Press Conference Post-Mortem

So, Bush’s prime-time press conference last night came off mostly as predicted, though there were a few interesting developments, especially late in the proceedings when he called on some reporters who don’t normally get to put questions to him.

His pre-rehearsed stuff on “staying the course” in the cause of Iraqi freedom was sufficient, I’m sure, to make the most enthusiastic of his supporters happy. But overall, I think the argument he presented was weak. Beyond asserting (and reasserting, and reasserting) that he (Bush) feels personally confident that he is doing the right thing in Iraq, and that the course we are on will magically lead to a peaceful, democratic government there, and thence to the magical spread of those values throughout the region, there really wasn’t any substance. Bush’s argument basically comes down to, “trust me.” And as a response to polls showing that a growing majority of people specifically don’t trust him, at least on Iraq, that seems like a less-than-adequate response.

It’s clear, though, why Bush dislikes the press conference format: it makes him look bad. Or, from a less-forgiving point of view, it makes his essential badness harder to conceal.

There were some questions that he clearly flubbed. Like this one:

Q. Mr. President, Why are you and the vice president insisting on appearing together before the 9/11 commission? And Mr. President, who will you be handing the Iraqi government over to on June 30?

A. We’ll find that out soon. That’s what Mr. Brahimi is doing. He’s figuring out the nature of the entity we’ll be handing sovereignty over. And secondly, because the the 9/11 commission wants to ask us questions. That’s why we’re meeting, and I look forward to meeting with them and answering their questions.

Q. Mr. President, I was asking why you’re appearing together rather than separately, which was their request.

A. [Accompanied by steely glare at the impertinent questioner.] Because it’s a good chance for both of us to answer questions that the 9/11 commission is looking forward to asking us, and I’m looking forward to answering them.

Let’s see. Hold on for a minute. Oh — I’ve got some must calls, I’m sorry.

After which he went to the reporter from the Washington Times for a softball question to get his footing back.

There was also this one, which led to one of those heart-stopping “oh my God” moments as Bush floundered for a long time without answering what honestly should have been an easy one:

Q. In the last campaign, you were asked a question about the biggest mistake you’d made in your life and you used to like to joke that it was trading Sammy Sosa. You’ve looked back before 9/11 for what mistakes might have been made. After 9/11, what would your biggest mistake be, would you say? And what lessons have you learned from it?

A. Hmmm. I wish you’d have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it. I’m sure historians will look back and say, Gosh, he could have done it better this way or that way. You know, I just — I’m sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hadn’t yet.

I would have gone into Afghanistan the way we went into Afghanistan. Even though what I know today about the stockpiles of weapons, I still would have called upon the world to deal with Saddam Hussein. See, I happen to believe we’ll find out the truth on the weapons. That’s why we sent up the independent commission. I look forward to hearing the truth as — exactly where they are. They could still be there. They could be hidden, like, the 50 tons of mustard gas in a turkey farm.

One of the things that Charlie Duelfer talked about was that he was surprised at the level of intimidation he found amongst people who should know about weapons and their fear of talking about them, because they don’t want to be killed. You know, there’s this kind of, there’s this terror still in the soul of some of the people in Iraq. They’re worried about getting killed. And therefore, they’re not going to talk. And it’ll all settle out. We’ll find out the truth about the weapons at some point in time.

However, the fact that he had the capacity to make them bothers me today just like it would have bothered me then. He’s a dangerous man. He’s a man who actually not only had weapons of mass destruction — and the reason I can say that with certainty is because he used them. And I have no doubt in my mind that he would like to have inflicted harm or paid people to inflict harm or trained people to inflict harm on America because he hated us.

You know, I hope I don’t want to sound like I’ve made no mistakes. I’m confident I have. I just haven’t — you just put me under the spot here and maybe I’m not quick, as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one.

That one led to the following harsh assessment from Reuters: Bush remembers no specific mistakes since 9/11.

Now, I realize that on one level, this is just a game of political gotcha, and in that context, Bush is well within his rights not to play along by offering a sound bite in which he acknowledges error. But honestly, I think this goes beyond that. I’m increasingly convinced that Bush really does have what can only be described as a deep-rooted personality disorder that makes it impossible for him to acknowledge error. It’s not just that he’s unwilling to admit being wrong to a roomful of reporters. He’s unwilling to admit it to himself. And that’s a problem.

The final oh-my-God moment, for me, came at the very end of the session, when he called on Don Gonyea, NPR’s White House correspondent. Maybe Bush was feeling the finish line, and decided he could afford to throw one to a more-critical questioner. But it was a mistake, and he compounded it when he got into a conversational back and forth with Gonyea during which the presidential stature he works so hard to build up crumbled visibly:

[A.] Let’s see, last question. Hold on for a second. Those who yell will not be asked.

Q. Following on both Judy and John’s questions, and it comes out of what you just said in some ways, with public support for your policies in Iraq falling off the way they have quite significantly over the past couple of months, I guess I’d like to know if you feel in any way that you’ve failed as a communicator on this topic?

A. Gosh, I don’t know.

Q. Well, you deliver a lot of speeches. And a lot of them contain similar phrases and they vary very little from one to the next. And they often include a pretty upbeat assessment of how things are going with the exception of —

A. I didn’t think —

Q. — pretty somber assessment this evening.

A. Pretty somber assessment today, Don.

Q. I guess I just wonder if you feel that you have failed in any way? You don’t have many of these press conferences where you engage in this kind of exchange. Have you failed in any way to make the case to the American public?

A. I guess if you put it into a political context, that’s the kind of thing the voters will decide next November. That’s what elections are about. They’ll take a look at me and my opponent and say let’s see which one of them can better win the war on terror. Who best can see to it that Iraq emerges as a free society. And Don, you know if I tried to fine tune my messages based upon polls I think I’d be pretty ineffective. I know I would be disappointed in myself.

I hope today you’ve got a sense of my conviction about what we’re doing. If you don’t, maybe I need to learn to communicate better. I feel strongly about what we’re doing. I feel strongly that the course this administration is taking will make America more secure and the world more free. And therefore, the world more peaceful. It’s a conviction that’s deep in my soul. And I will say it as best as I can possibly can to the American people. I look forward to the debate and the campaign. I look forward to helping, for the American people to hear, you know, what is the proper use of American power. Do we have an obligation to lead or should we shirk responsibility?

That’s how I view this debate. And I look forward to making it. I’ll do it the best I possibly can. I’ll give it the best shot. I’ll speak as plainly as I can. One thing is for certain, though, about me, and the world has learned this, when I say something I mean it. And the credibility of the United States is incredibly important for keeping world peace and freedom.

Thank you all very much.

That last exchange shows both the best and the worst of Bush’s performance. I think he was being honest in that moment about the conviction he feels, “deep in his soul,” that he’s the best person for the job of president. And for him, that personal conviction trumps any evidence to the contrary. You can see him thrusting it back at the electorate, almost daring them to disagree with him.

That approach obviously resonates with a certain chunk of voters. But over time, in the face of accumulating evidence that it’s not just admirable self-confidence from someone who hit a triple, but is rather the self-serving bravado of someone born on third base who’s willing to ignore his own failures, that exchange could end up being Bush’s political epitaph.

Because it is essential that the president be credible in order to lead effectively, both at home and abroad, and that credibility has taken a huge hit under Bush. When you get right down to it, his shirking of responsibility — for 9/11, for the missing WMDs, for the lack of a realistic exit strategy and the ongoing carnage in Iraq — is the hallmark of the Bush presidency. Increasingly, voters are raising questions about that.

And Bush doesn’t have an answer.

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