To not know him is to love him

What's behind George W. Bush's plan to phase out press conferences?

Published January 26, 2000 12:00PM (EST)

In Iowa last Sunday afternoon, a Bush campaign press aide named Mindy Tucker got on the Bush press bus and did something press aides rarely do: She told the truth.

In the back of the bus, Tucker told a few reporters that Bush no longer would hold his occasional 10-to-15-minute news conferences, when reporters ask him about his campaign and his positions.

"It's not in our best interest," Tucker said. She added that Bush would hit the podium to answer questions "when we have a message to put out."

"We have a message a day and we want to stick to it," she said. "We are not going to have one big, fat news conference on our schedule where everyone can come ask questions about what you think is the news of the day."

The beginning of the end of journalists' limited access to the GOP front-runner came on Jan. 20 after Bush had struggled for several days with persistent questions from the press. Combined with typically aggressive questioning on ABC's "This Week With Sam and Cokie" three days later -- which aides later complained to ABC's Dean Reynolds was "disrespectful" -- Bush apparently reached his limit.

Bush has never liked these press conferences, and the reason is pretty transparent: He would prefer to coast into the White House without having to take a position on any issue, or risk being quizzed about something he hasn't been prepped on.

It's been this way for a while, since long before last week. For months, whenever reporters have tried to pin him down on where he stands on an issue, he'll return to a campaign clichi. These typically are not questions about his personal life. They are about his views on laws and issues: whether he is willing to appoint judges who support abortion rights; whether he would consider naming a pro-choice running mate; whether he would appoint an openly gay person to a Cabinet position; and what he thinks about specific foreign-policy situations.

Or take a question from the right. Bush rivals Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes challenge the front-runner for claiming to be pro-life while refusing to say whether a Supreme Court nominee or potential running mate would have to share his view on this divisive issue.

Since Bush knows that a harsh pro-life view would hinder his appeal to soccer moms and Gen X voters, he refuses to move beyond the rhetoric that creates the impression he might be pro-life but, hey, he's no zealot on the issue. "I recognize that good people can disagree on the issue," he constantly says, which is nice, but an evasive answer. It certainly can't satisfy pro-life voters who have a right to know if the front-runner shares their agenda.

After Forbes began hitting Bush hard on abortion last week -- calling him a "pro-life pacifist" -- Bush strode to the lectern on Thursday hoping to steer the conversation toward his criticisms of Arizona Sen. John McCain's tax plan.

Bush had been hammering McCain for a section of his tax-cut plan that, by closing a corporate tax loophole, would raise revenues. Ironically, Forbes had been hammering Bush for signing a pledge not to support a sales tax increase in 1994 and then pushing for such a tax increase in 1997 -- though he was responsible for an overall tax cut. In both cases, the candidate was being criticized for proposing a tax hike - but within a larger tax cut plan.

When Forbes first did this, Bush called him "desperate," insinuating that he was wrong. McCain was now having the same reaction to Bush's attack.

So Dan Balz of the Washington Post asked Bush, "What's the difference between your criticism of the ad Steve Forbes had run against you about your tax record in Texas and the ad you are now running about Sen. McCain and his tax plan?"

"'Cause I had a tax cut," was Bush's non-answer. "I cut the taxes. I led in the state of Texas the largest tax cut in 1997, and have done so, and I did so in 1999 as well."

Then, despite Bush's best efforts, reporters steered the press conference toward Forbes' other criticism. So Terry Neal of the Washington Post first tried to get a straight answer out of Bush on his abortion issue.

"Governor, abortion is a big issue here," Neal pointed out, "and you've said that you would appoint 'strict constructionists' to the bench. I'm kind of curious what your definition of a strict constructionist is, and if you could give us an example of a Supreme Court ruling that you believe was kind of a paradigm of a strict constructionist ruling, and one that deviated grossly from that standard?"

"I'm not going to get into a Supreme Court ruling. I'm not a lawyer," Bush replied. "The strict constructionist definition strictly interprets the Constitution for what it is and doesn't use the opportunity of the Constitution to pass legislation or legislate from the bench. And that's the position I've taken throughout the course of the campaign."

In his biography, "A Charge to Keep," Bush (or rather his campaign spokeswoman, Karen Hughes) wrote that one of his twin 18-year-old daughters disagrees with her father's support of the death penalty. So another reporter, mentioning the reference to the daughter in Bush's book, asked if either of his daughters disagree with him on abortion.

"I'm not going to talk about my daughters' point of view," Bush said. "My daughters, they're part of my private life, and I appreciate that as an example of we're not going to talk about that in the course of the campaign and I appreciate you respecting my privacy."

Bringing the question back to abortion and "strict constructionists," New York Times reporter Frank Bruni asked, "As you read the Constitution, what would a 'strict constructionist' conclude about Roe vs. Wade?"

"Roe vs. Wade was a reach," Bush said. "Overstepped the constitutional bounds as far as I'm concerned. I would remind you I'm not a lawyer."

Neal asked again about abortion and the Constitution. "If Roe vs. Wade was a reach ... can you give another example of a strict violation of strict constructionism?"

"I've said what I'll answer, Terry," Bush said.

