Summertime in the nation's capital normally brings to mind Washington's relentless heat and humidity and government officials leaving town to go to the beach or the mountains to dust the bureaucratic cobwebs from their brains. Not this summer.
With the war in Iraq still a burning issue — politically, militarily, diplomatically — no one, it seems, can truly escape their day-to-day business. President Bush has been at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, most of the month, except when he was hitting the road to raise money or praise the national park system or defend his administration's handling of the war, as he did in St. Louis this week. Mr. Bush has also gone out of his way to show he's tending to the nation's business by having his national security team down to the ranch for meetings.
Secretary of State Colin Powell thought he'd get a little rest and relaxation this month by escaping his office in Foggy Bottom and hitting a vacation spot in New York State. No way. That was interrupted by a quick visit to the United Nations for a meeting and condolence call on Kofi Annan after the U.N. mission in Baghdad was hit by a devastating truck bomb. Renewed violence between Israelis and Palestinians threatened an early end to the latest effort at Middle East peacemaking, and calls to and from leaders in the region also competed for Powell's attention. Returning to Washington to putter around the house for a few days and perhaps tune the engine on one of his cars, Powell took time out to host the visiting Paul Bremer, the administration's point man in Baghdad.
Up at the U.N., State Department officials say U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte has been busy meeting with fellow diplomats on the Security Council, trying to find a face-saving formula which would allow the military forces in Iraq to come under a U.N. umbrella — although still under command of an American general — thus enticing Indians, Pakistanis, Turks and others to share the responsibility of maintaining security and rebuilding Iraq. Just as before the Bush administration decided to go to war, the French, Russians and Germans somehow can't find a way to agree with Washington, let alone send some of their own troops. Not yet anyway.
Across the Potomac River at the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spent most of the summer in Washington. He did visit the president in Crawford but that was a working meeting. Finally, he was able to flee town and go to his own ranch far outside the Beltway. However, as a reminder of just how much hands-on attention it takes to manage the war in Iraq, both Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Meyers made separate trips to Iraq. If they thought Washington's summer was stifling, just stepping off the plane in Baghdad likely brought a whole new meaning to the word "hot." On the other hand, they're a big part of Washington officialdom who sent more than a hundred thousand Americans to Iraq, and since they have to spend the summer in Baghdad's 120 degree heat, the least the big bosses can do is share the experience, if only for a few days.
Politicos didn't get much of a break either unless you consider being consumed with the idea of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California to be a vacation from politics as we know it. Whatever side of the aisle one is on, everyone agreed it made this summer's political talk more entertaining. How to handle California's $38 billion deficit will have to wait.
As for the nine Democrats trying to figure out if anyone cares whether one of their lot might soon replace Mr. Bush at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., well, there was a lot of barnstorming and shaking of hands but no Arnold-like personality to take most people's attention away from their own summertime escapes.
As Labor Day approaches, most of official Washington will look back and find few if any summer doldrums to talk about at the office water coolers this fall. Conversation will turn as it always does to the upcoming NFL season and how the Redskins will do and to next year's presidential election. But the simple fact is what's on most people's mind is how many more Americans are going to die in Iraq and how long American soldiers will have to be there to get the place stabilized and turned over to the Iraqi people who the administration claims it has liberated.
By Charles M. Wolfson