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Having a Loud Microphone, With Not Much to Say

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, December 21, 2006

"The president is relevant here."

-- Bill Clinton, April 18, 1995

"The microphone of the president has never been louder."

-- George W. Bush, Dec. 19, 2006

There reaches a time in every man's presidency when he becomes defensive about the volume of his microphone.

For President Bush, that moment was Tuesday, when he answered a question from The Post's Michael Fletcher about whether he was "out of the domestic policy business." A week earlier, he had confided to People magazine that he occasionally took sleeping pills, "but I must tell you, I'm sleeping a lot better than people would assume."

Yesterday, the full White House press corps got the chance, at a presidential news conference, to get the newly introspective Bush to talk more about his microphone, his sleep and his innermost thoughts. The results were unsatisfying.

"You said this week that your microphone has never been louder," the Baltimore Sun's Julie Davis reminded him. She pointed out that "use of the presidential microphone hasn't yielded the results that you wanted," and wondered "why you think your microphone is any louder and how you plan to use it differently."

"Yes," the president said into the microphone. "Microphone being loud means -- is that I'm able to help focus people's attentions on important issues."

Sheryl Stolberg of the New York Times tried to follow up on the presidential sleep issue. "Lyndon Johnson famously didn't sleep during the Vietnam War," she pointed out. "I can't help but wonder if this has been a time of painful realization for you."

"Yes, thanks," Bush said in a clipped manner suggesting he was not thankful for the question. He retreated quickly to boilerplate about making sure "the sacrifice has been worth it."

Stolberg pressed to see if Bush doubts his past decisions. He does not. "The most painful aspect of the presidency is the fact that I know my decisions have caused young men and women to lose their lives," he offered, ending the thought with a grim shake of the head.

The journalists' attempts at psychotherapy were brought about by necessity. When they attempted to ask concrete questions about his plans for Iraq, he dismissed those queries as "hypothetical," or even "dangerous hypothetical." The format -- a year-end news conference after the most trying year of his presidency -- also invited introspection. But Bush was not about to let reporters put him on the couch.

"Mr. President, if we could return to the reflexive vein we were in a little while ago," proposed the Los Angeles Times's Jim Gerstenzang.

"The what?" Bush said.

"Reflexive," Gerstenzang repeated, before correcting himself. "Reflective."

It must have been Freudian: Whenever Bush was asked to be reflective, he became reflexive. As in: "Victory in Iraq is achievable." And: "Retreat would embolden radicals." And: "My administration will . . . fashion a new way forward that can succeed in Iraq."

The setting for the event, the rarely used Indian Treaty Room in the old Executive Office Building next to the White House, was inadvertently symbolic. Once a reception room for the Navy, it had stars on the ceiling for navigation, a compass in the center of the floor and other devices used by those who have lost their way.

Bush listlessly read his opening statement urging his countrymen to join him in causes large ("this war on terror is the calling of a new generation") and small ("I encourage you all to go shopping more"). Questioners found him strangely detached from events in the news. CNN's Elaine Quijano asked for his reaction to the report that Vice President Cheney is scheduled to testify in the CIA leak case. "I read it in the newspaper today," Bush answered. CBS's Mark Knoller asked if he had ordered an investigation into the leaking of an Iraq memo written by the national security adviser. "It's not fresh in my mind," Bush replied.

What was fresh in his mind was his new formulation on the war in Iraq, unveiled in the Post interview Tuesday: "We're not winning, we're not losing." The Associated Press's Terry Hunt tried to get Bush to square that not-too-hot, not-too-cold view with his prior view of "Absolutely, we're winning."

"I believe that we're going to win," the president explained. A moment later, he became ensnared in another apparent contradiction, this one about how his previous plan to shrink the size of the military "doesn't necessarily preclude increasing" the size of the military.

But it didn't take long for questioning to turn inward. Time magazine's Mike Allen asked him what, other than the Iraq war, would be Bush's "record of transformation."

It was straightforward enough, but the question put Bush back into his defensive crouch. "Look, everybody is trying to write the history of this administration even before it's over," he said. "But the true history of any administration is not going to be written until long after the person is gone."

The relevant president did a sharp about-face and departed his loud microphone.

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