By Dana Milbank
Friday, September 21, 2007
Yesterday's news conference was just minutes old when President Bush made a startling announcement.
"Mandela's dead," he said.
There was a gasp in the White House briefing room at this news, which would no doubt surprise the 89-year-old Nelson Mandela himself.
Fortunately, the president quickly clarified that he was not speaking of the sainted South African but of his equivalents in Iraq. "Saddam Hussein killed all the Mandelas," he explained.
It was about as close as Bush comes these days to making big news. Wrapping up his seventh year in office and unable to rise from his ratings slump, the president has run low on major announcements.
Is a recession looming?
"I think I got a B in Econ 101."
His thoughts on Israel's bombing of Syria?
"I'm not going to comment on the matter."
How about the racial conflagration in Jena, La.?
"There's litigation taking place."
Ken Herman of Cox News tried to draw out the news-shy president. "For Republicans seeking election next year, are you an asset or a liability?"
"Strong asset," was Bush's full reply.
"Can I follow?"
Reporters had been hopeful that Bush would have something exciting to say when the White House announced the news conference yesterday morning. American Urban Radio's April Ryan, very pregnant, rushed breathless into the briefing room minutes before the start. Fox News's Wendell Goler powdered his face with a makeup brush. "There's always something exciting at a presidential news conference," he said into the camera.
Well, not always. The main reason for the news conference -- and the sole subject of Bush's opening statement -- was a program that, although important, is unknown to most of the country. "In just 10 days, the State Children's Health Insurance Program, known as SCHIP, is set to expire," Bush began.
He then got to work picking on something even less popular than he is: Congress -- and, by extension, the Democrats who control it.
"Members of Congress are putting health coverage for poor children at risk so they can score political points," he warned.
Later, he added: "I believe the worst thing that could happen now is to allow the Congress to do that which they have said they want to do, which is to raise the taxes on people."
The budget will be balanced, he continued, "so long as Congress learns to set priorities."
Even when asked about former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan's criticism of the administration, Bush's answer assigned Congress culpability for failing to overhaul Social Security. "There wasn't the political will in Congress," he said.
When blaming Congress was impractical, the president found other worthy targets. Asked about the Iraqi government's problems, he noted that "part of the reason why there is not this instant democracy in Iraq is because people are still recovering from Saddam Hussein's brutal rule."
Bush revisited some of the banter with his questioners that he enjoyed in his earlier years in office. He chided NBC's David Gregory for leaving the White House beat in favor of hosting television shows. When he didn't like a question from Herman, Bush announced: "I knew I made a mistake calling on you in the first place."
And, after the crack about his grade in Econ 101, Bush brought up the example of the secretary of state: "She's the PhD and I'm the C student, and just look at who's the president and who's the adviser."
But the president's jocularity didn't work for him the way it once did. At one point, he found himself describing the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers as "kids." And his quip that "my feelings aren't hurt" only partially deflected a question about the torrent of criticism from his former advisers.
After a while, Bush abandoned attempts at sharp dialogue. Asked about the shootings in Baghdad by a State Department contractor, he disengaged: "Evidently some innocent lives were lost." Asked about a supporter who signed a controversial agreement to drill for oil in Iraq, Bush gave a detached "I knew nothing about the deal."
In need of a pick-me-up, Bush looked toward the back of the room and found "Big Stretch," the conservative journalist Bill Sammon of the Washington Examiner. Sammon obliged, asking whether Bush thinks Democrats should repudiate MoveOn.org's ad attacking Gen. David Petraeus.
Bingo -- another chance to criticize Democrats in Congress. "I thought that the ad was disgusting," Bush said. "And I was disappointed that not more leaders in the Democrat Party spoke out strongly against that kind of ad."
Bush therefore concluded that "most Democrats . . . are more afraid of irritating [MoveOn] than they are of irritating the United States military. That was a sorry deal."
Indeed. The Iraqi Mandelas must be rolling over in their graves.