It is a modern political cliché that how the public perceives an event is everything. People who say this forget that reality is important too, and only in part because public opinion tends in its rough way to follow it. But as regards President Bush’s press conference Tuesday night, his third in three years, public perception will decide all. (Not press perception, which has been negative and will grow more so with time.)
What do I think public opinion of the president’s news conference will be? Generally positive. Here’s why: The president spoke uninterrupted for the first 17 minutes, when most people were tuning in to see what he had to say. His speech/announcement hit every point that had to be covered, crisply and yet somberly. Yes, things are tough in Iraq now; yes, we are going to stick to the plan to turn sovereignty over to the Iraqis; yes, we will stay as long as our presence makes the difference between success and failure, stability and chaos. Yes, we will increase troop strength if needed; yes, we have faith that Iraq will ultimately choose democracy and civic health. It was a measured and logical layout of U.S. plans and positions. (Read the opening statement here. It tells you everything you need to know about what Mr. Bush thinks and where he stands.) It will have made a positive impression while people were watching with wide-awake eyes.
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It was after the statement that things got more awkward. The president rambled and repeated talking points, playing for time as he tried to remember what he’d decided he was going to say in response to this question or that. Sometimes he remembered and became energized; sometimes he didn’t.
But here the press came to his rescue, and God bless them. They are so clearly carrying water for the left-liberal establishment, they were so clearly carrying water for the preening and partisan hacks who dominate the 9/11 commission, and the Washington Post’s coverage of the news conference yesterday morning was so clearly teeing up Bob Woodward’s next book, that the media nullified their hostility. They could have done some damage to the president with a grave and honest spirit of inquiry.
Instead, they played left-wing Snidely Whiplash. They almost twirled their mustaches, and I don’t mean only the women: Will you apologize, Mr. President? Do you feel personally responsible for Sept. 11? Do you think you’re a loser as a communicator? What was your worst mistake? Do you really like that tie? Do you ever consider hanging yourself from a cornice in the East Room with your tie? When you look in the mirror do you feel mild disgust or just that feeling of shame where you sort of want to tear your face off and run screaming from the room?
Imagine it is April, 1943 and FDR is meeting with the press. Mr. President, why did you fail us on Dec. 7? You call it a day of infamy, but didn’t it reveal your leadership style to be infamous? Why did you let the U.S. fleet sit sleepy and exposed at Pearl Harbor? Do you think your physical infirmity, sir, has an impact on your ability to think about strategic concerns, and will you instruct your doctors to make public your medical records?
But of course they wouldn’t have asked these questions. Our press corps in those days was more like Americans than our press corps is today. They were both less self-hating and more appropriately anxious: Don’t be killing our leaders in the middle of a war, don’t be disheartening the people. Win and do the commentary later.
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I noticed once again at the news conference that Mr. Bush has turned garrulous. He has taken to speaking at great length in venues of his choosing, and more and more he chooses. A week ago I took part in a seminar on book writing at a gathering of Republicans in Georgia. The president spoke to the gathering later that night, at an informal dinner for a few hundred, and I stayed on to watch. Everyone knew his remarks would be brief, but they were not. After an hour the governor of Florida, sitting behind him on the small stage, shifted like someone who knew big brother was going on too long, and finally threw a dinner roll at his back to make the point. I made the last part up, but Jeb Bush looked like someone trying to throw his voice: Wrap it up, buddy. Eventually the president did, with what seemed reluctance, after an hour and 20 minutes of a tour of his horizons, a personal and at times startlingly blunt appraisal of other leaders and the realities they face.
When I mentioned to a friend that I’d never heard of Mr. Bush speaking so long, the friend, who sees him often, said the president had recently spoken for more than an hour at a lunch, to the startlement of listeners who wound up furtively checking their watches. Another Washington denizen shared a similar story.
This is unlike our president. I don’t know what it means. I suspect it means his staff, having seen his effectiveness in small groups with this style, is telling him to do it for large groups, as he did at the news conference. This should be re-examined.
The president at the news conference did not seem unprepared or uninformed. He looked to me like someone who had been coached within an inch of his life and who insisted on yet more coaching late in the day, and who began the news conference with the kind of tiredness that first expresses itself not physically but intellectually. A subject is introduced and the smooth ivory dominoes do not begin to click into place one after another, as they do when one is fresh, or lucky. (I hereby retract that unfortunate image.) Instead one furrows his brow and shakes his head. Over-stimulated and wanting to yawn is a bad place to be.
Should a president under crisis go into any venue that does not call on his greatest strengths? No. Get him out there doing speeches, meeting with citizens, taking a few shouted questions, again and again. That’s how Mr. Bush best communicates his convictions, logic and plans, and that is the purpose of presidential communication.
More and more it seems to me Mr. Bush is not only Bill Clinton’s successor but his exact opposite: Mr. Clinton perfectly poised and hollow inside, a man whose lack of compass left him unable to lead within the Oval Office but who gave a compelling public presentation of the presidency, and Mr. Bush a strong president with an obvious soul, decisive at the desk, but with no dazzling edifice. It’s actually amazing that two such different men came so close together. Lucky for us, considering the history, that Mr. Bush was the one who came now.