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Robert G. Kaiser
Robert G. Kaiser
Bush Is Ready to Go Without U.N. (Post, March 7, 2003)
Shales: Bush's Wake-Up Call Was a Snooze Alarm (Post, March 7, 2003)
Analysis: President Puts Onus on Iraqi Leader (Post, March 7, 2003)
The Post's Dana Milbank previewed the press conference (MSNBC, March 6, 2003)
Britain Floats Compromise to Get U.N. Votes on Iraq (AP, March 6, 2003)
Confronting Iraq Special Report
Confronting Iraq Live Online Transcripts
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Bush Press Conference:

With Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Editor

Friday, March 7, 2003; 11 a.m. ET

President Bush faces increasing opposition for possible war with Iraq from would-be allies worldwide, including a compromise resolution proposed by Britain to give Saddam Hussein more time to disarm. As U.S. troop buildup in the Gulf region continues, the president took his case to the public via a rare prime-time press conference Thursday night.

Did the president clarify his position? Will the U.S. be able to smooth over troubled relations with allies and gain support for military action? What does the White House anticipate from chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix's report Friday? Washington Post Associate Editor Robert G. Kaiser was online for Analysis of Bush's press conference on Friday, March 7, at 11 a.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Peachtree City, Ga.: It is obvious to me that last night's "presidential press conference" is only remotely akin to those exercises I remember with Kennedy, Nixon, Carter, and Clinton, and even Bush I. The action where the president scans the raised hands of reporters, and picks one by name to ask a question is gone. Looks to me as if Bush had a prepared list (by adviser Ari Fleischer), of names to call. Is it that this president has no talent for knowing or remembering individuals of the press corps? Worse yet, is the list prepared with names who are on notice that anything asked that makes the president look unprepared or confused is grounds for expulsion from any future admission to these games for both the reporter and his/her employer? Press conferences used to be and should still be the arena where the nation's leader demonstrates command and presence of the issues and how to best articulate them. It appears that his president is unable to go beyond a few sound bites in a carefully scripted and tightly produced show. Oh, how we long for the days of the "Best and the Brightest."

Robert G. Kaiser: Good morning. We have lots of questions and I'll try to answer as many as I can, but I'm working on a story and may have to break off to conduct an interview. Apologies in advance.

This first comment is a good one, and I agree with it. There is very little that is spontaneous about this kind of presidential news conference. I frankly agreed with Tom Shales, our brilliant television critic, who wrote the best analysis I saw anywhere this morning of last night's event. Here's a link to it.

washingtonpost.com: Shales: Bush's Wake-Up Call Was a Snooze Alarm (Post, March 7, 2003)

Cleveland, Ohio: What I saw last night from President Bush was scary. The kindest thing I can say is that he was well-coached. Is there a reason he repeatedly ducked questions about possible worst case scenarios of the larger implications of the upcoming war against Iraq affecting our standing in the international community?

Robert G. Kaiser: As the president's aides acknowledged to my colleague Mike Allen (I hope washingtonpost.com can give a link to his story here), they saw the news conference as an opportunity to deliver a message, not a time to answer a lot of difficult questions. If you read the transcript you'll see the President returning again and again to his prepared answers, regardless of what the questioner has asked. This is modern political communications. And it can be hugely frustrating, for reporters as well as citizens.

washingtonpost.com: Mike Allen: Bush's Distaste for News Conferences Keeps Them Rare (Post, March 7, 2003)

washingtonpost.com: Bush Is Ready to Go Without U.N. (Post, March 7, 2003)
Text: Press Conference Transcript (AP, March 6, 2003)
Video: Bush Takes Questions (March 6, 2003)

Altoona, Pa.: As a journalist, aren't you disturbed that President Bush does so few prime time news conferences? I grew up watching President Reagan extemporize and joke and charm a room full of cynical journalists. Americans got the sense he was really commander in chief. Not only does Bush avail himself of so few opportunities to do so, when he goes on he's stiff and prefabricated, like he's reading someone else's material.

Robert G. Kaiser: You bet. We're all upset that there are so few opportunities to do what we consider our constitutional duty, which is to hold a president accountable for his acts and decisions.

Lancaster, Pa.: By linking Hussein to bin Laden as if there is a clear, direct connection undermines Bush's credibility. In my opinion it calls into question the president's motives and opens him up to the charge that its oil, payback time, or something not terribly altruistic that driving his motivation. Your comments?

