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A Man of Many Beliefs Gives a News Conference With Few Answers

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, February 15, 2007

President Bush must have heard that National Public Radio was reviving the 1950s program "This I Believe," because his news conference yesterday sounded like an audition.

On Iran: "I believe Iran is an unbelievably vital nation."

On his Iraq plan: "I believe that success in Baghdad will have success in helping us secure the homeland."

On his Middle East policy: "I believe it's going to yield the peace that we all want."

On the North Korea agreement: "I believe it's an important step in the right direction."

On tensions with Russia: "I firmly believe NATO is a stabilizing influence for the good."

On immigration: "I strongly believe that we need to enforce our borders."

Bush has always supported a faith-based initiative, but his recitation of beliefs in the East Room yesterday -- he listed no fewer than 18 principles he holds to be true -- sounded less like a question-and-answer session than a reading of the Nicene Creed. The only thing the president did not believe in was answering the questions he was asked.

When ABC News's Martha Raddatz asked whether he shares the intelligence community's view that Iraq is in a civil war, the Great Believer grew suddenly agnostic. "We've got people on the ground who don't believe it's a civil war," he dodged.

"Do you believe it's a civil war, sir?" Raddatz pressed.

"It's hard for me, you know, living in this beautiful White House, to give you a firsthand assessment," he punted.

The Post's Peter Baker asked about three members of Bush's administration who leaked the identity of a CIA officer; Bush had promised to fire anybody who did.

"I'm not going to talk about it --," Bush said before the question was finished. "I'm not going to talk about any of it."

"They're not under investigation, though," Baker pointed out.

"Peter," Bush said, reproachfully. "I'm not going to talk about any of it."

Baker asked whether Bush might offer pardons in the case. Bush arched his eyebrows and said, as if handling a recalcitrant child: "Not going to talk about it, Peter."

The president even announced that he was not going to answer a question he hadn't been asked. ABC's Ann Compton asked about possible briefings on Iraq for presidential candidates. "I thought for a minute you were going to try to get me to comment on the presidential race," Bush said. "I will resist all temptation to become the pundit in chief." He must have liked the pundit-in-chief line, because he repeated it twice more.

The president seemed petulant in his refusal to answer questions; he was, after all, the one who summoned reporters to the White House for the purpose of questioning him. Probably, it was the tone of the questions that set him off: While Bush freely voiced his beliefs, the reporters seemed disinclined to accept his statements of faith.

Steve Holland of Reuters asked about Iranian weapons in Iraq. "What makes you so certain that the highest levels of Tehran's government is responsible?"

Bush admitted he doesn't know "whether or not the head leaders of Iran" were involved. "But here's my point: Either they knew or didn't know."

NBC's David Gregory wasn't buying. "Critics say that you are using the same quality of intelligence about Iran that you used to make the case for war in Iraq," he noted.

Bush said he is "confident" Iran's Quds force was involved in sending weapons to Iraq.

But CNN's Ed Henry still didn't share Bush's confidence. "What assurances can you give the American people that the intelligence this time will be accurate?" he asked.

"Ed," Bush vouched, "we know they're there."

The skepticism about Bush's beliefs was not confined to Iran. The AP's Terry Hunt asked Bush whether the increasingly autocratic Russian president is "the same Vladimir Putin whose soul you looked into and found to be trustworthy."

Bush acknowledged that "it's a complicated relationship."

The president's discomfort was evident in his verbal tics. Asked about Iran, he stated that "we have a comprehensive strategy to deal with Iraq." Eleven times he used the phrase "in other words" to magnify his points ("Money trumps peace sometimes; in other words, commercial interests are very powerful").

Ultimately, Bush found it more comfortable to ask the reporters questions. CBS's Jim Axelrod dropped his BlackBerry. "You dropped?" the commander in chief asked. NBC's Gregory consulted his watch. "What are you looking at?" the president inquired. "Checking the time?"

Late in the hour-long session, he turned to White House reporter Mike Allen, who had just started his sixth job in a decade, joining a Capitol Hill newspaper and Web site.

"Michael, who do you work for?" Bush needled.

"Mr. President, I work for Politico.com," Allen reported.

"Pardon me? Politico.com?"

"Yes, sir -- today," Allen quipped.

"You want a moment to explain to the American people exactly what --"

Allen did not. "Thank you for the question," he demurred.

"Quit being so evasive," Bush said.

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