Defiant and sometimes defensive, president sticks to familiar themes

Tough talk on terror offset occasionally by unsteady manner


April 14, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - His words last night were familiar. President Bush insisted that America must complete its mission in Iraq. And that terrorism is a global pandemic that must be eradicated. And that when he says something, he means it.

Defiant and sometimes defensive in tone, the president stuck to familiar themes during a rare prime-time news conference.

At times, despite his muscular rhetoric, Bush's manner seemed unsteady, ill at ease at a moment that may be the toughest of his presidency. Yet when pushed to defend his policies, Bush budged not at all. Pressed to apologize or to admit to mistakes, he refused and briskly dismissed his critics.

Bush surely met one objective of the night: to make himself visible. Save for brief appearances in the past few days, he had been out of sight on his Texas ranch as American blood was shed in Iraq and a congressional panel looked into how his administration missed signs of the Sept. 11 attacks.

So came his re-emergence in the White House East Room, where Bush presented himself as a president fully in charge, eager to take on the most sensitive questions.

His broader task was fraught with political peril: He had to confront rising public skepticism about his leadership on Iraq and the war on terror - the very issues he once assumed would be his strong suits in his run for re-election this fall.

To that end, Bush had to reflect on questions, alone at the lectern before a television audience, after several wrenching weeks that have delivered a welter of challenges.

He spoke to Americans at a moment when majorities say they disapprove of his foreign policy and doubt that he has an effective plan to stabilize Iraq. A growing body count in Iraq - at least 83 U.S. troops have been killed in the past two weeks - seems to be complicating a June 30 deadline, when sovereignty is supposed to be handed to the Iraqi people.

The 9/11 panel has been grilling officials in his administration about whether they mishandled the terrorist threat before Sept. 11. And just recently, his former counterterrorism chief, Richard A. Clarke, accused the president of having failed to give urgency to terrorism while focusing attention elsewhere, on Saddam Hussein.

In times of political testing, the president has proved before that he can stand resolute and instill confidence. Days after the 9/11 attacks, he was at once somber and stern. He grieved the loss of life while articulating a bold vision for defeating terrorism and launching a war in Afghanistan that Americans strongly backed. His poll numbers shot up.

It remains unclear whether or how Bush's appearance last night changed his public image. But he appeared to lack some of the certitude he projected after the Sept. 11 attacks and the swagger he displayed when Baghdad fell swiftly and the war in Iraq seemed to be going well.

At times last night, he smoothly repeated statements about Iraq or terrorism that he has often made before. Yet at less guarded moments, he sounded like a leader searching himself for the right answers - and not always finding them - at a time when Americans are asking hard questions.

Asked, for example, who exactly would take over Iraq on June 30, when the United States is scheduled to transfer authority, Bush said officials in Iraq were still trying to determine "the nature of the entity."

When asked - twice - why he and Vice President Dick Cheney have insisted on testifying together before the 9/11 commission rather than separately, as the panel requested, the president would say only, "Because it's a good chance for both of us to answer questions."

And asked what his greatest mistake has been since the Sept. 11 attacks, the president acknowledged that he was simply stumped by the question. "I wish you had given me this written question ahead of time," he said, "so I could plan for it."

Aides said the president scheduled his news conference at a time when he is mindful that Americans have been seeing visual images of death and chaos in Iraq. He was, they said, determined to reach as many viewers and listeners as possible and explain that to abandon Iraq now would be to embolden terrorists who could threaten America.

To give his Iraq message ample airtime, Bush took the extraordinary step of giving a 17-minute speech before taking questions from reporters, a rarity in an event that was billed solely as a news conference.

Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes, an affiliate of the University of Maryland, said that the violence in Iraq, the Shiite uprising and other rogue attacks, have confounded many Americans. The president, Kull suggested, wanted to seize an opportunity to make a clear case that, in his mind, only an extremist minority of those in Iraq are responsible for the violence.

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