WASHINGTON — As the US attack of Iraq entered its ground-war phase during the Gulf War, I had a decision to make that was trivial by comparison - but big to me. I was president of the journalists' Gridiron Club, and had to decide whether to cancel our annual spring dinner, only a few weeks away.
This group had been putting on this dinner since 1885, including a show in which we musically satirize our political leaders. The only exceptions had been the years during US involvement in World War II.
As our military began its ground engagement, the fighting was expected to be fierce; body bags would soon be coming home. With that dire outlook, I knew this was no time for frivolity. Just as the entertainment and sports people called off shows and games after the recent terrorist attacks, I was on the verge of ending our Gridiron rehearsals when the war ended.
So we went on with our show. It was a triumphal gathering. The ballroom wall behind the speakers' table - where President Bush, Generals Powell and Schwarzkopf, and other dignitaries sat - was covered with a blanket of yellow roses.
The roses soon faded. Mr. Bush's Gallup approval rating was, at that point, the highest this poll had ever given a president. (His son's poll rating has gone even higher.) He seemed certain to win reelection the following year. But we all know how that popularity took a steep plunge when he broke his promise not to raise taxes and when the economy took a dip without his trying to do something about it.
Bush's victory, so widely hailed then, has lost its luster with the years. At first, a few of his critics were saying it. But it has now become a public viewpoint: Bush made a grievous mistake by halting his troops' advance: He should have pushed them on to Baghdad and put an end to Saddam Hussein's hold on Iraq.
Never mind that this critical view is Monday-morning quarterbacking. At the time, politicians and the American people were claiming a victory that came quickly and with so few body bags. They were backing Bush's decision to stop before the heavy loss of life among his troops that seemed likely if they moved ahead.
I think the lesson for George W. Bush is that he must carry on with his objective of dealing with these terrorists and ending their threat - without ever stopping short - no matter how long it takes.
He has said he would do that. He has prepared us for a long effort. He has said this may take years. And I believe - and have so written - that the American public is ready to stay the course.
But President Bush himself must be very careful not to see victory before it is there. For this, he has his father's example before him. It should strengthen his resolve, should he ever need it, to fully complete his terribly difficult and exceedingly complex task.
I do believe it is very possible that, in the back of his mind, George W. would like to finish the job his father missed doing in Iraq. And that he just might do it.
This leads to a final observation. We're told that Osama bin Laden is the "prime suspect." I'm just an armchair strategist, but is it possible that we're feinting toward Mr. bin Laden and getting in position to deliver a big blow at Saddam Hussein and Iraq?
The president told us nations, such as Iraq, that harbor terrorists are our enemies, too. So why not tell the world we're focusing on getting bin Laden, and then, even as we launch guerrilla action in Afghanistan, deliver a surprise bombing attack on Iraq?