The last time President Bush ventured into the rear cabin of Air Force One to reassure the press pool that everything was okay was on Sept. 11, 2001.
Yesterday's five-minute visit on a flight from Phoenix to Las Vegas came after three widely panned debate performances that have arguably given Democratic challenger John F. Kerry the momentum going into the final weeks of the campaign.
So it was time for spin from the highest level.
Bush insisted he is unworried. "I feel great about where we are," he said.
But his very appearance was interpreted by reporters as a sign of how eager -- possibly even desperate -- Bush is to put the debate phase of the campaign behind him.
Maura Reynolds and Edwin Chen write in the Los Angeles Times that "in the fevered environment of the current race, with the polls showing Bush struggling in some key states, the president's decision to do something out on the campaign trail that he usually avoids raised questions.
"What did the five-minute visit mean? Could the normally imperturbable White House be getting a little nervous?
"Nothing was further from his mind, the president declared."
But Reynolds and Chen also note the highly suspicious accessibility of notoriously aloof aides.
"In addition to the president's unusual appearance in the press section of Air Force One, senior Bush advisors who customarily do not return phone calls from reporters or conduct interviews are increasingly available," they write.
"In the last two weeks, campaign strategist Karl Rove has been making nearly daily visits to the press filing center during campaign stops, not just to serve up sunny assessments of the race but to play practical jokes on reporters."
(Examples to firstname.lastname@example.org please!)
Bush, in blue shirt and no tie, came to the back of the plane shortly after takeoff attended by two Republican officials, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Gov. Linda Lingle of Hawaii -- who between the two of them took up almost half of the visit answering questions that had not been posed to them (308 words to Bush's 309).
White House press secretary Scott McClellan and campaign communications director Nicolle Devenish also tagged along, ever watchful.
Dan Balz and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "Bush advisers said little about this unusual visit with reporters. . . . Bush, accompanied by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), appeared eager to signal that the debates were behind him and that he prefers the verdict of the voters on Election Day."
David L. Greene and Julie Hirschfeld Davis write in the Baltimore Sun: "For the first time in three years, he wandered to the back of Air Force One to banter with reporters, putting an unworried face before the cameras.
" 'You know, the pundits and the spinners -- they'll all have their opinion,' Bush said of analysts who suggested his debate performances were lackluster. 'There's only one opinion that matters, and that's the opinion of the American people on Nov. 2. I feel great about where we are.'
"But his attempt to focus beyond the debates seemed a tacit acknowledgement that he had lost them."
The Associated Press reports: "After avoiding cameras on his plane so long, Bush left some people wondering whether his visit signaled concern about the race following the debates."
Some reporters seemed to relish the symbolism of Bush trying to keep steady.
Elisabeth Bumiller and David M. Halbfinger write in the New York Times: "In a sign of how close the race has become, the president made a rare trip to the press cabin of Air Force One early Thursday to offer his own assessment of his debate performance Wednesday night. Mr. Bush played down negative reviews and appeared relieved and ebullient that the debates were all over. . . .
" 'My spirits are high,' Mr. Bush said to reporters as he hung on to the overhead compartment for balance."
AFP reports: " 'Now it's a sprint to the finish,' Bush told reporters in a rare appearance aboard his Air Force One presidential plane, clinging to maverick Republican Senator John McCain."
Of course, if Bush had stayed holed up at the front of Air Force One, today's coverage might well have suggested that he was hiding from the press, licking his wounds. When you're President Bush, sometimes you just can't win.
Here is the full text of the remarks. Here's a photo of Bush on the plane, using McCain and Lingle as a defensive line.
Bush visits with the traveling press on Air Force One are so rare that the pool was adamant that McClellan provide them with a complete tally.
There have been six previous Air Force One meetings. Three on domestic trips, all in 2001 and all in the rear cabin: Feb. 13 on the way back from Norfolk, Feb. 20 en route to St. Louis, and Sept. 11, hopscotching the country.
The three on foreign trips, all in 2003, took place in the big plane's conference room: June 4 en route to Qatar, Oct. 22 en route to Australia, and Nov. 27 on the way back from Baghdad.
Jeff Barnard reports for the Associated Press on the scene in Oregon last night.
"Police in riot gear fired pepperballs Thursday night to disperse a crowd of protesters assembled in this historic gold mining town where President Bush was spending the night after a campaign appearance.
"Witnesses said Bush supporters were on one side of California Street chanting 'Four more years,' and supporters of Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry were on the other chanting 'Three more weeks.' Police began moving the crowd away from the Jacksonville Inn, where the president was to arrive for dinner and to spend the night following a speech.
" 'We were here to protest Bush and show our support for Kerry,' said Cerridewen Bunten, 24, a college student and retail clerk. 'Nobody was being violent. We were out of the streets so cars could go by. We were being loud, but I never knew that was against the law.' "
And earlier, reports the Bend Bugle: "President Bush taught three Oregon schoolteachers a new lesson in irony -- or tragedy -- Thursday night when his campaign removed them from a Bush speech and threatened them with arrest simply for wearing t-shirts that said 'Protect Our Civil Liberties,' the Democratic Party of Oregon reported. . . .
