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."

Bush seemed distracted even before the camera dislodged. "I do want to give you some thoughts about what I'm thinking about," he began.

The Hamas news may have been weighing on his mind. But he spoke as though the terrorist group's landslide had been a balloting triumph. "So the Palestinians had an election yesterday, the results of which remind me about the power of democracy," he said, later adding: "I like the competition of ideas."

When CBS's John Roberts steered questioning toward the National Security Agency's surveillance, Bush dismissed the notion of a law that legitimized it. "My concern has always been that, in an attempt to try to pass a law on something that's already legal, we'll show the enemy what we're doing," he said. "If the attempt to write a law is likely to expose the nature of the program, I'll resist it."

Even the Washington Times pressed Bush to answer charges that he has abused his power. But the president declined to be drawn into constitutional nuance. "I'm going to leave that to the lawyers," he said. "I believe I've been hired by the people to do my job, and that's to protect the people."

Another questioner wondered what it was about the 1978 law governing domestic wiretapping "that you feel you have to circumvent it."

The president's lip curled upward. He held up his hand, then leaned on the lectern and pointed his finger. "It's like saying, 'You know, you're breaking the law.' I'm not," he protested. Still, Bush explained why he disregarded the 1978 law. "I said, 'Look, is it possible to conduct this program under the old law?' And people said, 'It doesn't work.' "

The questions about the Abramoff photos heightened Bush's irritation. "Having my picture taken with someone doesn't mean that I'm a friend with him or know him very well," he replied to one questioner. "I've had my picture taken with you."

A few questions later, Bush made the distance between Abramoff and himself even longer. "I, frankly, don't even remember having my picture taken with the guy," he declared. "I don't know him."

Still, the president seemed to realize the questions about the photos were not going away. CBS Radio's Mark Knoller tried another approach. "Never mind about the photographs, but can you say whether . . . "

Bush cut him off. "Easy," he noted, "for a radio guy to say."

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