Early in his presidency, George W. Bush gave us "dead or alive," "with us or against us" and "bring 'em on." But in his Rose Garden news conference yesterday, he was all nuance and subtlety.
Asked about a Senate filibuster against his nominee to the United Nations, John R. Bolton, Bush replied: "I'm not sure they actually labeled it 'filibuster.' Thus far it's a stall. Stall headed toward filibuster, I guess."
Queried about a joint project with North Korea that was "scrapped," Bush admonished: "I wouldn't call it 'scrapped' -- is that the verb you used, 'scrapped'? I would use a different verb. I would use 'reassess.' " The president even edited himself. Signaling the end of the session, he said: "A couple more, then I got to hop." Reconsidering that word choice, he amended it: "I guess, leave." Finally, he offered a third phrase: "A couple more and then I have to retire. As opposed to hopping."
Certainly, there were reminders of the Bush of old. He inadvertently referred to detainees as mechanical experts when he said they had been "trained in some instances to disassemble. That means not tell the truth." But mostly yesterday's performance showed a president dealing in shades of gray and resisting questioners' many attempts to goad him into tough talk.
Asked whether China should be labeled an ally or a rival, Bush said the country is neither with us nor against us but rather part of "a very complex relationship." Asked about critics of his North Korea policy, he scolded people "who say that we ought to be using our military to solve the problem" and asserted: "It's either diplomacy or military, and I am for the diplomacy approach."
Nor would he be tricked into criticizing allies. When a reporter wondered if the imprisonment of the former head of the Yukos oil company in Russia would sour relations, Bush became a pundit, answering: "What'll be interesting to see is whether or not he appeals -- I think we think he is going to appeal -- and then how the appeal will be handled. So we're watching the ongoing case."
He also declined invitations to speak in favor of democratic groups in Egypt or to condemn the Uzbek government's internal violence. Bush said he wants the Red Cross to learn "what went on" in Uzbekistan, and he called for an "open" political process in Egypt without plugging the democratic reformers.
The president's "new nuance" -- something for which he once scolded Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) -- may be a product of his growing experience with the news conference. His first term set a record for the infrequency of his sessions with reporters; now, his monthly news conferences are on pace to make Bush the most prolific question-answerer among second-term presidents. But the result of the practice is that the president's monthly sessions produce less news (of either the intentional or accidental variety) than his occasional news conferences did before.
Just before Bush began, network correspondents did their stand-ups to set the tone for the event: Would Bush, at this low point in his presidency, declare that "the president is relevant," as Bill Clinton did during a dark moment? Just before Bush entered, CNN's Bob Franken could be heard telling his viewers that news outlets are using "the term 'lame duck' just a little bit." Others pointed to a string of setbacks for Bush on Social Security, stem cell research and presidential nominees.
Bush did not assert his relevance -- but he did everything to demonstrate it.
What about the tepid reception to his Social Security proposals? "As a veteran of American politics, I have withstood the onslaught," he said. "I'm not surprised that there is reluctance, and I'm not surprised that there has been some initial push-back."
Has he lost momentum in Congress? "Things just don't happen overnight," he said. Later, he added: "I don't worry about anything here in Washington D.C."
Asked about the Amnesty International report saying that the United States has "a new gulag of prisons," Bush thrice called it "absurd." "It's just an absurd allegation," he said with a chuckle.
If there are problems, the president suggested, it is only because he has chosen a high level of difficulty. Iran's nuclear ambition is a "difficult issue," Social Security is a "very difficult debate," and energy and Social Security are "difficult things." Of course, "I could have taken the easy route," but "that's not what the American people want from their president."
Whatever nuance Bush has acquired, it should not be confused with surrender. When Bloomberg News's Dick Keil pointed out that Bush had dropped a call for more tax cuts from his list of domestic priorities, Bush rejoined: "It was implicit in my statement. I haven't changed."