It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. President Bush, who typically grants interviews to foreign journalists in advance of his overseas trips, decided this time to grant an audience to Paris Match, the French equivalent of People magazine. But instead of showing its gratitude with soft questions, Paris Match assumed the usual French role of Bush's tormentor. The president was surly.
Some highlights of the 17-minute interview, released Friday:
Q. You'll be walking on Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. Does that mean that you're not angry at us anymore?
A. I've never been angry at the French. . . .
Q. For 200 years, America and France have walked hand-in-hand, sharing the same values you are speaking about. Last year, for the first time we were not allies. What went wrong?
A. You need to talk to the French leadership. . . .
Q. You're now asking the United Nations to help you find a solution to the Iraqi crisis. Is it --
A. No -- may I stop you? May I? No, we're going to the United Nations again to pass a resolution which supports a new government to which full sovereignty has been transferred.
Q. But it's obviously more difficult than you expected.
A. Well, some parts are and some parts aren't. . . .
Q. But I'm speaking about --
A. Let me finish . . .
Q. Today, your message through the megaphone doesn't reach the world. Don't you feel isolated?
A. No, I feel very comfortable with what I'm doing.
Q. Yes, but all the nations --
A. Let me finish my -- you ask a question, I give you the answers. And then if you want to ask another question, you're allowed to do so.
The French journalists later asked why Bush said his "political action is inspired by God."
"I said what?" Bush protested. "My political action? I never said that." When Paris Match tried to restate the question, Bush shot back: "You said my political action is caused by God, I think."
"No, no, no, no," the Paris Match interviewer clarified. "I said your political action is inspired by God."
"No," the president rejoined. "My life is inspired by God."
In his session with Paris Match, Bush also made a mooving overture to French President Jacques Chirac, a constant obstacle in Bush's efforts to build support for war in Iraq. Asked whether Chirac would be invited to the Bush ranch in Crawford, Tex., where Bush entertains his favorite world leaders, the president allowed: "If he wants to come and see some cows, he's welcome to come out there and see some cows." Bush did not say whether the visit would include a meeting with the first family or merely with its cattle.
Chirac, a former agriculture minister, responded with a boast about les vaches francaises. "Obviously, if the president invites me to his ranch I will go with pleasure," he said in an interview taped Friday with NBC's Tom Brokaw. "Because I understand they raise cows there, and I myself am from a region where we raise cows, probably the most beautiful and best in the world." Touche.
Bush, who often complains about unfavorable press, might take a lesson from Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a former media baron.
The reviews in the Italian press on Saturday of Bush's separate meetings with Berlusconi and the pope ranged from mixed to poor -- except, that is, for Il Giornale, the newspaper owned by Berlusconi's family. That paper found Bush's visit a roaring success.
"Berlusconi defeated by peace," proclaimed the left-wing newspaper, l'Unita, which takes an unkind view of both Bush and Berlusconi. It said demonstrators against the Iraq war numbered in the tens of thousands, and displayed a large photo of a peaceful rally. Another front-page headline announced: "Bush scolded by the pope."
The centrist paper Corriere della Sera took the middle ground. "Bush, in Rome, offers a new turn for Iraq," its headline said. It said estimates of the protest ranged from 6,000 or 7,000 by the police to 150,000 by the demonstrators. A front page cartoon showed Bush kissing the pope's hand, and Berlusconi kissing Bush's hand. The tabloid La Repubblica also reported, neutrally, "Pope to Bush: Peace in Iraq."
And il Giornale? Pope: "God Bless America," declared its banner headline. Other headlines say the pope cited "Encouraging steps on Iraq" and reported that the two "sewed a fissure between the White House and Vatican." An article about the demonstrations was titled "Roman Carnival," and another front page article, titled "the Danger of Utopia," said the protests did not meet expectations. Another article quotes Berlusconi saying the protests were "a flop" and printed his estimate of 6,000 demonstrators, 4,000 from outside Rome.
Freedom of the press, A.J. Liebling observed, belongs to the man who owns one.
This place was really hell. There wasn't enough room for Bush's entourage at Rome's luxurious St. Regis hotel, so overflow lodging for some White House staff and journalists was established at a boutique hotel called Aleph, which presents itself as a theme hotel devoted to Dante's "Inferno." "All hope abandon, ye who enter here," the room-key jackets helpfully informed guests. The lobby was decorated with red lights, red decor and images of the Devil. The bar, too, conveyed a Satanic sense, with fallen angels hovering in the vicinity, offering the hope of salvation through alcohol. The Red Library has a "Mephistophelian . . . display of inaccessible books," its Web site boasts.
A promotion for the restaurant raises the possibility "that you will end up in Dante's Sixth Circle of Hell with the gluttons."
The Quotable Bush:
"I'm pleased the American worker is doing their job."
-- Friday, in Rome, commenting on U.S. employment figures