For President Under Duress, Body Language Speaks Volumes
It's only 6:17 a.m. Central time, and President Bush is already facing his second question of the day about Karl Rove's legal troubles.
"Does it worry you," NBC's Matt Lauer is asking him at a construction-site interview in Louisiana, that prosecutors "seem to have such an interest in Mr. Rove?"
Bush blinks twice. He touches his tongue to his lips. He blinks twice more. He starts to answer, but he stops himself.
"I'm not going to talk about the case," Bush finally says after a three-second pause that, in television time, feels like a commercial break.
Only the president's closest friends and family know (if anybody does) what he's really thinking these days, during Katrina woes, Iraq violence, conservative anger over Harriet Miers, and legal trouble for Bush's top political aide and two congressional GOP leaders. Bush has not been viewed up close; as he took his eighth post-Katrina trip to the Gulf Coast yesterday, the press corps has accompanied him only once, because the White House says logistics won't permit it. Even the interview on the "Today" show was labeled "closed press."
But this much could be seen watching the tape of NBC's broadcast during Bush's 14-minute pre-sunrise interview, in which he stood unprotected by the usual lectern. The president was a blur of blinks, taps, jiggles, pivots and shifts. Bush has always been an active man, but standing with Lauer and the serene, steady first lady, he had the body language of a man wishing urgently to be elsewhere.
The fidgeting clearly corresponded to the questioning. When Lauer asked if Bush, after a slow response to Katrina, was "trying to get a second chance to make a good first impression," Bush blinked 24 times in his answer. When asked why Gulf Coast residents would have to pay back funds but Iraqis would not, Bush blinked 23 times and hitched his trousers up by the belt.
When the questioning turned to Miers, Bush blinked 37 times in a single answer -- along with a lick of the lips, three weight shifts and some serious foot jiggling. Laura Bush, by contrast, delivered only three blinks and stood still through her entire answer about encouraging volunteerism.
Perhaps the set itself made Bush uncomfortable. He and his wife stood in casual attire, wearing tool belts, in front of a wall frame and some Habitat for Humanity volunteers in hard hats. ABC News noted cheekily of its rival network's exclusive: "He did allow himself to be shown hammering purposefully, with a jejune combination of cowboy swagger and yuppie self-consciousness."
Perhaps, too, the president's body language said nothing about his true state of mind. But the White House gave little other information that might shed light on this. A White House spokesman, Trent Duffy, entered the press cabin on Air Force One to brief reporters at 1:58 p.m. He left two minutes later, after answering the only question by saying, "We don't have anything to announce."
The one newspaper reporter allowed to travel with Bush as part of the White House's "pool" system reported back to her colleagues after the "Today" event: "we were at a distance and could not hear what was being said (a theme of the day)." Other than the "Today" appearance, Bush delivered a one-minute talk to military recovery workers ("I'm incredibly proud of the job you have done") and a two-minute statement outside a school ("out of the rubble here on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi is a rebuilding").
Certainly, Bush retained many of the gestures that work well for him: the purposeful but restrained hand gestures, the head-tilted smile of amusement and the easy laugh. But he seemed to lose control of the timing. He smiled after observing that Iraqis are "paying a serious price" because of terrorism.
As Lauer went through his introduction, the presidential eyes zoomed left, then right, then left and right again, then center, down and up at the interviewer. The presidential fidgeting spiked when Lauer mentioned the Democratic accusation that Bush was performing a "photo op." Bush pushed out his lower front lip, then licked the right corner of his mouth. Lauer's query about whether conservatives "are feeling let down by you" appeared to provoke furious jiggling of the right leg.
Bush joked about his state of mind when Lauer asked Laura Bush about the strain on her husband. "He can barely stand!" the president said, interrupting. "He's about to drop on the spot." But the first lady had a calming influence on the presidential wiggles. When Laura Bush spoke about her husband's "broad shoulders," the president put his arm around her -- and the swaying and shifting subsided.
The president, now on more comfortable terrain, delivered a brief homily about "the decency of others" and "how blessed we are to be an American." Through the entire passage, he blinked only 12 times.