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Political Theater and the Critic in Chief

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, April 4, 2007

When President Bush gets a question he doesn't like, he often cocks his head to one side, juts his chin out and says "Hmmm" with an air of thoughtful consideration. And as news conferences go, yesterday's event in the Rose Garden was a real hmmmdinger. Over the course of 40 minutes and more than a dozen questions, reporters elicited three "hmmms" from Bush -- not to mention several "uhs" and a displeased "yeah" or two.

Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times asked about criticism of the Iraq war from Bush's former chief campaign strategist, who called the president "secluded and bubbled in."

"Hmmm," said Bush.

Ed Henry of CNN asked about conservative columnist Bob Novak calling Bush "more isolated now than Richard Nixon was during Watergate."

"Hmmm."

Martha Raddatz of ABC News asked about a report that Iran could have a nuclear bomb within two years.

"Hmmm," said the president.

Bush's perplexity may have resulted from the questioners' failure to cooperate with his chosen theme: scolding Democrats for the "political theater" -- as Bush and Vice President Cheney have put it in recent days -- of attempting to end the war in Iraq. "There's been a political dance going on here in Washington," Bush repeated yesterday.

To provide this criticism of Democrats' political theater, the White House staged its usual elaborate production. The Rose Garden was strung with thick cables and dotted with amplifiers, klieg lights and risers for the television cameras. A braided rope and brass posts kept reporters 20 feet from the president. The White House allowed only one network to videotape the event.

A sleek lectern with the presidential seal was put in place. U.S. and presidential flags were in the background. A Queen Anne table held Bush's water, which was capped to keep out petals falling from the saucer magnolia. Ten young cherry trees blossomed.

"Two minutes, guys," a young presidential aide announced as he placed on the lectern a black leather binder with the presidential seal. Practiced aides took their places. Bush emerged stage right, swung his arms jauntily as he walked down the colonnade and waved to photographers.

At first, Bush kept the focus where he wanted it. "It has now been 57 days since I requested that Congress pass emergency funds for our troops," he said, reading from a text but looking up angrily as he made his points about Democrats' "arbitrary deadline for withdrawal from Iraq" and "pork-barrel" spending. "I've made it clear for weeks that if either the House or Senate version of this bill comes to my desk, I will veto it."

At first, Bush's only uncertainty was how to describe his opponents. He referred to the "Democrat leaders" and the "Democrat leadership" before correcting himself to say "Democratic leadership."

But reporters' questions further snarled the Bush syntax. NBC's David Gregory got him to say "My concern, David, is several," CBS's Bill Plante got him to mention "suiciders," while Bloomberg News's Ed Chen elicited the phrase "air traffickers" in lieu of airline passengers.

In his own bid to get Bush off the day's blame-the-Democrats theme, Cox News's Ken Herman opted for a pop quiz.

"Mr. President, are you aware of the current price of a gallon of gas?"

"About $2.60-plus," Bush answered, just shy of the Energy Department's $2.71 national average.

Herman sensed a good deal. "Where are you shopping, sir?" he inquired.

The Washington Post's Peter Baker directed Bush's attention in another undesirable direction: the uproar over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. This drew a legalistic response of Al Gore's "no controlling legal authority" variety. "There has been no credible evidence of any wrongdoing," the president said.

The event had been billed merely as a "statement on the war supplemental," not a news conference, but Bush remained at the podium for what turned into a full-blown session. His generosity toward his questioners began to look unwise by the time he got to the New York Times reporter's inquiry about why Bush's ex-campaign strategist Matthew Dowd had joined Democrats in opposition to the Iraq war.

"Matthew's case, as I understand it, is obviously intensified because his son is deployable," Bush argued. "In other words, he's got a son in the U.S. armed forces and -- I mean, I can understand Matthew's concerns."

As the questioning continued, Bush softened his criticism of the Democrats' political theatrics.

"My attitude is, enough politics," he said, before quickly amending that to "if they want to play politics, fine."

Bill Sammon of the Washington Examiner pressed further. If Democrats sought to cut off funding for the war, he asked, "wouldn't that be a legitimate exercise of a congressional authority, which is the power of the purse?"

"The Congress is exercising its legitimate authority as it sees fit right now," Bush answered. "I just disagree with their decisions."

Hmmm.

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