"All three said they applied for and received valid tickets from Republican headquarters in Medford.
"The women said they did not intend to protest. 'I wanted to see if I would be able to make a statement that I feel is important, but not offensive, in a rally for my president,' said Janet Voorhies, 48, a teacher in training.
" 'We chose this phrase specifically because we didn't think it would be offensive or degrading or obscene,' said Tania Tong, 34, a special education teacher."
KGW-TV has a photo of the desperadoes.
Mark Leibovich of The Washington Post followed Bush to a series of post-debate invitation-only lovefests.
"Bush has effectively ended his direct appeal to swing voters, his aides say, and will spend the next 19 days speaking to his hard-core supporters. He will remind them to vote, work hard and get excited."
Bush attended a huge Bush rally in Phoenix right after Wednesday night's debate.
Leibovich writes: "Before Bush arrived, the stadium was the site of a raucous debate-watching rally in which every time Kerry's face appeared on the big screen, he was drowned out by cries of 'liar,' 'shut up,' and 'gimme a break.' Every Bush phrase, no matter how mundane, was an applause line. The president declared that he won't get a flu shot this year and the crowd screamed like it was the Beatles at Shea Stadium. Large chunks of the debate were inaudible."
And Leibovich notes an odd, and possibly more frequent, Bush tick: "Bush sometimes punctuates his sentences with quick cackles, even when he hasn't said anything funny. He did this more than usual Thursday, giggling, for instance, upon mention that Nevada has a 4 percent unemployment rate.
" 'I'm proud of my record, heh heh heh,' he says. 'But my opponent seemed to want to avoid talking about his, heh heh heh heh.' "
Here's the text of Bush's remarks Wednesday in Phoenix, and Thursday in Las Vegas, Reno and Central Point, Ore.
The Trail Ahead
Dan Balz and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "John F. Kerry rolled out a new campaign speech packed with populist rhetoric and sharp indictments of the Bush administration Thursday, while President Bush sounded the theme he will take to voters in the next 2 1/2 weeks: that Kerry is a big-government Massachusetts liberal."
Elisabeth Bumiller and David M. Halbfinger write in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush continued to deride Mr. Kerry as an out-of-touch liberal with a pedestrian record who would hand America's national security decisions over to other nations. 'He can run from his record, but he can't hide,' Mr. Bush said in what has become the latest mantra of his campaign at a Las Vegas sports arena. . . .
"With Mr. Bush across town borrowing from the boxer Joe Louis's line about running but not hiding, Mr. Kerry fired back with Muhammad Ali's memorable taunt to George Foreman.
" 'George, is that all you've got?' "
Janet Hook writes in the Los Angeles Times: "A key part of President Bush's message for the final weeks of the campaign is starting to sound like a schoolyard taunt: Kerry is a liberal! Kerry is a liberal! . . .
"That is a shift from the Bush campaign's monthslong effort to portray Kerry as an indecisive flip-flopper and to undercut his credibility as a potential commander-in-chief."
Dana Milbank writes in a Washington Post news analysis: "The Bush team's ferocious advertising push in the spring and summer and the Republican convention were successful at defining Kerry as a vacillating opportunist who has no coherent policy on Iraq and is spineless on terrorism. But the strategy may have worked too well, pollsters and operatives say: By turning Kerry into a cartoon, the Bush campaign created such low expectations for the senator that he easily exceeded them in the debates. . . .
"It is no small irony that Bush finds himself on the losing end of the expectations game."
John F. Harris and Richard Morin of The Washington Post met with a focus group in Minnesota.
"The debates cumulatively illuminated Kerry's strengths -- a command of facts, a steady bearing, an ability to frame an argument -- in ways that left participants more inclined toward him. But his polished performances did not dispense with his main weakness: a personality that even the most sympathetic participants agreed was at best awkward, at worst annoying.
"The debates, at least for these voters, just as clearly illuminated Bush's weaknesses. Several viewers were eager to hear what he had to say about jobs, and found the evasion glaring when he immediately pivoted to what sounded like a prepackaged answer on education. Everyone seemed to agree that the debate format is hardly natural for Bush. But none of these weaknesses managed to erode what these people regard as the president's core strength, which is that he is a leader who strikes them as decisive and on the level."
James Bennet and Jim Rutenberg conclude in the New York Times: "In the end, Mr. Kerry proved steady and sonorous. He committed few lasting gaffes, apart from recruiting Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter, a lesbian, for an answer Wednesday to a question about homosexuality.
"Mr. Bush's far more erratic performance supplied the more memorable lines and gestures, from his frequent scowls and wearied allusions to 'hard work' in the first debate to discussion of the 'Internets' in the second to his fixed smiles and remarks on faith in the third."
