That shift was not an oversight on the part of the administration. Nor was it evidence that George Bush no longer cares what happens to Terry A. Anderson, Thomas Sutherland, Frank Herbert Reed, Joseph James Cicippio, Edward Austin Tracy, Jesse Jonathan Turner, Robert Polhill and Alan Steen.
Rather, it was a tacit admission of frustration, a silent confession by the executive branch that it has no idea how to get those eight men out of captivity any time soon.
The administration is operating under the same hostage policy that has been in place since the Reagan administration's disastrous arms-for-hostages deal surfaced in 1986.
The policy calls for discussions with anyone - including authorized representatives of the government of Iran - and concessions to no one.
American officials think the policy is wise. They note that no new hostages have been taken in the last two years, although, it should be noted, there are very few Americans in Lebanon left to kidnap. Besides, at this point, they have no idea what an alternative approach might be.
But as the years have passed - nearly five years for Anderson and Sutherland, more than three for the others - U.S. diplomats have grown ever more aware that their policy may not matter all that much.
"The driving force from the beginning has been Iranian internal politics," said Gary Sick, who advised President Jimmy Carter during his hostage crisis a decade ago. "When Iranian politics are in disarray, as they are now, there is nothing any outside group can do. We seem to start with the assumption that everything turns on U.S. policy. That's often not the case."
Such explanations cannot provide much comfort for the hostages, nor for the brothers and sisters, the wives and children, who wait for the news that will end their shared ordeal.
"There aren't even any rumors anymore," said Thomas Cicippio of Norristown, brother of Joseph. "There just doesn't seem to be anything happening out there."
The assumption underlying American hostage policy has been that the path to the hostages' release runs through Tehran rather than Beirut. After all, the fundamentalist Shiite Hezbollah groups holding the hostages look to the Iranian capital for political direction, spiritual guidance and financial support.
There seemed a chance for movement last summer when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran's hard-line revolutionary leader, died and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani became president.
Rafsanjani sounded like the elusive "Iranian moderate" for whom American officials had been searching for years. He had pragmatic instincts. He knew that he would need Western help to revive the Iranian economy - and that the hostages were obstacles to obtaining such help.
"I know for a fact that the Rafsanjani faction would like to see them released," said Shireen Hunter, a former Iranian foreign service officer and now deputy director of Middle East Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "In fact, it's fair to say that his
plans for Iran are hostage to the hostage problem."
Rafsanjani suggested that the United States could initiate a dialogue by hastening resolution of the disputes over frozen Iranian assets - assets frozen in 1979 in response to the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran.
Bush responded in November by releasing $567 million in Iranian assets. He emphasized that this was not the first step in an assets-for-hostages deal. At the same time, though, he explicitly connected the one to the other.
"That was a pretty brave thing for Bush to do," said Peggy Say, brother of Terry Anderson, the journalist who has been held captive the longest. "He did what Rafsanjani wanted."
But there was no formal response from Iran. Even before the assets were released, Rafsanjani was encountering significant political opposition from hard-liners in Tehran. That opposition came in the form of a challenge from Ali Akbar Mohtashemi, the former interior minister.
Mohtashemi proclaimed recently that the Lebanese Hezbollah, which he helped organize, had a right to hold Western hostages - and that Iran should have nothing to do with the United States. And he has some important allies, including Khomeini's son.
"Our people must be ready for an intense struggle with America - otherwise, it will destroy us," Ahmad Khomeini told Rafsanjani and 150,000 other Iranians on Thursday at a ceremony marking the 11th anniversary of the Iranian revolution. "Those who speak of compromise with the West are not in the Imam's line."
For now, the hard-liners seem to possess the power to veto overtures to the West. And Rafsanjani seems loath to give them the opportunity to exercise it.
"Even if we were inclined to make a deal now, there's a real question whether there'd be anyone on the other end of the phone," said L. Paul Bremer, who resigned last year as the State Department's counterterrorism chief. "In Iran, historically, these political transitions take a long time. I don't see a lot of fluidity at the moment. Everybody's got to be patient."
Last month, during an 18-day tour of capitals in Asia, Europe and the Middle East, Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) raised the hostage issue with the foreign minister of Pakistan, Sahabzadeh Yaqub Khan.
"I suggested that if he wanted (economic) assistance from the United States, he might press the Iranians for the release of my neighbor, Joseph Cicippio," Specter recalled.
For Arlen Specter of Philadelphia to describe the Cicippios of Norristown as his neighbors may require a little creative geography. But Specter, who has traveled frequently in the Arab world, has come to believe that a personal approach is often the most productive.
That is why he has cultivated relationships with Syrian President Hafez al- Assad and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, neither of whom has been viewed as a friend of the United States'.
"I think Assad would like to get the hostages out, because he knows how well it would be received," Specter said of the Syrian leader, who has 40,000 troops in Lebanon. "If we strengthen relations with Syria - and I think there's a real opportunity to do that now - the more reason the Syrians will have for extending themselves to help us out."
But the senator noted that Arab leaders talk about the Iranians much the way American analysts do.
"Hussein said you can't deal with them," Specter said, recalling the Iraqi president's descriptions of his attempts to negotiate an end to the still smoldering Iran-Iraq war. " 'Whenever Rafsanjani starts to look favorably on a proposal,' he said, 'some mullah will jump up and say no.' "
All of which complicates life in the here and now for those in Washington charged with bringing the hostages home.
"We're always ready to meet with authoritative representatives of the government of Iran, but none has been put forward," said Joseph Reap, who works in the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism. "What possible shortcut is there? We believe that once the hostage-takers realize there is no advantage in holding them, they'll turn them over."
U.S. officials say they are reasonably certain that the eight American hostages - and the 10 other missing Westerners, including Anglican church envoy Terry Waite - are still alive. And they are utterly convinced that there is no benefit in giving the hostage situation greater visibility.
"We don't want to turn the hostages into puppets in their grand guignol theater," said George Malleck, of the State Department's Office of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs. "Basically, we're waiting for them (the Iranians). I wish I could say we're making daily progress. A lot of work is being done, but it's difficult to quantify."
It is difficult, too, for Peggy Say to face the fact that the fifth anniversary of her brother's abduction, March 15, is little more than a month away. She is no longer bitter, just bewildered.
"What is it going to take?" she wondered. "I don't know that anybody has the answers."