Now here is a truly cynical, seasonably uncharitable thought that is going around Washington:

Perhaps the Bush administration is not showing signs of being worried about the recession because the nation has a history of climbing out of "economic downturns" through war.Officials blanch at the idea when it is publicly expressed, pretending it's never occurred to them. Even Democrats profess to be taken aback.

"Oh, I hope that's not the alternative," said Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., almost with a gasp.

Evil thoughts aside, it's hard to fathom why Bush has shown few signs of doing anything to ameliorate the deepening recession.

He cheerfully admits he has more fun with international politics than domestic agendas. Even so, the taxpayers pay lots of officials to monitor such things as slowing growth, rising inventories, tight credit, more bankruptcies and - most of all - deepening fear.

The good news, all things being relative, is that while a few economists think the current recession will be severe, most economists predict it will be brief and mild. Small comfort for those who have or will lose their jobs, homes, pride and sense of being in control.

Well over a million people say they have been temporarily laid off their jobs.

This trend, of course, is likely to scare people, cause them to spend less and make the tailspin even worse.

Asked about these things, Bush invariably turns solemn, admits growth has slowed and hopes for the best.

The nation - and the administration - are so wrapped up in the worrisome gulf crisis that the slide into recession has been hardly noticed by many.

Far worse is the billions of dollars the U.S. military buildup in the gulf is costing; because Bush put the tab outside the budget, nobody - truly nobody - has any idea of how this will be paid. If there is war, the price could be a billion dollars a day.

Bush already is in trouble with just about everyone for being vague about why he thinks war may be necessary.

But the cost of the gulf standoff, the S&L debacle and the ever-mounting national debt are issues about which Bush also has not talked honestly with the American people.

Nobody but Bush can lead the nation right now. His popularity has stabilized at over 50 percent - much less than he was used to but still pretty good for a president who's been in office two years.

Bush obviously wants to run for re-election in 1992. But it would be devastating for him politically if the unspoken thought comes true and war is the tool used to dig the country out of recession.

To lead, Bush must be square with Americans not just about his plans if war becomes a reality but also about the dreaded "R" word that has not yet passed his lips.