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White House Memo

The President's Grand Elusion

By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 21, 2004; Page A05

President Bush, an old F-102 pilot, showed at yesterday's news conference that he has not forgotten his evasive maneuvers.

As he fielded questions on everything from Iranian nukes to presidential personnel, the often blunt and plainspoken president employed the full range of artful dodges.


Friday's Question:
It was not until the early 20th century that the Senate enacted rules allowing members to end filibusters and unlimited debate. How many votes were required to invoke cloture when the Senate first adopted the rule in 1917?
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Qualifications for a director of national intelligence? "I'm going to find somebody who knows something about intelligence," Bush disclosed.

Timeline for Iraq? "We'd like to achieve our objective as quickly as possible."

Vladimir Putin's turn toward autocracy? "If we disagree with decisions, we can do so in a friendly and positive way."

When the subject turned to Social Security, the president made clear that questions about his views on the subject were strictly out of bounds -- as when CNN's John King asked why Bush wasn't talking about "tough measures" such as raising the retirement age or cutting benefits.

"Now the temptation is going to be, by well-meaning people such as yourself, John, and others here as we run up to the issue, to get me to negotiate with myself in public," Bush said. Saying he was trying to "condition" reporters, he added: "I'm not going to negotiate with myself and I will negotiate at the appropriate time with the law writers, and so thank you for trying."

When another questioner asked Bush to make his case for personal Social Security accounts, a wary Bush sought to suppress the negotiator within. "Yeah, I will try to explain how without negotiating with myself," he began.

The resourceful Edwin Chen of the Los Angeles Times pointed out that Bush had already negotiated with himself by ruling out benefit cuts for retirees and near-retirees, then asked Bush to define "near-retired."

The president saw through this plea for self-negotiation. "Yeah, well, that's going to fall in the negotiating-with-myself category," he said.

For all the bobbing and weaving, yesterday's news conference hinted at an emerging new style for Bush. In his first 45 months in office, he had 15 full-fledged news conferences, fewer than any other postwar president. Bush, a stickler for discipline, didn't want to make unintended news, or to be embarrassed by an unexpected question, as when he was asked what his biggest mistake had been. But since his reelection, Bush has had two news conferences in as many months.

Bush is finding that, with some careful deflection of questions, he can hold a nearly hour-long news conference without serious gaffes or unintentionally making news. At times, his bluntness got the better of him, as when he acknowledged that "we don't have much leverage with the Iranians right now."

At one point, Bush deflected with psychoanalysis. Asked about Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's use of a signature machine on letters to the next-of-kin of slain soldiers, Bush testified that "I know Secretary Rumsfeld's heart."

And, when asked "where do you stand on regime change" in North Korea, he used the old debater's trick of rephrasing the question. "I'll tell you where I stand," Bush said. "I stand on continuing the six-party talks with North Korea to convince Kim Jong Il to give up his weapons."

When the inevitable question came about the doomed nomination of Bernard B. Kerik to be homeland security secretary, Bush deftly avoided any mention of Kerik's various personal problems and any hint that the White House's vetting process had failed.

"And so the lessons learned is: Continue to vet, and ask good questions," he said. Only the chuckle and shrug of the shoulders accompanying those words suggested there might be more to the story.


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