WASHINGTON, D.C. — Some years ago I found myself at lunch with Alfred Hitchcock just after one of his films opened to dismal box office results. The maestro was all business in confronting his problems, analyzing what went wrong and lining up the lessons to be learned.

I thought of him this week in light of the president’s response to the debacle in Iraq. While a couple of his aides — even the secretary of defense designate Robert M. Gates — acknowledged that the war cannot be won, Bush himself steadfastly stayed “on message.”‘

It’s Bush’s war and, in his mind, it can still be his triumph. And he buttresses his position by reminding us all that his strategies are faith-based. He’s not just planning for victory, he’s praying for it, and that should give us comfort.

Conversing with him briefly at the White House this week, one is reminded of his likeable traits. With all the pressures of his office, he is still affable and superbly poised. And over the weekend he relished his moments of escape in the company of Dolly Parton, Smokey Robinson and a few other show biz emissaries passing through for the Kennedy Center Honors.

When I asked him if he would like to come to the Oscars to continue his show biz encounters, he smiled wanly and replied, “I think there’s too much on my plate to make that trip.”

Despite his plain-spoken manner, the president’s presentation reflects an obstinacy that is beyond sheer stubbornness. He is a man who could never deal with the Hitchcockian process of self-assessment, acknowledging his failures, structuring his responses. Hitchcock, a man of no small ego, attributed much of the blame for his under-performing movies to the stupidity of his audience, but he was still prepared to deal objectively with the issues.

President Bush is clearly incapable of such a process. He is a rigid man who feels he has access to a higher truth. The lessons of history do not necessarily relate to that truth.

Both he and his country will doubtless have to pay a price for all this. Hitchcock always came back with better movies. The president’s box office will reflect no such resiliency.