Correction to This Article
The Jan. 27 Washington Sketch column incorrectly said it was an Associated Press camera and tripod that dangled during President Bush's news conference the previous day. The equipment belonged to Agence France-Presse.

Trying to Maintain Control of the State, in a State of Confusion

By Dana Milbank
Friday, January 27, 2006

The best-laid plans for President Bush's news conference went awry just 30 seconds into the event. An Associated Press camera and tripod broke free from their bracket on the ceiling and, in view of the TV cameras, dangled menacingly over reporters from Bloomberg News and the New York Daily News.

"First, I recognize . . ." Bush said, looking up and noticing the twirling piece of metal. "We live in a momentous time . . ." he tried again, then looked back at the unmoored object, which was blocking the MSNBC camera's shot of him. "For those of you watching, we seem to have a mechanical flaw," he felt obliged to explain.

The most powerful man in the world spent the next couple of minutes laboring through his opening statement yesterday in the White House briefing room while a large, bald technician walked into the picture and attempted, in a series of acrobatic gestures, to unscrew the tripod.

For the president, it was a timely reminder that events are not always within his control -- as if he needed another reminder. Earlier in the morning, the world learned that Palestinian voters had just handed their government to the terrorist group Hamas. Bush, trying to explain this reversal, suggested the defeated (U.S.-backed) leadership was crooked.

"If there is corruption, I'm not surprised that people say, 'Let's get rid of corruption,' " he reasoned -- inviting an unwelcome comparison to Jack Abramoff and the 2006 elections.

In all, Bush uttered nearly 7,000 words in his 45-minute Q&A. But his message could be summed up with a brief phrase in his least-favorite language: L'Etat c'est moi (I am the state).

His approval of a program to eavesdrop without warrants: "As I stand here right now, I can tell the American people the program is legal," he certified.

His refusal to release photos of him with Abramoff: "They're not relevant to the investigation."

His view on congressional anti-torture legislation: "Conducting war is a responsibility in the executive branch, not the legislative branch."

His refusal to provide Congress with testimony about the federal response to Hurricane Katrina: "That's just the way it works."

Midway through this Bourbonic performance, the Los Angeles Times's James Gerstenzang offered an observation on Bush's surveillance policy: "This seems to sound like something President Nixon once said, which was: 'When the president does it, then that means that it's not illegal.' " Whispered "oohs" could be heard in the room. Bush gave a look indicating he wished the dangling camera had fallen on Gerstenzang.

"Most presidents believe that during a time of war that we can use our authorities under the Constitution to make decisions necessary to protect us," he answered, then offered his reading of legislation passed after the 2001 terrorist attacks: "Go ahead and conduct the war. We're not going to tell you how to do it."

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