News Between the Lines

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Wednesday, March 22, 2006; 1:00 PM

At yesterday's press conference, President Bush joked around with reporters, angrily waggled his finger at them, and even called on the redoubtable Helen Thomas for the first time in three years -- but that doesn't mean he actually answered their questions.

Bush made the most news with two offhand, possibly even accidental admissions amid the familiar and increasingly ineffective talking points that took up most of the hour.

When asked if American forces will ever completely leave Iraq, Bush replied: "That, of course, is an objective, and that will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq."

Asked if he still felt he had political capital, he said, almost as an aside: "I'd say I'm spending that capital on the war."

More typically unforthcoming was his non-answer to Washington Post reporter Jim VandeHei's excellent question: "A growing number of Americans are questioning the trustworthiness of you and this White House. Does that concern you?"

Bush just wouldn't say. "I believe that my job is to go out and explain to people what's on my mind," he replied, launching himself on a rambling discourse on war followed by a straw-man attack on unnamed people who don't take al Qaeda seriously.

The best television, by far, came when Bush called on Helen Thomas, the 85-year-old dean of the White House press corps. Bush hadn't called on the former UPI reporter -- now a Hearst columnist and avowed Bush critic -- in three years.

Given the opportunity, Thomas asked the same question she has asked spokesman Scott McClellan countless times: Why did Bush really go to war in Iraq? She then interrupted, contradicted and harrumphed dismissively as Bush hit the familiar talking points he always does.

Here's the transcript and video of the press conference.

The News

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush said Tuesday that U.S. troops would remain in Iraq beyond his presidency, a message that could complicate his effort to reassure an increasingly skittish public that the military deployment is not open-ended. . . .

"The president had not previously stated that the military role would continue beyond the end of his second term, on Jan. 20, 2009, a White House spokesman said."

William Douglas writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Bush's statement flies in the face of U.S. public opinion. A Gallup Poll released Friday found that a clear majority of Americans, 60 percent, think the war isn't worth the costs, 19 percent called for immediately withdrawing U.S. troops, another 35 percent favored a pullout by March 2007 and only 39 percent said troops should remain in Iraq indefinitely."

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