Bush faces tougher questions

At news conference, gloves come off a bit


April 14, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

For 17 minutes last night, President George W. Bush spoke to the American public about the progress being made in Iraq, and then faced a White House press corps that was uniformly polite but unusually pointed in its questioning about just two topics: the increasingly bloody occupation of Iraq and the Sept. 2001 attacks.

Did he share responsibility for the intelligence failures that allowed the terror strikes to occur and for mistaken statements that served to justify the invasion of Iraq? Bush never said no, but then again, he never said yes, either.

ABC News' Terry Moran: "How do you explain to Americans that you got that so wrong [and that the invasion of Iraq was based on] so many false premises?" Saddam Hussein was a gathering threat, the president responded, and the United States needed to show resolve.

John Roberts of CBS News invoked the apology by former counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke to the families of those who died during the attacks. Did the president want to apologize as well?

Bush replied that he shared the anguish of many government officials over the thousands of deaths that occurred. He then repeated nearly verbatim the response of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice that the administration would have moved "heaven and earth" to prevent an attack had there been any specific warning.

And no concessions emerged.

After the press conference, NBC News' David Gregory observed, "He's not going to give any quarter. This administration does not do that."

Bush projected a sense of patience, good cheer and resolve, setting out the need to stay the course in Iraq as though he were a high school principal defining campus rules before a relatively well-behaved assembly.

But David Gergen, who served on the staffs of four presidents - three Republicans, one Democrat - as a media adviser, said in a telephone interview that he was surprised that Bush did not seek to persuade those Americans who are increasingly unsure of the soundness of his administration's approach in Iraq.

"I thought the entire purpose of the press conference was to buy more time for his policies to work," said Gergen, now a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Bush needed "to extend the patience of the country and to explain why the policies would work, and in the process reassert his own leadership.

"Normally in that situation, you try to persuade us, you present the argument," Gergen said. "There was no sense of what was actually happening on the ground and why it's unfolding the way it is." Instead, the president simply delivered a forceful reiteration of his belief that the U.S.-led effort would prevail in Iraq, Gergen said.

Bush also consistently avoided direct responses to direct questions. It was most obvious when Mike Allen of The Washington Post asked Bush why he was only appearing for questioning in tandem with Vice President Dick Cheney by the federal commission investigating the September 2001 attacks, rather than individually, as the panel requested.

Bush ducked once, and when Allen persisted, Bush repeated himself: "It's a good chance for both of us to answer questions."

The president tends not to be eager to seek out such opportunities to face direct questioning. Last night's press conference was just the 12th of the 3-year-old Bush administration and only the third in prime time. (As Bush noted, this is an election year.)

In the past, in the wake of terrorism and war, reporters have seemed respectful to the point of pliance before the president. As New York Times White House reporter Elizabeth Bumiller told a class at Towson University about the press conference on the eve of last spring's invasion: "I think we were very deferential because ... it's live, it's very intense, it's frightening to stand up there."

Bush seemed mindful of that tendency as he knocked down the premise of the opening question, which suggested a perceived parallel between the "quagmire" of the Vietnam war and the recent bloody insurrection in many Iraqi cities against the U.S.-led coalition. "I think the analogy is false," Bush said. "I also think that analogy sends the wrong message to our troops and the wrong message to the enemy."

But reporters followed up each other's questions, each just as tough as the last. "They served as a tribune of the people," Gergen said. "There is a sense that [Bush] is fairly unbending - that he doesn't want to acknowledge that mistakes were made."

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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