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A Prime Time to Ask The President Questions

By Tom Shales
Wednesday, April 14, 2004; Page C01

"When I say something, I mean it," George W. Bush said decisively near the end of last night's prime-time presidential news conference. Nobody called out, "When will you say something?" -- the White House press corps is too mannerly for that -- but some reporters, and some viewers, must have been thinking it.

One network reporter predicted accurately beforehand that Bush would vow to "stay the course" in Iraq -- reviving one of the most inescapable clichés of daddy Bush's years in office. What the people of the United States as well as the people of Iraq want to hear, the reporter said, is what "the course" is. Bush said he would stick to the June 30 deadline for handing the government over to Iraqis but also said the U.S. military presence there would continue after that date.

White House advisers Condoleezza Rice and Karl Rove listen to the president's speech. (Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

_____In Today's Post_____
Bush Acknowledges 'Tough' Weeks, Signals Intent to Bolster Iraq Force (The Washington Post, Apr 14, 2004)
President Is Long On Resolve but Short on Details (The Washington Post, Apr 14, 2004)

It probably didn't shock viewers that there was little new in Bush's 17 minutes of prepared remarks or the stilted question-and-answer session that followed. Over the years, not a lot of real news has been made at presidential news conferences anyway. The point of this one may have been to reassure the country that the president stands firm in his determination after weeks of bloody violence against U.S. troops in Iraq, the worst fighting and the most American casualties since Iraq was declared "liberated."

"Not his favorite venue" was how Paula Zahn of CNN described Bush's attitude toward news conferences. He's had only 12 since taking office, and this was only the third to air live in prime time. One reporter even asked Bush if what we had here was a failure to communicate. Had he not clearly articulated his intentions to the American people? "Gosh, I don't know," Bush said in what seemed an unguarded, honest moment.

Bush similarly struggled, a few minutes earlier, to cite the single biggest mistake of his presidency. He looked baffled and incredulous. "I'm sure something will pop into my head here," he said, noting the intense "pressure" of holding a news conference on TV. Of course people watching throughout the country expect a president to be able to handle that kind of pressure without blinking, based on the assumption that this is one of the milder forms of pressure that come with the office.

Earlier still, Bush stopped in mid-answer and for a few seconds appeared to have lost his train of thought. Looking anxious, he fell back on phrases and thoughts he'd used earlier, saying he and the world changed after 9/11, which was a truism, and that in the 21st century, America is no longer protected by the oceans on either side. But that's been true since the invention of nuclear weapons and of missiles to deliver them from halfway around the world.

After the news conference, CBS News anchor Dan Rather said Bush had come across as "steady, competent and forceful" while answering questions but that he delivered his opening statement "in a rather flat monotone," perhaps intentionally. It was a peculiar performance; Bush would look down, read a sentence, look up, look around, pause slightly, then look down and read another sentence.

Although the short speech was well-written, especially toward the end, Bush looked upon it as an address in which all sentences were created equal. He never stressed any particular point or added any emphasis. He might as well have been reading letters off an eye chart.

On NBC, reporter David Gregory, who'd been among those asking Bush questions in the East Room of the White House, said the president was "filibustering at times" with his meandering responses. Indeed, most of the questions seemed to go unanswered. A reporter asked, twice, why Bush and Vice President Cheney insisted on appearing together when they testify before the 9/11 commission. Bush ignored the question both times, uttering familiar generalities instead.

In contrast to the emotionless delivery of his prepared remarks, during the Q&A Bush appeared passionate at times, answering journalists' questions with an almost religious fervor. Bush said that freedom was given to Americans by "the Almighty" and encouraging freedom throughout the world is "what we have been called to do." Later he said, "It's a conviction that's deep in my soul."

Isn't the mixing of earthly political concerns with religious beliefs one of the things that thwarts and frustrates the United States and its allies in the Middle East?

In analysis on the Fox News Channel after Bush concluded, shrill Democrat Susan Estrich said Bush failed to answer the big looming question, "how you connect 9/11 to the war in Iraq." Her adversary, buffoonish Al D'Amato, simply raved about Bush's performance: "I think he did a terrific job tonight."

On MSNBC, Chris Matthews was all but leaping out of his chair over the fact that Bush had said, in answer to a question, that Iraqis aren't happy being occupied and that he, George W. Bush, wouldn't like being occupied, either. Matthews found this a "powerfully candid moment."

CBS, NBC and ABC rushed back to scheduled programming as quickly as they could once the news conference ended. Fox had already scuttled a telecast of its gigantically popular "American Idol" to make room for the president and will air the show tonight instead. Anyone tuning in and expecting to see an American idol saw an American president instead -- one who didn't exactly seem confused but who at times appeared to be teetering on the very brink of confusion.

And yet people responding to polls today will probably give Bush points for just showing up. By having so few televised news conferences, he's made the ones he does have into big events. By expressing tremendous confidence in his own judgment and actions, even to the point of not being able to recall a single mistake, it's likely Bush made Americans feel a renewed confidence as well.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company