

"He's actually in better shape than he was during the campaign," Racicot said.

"He's lighter. He's started lifting weights more and gotten a little more muscle tone."

Time pressures

Bush is a better listener at meetings than he was before Sept. 11, aides say. Yet they also say he asks more questions, and sooner, in an effort to shorten meetings.

"He'll say, 'Let's move it along,' " said one of Bush's senior aides. "It's very gentle and very subtle. You wake up and . . . the meeting is done five minutes early because he's got to call Mubarak."

After a recent meeting of the National Economic Council, the aide said he complimented Bush for prodding the participants into ending it 10 minutes early — without their seeming to realize what he had done.

"He laughed and said, 'Don't tell anybody,' " the aide said.

Indeed, Gov. John Engler of Michigan noticed recently that the president ushered him and others out of a meeting earlier than he had expected. "He's under time pressure here," Engler said. "We didn't take that long, but he had a couple other calls he had to make with leaders of other countries."

Some of Bush's oldest friends say they regret that they have not heard from the president since Sept. 11. But, they insist, they understand.

"He doesn't write; he doesn't call," said a tongue-in-cheek H. Grant Thomas, who runs a youth empowerment program in Houston and has known Bush since junior high school. "But somebody described him as the least neurotic person on the planet, and I think that's true. In terms of the big picture he has a sense of buoyancy, of calm, of focus, which comes in handy in a situation like this where it can be very easy to get confused and scared."