Robert G. Kaiser: I actually thought Bush went farther last night than he ever has before in revealing the way, in his own mind, he connects Iraq to 9/11. Personally I've thought for some time that you can't understand the push for war in Iraq without grasping that the president and his people have decided that toppling Saddam is an appropriate response to the shock of the attack on America. It seems to me that they don't themselves feel it is necessary to prove Saddam's connection to bin Laden or the events o f 9/11 to justify this approach. Rather they rely on Saddam's history, and on their belief that it is incumbent on them to take action against someone who COULD help a future terrorist attack on us because he has, or they think he has, weapons of mass destruction.

Peachtree City, Ga.: The war in Vietnam took many years to develop the anti-war sentiment that it had when it was finally "stopped." It would seem that the anti-war sentiment at home and abroad is already at a high level, even before the first soldier hits the ground on Iraqi soil. What serious consequences internally to this country and to our neighbors around the world are we to suffer in the long term because of the unpopular acts of this one president?

Robert G. Kaiser: Well, we don't know yet. This is very different than Vietnam. The Vietnam war began in the early 1950s, and continued until 1975. America got involved in the early 1960s. There were, in other words, many long years for opposition to grow and develop, and still it was weak enough by the time Nixon took office in 1969 that he felt he could, and should, continue the war, though he had campaigned with a "secret plan" to end it.

So the strong opposition to this war all over the world is not comparable. And it does foretell difficulties for the U.S. in the future, though we cannot today say what they may be. And I think it's important to keep in mind the thought that if the war in Iraq is a huge success -- Saddam easily toppled, relatively few casualties, Iraqis welcoming Americans with open arms, caches of biological and/or chemical weapons discovered -- Bush is going to look very good indeed, and the opposition we see today will largely evaporate. But of course, such a happy outcome is far from the only possibility.

Washington, D.C.: Re: The press conference -- maybe Bush was trying hard not to look like a cowboy, not to look like someone eager to go to war. With a UN vote coming up, doesn't he have to sound as calm as possible? Next week will be the time to sound excited.

Robert G. Kaiser: In fact his aides told Bush repeatedly, according to my colleagues who cover the White House, that he HAD to use the press conference to dispell the cowboy image.

Northfield, Minn.: Sir, a comment on your recent Outlook article on how feeble the opposition party has been in generating debate and articulating reservations to Bush's Iraq policy. Most war skeptics, such as Daschle and Pelosi in this morning's paper, say something like "not so fast, let's give inspections more time." But there would be no inspections if Bush's policy had not forced them. Remember, since 1998 on the inspectors were out and the previous administration and the world averted its gaze from the problem. It's hard to work up a real froth of opposition once you have ceded so much intellectual ground -- that Bush's strategy in putting Iraq back on agenda is essentially right -- even if the critics don't usually give acknowledge how far they have already moved in Bush's direction.

washingtonpost.com: There's a Reason Why There Hasn't Been Much of a Fight (Post, Feb. 16, 2003)

Robert G. Kaiser: Thank you for that thoughtful comment, with which I largely agree.

Holt, Mich.: In today's Post, I read that White House Communications Director Dan Barlett said, "In this case, we know what the questions are going to be, and those are the ones we want to answer."

Watching the press conference last night, I wondered who was being called on to ask questions -- they were never identified by paper or broadcast affiliation. I wondered if the questions were at all "scripted" in collusion with the White House; especially given the scripted list of who got to ask a question. And I wondered why so many softballs were being thrown in this very, very rare press conference. Any thoughts?

Robert G. Kaiser: This was not a great moment for American journalism. I was very disappointed in the questioning myself. Bush always works off a list of reporters whom he will call on. You may have noticed that no Washington Post reporter made the cut. I hope that means we have been doing our job.

Mike Allen, who covers the White House and was in the room last night, tells me this administration (unlike some others) does not suggest questions to reporters in advance, and does not try to learn what reporters will ask about before the event.

Some networks are better than others at getting the names and affiliations of the reporters on screen while the question is being asked. CBS was lousy at this last night; ABC was better.

New York, N.Y.: This is not "modern political communications." This is modern political miscommunication. How can "the leader of the free world" stand there, take questions, ignore the questions, not provide any responses other than "12 years" and "Iraq must disarm" and be taken seriously? I'm disgusted.

Oh, and Shales's column is incredible.

Robert G. Kaiser: Well, you're right, and I'm right too. I used the term of art the professionals now use. Their goal is to make the point they want to make, not to respond to what's on your mind, or mine.

Chicago, Ill.: Why are reporters so easy on Bush? They seem to be completely under his spell, as worshipful as a state Republican committee meeting. How can any honest opposition to Bush be mounted if the Washington press corps treat his "spin" as gospel truth and assume every administration action is done from the purest virtue.

