By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 2, 2006
President Bush was taking questions from an audience the other day when he was asked about the immigration debate raging in Washington.
"It's obviously topic du jour ," he said.
The audience laughed at the famously Francophobic Texan's faux accent.
"Pretty fancy, huh?" Bush asked, mocking himself. "Topic du jour ?"
The audience laughed again.
"I don't want to ruin the image," he added conspiratorially.
As he takes to the road to salvage his presidency, Bush is letting down his guard and playing up his anti-intellectual, regular-guy image. Where he spent last year in rehearsed forums with select supporters, these days he is more frequently throwing aside the script and opening himself to questions from audiences that are not prescreened. These sessions have put a sometimes playful, sometimes awkward side back on display after years of trying to keep it under control to appear more presidential.
Call it the let-Bush-be-Bush strategy. The result is a looser president, less serious at times, even at times when humor might seem out of place. Aides used to dread such settings, worried about gaffes or the way Bush might come across in spontaneous exchanges. But with his poll numbers somewhere south of the border, they concluded that Bush handles back-and-forth better than he once did -- and that they have little left to lose.
"It shows the range of his personality, the humor," said White House counselor Dan Bartlett. He said the White House has worked to put Bush out in public more, noting that he has had news conferences twice as often in his second term as in his first. "In a couple different ways, we've expanded his exposure," Bartlett said.
In the past couple of weeks, Bush has taken audience questions at two events, in addition to two news conferences. He has answered expansively, sometimes ranging beyond the talking points. He does not brutalize the English language as much (although last week he mangled the name of his ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, pronouncing it Kahl-i-had ). And he banters with audiences in a way he doesn't when delivering a conventional speech.
"My name is Jose Feliciano," a questioner introduced himself in Cleveland last month.
"No!" Bush answered skeptically.
"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.
"Yes," Bush said. "Sorry to interrupt you. Just testing your concentration."
Still, if the image of the president in spandex proved distracting, the relaxed approach left some reassessing their view of him. The Freedom House audience consisted of many Democrats, yet the buzz afterward was strikingly positive.
"They were surprised that they were impressed," said Thomas O. Melia, Freedom House's deputy executive director, who has his own Democratic pedigree. "Across the board, whether they supported him or not, I think everybody went out of the room more favorably disposed toward him and his policies."
Melia said the interaction with the audience accomplished more than the canned speech: "He came across better in the back-and-forth with the questioners because it shows he's thinking on his feet, not just reading from a text."
While thinking on his feet, Bush often plays the rube. When Melia got up last week, the president cut him off before his question. "You're going to ask me if I read the book," Bush said.
"I gave the president a copy of our annual report, 'Freedom in the World,' before he took the stage," Melia explained to the audience.
The president gave his instant review: "Little print, no pictures."
Melia did not miss a beat and compared it to another book Bush likes to cite. "It's the bible of freedom," Melia said.
When the crowd laughed, Bush protested, " I'm the funny guy."