One might get the sense that our esteemed press corps is suffering from an acute collective lack of imagination. Here's a sampling of questions from President Bush's press conference last night:
"Two and a half years later, do you feel any sense of personal responsibility for September 11th?"
"One of the biggest criticisms of you is that whether it's WMD in Iraq, postwar planning in Iraq, or even the question of whether this administration did enough to ward off 9/11, you never admit a mistake. Is that a fair criticism, and do you believe that there were any errors in judgment that you made related to any of those topics I brought up?"
"Two weeks ago, a former counterterrorism official at the NSC, Richard Clarke, offered an unequivocal apology to the American people for failing them prior to 9/11. Do you believe the American people deserve a similar apology from you, and would you prepared to give them one?"
"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?"
"I guess I'd like to know if you feel, in any way, that you have failed as a communicator on [Iraq]."
Those five variations on the same question represented fully a third of the questions asked.
In general, the President parried the thrusts well -- 9/11 was bin Laden's fault; we weren't on a war footing before 9/11 and we should have been; we'll see in November if he's communicated well enough.
His opening remarks were a solid primer on the events on the ground in Iraq (the nature of the insurgents, the various deadlines for steps in the process of creating a sovereign state) for the mass of Americans only half paying attention. And he generally looked in control during the question and answer session, with one exception.
The one major gaffe (I'm not counting minor things like calling Donald Rumsfeld the Secretary or State or appearing briefly to be blanking on Kim Jong-Il's name) came when he was asked about post-9/11 mistakes. Bush looked genuinely startled by the question -- "I wish you'd have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it," he joked initially.
He started off well, saying "I'm sure historians will look back and say, gosh, he could've done it better this way or that way." But then he came out with, "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 answer, but it hasn't yet." After defending his record -- "Even knowing what I know today about the stockpiles of weapons, I still would've called upon the world to deal with Saddam Hussein," he said -- he ultimately punted: "I don't want to sound like I have 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 as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one."
In a way, this sort of thing is endearing -- few politicians admit weakness like that, and part of Bush's appeal is his genuine, regular-guy affect. But it's hard to shake the feeling that this was the most memorable moment of the hour, the one that may reach a wider audience by way of late-night comedy, and exactly the kind of thing that reporters' testy cross-examination was meant to elicit.
Next time, Bush ought to take the advice that NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen gave on his blog yesterday: skip the dance with the press, and just give a speech.
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