A Few Choice Words, Including 'Mistakes'

By Tom Shales
Thursday, January 11, 2007

Looking tense, rigid and, appropriately enough, unyielding, George W. Bush gave what CBS anchor Katie Couric called "arguably his most important speech ever" from the library of the White House last night, calling for more troops to be sent to Iraq and admitting that "where mistakes have been made, the responsibility rests with me."

Broadcast and cable media were told early in the day that the speech, at one point reportedly 40 minutes in length, had been trimmed to a tight, terse 20, and sure enough, the president, who began shortly after 9, was done by 9:21 p.m. ABC, CBS and NBC scurried back to regular programming as fast as they could -- NBC following the president's appeal with quizmaster Howie Mandel asking, "Deal, or no deal?" There was a trace of irony there.

None of the major broadcast networks bothered to carry the Democratic response to the Bush speech as delivered by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), but Durbin's spiel did play on the Fox News Channel, MSNBC, CNN and public TV. Durbin managed the dubious feat of failing to look into the camera, apparently addressing a small group of reporters whom viewers did not see. He was anything but eloquent.

The broadcast networks offered the bare minimum in terms of analysis of the speech. For the record, CBS was the last of the Big Three to sign off (at 9:28). NBC anchor Brian Williams used up what seemed like two or three minutes (but was probably less) just plugging coverage available on other outlets -- mainly NBC's cable networks and of course the Internet.

Fox News had perhaps the most elaborate post-speech coverage, with Brit Hume calling first on reporter Greg Palkot in Baghdad for reaction there. Unfortunately, as Palkot told viewers, it was 5 o'clock in the morning, so there was no one to query. All Palkot could do was tell viewers "you gotta believe" that the Iraqis would be concerned, and the troops would be interested, and so on. At least Fox gave it a try.

Hume also interviewed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a "hawk" on the war who has been calling for more troops all along. Then McCain sprinted over to CNN (actually in the same building in Washington) to talk to Larry King. Curiously, while McCain talked about the urgent matter of Iraq, the CNN news ticker along the bottom of the screen offered such dubious bulletins as "Kelsey Grammer to play Henry Higgins in New York concert version of 'My Fair Lady' in March." Talk about your disconnects.

In his traditional pale blue tie, Bush stood so rigidly that he almost seemed to be pasted against the backdrop -- well-stocked bookcases in the library. His first words were not heard on CBS (at least its Washington affiliate) because of an apparent technical problem. Other than that and a brief stutter by Bush when he listed the dangers of pulling out of Iraq precipitously, the presentation went smoothly.

Bush showed no emotion, however, no passion for his argument. Curiously, he did not conclude the speech with the usual "God bless America," instead just bowing out with "thank you and good night." The single pool camera held to one static shot, never zooming in or zooming out. At times, it almost looked like a still photo, except that the president's lips did move.

Some viewers, this one included, may have sensed a certain tension and anxiety in the president's facial expression, at least as he began speaking. He has never, of course, been a notable speechmaker -- and once more he said "noo-cue-lurr" instead of "nuclear" -- but over the years he's had his moments, and one can safely expect he'll be more animated and use more oratorical flourishes in his upcoming State of the Union address.

Most of the details of the speech were being reported on cable news channel and network newscasts all during the day, so it was hardly filled with surprises -- though Bush volunteering to take the blame for mistakes seemed at the very least unusual, not just for Bush but for any chief executive.

CBS viewers, especially those who are always suspecting the network of tilting left, may have been jolted by the recorded announcement played during the closing credits of "Armed & Famous," the show that preceded the president's speech on the network. Said an announcer: " 'Criminal Minds' is next, here on CBS."

That, of course, was the regularly scheduled program, the one to which CBS rushed back at about 9:29.

At least Couric came to Washington for the speech. ABC's Charlie Gibson and NBC's Williams stayed in New York. Then again, it was a very brief address. Instead of the traditional "Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States," the ever-conversational Couric said, "Here he is, the president of the United States." At least she didn't say "Here he is, folks . . . ."

In describing the details of his plan, including the commitment of still more American troops to the war, Bush said Americans will indeed see more scenes of carnage inflicted by insurgents and other enemy forces "on our television screens" even if the Bush plan is approved by Congress. That, of course, will be the subject of debate through the day today and the weekend ahead.

Again the president referred to the war in Iraq as a "noble" effort on the part of the United States. For whatever reason, however, he said it almost emotionlessly. Perhaps Bush was determined to avoid any criticism whatsoever of theatrics or histrionics in his remarks. It was strictly cut-and-dried and hit-and-run, and perhaps more effective with viewers, rather than less, for that reason.

Let the bickering -- and the polling -- begin.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company