WATCHING PRESIDENT BUSH'S PRESS CONFERENCE Tuesday night, you could see why he drives the press crazy. No matter what they asked, his answer was invariably the same: We're staying the course in Iraq. It's important to gaining freedom for Iraqis and winning the war on terror.
Not only that, he began the session with reporters by gobbling up 17 minutes of time they consider theirs. He devoted it to an opening statement--it was actually a speech--in which he said basically one thing: We're not flinching in Iraq. He was heroically on message, relentlessly repetitive, but effective in his own way.
Washington hates this type of public performance, which is characteristic of Bush. The press, the political community, the inside-the-Beltway lifers--they prefer a rich display of details, a bit of nuance, and some wit. Reporters, particularly, are soft on presidents who seem to like them or at least pretend to--or who pander to them.
Bush, of course, gives them none of that. He's not aiming to please the Washington crowd--the political elite. His audience is outside the Beltway--the mass--and he does surprisingly well in appealing to it. How does he do it? By being plain spoken and amiable and down to earth. By sounding more like Midland, Texas, than like Georgetown or Chevy Chase. By honing in on a single message and not giving reporters much else to write about. Bush tried Tuesday night to dictate the lead of stories.
If one was expecting a Kissingerian strategic case for America's intervention in Iraq, one wasn't going to get it from Bush. His argument was simple. Freedom in Iraq is good for Iraqis, good for America, and good for the world. And though we've had some tough weeks recently, we're sticking in Iraq and with our plan to turn over sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30.
By my count, reporters got in 15 questions. I categorize them this way: six were seeking information, three were gotcha, three were accusations, one was obscure, one stupid, one showboating. This is a pretty good breakdown of questions. More often than not, the majority of them will be either gotcha or accusations.
One of the gotcha question was disingenuous. Elizabeth Bumiller of the New York Times asked about a statement by Bush to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in which he said he didn't feel "that sense of urgency" about terrorism before September 11. As any reporter would have known, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice had fleshed out the context of that quote in her testimony last Thursday before the 9/11 Commission. Bush was comparing his feeling before the September 11 attacks with how he felt afterwards.
Several questions were attempts by reporters to get Bush to admit mistakes. These are hardy perennials at presidential press conferences, and Bush wisely didn't take the bait. He knows the reporters won't treat an admission of a mistake as a admirable moment of introspection and candor. Rather, they'll jump on the admission and hammer him. Nor would he apologize for having allowed the September 11 attacks to occur, as his ex-aide Richard Clarke did recently. Bush said the blame was on Osama bin Laden.
The last question came from a fellow from National Public Radio, Don Gonyea, who queried Bush about his supposed failure as a communicator. Sure enough, Bush seized the opportunity to tout himself as a strong leader who can be counted on. "When I say something, I mean it," he declared. I suspect this answer didn't thrill the assembled reporters.
The press conference, only the third prime time one of his presidency, was Bush's idea. My guess is after several weeks of renewed fighting in Iraq and eroding support for the war, he wanted to get back on the political offensive. He may have done so. Polls in a day or two will tell us.
Bush left nothing to chance. Many viewers were unlikely to hang around for the full 62 minutes of the press conference. So he delivered his message right at the top and without interference from the reporters. We're not changing course in Iraq, he said. We're hanging in there. It was a message that no viewer could have missed and one that reporters have heard too often.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.