Robert G. Kaiser: Alas, this is a fair comment after last night. I don't get it myself. No questions asked on the economy; one not very effective effort to smoke out the cost of the war; nothing asked about the tax cuts Bush still wants, etc etc. As I said already, a bad night for the press.

Falls Church, Va.: Saddam has had biological and chemical weapons for over 12 years (when our country sold him most of those weapons in the mid-1980s), yet there's no evidence that Saddam has given those weapons to terrorists over these past 12 years. Why do people like Bush believe that Saddam is more likely to give weapons to terrorists now, if he hasn't given anyone anything for over 12 years?

Robert G. Kaiser: As I said above, I think the administration worries that Saddam could give dangerous weapons to terrorists, and that that is enough for them.

Weston, Conn.: Were reporters required to limit their questioning to Iraq? I was waiting to hear someone ask Mr. Bush about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden (who I thought was the real object of the war on terror) or the tanking economy (unemployment up, oil prices soaring, stock market falling).

Robert G. Kaiser: There's my point again. No, there was no requirement to limit questioning.

Washington, D.C.: While I support hard-line action in order to disarm Iraq, Bush seems to show a complete and utter failure to understand or work with other (disagreeing) nations. I this just more hard-line talk or do you feel the administration's policy apparatus really doesn't care for the concerns and perspectives of other countries?

Robert G. Kaiser: I too was struck by the absence of overtures to other countries last night, though there was an important section, I thought, in which Bush said our European friends will remain our friends no matter what happens in Iraq.

Northern Virginia: Except for Tom Shales -- who hit the nail right on the head -- it seemed like the analysis I read of the president's news conference was pretty easy on him. Didn't it bother anyone that he didn't actually ANSWER any of the questions he was asked? You could take any of his responses and put it with any question and they would have matched up just as well.

And why did reporters keep asking the same things about Iraq? If I were a reporter, I might figure he wasn't going to cough up any new info -- and take the opportunity to ask about something different -- like Medicare or the state $$ shortfalls. Seemed like a hugely wasted opportunity.

washingtonpost.com: Shales: Bush's Wake-Up Call Was a Snooze Alarm (Post, March 7, 2003)

Robert G. Kaiser: Agreed.

New York, N.Y.: Is there any scuttlebutt on Bush's oddly restrained demeanor? He was close to mumbling on a few questions. I wonder if, despite his responses, he is beginning to feel the heat of prominent protesters who were so vocal this week?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think probably the best explanation for his unusual demeanor was his determination to dispell the "cowboy" image, but I agree with you, it was odd. And I felt, as did a number of you (I'm reading more questions than I can answer), that he looked unusually uncomfortable last night. One of Bush's political advantages, generally, has been how comfortable he seems in his own skin, I've long thought. But he didn't look that way to me last night.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates: I'm a U.S. citizen living in the Arab world and clearly there is no love lost for Saddam Hussein, but the same can be said of feelings toward President Bush. It's very sad to have these two people treated equivocally.

Few people here see threat to the U.S. from Iraq and most are happy with inspections.

My question is: Do Americans really feel a threat and understand President Bush's logic?

Robert G. Kaiser: This question is a good one, and I don't know the answer. Polls show most Americans giving the president the benefit of the doubt. Majorities say they favor military action against Iraq. Is that because they personally feel an Iraqi threat? Or because their president does? I don't know.

washingtonpost.com: Latest Post-ABC News poll: Doubts Temper War Support (Post, March 4, 2003)
Poll data

Long Beach, Calif.: I'm truly amazed that the American public can believe Iraq was involved in 9/11, yet can see no link between the abuses of the CIA and the position we are in. CIA essentially created al Qaeda, putting together a group of Muslim fighters from 40 countries. The CIA overthrew the Iranian president in 1953, for which we are still hated by nationalistic Iranians. The CIA helped arm Saddam, and helped remove him from the list of terrorist nations. The CIA has NOT EVEN BEEN DISCUSSED when we speak of how to make America safer and more respected world-wide. Am I off on this?

Robert G. Kaiser: Well, you're on to something that interests me, which is Americans' general disregard for history. I wouldn't endorse the implied causality in your comment in every instance, but there is no question that we have sown seeds without realizing what sort of plant would grow from them. Al Qaeda is certainly a good example.

