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The President as Average Joe
"Yes, it is," the man insisted.
"It's like the time I called a guy and said, 'Hey, this is George Bush calling,' " the president recalled. "He said, 'Come on, quit kidding me, man.' "
To many critics, such forums still feel contrived, and the fratboy towel-snapping humor unbecoming. Nor does the new format mean Bush always answers questions as directly as inquisitors might like. When an Egyptian asked him at a forum in Washington last week whether he would support Gamal Mubarak if he succeeded his father, Hosni Mubarak, as president of Egypt, Bush declined to answer: "That's a question-I-don't-answer question."
At the same session, sponsored by Freedom House, a group promoting liberty around the world, a diplomat from Mali mentioned Bush's Millennium Challenge program to help poor countries develop democracy and complained that "we haven't seen any money yet." Bush responded with a joke. "I like a good lobbyist," he said, then acknowledged the program "was a little slow to get going" without explaining whether Mali could expect to receive funding soon.
The press serves as a convenient foil. While talking about Iraq before Cleveland's City Club, Bush stumbled over how many U.N. Security Council resolutions condemned Saddam Hussein.
"I think 16," Bush said, then turned toward the media area and spotted Bloomberg's Richard Keil. "Is that right, Stretch? Sixteen?"
Keil, hunched over his laptop, looked up in surprise. Bush played it for the crowd. "I'm asking a member of the press corps," he explained. "I like to, like, reverse roles sometimes. Really checking to see if they're paying attention, you know. Halfway through, they kind of start dozing off."
Politicians get the same treatment. At the Freedom House event, Bush launched into a favorite riff about being friends with the Japanese prime minister even though their fathers fought on opposite sides six decades ago.
"I see Stevens nodding," he said, glancing at Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), age 82. "He was there. Weren't you?" The audience laughed. "Well, I wasn't," Bush added, prompting more laughter.
Needling press and politicians goes over well, of course. But there are moments when audiences are left wondering just what he's talking about. At Freedom House, Bush called on a member of the audience, then, before the man could ask a question, segued into his plans to leave for a summit in Cancun, Mexico.
"No Speedo suit here," Bush declared. "Thankfully."
The questioner, unsure if Bush was done, waited patiently. "Ready?" the man finally asked.