President Dangles 'Exclusives' Abroad to Compete With Newsmakers at Home

By Peter Baker
Monday, January 21, 2008

Reporters covering President Bush 's Middle East trip, which ended last week, were in for a bit of a surprise when they showed up at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem for Bush's statement on peace negotiations. There they found an unexpected colleague -- NBC News correspondent David Gregory, who had not been on the press charter or on Air Force One.

Gregory, it turned out, flew to Israel solely for a one-on-one interview with Bush. He was one of three network reporters to fly in during the eight-day trip for separate, specially arranged sit-downs with the president, the others being Greta Van Susteren of Fox News and Terry Moran of ABC News. With television's heavy hitters having abandoned the White House to suffer the wilds of New Hampshire and South Carolina, the Bush team figured the best way to get attention for his trip in the midst of the primaries was to dole out "exclusive" interviews.

The strategy met with only modest success at best. Bush managed to get on some shows that otherwise might have ignored much of his trip, but it was hard to compete with the aftermath of comeback victories by John McCain and Hillary Rodham Clinton in New Hampshire, no matter how many funny robes the president put on.

Despite the arresting pictures of Bush greeting foreign leaders and visiting the Church of the Nativity, Saudi King Abdullah's palatial estate near Riyadh and the desert camp of the sheiks of the United Arab Emirates, the president was an afterthought on the news back home. A study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that 49 percent of radio, television and newspaper coverage from Jan. 6 to 11 was devoted to the presidential campaigns, compared with just 4 percent that focused on Bush's trip.

Bush's aides understand that the nation's attention has naturally begun to shift to the search for his successor. The president still has a pulpit like no other to command the national dialogue -- witness how quickly he was able to reassert himself on the policy front by announcing Friday that he wants an economic stimulus package of about $145 billion. And a week from today, he will deliver what presumably will be his last State of the Union address on national television.

Administration strategists are resigned to the reality that, until the nomination battles are resolved in the coming weeks, the White House will not be the center of the universe. They hope that once the party nominees are made clear, there will be a window through spring to reassert themselves and get some things done with Congress before the political conventions at the end of summer.

But the calendar moves inexorably forward: As of today, Bush has less than a year to go in office.

Oh, That Guy

Even the president seems to be having trouble remembering the Bush years as time dwindles down. Catch this exchange during a roundtable with reporters on the Middle East trip.

Reporter: "One of your own former officials, Bruce Riedel, told me a few weeks ago -- "

Bush: "Who?"

Reporter: "Bruce Riedel. He used to work on the NSC."

Oh, right. That Bruce Riedel.

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