WASHINGTON — It was another night at a White House nearly at war. The Atlantic alliance was splintering, 250,000 U.S. troops were within striking distance of Iraq and the pope had sent an envoy pleading for peace.
Upstairs the first lady was entertaining a group of friends for dinner; downstairs a crowd of reporters was assembled. President Bush, his face already made up for his first prime-time news conference in 18 months, turned to his chief of staff.
"He said, 'Why don't you just leave me alone for a little bit?' " the chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., said in an interview on Friday. Card, taken aback, quickly left, he said, and the president quietly closed the door of his study.
For the next 10 minutes, the president of the United States, a man under inconceivable pressures, remained in solitude, undisturbed.
Moments later, Bush strode up to his lectern in the bright television glare, presenting himself in a nearly hourlong news conference on Thursday as a leader impervious to doubt.
At a time when the world is arguing about what the United States should do in Iraq, while even his own advisers are still debating options, Bush's aides say that he has come to realize that making the decision to go to war is the loneliest moment that presidents face.
Whether war is a last resort that has been thrust upon him, as he sometimes says, or whether it is his choice to wage it, no one can fill the space that he alone occupies — not his closest aides, not the great array of expert advisers, not his wife or even his father, who made a similar decision when he was president.
Presidents handle pressure differently — Richard M. Nixon retreated, Bill Clinton got on the phone in the middle of the night — but historians say that almost all display certitude in public and more uncertainty in private. Friends and advisers of Bush insist that this president, in contrast, is much the same in private as he is in public.
While Iraq weighs on him heavily, they say, a president who sees the world as a biblical struggle of good versus evil has never expressed any misgivings or personal vulnerabilities about going to war against Saddam Hussein.
"He's very determined, I would say," said Cardinal Pio Laghi, a Vatican peace emissary and longtime Bush family friend who recently hand-delivered a letter to Bush from Pope John Paul II asking the president to avoid an invasion of Iraq. "He was very friendly, he was very nice, he was very appreciative, but he didn't give me the idea that he was shaky."
The president's appearance of calm in the face of enormous international opposition to war in Iraq, aides say, is driven by two forces: Bush's unequivocal belief that Saddam is a grave threat to the United States, and his constant worry that there will be another Sept. 11 on his watch.
"He's worried about another attack every morning that he walks into the Oval Office," Card said. Bush's concern is in large part fueled by the first thing he reads every day, the "threat assessment," a compilation of what U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies pick up about potential terrorist activity. Some of it is reliable, much of it is not, but aides call it frightening. For the president it is a powerful motivating force.
"My job is to protect America, and that's exactly what I'm going to do," Bush said repeatedly at his news conference on Thursday. "People can ascribe all kinds of intentions. I swore to protect and defend the Constitution. That's what I swore to do. I put my hand on the Bible and took that oath."
Bush is handling the pressures on him, aides say, by staying faithful to his orderly and reassuring White House life: exercise, a careful diet, prayer, no alcohol, a dutiful reading of his nighttime briefing books, early bedtimes, time with his wife. Bush relaxes, aides say, by watching ESPN over lunch on a tray brought up to his private dining room from the White House mess or by poring over the sports pages. He still schedules an hour each day for exercise, typically now in the midafternoons.
Two weekends ago at Camp David, the president watched "Antwone Fisher," about a black orphan trying to put his life right after growing up in an abusive foster home. Bush, who frequently gets too restless to sit through an entire movie, watched the entire film.
People who have met with Bush have been struck by his tranquility. "You would never have known that he was sitting on a powder keg," said Don Hewitt, the executive producer of "60 Minutes," who recently spent 15 minutes with Bush in the Oval Office. "He was amazingly calm and wanted to talk about Harry Truman and not Saddam Hussein."
Aides say that Bush's Christian faith, which led him to stop drinking alcohol in 1986, is a big factor. "My faith sustains me, because I pray daily," Bush said at his news conference on Thursday night, speaking plainly about a topic he usually avoids in public. "I pray for guidance and wisdom and strength."
In the United States, he said, "there are thousands of people who pray for me that I'll never see and be able to thank," and he added, "But it's a humbling experience to think that people I will never have met have lifted me and my family up in prayer."
One of the biggest changes in Bush's life in the past two weeks is a schedule suddenly free of domestic trips and many of the ceremonial duties of the office.
In the build-up to war, the president's aides have cleared blocks of his daily calendar to give him more time to think — or, more realistically, to get on the phone, as he did last week, to lobby nearly all of his 14 fellow heads of state in the U.N. Security Council, where there will soon be a showdown vote on a resolution that would effectively authorize an attack on Iraq.
The longest and most intense of those talks were with Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, the president's closest ally, who faces more war opposition and risks to his political future than Bush. The two strategize on the latest vote count — the resolution needs nine of 15 votes to pass, with no vetoes. So far the United States has only four, including its own. There were at least two talks last week between Blair and Bush, aides said, lasting some 20 minutes each.
Bush also spoke last week with his father, who called to congratulate his son on his presentation at the news conference, aides said. The two men, who have both taken on Saddam, continue to speak all the time, aides say. Aides say they are almost never in the room during the phone calls.
In the march toward war, there has also been an occasional moment of humor. "While he was giving the State of the Union, he winked at me," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. "He sort of winked, a couple of times. And I winked back at him."
"Whether you agree with him or not," Schumer said, "one of Bush's strengths is that he goes with his instincts. And at a time like this, when the winds are swirling around in all different directions, a president is well-served who has his own internal gyroscope."