Mimi Hall writes in USA Today: "Studies show that when there is a contradiction between verbal and non-verbal communication in a speech or debate -- when the words are sound but the delivery is poor, or vice versa -- audiences tend to form impressions based on the non-verbal cues.
"In other words, it's all about body language, communications authorities say. That may explain why polls found Bush a three-time loser in the debates. . . .
"Rolling eyes, a crooked smile, a general lack of composure. Not very presidential."
Farhad Manjoo and Gavin McNett write in Salon: "One imagines that this could all be easily cleared up with a word from the White House. Clearly, there is something weird under the president's coat. If it's not part of an ear-prompting system, what is it? Is it a back brace? Does the president have a medical condition? If so, shouldn't we know about it? Is it a security device -- if so, why is nobody in the administration suggesting that?"
Some bloggers continue to go nuts about this story. Blogger Joseph Cannon has what he calls the "Smoking Gun" -- a White House photo clearly showing Bush on his Texas ranch with a bright-red clear-as-day earpiece -- this one wired down his back. It nicely complements this photo.
Update: Several readers are e-mailing me to say that the earpiece is in this case quite obviously an ear plug, designed to protect the ear from noises such as chainsaws. Noted.
Bush and Kerry exchanged words briefly after the Tempe debate. But what were they?
A lip-reading poster on the official Kerry-Edwards blog right after the debate wrote: "Bush was asking Kerry, Can I talk to you later tonight? Kerry said sure then Bush said where would you be? I missed what Kerry said.
"I wondered what Bush wanted to talk to Kerry about??"
The Daily Recycler blog has a video clip of the exchange, and more speculation.
Maybe someone should ask Bush. Or Kerry. In fact, when someone asks Kerry, perhaps they should also ask about the bulge. Because that same video, linked above, clearly shows Kerry patting Bush on the back! Was he patting him down? Did he feel anything funny?
Joe Garofoli writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "The hottest post-presidential debate chatter Thursday wasn't about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, the high cost of health care or wayward scowls. It was over the appropriateness of discussing the sexual orientation of Mary Cheney, the lesbian daughter of Vice President Dick Cheney.
"While the Kerry/Edwards-Cheney family spat made for good sound bites, experts say it was little more than late-season politics at its most partisan."
Michael Laris and Mike Allen write in The Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney said Thursday that he is 'an angry father' after his daughter Mary was singled out as a lesbian by John F. Kerry in the final presidential debate. The Massachusetts senator issued a statement of clarification but not regret."
James Rainey and Susannah Rosenblatt write in the Los Angeles Times: "Long before John F. Kerry said as much in Wednesday night's presidential debate, Mary Cheney had been open about the fact that she is a lesbian.
"But by invoking the sexual orientation of the vice president's daughter, the Democratic candidate unleashed a rhetorical tempest on issues as diverse as the morality of gay marriage, the place of family members in political discourse and the roots of human sexuality."
David Stout notes in the New York Times that conservative Christians were critical of Kerry, while gay rights groups were generally supportive.
Here's the text of the vice president's comments in Fort Myers.
A Little More Fact-Checking
David E. Rosenbaum writes in the New York Times: "Much of the presidential debate on Wednesday night turned on the question of whether Americans had more money in their pockets as a result of President Bush's policies. . . .
"The truth seems to be that, on average, Americans may have more money at their disposal. But more people are worse off than are better off.
"The trick is in the word 'average.' Average income -- all the income in the country divided by the total number of people -- has gone up because of the large increase in after-tax income enjoyed by the very wealthy."
Dan Eggen and Helen Dewar write in The Washington Post: "Alberto R. Gonzales, the chief White House counsel, told several relatives of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks yesterday that the administration is not sure an intelligence bill can be signed into law before the end of the year, according to one relative who attended the closed-door meeting."
Philip Shenon writes in the New York Times: "The chairman of the independent Sept. 11 commission called on President Bush on Thursday to become personally involved in pressuring Congress to overhaul the nation's intelligence community, warning that the legislation recommended by the panel might die in Congress without Mr. Bush's intervention before the election next month."
If the World Could Vote
Alan Travis writes in the Guardian: "George Bush has squandered a wealth of sympathy around the world towards America since September 11 with public opinion in 10 leading countries -- including some of its closest allies -- growing more hostile to the United States while he has been in office.
"According to a survey, voters in eight out of the 10 countries, including Britain, want to see the Democrat challenger, John Kerry, defeat President Bush in next month's US presidential election.
"The poll, conducted by 10 of the world's leading newspapers, including France's Le Monde, Japan's Asahi Shimbun, Canada's La Presse, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Guardian, also shows that on balance world opinion does not believe that the war in Iraq has made a positive contribution to the fight against terror."
Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "Two and a half weeks ahead of the election, the president heads Friday to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Oshkosh, Wis., completing more than a week on the campaign trail."
Late Night Humor
From "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" via the Associated Press:
"President Bush's approval rating has now dropped down to 47 percent. You know that lump on his back? Well, it's moved to his throat."