Falls Church, Va.: There was a question in last night's speech comparing the use of military force in Iraq to the war in Vietnam. The president spoke about having a clear vision for a war in Iraq but he didn't really compare this campaign to that war. In fact he never even mentioned Vietnam. I'm curious to know what about that comparison and comparisons to other past and present governments such as the old Soviet Union. They killed thousands maybe millions of their own citizens and built weapons of mass destruction -- aimed directly at the United States and we never attacked them. What about China today. Their human rights record is abysmal and they have weapons of mass destruction.

Robert G. Kaiser: That Vietnam question caught my attention because it was based on a false historical premise. As I remember it, the reporter began by saying the U.S. had fought for "regime change" before, citing Vietnam as an example. No, in Vietnam we fought to preserve a regime, arguably an artificial one, the regime in South Vietnam. We were explicitly not fighting to change the regime in Hanoi, only to limit its writ to North Vietnam.

I don't think we can understand Bush now by comparing today's situation to any pre-9/11 one. The world really did change on 9/11. Deterrence has worked well between nation states in the modern era, but now we're fighting terrorists who have no nation state, and who may not behave in any predictable way. THat's why, in my opinion, your historical comparisons are not apt now.

Kensington, Md.: Isn't your criticism of Bush just a bunch of sour grapes over the perceived snub of your colleague Michael Allen and Helen Thomas? Oh, gee, he didn't call on the woman who accuses him of bombing children for oil! What a terrible press conference!

Give me a break. He did a good job, once again, of laying out his intended course of action. Can anyone deny that Saddam's recent overtures are the result of 250,000 U.S. troops massing on the border? And, can you agree that those troops cannot remain active and ready for the next several months while Saddam tosses the inspectors a few more bones to chew on?

Robert G. Kaiser: Do you really think our work here is governed by "sour grapes" of the kind you describe? If so, I'm surprised that you're wasting time reading us.

Mansfield, Ohio: What is this? Anti-Bush Day? I agree with the president: The protesters and these shocked and horrified questioners here should direct their comments at Saddam.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for your comment...

Danville, Calif.: How can our government, with a first-term, young president who had few accomplishments and experience in life, relatively speaking, be so righteous? Mr. Bush, in the press conference, displayed the results from the tremendous pressures from the hawks combined with the stubbornness of the religious conservatives.

Robert G. Kaiser: ...and for yours.

Alexandria, Va.: Mr. Kaiser, having read your commentaries I know that you are a fair-minded journalist, but also infer that on foreign policy questions at least you tilt somewhat in the liberal direction -- i.e., in favor of international rules and coalitions and a multilateral world order. Why then is it so hard to see why an Iraq war should be necessary, irrespective of links to al Qaeda? Saddam Hussein waged a war and TERMS OF SURRENDER were imposed, not by the United States but the UNITED NATIONS. A world of international order is a long way off when a dictator can defy such terms with impunity. As a liberal myself, I don't like Bush, but this war plainly seems to be a vindication of multilateralism and international order, not a defiance of it (no matter what France and Germany think.)

Robert G. Kaiser: What odd times we live in. Is it liberal, or conservative, to be "in favor of international rules and coalitions and a multilateral world order?" Please look up conservative in your dictionary. In my book, favoring the rule of law, favoring order over chaos, is profoundly conservative. But I understand where you're coming from -- in modern America, the labels often don't mean what they say.

Lyme, Conn.: George Bush appears set on going to war, no matter what. In looking back at all his statements, he has never deviated from a course toward war. Maybe I am wrong. Is there anything, in retrospect, that indicates he seriously considering closing the avenues toward war? Maybe he'll surprise even me, and this whole time it has all been a ploy to corner Saddam Hussein into destroying his remaining weapons without having to go to war. Yet, if war starts, won't most historians conclude President Bush was set on war from a long time?

Robert G. Kaiser: Interesting question. You know, if Bush had been trying from day one to intimidate Saddam (or his senior colleagues who could deal with him effectively, and still might), I think we could say he probably would have acted precisely the way he has up to today. In other words, the best way to pursue a strategy of trying to get him out of office through intimidation would be essentially identical to the best way to pursue a war against him.

I think we'll know for sure pretty soon!

Washington, D.C.: Here's a hypothetical I've wondered about. Reporters seem to love revealing breaking news, no matter the situation. What if a reporter in Baghdad catches a glimpse of Saddam entering the hotel in which the reporter is stationed? Does he broadcast that news, given that the next cruise missile will target that hotel, or does he save his own skin?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think I can avoid this question by noting that the chances of Saddam showing up in a Baghdad hotel any time soon range from zero to none.

