How Bush Blew His Press Conference

And why he didn’t have to.

Some presidents are invigorated by adversity. George W. Bush is said to have matured markedly and taken the tiller firmly in hand after the Sept. 11 attacks. Chatterbox doesn’t really believe this alliterative hooey about Bush, but others do. Still, if today’s press conference is any guide, President Bush most certainly does not handle political adversity especially well.

Bush has never been good at press conferences. But he was unusually bad today, particularly at handling retrospective questions about the war in Iraq and the justifications his administration gave for waging it. The questions were far from hostile. A question on homeland security, pegged to the scary news that al-Qaida may be planning new airline hijackings in the United States, failed to query the president on why the government chose this time to reduce the number of airport screeners. When one reporter raised the inevitable rude question of why the president had sent troops into battle based on “flimsy” or “nonexistent” evidence of an imminent Iraqi threat, that reporter prefaced the question by saying, “it’s impossible to deny that the world is a better place” without Saddam in power.

Yet Bush seemed jangled. His strategy for answering questions about why we went to war was to repeat, mantralike, that Saddam was a threat and that the intelligence on which he based that judgment was good, sound intelligence and that the United Nations had passed 12 resolutions against Saddam. To wit:

  • “There is no doubt in my mind, Campbell, that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the United States security, and a threat to peace in the region.”
  • “Saddam Hussein was a threat. The United Nations viewed him as a threat. That’s why they passed 12 resolutions. Predecessors of mine viewed him as a threat. We gathered a lot of intelligence. That intelligence was good, sound intelligence on which I made a decision.”
  • “I analyzed a thorough body of intelligence—good, solid, sound intelligence—that led me to come to the conclusion that it was necessary to remove Saddam Hussein from power. … I don’t want to get repetitive here, but it’s important to remind everybody that there [were] 12 resolutions that came out of the United Nations because others recognized the threat of Saddam Hussein. Twelve times the United Nations Security Council passed resolutions in recognition of the threat that he posed. … [H]e posed a threat.”

Robotic repetition of a Big Message is a winning political strategy when you’re on the campaign trail, because each audience comes to it fresh. It’s a terrible strategy, though, to repeat yourself over and over within a single televised press conference, because it grates on viewers and makes them wonder why you aren’t able to provide a fuller answer. The best illustration of this was Al Gore’s disastrous 1997 press conference in which he repeated the phrase, “no controlling legal authority” seven times when asked about political fundraising phone calls he’d made from the White House.

The cannier hawkish commentators understand that when the justification for your war looks shaky, you don’t repeat it again and again. You subtly change the subject. Here’s Paul Gigot, editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, in the final paragraph of a July 28 dispatch from Iraq, where he was traveling with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz:

The one word I almost never heard in Iraq was “WMD.” That isn’t because the U.S. military doesn’t want, or expect, to find it. The reason, I slowly began to understand, is that Iraqis and the Americans who are here don’t think it matters all that much to their mission. The liberation of this country from Saddam’s terror is justification enough for what they are doing, and the main chance now isn’t refighting the case for war but making sure we win on the ground. “So I see they’re giving Bush a hard time about the WMD,” volunteers a Marine colonel, at the breakfast mess in Hilla one morning. “They ought to come here and see what we do, and what Saddam did to these people. This was a good thing to do.”

Observe, Mr. President, a master at work. Gigot first takes care to affirm that he (or rather, the “U.S. military,” which serves as his rhetorical proxy) fully expects that biological and chemical weapons will be found in Iraq. Bush did the same thing in today’s press conference. (“I’m confident that our search will yield that which I strongly believe, that Saddam had a weapons program.”) But Gigot then goes on to suggest, as Bush did not, that finding these weapons is really beside the point. You can’t say this directly, because then war critics will ridicule you. But you can say it indirectly, in Gigot’s case by attributing it to GIs who are there, which gives them the moral high ground. What we should focus on, Gigot continues, is that the Iraqis are much better off without Saddam (indisputably true), and that we should now try to help them build a better government (also true). Although Bush talked vaguely today about how our victory over Saddam would help build peace in the Middle East (debatable), he mostly re-fought the WMD case for war—and that’s a fight Bush can’t win in the absence of more compelling evidence that Saddam had chemical and biological weapons. The human rights case for defeating Saddam, though, is compelling, especially when viewed from ground level. Never mind that, except for a very few liberal hawks (Slate’s Christopher Hitchens and former Sen. Bob Kerrey come to mind), nobody ever argued before the war that Saddam’s violation of human rights was the principal casus belli.

Another smart hawk, William Kristol, changes the subject in a different way: He identifies an adversary who said something stupid and then goes on the attack. Watch and learn, Mr. President. The adversary in question is Rep. Dick Gephardt, who on July 22 gave a speech in which he said, “George Bush has left us less safe and less secure than we were four years ago.” Before carving Gephardt up (in the Aug. 4/ August 11 Weekly Standard), Kristol gives hasty absolution to Bush on the justification for war (“the president acted in good faith in making his case about the danger of Saddam’s quest for weapons of mass destruction”), but refrains from giving Bush a vote of confidence on whether the chemical and biological weapons will ever be found. Kristol’s omission is even more effective than Gigot’s quick assertion that the U.S. military wants and expects to find chemical and biological weapons. Why even bring it up if you don’t have to? Bush, of course, didn’t have that option in his press conference.

Kristol then turns to Gephardt’s own “16 words,” pointing out that four years ago Osama Bin Laden was getting ready to hurl jetliners at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, whereas today, in the aftermath of those attacks, the country is inevitably more mobilized against terrorism. (Whether we’re sufficiently mobilized is a different question, one that Kristol avoids and Gephardt should have confined himself to.) Kristol then goes on to make various other arguments against Gephardt’s assertion that successively grow less convincing. But that scarcely matters. His first swing delivered the knockout blow.

Attacking Gephardt was a viable option for Bush, even if it risked making Bush look as though he was politicizing the issue by taking a shot at a presidential candidate. (At the moment, nobody particularly believes Gephardt will get the Democratic nomination.) It’s possible a canny reporter would have followed up by asking Bush whether he thought the economy was better off than it was four years ago (which, of course, it isn’t). But Bush more or less got asked that anyway. It sure beats reading from last year’s script, repeating the familiar words over and over and wondering why they no longer win applause.