America - Andrew Stephen experiences total white-out

After heavy snow and big anti-war protests, Bush has lost PR momentum. So expect him to demand a UN

What short attention spans people here in Washington have. Days ago, we were all preoccupied with the Bush administration's "Code Orange", a heightened alert concerning a supposed imminent terrorist threat. I have a neighbour whose basement is now stocked with tins of soup and cartons of cereal - and plastic sheeting and duct tape, too. Telling the public to buy duct tape in case of gas attacks was probably the single most fatuous thing the government has done since the 11 September atrocities, but when Senator Tom Daschle as good as said so, the media treated him like some unpatriotic extremist. So the shops duly ran out of duct tape - and sometimes food, too.

But then the snow started falling. By Monday, two feet of snow had enveloped most of the Washington area. Code Orange became a panicky Code White. Newspapers were not delivered. Shops were closed, as were museums, airports, the National Zoo and the Smithsonian. President Bush, unable to make the helicopter trip from Camp David to the White House, found his motorcade stuck behind a snowplough. States of emergency were declared in DC, Virginia and Maryland. Driving, for a while, was made illegal in Maryland. The National Guard was called in.

And the snow was all anyone wanted to talk about. The predominantly white Georgetown area is invaded on snow days by black men from north-east Washington who go from door to door offering, for money, to clear driveways - the law requires people to keep pavements clear in front of their houses - but far fewer than usual turned up.

"Perhaps," someone said to me hopefully, "with all this they'll forget about war in Iraq." Indeed, a speech that Bush was due to deliver at the National Museum of American History, half a mile from the White House - in which we could have expected invocations of historical American greatness - was cancelled.

It was much the same on Tuesday. Monday had been a holiday, but schools remained closed - they have an allowance of six snow days per winter, and if that is exceeded the days are added on to the summer term. Far fewer people than usual ventured in to work. Parked cars remained ghostly white humps on the sides of streets. Iraq, terrorism and duct tape were forgotten; the only reminder were the F-16s that had returned to rumble overhead because of our Code Orange status. When the snow spread north to New York, the mayor there said it cost the city, which has 6,300 miles of road, about $20m to clear, or $1m for every inch of snowfall.

The Bush administration read the spin situation well. The snow, and the worldwide anti-war protests, combined to take the PR momentum away from the White House. So on Tuesday morning, when most people were still at home watching TV or shovelling snow, Bush himself was brought out to make a statement. "Some in the world don't view Saddam Hussein as a risk to peace," he said. "I respectfully disagree." War remained a final resort, he said for the zillionth time, "but the risk of doing nothing is even a worse option as far as I'm concerned". He mentioned Tony Blair, clearly aware of the potential collision course the two could be on; he again insisted that Iraq was "providing links with terrorists".

Then came some classic Bushisms about the weekend's protests: "Size of protest, it's like deciding, 'Well, I'm going to decide policy based on a focus group.' The role of a leader is to decide policy based upon the security - in this case - security of the people . . . Democracy is a beautiful thing, and that people are allowed to express their opinion."

Eh? Ari Fleischer, the more articulate administration spokesman, put it more succinctly: "Often the message of protesters is contradicted by history," he said, reading out old news reports of demonstrations against the stationing of US missiles in Germany in the 1980s.

But, however temporarily, the wrath that came inexorably from the skies - even thunder, at one point - did have a peculiar effect of lessening panic over bio-attacks or war. Day-to-day life mattered more. It showed that whatever force 3,000 cruise missiles can unleash, it remains slight compared with forces of nature over which we have no control. The disruption was such that, in a sense, it made Bush and his preoccupation with Saddam seem peculiarly irrelevant - the trivial pursuits of small, all-too-human, here-today-gone-tomorrow men.

Life will no doubt return to normal in a few days. Blair's political future will then hang on the whim of one man, George W Bush. Precisely because he has been losing momentum over Iraq, Bush is determined to ratchet up the pressure - which means a solution through the UN by the end of this month or (Dubbya's natural instinct) to hell with the UN and all its wimpish pinkos. If I were Tony Blair, I would fervently cross my fingers.

Next Article