Pretense of normalcy over

It was brief, two minutes. His brow was furrowed, his words careful: “The American people can be sure we will continue to act to strengthen and stabilize our financial markets and improve investor confidence.” He imparted no specifics.

In the increasingly surreal world of the White House, the appearance was a sign that all pretense of normalcy is gone. All week, with Wall Street engulfed by what analysts call the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, President Bush had mostly stayed out of sight, except when trying to maintain the facade of business as usual.

To be sure, other presidents, most recently Bill Clinton, have been careful about what they say when Wall Street is in turmoil. But by all appearances, Bush has been reduced to almost a bit player in his own government, as Washington reoriented itself away from the White House and toward Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.

This is not to say Bush is not engaged. Aides say he is talking often privately with Paulson, whose judgment he relies upon heavily. He also is consulting Bernanke and a team of other economic advisers.

On Monday, as Americans absorbed the news that investment bank Lehman Brothers had been forced into bankruptcy, Bush received John Kufuor, the president of Ghana, at the White House. The South Lawn was awash in color that morning, as a full military honor guard and a fife and drum band marched across the grass.

That evening, after the stock market nose-dived, with the Dow Jones industrial average falling more than 500 points, Bush, his wife, Laura, and more than 100 of their guests ate lobster and ginger-scented lamb at a state dinner in the African leader's honor.

On Tuesday, when the insurance giant American International Group appeared headed toward bankruptcy, Bush flew to Texas to inspect hurricane damage.

In Galveston, Bush met behind closed doors with state and local leaders and emerged surrounded by a crowd of them, holding Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas' hand as he passed TV cameras that his aides kept a safe distance away.

“Mr. President!” a reporter shouted. “What are you going to do about AIG?”

Bush kept walking as he shouted back. “We're here talking about the people of Galveston, Texas,” he said. “They've got a great mayor, and they're working hard.”

And so it went, until Thursday, after the White House press corps had begun agitating to know just what, precisely, the president was doing.

The White House put out the news that Bush would no longer spend the day traveling to Alabama and Florida, where he had planned to attend two Republican fundraisers and, in Alabama, to tour a facility that converts sewage and other waste to energy. Instead, he huddled inside the White House and emerged just after 10 a.m.

“I've canceled my travel today to stay in Washington, where I will continue to closely monitor the situation in our financial markets and consult with my economic advisers.”