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Reporters Walk Line Between Deference and Diligence in Quizzing Bush

By Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2004; Page C01

President Bush and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe were dripping with sweat as they took questions from reporters at the end of Bush's four-hour visit last week to Cartagena, a port that was built as a defense against pirates and now tries to fend off cocaine traffickers and leftist terrorists.

Bush, following his usual practice when he appears with a foreign leader, was holding what is billed as a press conference. But, in reality, it was what the White House calls a "two and two" -- two questions from the White House press corps, and two from the reporters following the other head of state.

President Bush so rarely answers questions from the White House press corps that reporters try to make the most of the few opportunities they have. (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

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There were plenty of topics for the American reporters to choose from for those two chances to probe the mind of the leader of the free world: Iran and Iraq, Ukraine and North Korea, intelligence reform and the dollar. David Morgan of Reuters used one of the precious openings to ask the president about a sideshow: tensions between the Secret Service and local authorities during Bush's visit to Chile, where he had spent the previous three nights and at one point had retrieved one of his Secret Service agents from a brawl with Chilean security.

"Why do you think there was such friction between the U.S. delegation and the Chilean delegation?" Morgan asked.

By the standards that the White House press pack uses to gauge a deft question, this one failed roundly: It was about yesterday's news; Bush was unlikely to answer it with any specificity, and it wouldn't "make news" (produce a headline) if he did.

In the networks' nearby transmission room, out of Bush's earshot, correspondents and producers groaned loudly and grunted their disapproval.

"This is a question?" Bush replied. Now, the audience in the network workspace was laughing. (Morgan did not reply to three e-mails over four days seeking his comments.) Bush responded that he had a spectacular visit and "appreciated the hospitality of our Chilean friends." Then he left the stage, dismissing his host's plea that they take one more question with a curt, "That's plenty. No, thank you."

The exchange -- and the unforgiving reaction of a press corps that tends to be more collegial than cutthroat -- exposed one of the dark arts of covering a prickly president who has held the fewest formal news conferences of any president beginning with Eisenhower and prides himself on his ability to stay on message. White House reporters can go months -- or even years -- without getting the chance to ask Bush a question. (This reporter has been called on about 15 times in four years.)

Bush has held 16 solo news conferences, compared to 43 for Bill Clinton, 84 for George H.W. Bush and 26 for Ronald Reagan at this point in their presidencies, according to research by Martha Joynt Kumar of Towson University.

These sessions are a contest between Bush's desire to repeat his previously articulated views ("sticking a tape in the VCR," as one frequent Bush questioner puts it), and the reporters' quest to elicit something that will contribute to democracy, not to mention getting them on television or the front page.

"Bush, like most skilled politicians, will tend to answer the way he wants, no matter what the question," says Dana Bash of CNN. "The hardest thing is to ask the question in a way he can't do that. One way is to ask him something with an edge, or something that will make him want to respond."

Reporters save up questions, and seek ideas from their bosses and even from competitors. They edit the wording, trying to cut off escape hatches the president might run for. Rules of thumb are adopted: A question with hostile wording, according to many on the Bush watch, has a zero percent chance of eliciting news from this president because he erects defenses and moves on.

Terry Moran of ABC News sounds like a football player trying to psych out an opponent. "Don't let yourself be intimidated. Don't let yourself be charmed," Moran says. "Bush likes to try to do both. Just remember that he is a public servant, and part of his job is to take your questions."

Moran elicited one of the more memorable unscripted quotations of Bush's first term during an Oval Office photo opportunity in April 2002 when the president was discussing Middle East peace with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. "Mr. President, you said progress has been made toward our vision," Moran said. "Where? And secondly, do you believe that Ariel Sharon is a man of peace, and are you satisfied with his and his government's assurances that there was no massacre in Jenin?"

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