A Punchy President Meets the Press

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, March 22, 2006

President Bush had a senior moment midway through his news conference yesterday. Referring to an earlier question from the Los Angeles Times' Jim Gerstenzang, who has covered much of Bush's presidency, Bush looked at the veteran correspondent -- and forgot his name.

"Back, to, uh, this man's question right here," he said, and then he looked down at his seating chart for a refresher before adding: "This man being Jim."

"Sorry, Jim," the president said after everybody had a chuckle at his expense. "I got a lot on my mind these days."

That he does. Bush's presidency is in trouble, his approval ratings are in the 30s, Iraq is approaching civil war, and congressional Republicans are in open rebellion. But Bush has maintained his equanimity. He may be a lame duck, but he seems to be enjoying his swim.

He identified Terry Hunt, the Associated Press's veteran White House correspondent, as the generic "AP Person." He accused New York Times correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller of sleeping through his speech Monday in Cleveland. After USA Today's David Jackson interrupted a Bush non-answer, the president queried: "Now, what is your follow-up yell?"

And he made a show of reading from his stage directions. Rambling his way through a question about interest rates, Bush paused to confess, "I'm kind of stalling for time here." Checking his seating chart before calling on a questioner, he confided, "They've told me what to say." After announcing that "there's going to be a P-5," the president translated his own jargon: "That's diplomatic sloganeering."

Whether it's the strain of the office, the weight of international crises, or simply his old Delta Kappa Epsilon roots showing, Bush has been President Punchy of late. In Cleveland on Monday, he said there were 16 U.N. Security Council resolutions about Iraq, then called on an unsuspecting Dick Keil, a Bloomberg News reporter. "I think 16 -- is that right, Stretch, 16?" Bush inquired, using the nickname he assigned Keil. "I like to, like, reverse roles sometimes," the president explained.

When an audience member prefaced a question by saying, "I'm 100 percent behind your fight against terrorism," Bush interrupted: "Why don't you just leave it at that." And he was suspicious of a man who introduced himself as Jose Feliciano, by chance the name of the blind singer and guitarist.

"No," the president challenged.

"Yes," the other Feliciano maintained.

"It's like the time I called a guy and said, 'Hey, this is George Bush calling.' He said, 'Come on, quit kidding me, man.' " For yesterday's session, called with 90 minutes' notice, Bush had a surprise: He ended his long boycott of questions from Helen Thomas, the venerable UPI correspondent-turned-anti-Bush columnist for Hearst Newspapers. He began by invoking her performance at a Gridiron Club dinner in which she played Hillary Clinton singing about her presidential ambitions.

"Helen, after that brilliant performance at the Gridiron, I am --"

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