Bush's bantering side returns, for reporters

President jokes about names, offers `social item'

March 14, 2002|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - If there was doubt about President Bush's ability to retain his loose, easygoing, jocular side while remaining every inch a wartime leader, yesterday put it to rest.

The president dealt fluently in an afternoon news conference at the White House with topics of utmost gravity: Middle East violence, Saddam Hussein and the war on terrorism.

Yet he appeared equally interested in, say, poking fun at a familiar reporter about his age, or asking another which nickname he preferred.

"Stretch?" Bush said, calling on an especially tall member of the press corps. "Super Stretch? Little Stretch? Regular Stretch?"

"Up to you," the perplexed reporter said, before finally getting on with his question about how to prevent another Enron-like collapse.

If Bush's style is not traditionally presidential, it is traditionally Bush. Still, the famously folksy leader has not appeared quite this determined to be Mr. Casual since the days when he would stride to the back of his campaign plane to banter with reporters.

Once, a reporter on the campaign plane who was trying desperately to write an article under deadline pressure asked Bush, in the most gentle possible way, if he would cut the small talk and return to his seat in first class. The presidential candidate, feigning hurt feelings, just kept on talking.

That Bush is back.

At one point yesterday, for example, the president decided that he wanted to talk, apropos of nothing in particular, about how Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the commander of American forces in Afghanistan, attended high school in Texas with Bush's wife, Laura.

"I'll give you an interesting fact," Bush said, launching into a discussion that did not seem to entertain his questioners so much as puzzle them. But that did not deter him.

"I don't know if you all know this or not, speaking about Tommy, but Tommy Franks went to Midland Lee High School, Class of '63," the president said. "Laura Bush went to Midland Lee High School, Class of '64."

Silence.

"That's an interesting thing for the social columns," Bush said, pressing on and beginning to draw laughter.

"For those of you who allow your ... news gathering to slip into social items, or social gossip, which sometimes happens - now, it doesn't happen that much."

Bush decided to end his analysis of the media there, but it was hardly the only time he seized the chance to engage in idle chatter.

From the moment he walked into the White House briefing room - a cluttered setting he favors for news conferences over the stately East Room - it was clear that Bush was feeling relaxed. So loose that he occasionally stumbled over his words - mentioning, for example, that he hoped the Senate would soon fill one of his judicial "vasancies."

Yet when Bush is in a breezy mood, he also tends to appear more confident. And when he notices that people are laughing with him, he usually tries to extend the comic moment.

For example, the president was asked by a reporter about concerns in Congress that the White House does not consult with lawmakers enough on its war strategy.

"Oh, Mike, Mike, Mike," Bush said to the reporter, as if educating a schoolchild. "We consult with Congress all the time."

But Mike pushed on, noting that even a Republican had issued such a complaint.

"I don't know what single Republican you're referring to," Bush said, an impish grin spread across his face.

"But if you'd give me the name afterwards, I'll be glad to have him over for another consultation - if you know what I mean."

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