A few questions later, he was asked if, since he'll only appoint strict constructionists to the bench, did that mean Roe vs. Wade was at risk of being overturned?

"I'm going to name strict constructionists to the Supreme Court," Bush replied.

Elizabeth Arnold of National Public Radio asked what Bush would say if a friend or relative's child were raped and asked his advice.

"I would say, first of all, I believe in three exceptions when it comes to abortion," Bush said -- referring to cases involving rape, incest and when the life of the mother is in danger. "But I would say, I would hope I would be able to evoke enough sympathy from a rape case that I could help comfort her as a friend."

Pressed if the self-described pro-lifer would tell the woman not to have an abortion, Bush said, "It's up to her."

"What action should the FDA take on the abortion pills which they're authorized to allow to be sold and distributed to the public?" asked R.G. Ratcliffe of the Houston Chronicle.

"I would be inclined not to accept that," Bush said, in one of his few straight answers of the day. "It's abortion."

"So if you became president and it had already been done?" Ratcliffe asked.

"That's too hypothetical," Bush said.

Another reporter asked why he never mentions abortion.

"I've got a good record in the state of Texas," Bush replied softly. "A lot of people know my record. I've been a pro-life governor. Got a record on parental notification. Got a record on abstinence education. Got a record on promoting adoptions."

After a quick comment about getting the vote out at the then-pending Iowa caucuses, Bush abruptly ended the press conference. Reporters called their stories in, and his opponents -- Forbes, mainly -- began slapping him for his wishy-washy position.

The questions were perfectly respectful in manner and tone. It was hardly a feeding frenzy - more like a small group of scuba divers trying to grab an eel.

Other reporters had a go at Bush that same weekend. In Sioux City, CNN's Al Hunt asked Bush about the New York GOP and its attempts to keep McCain from appearing on the ballot. Hunt cited a memo from the New York state GOP chairman that said the decision was up to Bush.

"Al, I don't know about that memo," Bush said. "There are, what, 10 states that require petitions to get on the ballot? Virginia is one -- requires a petition process. When we first got going in this campaign, we knew what the rules were, my campaign did. And we're complying with the rules of these various state organizations. This is just not New York. There are states -- and Arizona, by the way, is a state that requires petitions. It's a state that requires people to gather signatures. And I told our people, I said, 'We'll comply with the rules of these various states.'"

When Hunt asked if he would consider a pro-choice running mate, Bush said: "I think the fair statement is the statement I've been making every time I've been asked this question in every debate. People say: 'Who, Governor?' And the first thing I say is that it's presumptuous for someone to be talking names."

Bush then outlined three requirements for a running mate that have nothing to do with abortion -- "Does the person like me?" for instance -- and then concluded, "And that's the extent to which I'm going to talk about my running mate."

On Sunday, Bush was a guest on ABC's "This Week With Sam and Cokie." When Cokie Roberts asked whether he had broken his pledge to Texans that he wouldn't raise sales taxes, he replied: "No, because in a letter that I wrote to the -- to this particular person, I said I also intend to reform our -- the way we fund our schools -- finance our schools," Bush said. "I said I want to make the state of Texas the primary funder of schools. And so the full picture is this: As a result of my leadership, we cut taxes $1 billion in the state of Texas."

Roberts persisted. "But the question is, on this particular pledge where your name is there, saying, 'I will not raise the sales tax,' did you, in fact, break that pledge?"

"But Cokie," Bush replied, "in the letter I sent to the person -- there are pledges all the time, and we -- I enunciated the -- I told her -- I expanded on the pledge that I would do everything I could to make the state the primary funder of schools, as well. And that's exactly what I attempted to do. I attempted to reform the tax code, I attempted to cut taxes and as a result of my leadership, we did."

Sam Donaldson pressed Bush repeatedly on how he could reconcile supporting the three exceptions to his pro-life views and still say he supports the current Republican platform, which doesn't support the three exceptions. "I'm recommending -- I'm recommending the platform remain the same," Bush said. "And I'm recommending the Republican Party let me be the nominee, so I can lead the country to a better appreciation of life. That's what I'm recommending."

At another point in the interview, Donaldson had to ask Bush repeatedly what he thought about the recent alliance with Duma Communists by Russia's acting President Vladimir Putin. "It may be a fool's errand on my part," Donaldson went on after Bush balked at answering the question twice, "but I'm going to try one more time to see if you think there is a danger in the recent deal that Putin has made with Communists."

It was unclear if this instance was a desire by the governor to muddle his position on a controversial issue or an attempt to wiggle away from responding to a question he was ill-equipped to answer. Either way, he never answered it.

After much more of this horrifying display, Roberts was compelled to re-ask "a few things from the beginning of the broadcast that we wanted to tie up, some loose ends."

"You mean you didn't like my answers?" Bush asked.

"No, no, no," said Roberts. "They were wonderful answers."

"OK, well you should leave it at that, then," Bush said hopefully.

She didn't. But he didn't answer them then, either.

That afternoon, Mindy Tucker announced the new press conference policy.

The apparent calculation by the Bush campaign: To not know him is to love him.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

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Abortion George W. Bush Republican Party