Gullsgate, Minn.: Bush claims he recognizes that we are a society that "allows" free speech. But if he is not listening enough to respond wisely, reasonably, to the voices of dissent focused in opposition to his imperialistic mandate for preemptive war -- what's the point? What we do have is an administration out of control, and denying the will of the people. Protest in relation to an Iraq war, is without historical precedent, this time around. If this nation engages in instiutionalized violence now, we will only escalate that violence in acts of terrorism here, sequentially or at its aftermath? I fear we have one really sad administration policy being railroaded this time around and how to change it if no one is listening? Impeachment is no longer a whisper in the background, at least in the heartland.

Robert G. Kaiser: Geez, we only have free speech if the president agrees with you? I don't think so. And I don't think there's any good evidence that the administration is "denying the will of the people" either.

Arlington, Va.: Come on Robert, you know better. If a reporter asked a tough question last night, that's it for them. They'd be frozen out of the White House loop and would have to be replaced in that position. This White House has made it very painful on a day-to-day basis for reporters to deviate from the party line, and there isn't enough investigative reporting to smoke out the hidden scandals (the Cheney Task Force, etc.).

Robert G. Kaiser: No, you're wrong. Tough questioning, done fairly and honestly, produces respect, in my experience (now 40 years long!). There may be members of the White House press corps who agree with you, but they're wrong to do so. At least that's my view.

Washington, D.C.: In the apparently beloved Tom Shales article (which I think widely missed the mark), he writes: "it hardly seems out of order to speculate that....the president may have been ever so slightly medicated." Actually, it seems stunningly out of order. Your view?

Robert G. Kaiser: My view is that Tom Shales is always in order, even when I disagree with him.

Richmond, Va.: An interesting -- if obviously unknowable -- question is what would happen if President Bush's exact policy on Iraq was being sold to the world by President Clinton, whose powers of empathy made him so much better at instilling good will and forging coalitions. Might we not have the current rupture with allies? On the other hand, the fact that Clinton was so sensitive to criticism might mean that he would never have pursued Bush's policy. After all, he had his chance on Iraq and (expect for some feeble missile attacks) pretty much punted. What do you think?

Robert G. Kaiser: Again, I don't think it is fair, or sensible, to compare what Bush is doing after 9/11 to what Clinton did nor didn't do before then. I do think it is fair and sensible to think about how Bush sold himself and his policies to the rest of the world from the beginning of his presidency. He made clear from the outset that pleasing other governments was low on his list of priorities, and I think they got the message.

Washington, D.C.: Not one questioner hit the president hard on the issue of a preventive war. This is especially disconcerting given that the president repeated over an over again that Iraq is a danger to the U.S. No one asked him if that danger was imminent. Would it have been too disrespectful of the office to ask President Bush about the questionable legality of this proposed war?

Robert G. Kaiser: Of course not, and I wish someone had.

Mansfield, Ohio: Since Blix is mentioned in your opening paragraph: I watched a little of today's report, and it was more of the same. No, Iraq isn't in full compliance, but yes, they are making progress. No, we haven't interviewed scientists without concealed microphones on them, but yes, we hope to in the future. No, much of the documents given to us are without value, but yes, we hope to be able to glean something from them in the future.

I find Blix's talking out of both sides of his mouth to be useless. I guess it comes from wanting to please many sides all at once.

I believe much of the hostility toward Bush is that he doesn't mince words: He is direct and doesn't care about decorum compared to meaning.

washingtonpost.com: Live Video of the U.N. meeting (AP)

Robert G. Kaiser: I suspect you are absolutely right. The manners and language of international civil servants are not likely to win friends in the American political arena--I think that's a reasonable assumption.

New York, N.Y.: Some people seem to find Mr. Bush's umm, uncomplicated outlook refreshing and good for domestic consumption. I am tremendously worried that the most powerful person in the free world is unwilling or incapable of the tact, thought, or subtlety to properly manage relations with our allies in a way that might have them on board with us. I didn't particularly like G.H.W. Bush, but I had respect for his ability to understand international affairs. Unfortunately, this ability seems to have skipped generations.

Do you think that perhaps difficult times have brought us to a point where G.W. Bush's limitations are truly becoming a liability? I can imagine either of the past two presidents dealing with the present situation in a vastly different manner.

Robert G. Kaiser: Are we watching inspired leadership, or clumsy oversimplification? When you're living through something like this, I think it's very hard to know. But we will find out.

Robert G. Kaiser: Well, that's all I can handle this morning. Sorry to disappoint many readers who, as usual, overfilled my in-box with smart comments and questions.


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

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