The President who so many times in the past has surprised on the upside did just the opposite in Tuesday’s primetime press conference. As has been widely reported, the East Room exchange bumped American Idol out of its normal timeslot. Can you imagine how harshly Simon Cowell would have ripped Bush if the two shows had been combined? Even Paula Abdul would’ve been compelled to go negative.
Not that it was all bad. It started out well enough during the President’s opening statement when he stood up for the troops and against terrorists. It is during these moments (arguing obvious points against an imaginary debate team) when Bush is at his strongest. His steely resolve serves him well. He clearly means what he says and believes in his own cause and calling. During these opening remarks, Bush worked hard to link together the struggle in Iraq with the broader war on terror:
“The violence we are seeing in Iraq is familiar. The terrorists who take hostages or plants a roadside bomb near Baghdad is serving the same ideology of murder that kills innocent people on trains in Madrid, and murders children on buses in Jerusalem, and blows up a nightclub in Bali and cuts the throat of a young reporter for being a Jew.”
Whether or not you agree with the logic of the argument (connecting Iraq and 9-11), at least the imagery makes sense. We agree. People who blow-up others indiscriminately, take hostages and murder children are bad. We need to finish the job in Iraq. Soldiers are good. Terrorists are evil. Democracy is better than Saddam (who by the way, you may recall, used WMDs against his own people).
But once the questioning started, and the President was forced to think on his feet and go beyond his prepared ‘stating the obvious’ remarks, things fell apart. It was uncomfortable. Most troubling perhaps were the cutaways to Rice, Card and Rove whose pained expressions told the story as their man struggled to string together enough words to make cogent a phrase or two per minute of speaking.
Bush even stumbled over the evening’s most predictable questions. Did we go to war under false pretenses? Why are you and the Vice President meeting with the 9-11 commission together instead of separately? After 9-11, what would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have learned from it? The last question is right out of every job interview in American history and yet the man who ominously referred to himself as “the ultimate decision maker for this country” came up with: “I wish you’d have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it.” This is guy who is clearly incapable of introspection and listening to intellectual Republican pundits try to reword what he means, explain his flaws as those of a guy who thinks in black and white, or describe his performance as that of one who was in control and on the offense was almost as unnerving as witnessing the bumbling and stumbling in real time.
It got even more surreal than that. “And, Mr. President, who will we be handing the Iraqi government over to on June 30th?”
“We’ll find that out soon.” What? Is he kidding?
“And a free Iraq is going to be a major blow for terrorism.” Uh, you mean a blow against terrorism, right?
A most telling Bush slip came towards the middle of the press conference when he was asked about the perception of his unwillingness to admit ever making a mistake. While referring to the intelligence before 9-11, apparently confused and irritated, this came out:
“We knew he had designs on us. We knew he hated us. But there was nobody in our government, at least, and I don’t think the prior government that could envision flying airplanes into buildings on such a massive scale.”
Notice here that there is a distinction being made between OUR government and the PRIOR government.
Shouldn’t the President at least pretend that he views the Clinton administration as being a part of our government? Maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on the President. We’ve been trained to hold him to different standards. I suppose it’s enough that he didn’t say my government as he usually does. Maybe we should just be happy that he didn’t refer to the war in Iraq as a crusade or mispronounce the word nuclear seven times in a row.
Bush ended the evening’s exchange by explaining, “One thing is for certain, though, about me, and the world has learned this: When I say something, I mean it.” I’ll give him that. I do believe he means what he says. I just don’t have the slightest idea what he’s talking about most of the time.