George Bush looked different Sunday night. Usually when he speaks from the Oval Office, the camera zooms in tight to shoot him above his jacket’s top button. This time, the White House aides asked for a wide shot so that viewers could see Bush’s every hand gesture. He made a lot of them, pinching his thumb and index finger to squeeze down on a point, holding some ideas on both sides like a beach ball, putting his palm on his chest to show his conviction. His hands flattened on the shiny desktop so many times you could almost see the patch of fingerprints he left behind.
The president was trying to break out of his bubble. Stung by the criticism that he has become a captive to his office, Bush and his aides are trying to change the way he communicates. The hand gestures were an attempt to make the president look more approachable and personal. Bush said “I” 22 times—a flood of self-reference by his standard, at least in such a formal setting.
This was only the latest display in Bush’s monthlong march toward candor. Starting in late November, with the first of a series of speeches preparing the ground for the Dec. 15 Iraqi elections, the president started offering a little more reality and a little less spin. Likewise, in his Sunday night remarks, Bush tried to show he was “listening” to opposition lawmakers and his military commanders and reacting accordingly. He admitted mistakes and course corrections and leveled about the shaky future in Iraq. “We have learned from our experiences, and fixed what has not worked,” he said, sounding fresh out of therapy. “We will continue to listen to honest criticism, and make every change that will help us complete the mission.”
The promise of a more candid president is irresistible. It’s insulting when Bush spins so wildly while claiming to be plain-spoken. If he admits the obvious, the press can spend less time trying to make him do so and more on questions about future policy. Democrats might also be shamed into a more honest dialogue.
But should we believe that the president really has changed? Politicians and no-good boyfriends have traditionally used watery admissions to give the appearance of change without actually changing. Is Bush now listening and facing up to reality? Or is he saying he’s listening, the better to tune out criticism and facts he doesn’t want to hear?
One sign that Bush intends to make more than a mere surface change is how long his aides have been working on their new perestroika initiative. They didn’t just whip up some new language for his Sunday night speech. White House operations don’t work that way. During the summer, as the country became increasingly disillusioned about Iraq, Bush aides looked for ways to recoup. The number of Americans paying attention to the president when he talked about the war was dwindling to the granite core of the Republican base. He had no credibility with the rest of the country. To get people to listen again, they decided, Bush would have to play against type and open up.
To get Bush to do this can’t have been easy. He thinks he has great political instincts and doesn’t need advice about how to connect with people. And a central tenet of Bushworld has always been that real presidents don’t admit mistakes. I heard that line often in the early days. Change course if you must, but always talk about it in terms of “resolve” rather than repair. Particularly when talking about Iraq, Bush couldn’t let the troops down by sounding weak or unsure.
But Bush has now banked his Iraq legacy on this new approach. He asked the American people for patience Sunday night. The only way for him to buy patience at this point is with candor. If independents and moderates give him another shot, and Bush plays them for fools, he’ll have lost the center once and for all. As Bush once famously put it: “fool me once, shame on—shame on you. Fool me—you can’t get fooled again.”
Bush still has a way to go with this whole candor thing. He says he’s listening to his critics but then labels them as defeatists. Asked in his press conference Monday what he thought his biggest mistake was during his tenure and what he had learned from it, Bush didn’t offer much. He saw the question as a trap, just as he did when I asked him the same question in April 2004. This time, he talked briefly about training the Iraqi civilian defense force poorly and moved on.
Dick Cheney also doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo. Bush now talks about Iraq in terms of slow, steady gains. “Our work is not done,” the president said Sunday. “There is more testing and sacrifice before us.” Cheney prefers to stick to the line that people just aren’t getting the good news—and should tune out the bad news. Visiting Baghdad Saturday, he was asked by a Marine corporal why there wasn’t more visible progress. In response, Cheney dished out the standard-issue spin, telling the soldier “Iraq’s looking good,” and that there was “tremendous progress” in the country. “We’re getting the job done,” the vice president continued. “It’s hard to tell that from watching the news. But I guess we don’t pay that much attention to the news.”
Bush surely has the capability to be candid. Those of us who have talked to him off the record have seen it. White House aides have struggled for years to show that side of Bush to the public but always fail because Bush says things off the record that would get him crucified. It’s not just rough language that he thinks would hurt him. Bush doesn’t think he can speak plainly without his comments being taken out of context—without Democrats doing what the RNC is doing to them. Bush can say in private that he understands that the mere presence of U.S. soldiers helps feed the Iraqi insurgency, but in public he’s never going to say anything that might look like he’s undermining U.S. troops. If people think he’s clueless because he won’t speak this and others truths out loud, he’s willing to suffer that.
After he gets back from Crawford in January, we may find out how serious Bush is about mending his ways. When Bush offers a new vision for his second term in his State of the Union address, will he try to pass his programs the old way, by embracing those few Democrats who already agree with him? Or will he genuinely reach out to his opponents the way he promised to Sunday night? Most people don’t keep their New Year’s resolutions. But Bush is a resolute man.