Bush deftly answers critics in interview

In risky move, president seeks voters' attention

Analysis

February 09, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

President Bush had seen enough.

The Democrats vying for his job had stolen the spotlight for weeks. Their high-decibel attacks over his decision to go to war in Iraq were being beamed into the living rooms of the nation's voters.

They hounded Bush over the report from the administration's weapons inspector, David Kay, who said Iraq likely had no weapons of mass destruction. All the while, Bush's poll numbers were slipping. Fast.

That is why, aides say, he took the unusual step of appearing on a Sunday morning television talk show. A man who rarely sits for one-on-one interviews, Bush subjected himself to an hour of tough questions by NBC's Tim Russert, one of Washington's most aggressive interrogators.

Bush's decision to appear on the show was risky. An hourlong interview brings the possibility of a major gaffe that could be replayed time and again. What happened to Howard Dean is evidence of how one embarrassing moment can trigger a political implosion.

But the president had to find some way to recapture the attention of the voters and get his message back on the airwaves and the front page. And yesterday -- whether or not Americans ultimately accept his justifications for going to war -- Bush accomplished just that, without any obvious blunders.

The president did "not want to be out of the spotlight when important questions are being raised that have to do with his leadership," one senior White House official said. The official added that Russert's show, Meet the Press, has several million viewers on Sunday mornings and clips are run on news programs for days after.

Bush could have held a news conference or delivered a major speech. The White House had scheduled his State of the Union address in between the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary to allow him to grab headlines for a day.

This time, with an increasing number of voters doubting him on a decision as weighty as taking the nation to war, he had to find a forum in which he would appear human and believable.

The interview allowed voters to see Bush unplugged, analysts said. Voters who supported Bush in 2000 liked him for his plain speaking, and at a moment of political trouble, aides wanted that appealing Bush out there, responding to the difficult questions.

"He just needed to be a presence, rather than having surrogates justifying his policies," said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas government professor who has closely followed Bush's career.

Buchanan said that sitting before a veteran interviewer for an hour showed off many of the qualities people like about Bush -- such as his straight-shooting assertiveness -- while also portraying him as a strong leader dealing with hard questions.

"Those who love him saw a leader who sticks to his guns regardless of criticism, and can take a punch and will not govern by polls," Buchanan said. "His critics, though, saw a man who appeared willful and defiant to a point of arrogance."

Bush played up the characteristics people like about him, sprinkling the interview with comments about how he sticks to his guns. In dealing with the war in Iraq and all else, he said, his approach is to be "clear" and "straightforward" and "realistic." He portrayed himself as unmoved by his unpopularity across much of Europe.

"Heck, I don't know. Ronald Reagan was unpopular in Europe when he was president," he said with a trace of a smirk. "I'm keeping pretty good company."

His goal was clear: to reassure Americans at a moment when he is under attack from his political rivals, and to begin an effort to convince Americans that Saddam Hussein, weapons in hand or not, was a danger that needed to be excised.

"Bush was effective," said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution and former White House speechwriter. "Russert took on this role of trying to break everything down into little bits, saying to Bush, `You said this, but then did that.' And Bush just kept on saying, `Look at the big picture, look at where we are now, and really, what I've done was right, justifiable and I would do it again.'"

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