Clear speech, like peace, can prove elusive

President stumbles over names of two main guests

Annapolis Mideast Conference

November 28, 2007

On big stages, when the stakes are high, President Bush's syntax sometimes goes awry. Subjects and verbs might not agree. Sentences get chopped. Words are flubbed.

Opening yesterday's Middle East peace conference at the U.S. Naval Academy, Bush stumbled over the names of his star guests: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Olmert's came out sounding like "Ulmmm." Bush got hung up on the Palestinian leader's name, calling him "Ma-Mock-Mahmoud Abbas."

The gaffes came shortly after a small triumph for the president: getting the two leaders to hammer out a joint statement on future peace talks.

Bush decided to punctuate the achievement by reading the document aloud. He donned his reading glasses, a sign that the statement was so fresh that White House aides had not had time to print it in the larger font typically used for presidential speeches.

"We didn't know there was going to be a statement," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

Typically, documents for the president's public remarks contain phonetic transliterations of tongue-twisting foreign names. Yesterday, Bush got no such help with his pronunciation.

The practice was thrust into the public spotlight earlier this year, when a copy of Bush's September address to the United Nations was accidentally posted on the U.N. Web site, complete with pronunciation guides.

Yesterday's botched pronunciations yielded laughter and some hisses among the scores of Arab journalists watching the proceedings from inside Alumni Hall, the academy's basketball arena, which served as a media filing center.

"It's embarrassing to his guests, but it's funny to us. We are used to his fumbling," said Tamman Al-Barazi, a Washington-based writer for the Arab-language Alwatan Alarabi news magazine.

But because Bush is pushing for a Palestinian state after seven years of stalled negotiations, Al-Barazi said, "This time, we'll forgive him."

David Nitkin

View from the pit

After a slight delay, the talks opened more than an hour later than expected, with speeches by Bush, Olmert and Abbas that most of the 800 international journalists heard in a basketball court turned press pit.

In a nod to the international press, there was an indoor smoking section in the back of the room. There was a bit of an outcry when the first segment of Abbas' speech couldn't be heard.

Aviv Shir-On, a spokesman for Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said he was heartened by the joint statement that Abbas and Olmert hashed out and that was announced by Bush, setting a timetable for negotiations to reach an accord before the end of next year.

The spokesman also found it significant that the three leaders stressed how other countries have pledged their support for the peace efforts. "For the Palestinians, it's important they feel the backing of the international community, and especially of the Arab world," he said.

Wahab Hadi, an Afghan native and correspondent for Voice of America, a U.S. broadcasting service, sensed a "sincerity and a restrained optimism" in the leaders' speeches. "I hope they put into action their sincerity," he said. "Sincerity is not enough. They seek international help, but they must come to a solution themselves."

Hadi, who stressed that he was speaking for himself, said a resolution to the Middle East conflict would have implications for the war on terrorism. "Look at bin Laden. He grew up there in an atmosphere of unsolved problems; obviously he was touched and exploited by others, and now he's exploiting others."

Jean Marbella

Here and there

And so Annapolis ended, with a brief closing statement from a subdued Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

How brief? At about 10 minutes, it was dwarfed by some two hours of preparations - security sweeps of the press center, endless microphone checks, and the moving and ultimately removing of a little table next to the podium.

It was an appropriate end to a day that occurred mostly behind the scenes and away from the 800 or so pairs of eyes at Alumni Hall, where media from around the world had been trapped - or, as conference organizers would say, accommodated - while the delegates did their diplomatic thing in the much grander Memorial Hall.

Save for the opening speeches that were aired on a big screen in late morning, and then Rice in the flesh appearing shortly before 7 p.m., news of the day was kept away from the news media.

They filed dispatches, pecking away at laptops in which their words appeared in Arabic. They did TV stand-ups overlooking the basketball court filled with rows of tables and their working colleagues. They did radio broadcasts, in British accents and pretty French. They took pictures of each other and occasionally made a scrum around visiting spokesmen.

By the time Rice appeared, Annapolis fatigue seemed to have set in. Cameramen were talking, with dread, about coming trips to Iowa and New Hampshire. Others were discussing dinner plans.

In the end, much of what Rice had to say was a near-duplicate of what Bush had said in his opening speech - Annapolis is a beginning, not an end, all issues are on the table, the world supports the efforts, it will be hard but not impossible.

Even before she took the stage, the deck was stacked, at least from a media standpoint. Two TV staffers were discussing what their broadcasts would lead with that evening - one said Sean Taylor; the other, Natalee Holloway.

Jean Marbella

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