Aiming to Burst 'Bubble' Theory

President Bush also fielded questions last week after a talk about the economy at JK Moving and Storage in Sterling, Va.
President Bush also fielded questions last week after a talk about the economy at JK Moving and Storage in Sterling, Va. (By Rich Lipski -- The Washington Post)
By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 24, 2006

MANHATTAN, Kan., Jan. 23 -- The presidency may be a bully pulpit, but President Bush used it on Monday more like a campfire leader than a political preacher.

As if to rebut charges that he lives in a White House bubble that leaves him exposed only to handpicked audiences, Bush spent most of an hour-and-40-minute session here chatting with questioners pulled from the seats of the Kansas State University arena. Before a crowd of 9,000 students, faculty members, supporters and soldiers, Bush alternated between serious oration about terrorism and lighthearted banter about his family and dog.

He bemoaned "needless name-calling" in Washington and said that rather than get angry he tries to "burn off that excess energy" with exercise. He talked nuclear weapons and immigration and the Supreme Court. He had tough words for Iran and softer words for China. He said his wife does not hesitate to give advice, "which can be too frequent sometimes," then quickly added: "Not true, honey." By the end of the event, White House transcribers recorded 61 instances of audience laughter.

But the fresh format came with its own perils, such as off-message questions about education spending cuts and feisty personalities such as an Iraqi American woman who praised Bush's foreign policy yet seemed reluctant to give up the microphone to hear his response.

The forum was a departure for the control-oriented, gaffe-fearing Bush White House, which has preferred not to put the president in public settings open to unpredictable and potentially hostile questions. His "town hall" meetings on Social Security last year, for instance, usually consisted of preselected panelists engaging in discussions rehearsed the night before with a White House official.

Last month, Bush was criticized for breaking with tradition and refusing to take questions after a speech on Iraq at the Council on Foreign Relations. A few days later, Newsweek ran a cover story titled "Bush in the Bubble," suggesting he cuts himself off from the outside world. The White House pulled a surprise the next day by inviting audience members to quiz the president after a speech in Philadelphia. It repeated the format last week after an economic speech in Loudoun County, and White House aides said they plan to make it a regular feature for a while.

Here in Kansas, it was a friendly crowd gathered in a solidly red state. White House officials said the university was in charge of attendance, but that they did give some tickets to local Republicans to hand out to GOP supporters. About 100 people protested the Iraq war in 34-degree weather outside the arena, but on his drive into the university Bush was treated to the sight of hundreds of well-wishers waving from front yards.

A student in the Air Force ROTC asked him to talk about how he handles assaults on his character. A former beef industry official praised his efforts to get beef exports into Japan after mad cow scares in the United States. One person asked him to talk about his wife.

There were more weighty questions, of course, about the fate of the troubled nation of Sudan and on security and economic threats from abroad. "I am deeply concerned about Iran, as should a lot of people be," Bush said. "The world cannot be put in a position where we can be blackmailed by a nuclear weapon."

To Bush's delight, a Kurdish American woman offered effusive praise of his decision to go to war in Iraq. "Please stop questioning the administration and their decision," she declared. "It was the best decision anybody could make."

Yet, to Bush's bafflement, she repeatedly tried to return to the microphone and keep talking. Bush playfully cut her off over and over to get in his own thoughts, but she did not make it easy.

And there were unexpected topics. A sophomore asked why officials were cutting student aid by $12.7 billion. "How's that supposed to help our futures?" she asked. Bush seemed perplexed and asked if she meant federal money. "What we did is reform the student loan program," he said. "We're not cutting money out of it. . . . We're not taking people off student loans, we're saving money in the student loan program, because it's inefficient."

But in that small exchange, an avenue of attack opened for Democrats. "The President may think that gutting $12.7 billion from student aid isn't a cut, but our students certainly do," Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said in a statement rushed out after the speech.

Another student asked Bush as a ranch owner for his review of "Brokeback Mountain," an acclaimed film about two ranch hands in a gay relationship. "You would love it," the student said.

Faced with a topic sensitive to his conservative base, Bush retreated into ignorance. "I'd be glad to talk about ranching," he said, "but I haven't seen the movie."

Finally, he had to go. The session had been longer and looser than usual, but for a man who expresses disdain for the ways of Washington, Bush was thinking of home by day's end. "I'd like to be here for a longer period of time," he said, "but Laura is serving dinner for retiring Alan Greenspan, and I better not be late."

Staff writer Peter Baker in Washington contributed to this report.

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