WHAT did House Speaker Tom Foley think of the president's "terrible plunge" in popularity shown in the latest poll - from 90 to 78 percent? "Do you think the bloom is off the rose?" a reporter asked even before Foley could get his first taste of breakfast. Foley's droll reply: "Well, it's in the right direction." "But seriously," the questioner persisted, "do you think that the president's postwar performance has damaged him badly?"
"No," said the speaker, "I don't think the poll reflects that. It shows that people are turning their thoughts to domestic issues with the war now behind them. It is almost inevitable that this would be reflected in some adjustment of his popularity. High ratings like that have only occurred with presidents right after the end of a successful war and only for a relatively short time."
The conversation shifted from popularity to policy. A journalist asked the Democratic leader: "Are you one of those in Congress who feel that the president made a big mistake in not continuing the war?" "No," said Foley, who said he thought Bush had been wise to stop the war when he did.
"But didn't he make a mistake in not moving forward and knocking off a lot more of the Iraqi tanks and destroying a lot more Iraqi equipment?" Again the speaker, a Democrat who strongly opposes the president on many issues, sided with Bush. "When all effective resistance is ended," he said, "just to carry on a war for the purpose of punishing the opponent and destroying his troops seems to be questionable for moral reasons."
This exchange with Speaker Foley goes to the heart of the "great debate" over whether the president (a) should have carried on with the war until he had broken the back of the Iraqi military, or (b) having stopped the war, should have intervened militarily in the Kurds' behalf after seeing their plight .
Critics of the president assert that Bush's own words on his desire that Saddam Hussein be removed had encouraged the Kurds to civil insurrection - and thus there was a moral obligation on Bush to support their uprising.
The argument is about morality. Bush, asserting that he had made no commitment toward military support of what he calls another outbreak of civil strife in Iraq, says his moral responsibility is to get American troops home without any further casualties. He sees a great danger, too, of the US getting "sucked in" to another Vietnam.
But with the sufferings of the Kurds so visible now - their hunger and cold and misery made so apparent on every TV news show - the president is hearing strong and even angry voices from critics who charge him with letting the Kurds down.
Oddly enough, some of those who have been holding Bush's feet to the fire in this manner were the very ones who were opposed to the president's intervening in Iraq in the first place. They are now beginning to let their real feelings come out with sarcastic references to "Bush's wonderful war."
Bush has now, of course, set up military-protected camps for the Kurdish refugees - a move that may lessen some of the criticism being directed toward him.
Some see the moral issues involved as being two-sided. While faulting Bush for encouraging civil insurrection, Washington Post columnist David Broder writes: "Those who charge Bush with callousness do not explain how we would have been on a higher moral plane if we had massacred surrendering Iraqis."
Some other observers have spoken of "moral ambiguity" in what Bush did or did not do in Iraq following the end of the war.
The American people's judgment on Bush's moral position in dealing with the Kurdish uprising doesn't appear to be too harsh. Indeed, rightly or wrongly, and as that poll indicated, most Amerians seem to be looking elsewhere, toward their own economic and other personal concerns and away from Bush's problems in dealing with peace in Iraq.
Of the plight of the Kurds, Foley told our group: "These are tragic circumstances. The first job is to save lives from exposure and hunger." Foley feels that by helping the Kurds in their great distress, the president will be fulfilling his moral responsibility.