Bush's opening night

And the review is not good. At his first press conference, the president serves up nicknames, "coco" plants and an impressive series of nonanswers.

Published February 23, 2001 1:05PM (EST)

Covering politics like a theater critic surely does a disservice to the substance of issues, as has been pointed out. So one poorly delivered press conference probably shouldn't be treated as some sort of disaster.

That said, President Bush's first formal press conference in office must be seen as an utter failure in achieving the president's No. 1 goal: appearing calm and in command. This has nothing to do with the issues. Honestly, this criticism isn't over his budget. It's not about his argument that surplus funds should be given back to all of those who pay taxes, roughly in proportion to how much of a hard-earned paycheck is already forked over to the ever-growing government. Bomb Iraq? Sure, why not. It doesn't seem to be part of a well-thought-out policy, but that certainly didn't begin with this president.

The truth is, this guy seems to be coasting. Based on comments he made to Democratic members of Congress at their retreat a few weekends ago, as first reported by conservative columnist Robert Novak, Bush doesn't seem to understand the controversy over whether the U.S. Census should use statistical sampling. Then there were his comments at a White House meeting, accidentally piped into the press room on Jan. 31, and reported by the Washington Post, when Bush referred to his executive order restoring a ban on U.S. aid to overseas groups that offer abortion services and abortion counseling (known as "the Mexico City" policy since it was introduced by President Reagan there in 1984) as "the money from Mexico, you know, that thing, the executive order I signed about Mexico City."

Thursday's press conference did nothing to erase the impression of a man who can't be bothered to actually read up on the laws he's signing.

"Mr. President, in light of the latest spy scandal, should senior FBI officials be required to take polygraph tests?" asked Ron Fournier of the Associated Press. "And secondly, what, if any, responsibility should the FBI director, Louis Freeh, bear for this breach of national security?"

"I have confidence in Director Freeh," Bush said. "I think he does a good job. I have confidence in the men and women who work at the FBI. I am deeply concerned about the current spy case, as is Director Freeh. He has made the right move in selecting Judge [William] Webster to review all procedures in the FBI to make sure that this doesn't happen again. We ought to be concerned about espionage in America. In the statement I made the other day, I said we will be diligent; we will find spies, and we will prosecute them. I am pleased that they caught the spy. Now the courts must act."

For this question, as throughout the press conference, Bush looked down at notes that had been placed on the lectern for him ahead of time. Asked if the spy case would damage relations with Russia, Bush seemed to have to look down at his notes before coming up with the name of Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.

One of the problems may be that Bush has surrounded himself with sycophants and true believers, who are probably at this very moment telling him what a great job he did, when the word in the press room -- among a press corps that has so far been very charitable toward the new president -- was quite the contrary. Yes, Bush seems like a pretty nice guy (even if he and his allies are capable of some pretty nasty stuff). And yes, he has a certain frat-boy charm and an inner sense of self that contrasted well with Al Gore during the election (even if half a million more Americans actually voted for Gore). But a nation's confidence in its leader -- especially a leader elected under such a cloud -- needs to be built on a stronger foundation than charm.

But there he went, referring to one of his favorite scribes,
the New York Times' Frank Bruni, by two nicknames within seconds -- first "Brunei," then "Pancho."

CBS's John Roberts asked what message Secretary of State Colin Powell will deliver during his trip to the Middle East when it comes to sanctions against Iraq, ones "that matter, sanctions that are effective on the regime, but do not carry with them the same level of criticism that current sanctions have had in that they affect the Iraqi civilian population more than they do the regime."

On this, Bush seems to think it is good enough to show some understanding of the question -- in this case, identifying the right part of the world. His administration was "reviewing all policy in all regions of the world," he said. "And one of the areas we've been spending a lot of time on is the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. The secretary of state is going to go listen to our allies as to how best to effect a policy, the primary goal of which will be to say to Saddam Hussein, 'We won't tolerate you developing weapons of mass destruction and we expect you to leave your neighbors alone.'

"I have said that the sanction regime is like Swiss cheese," Bush said with a smile. "That meant that they weren't very effective. And we're going to review current sanction policy, and review options as to how to make the sanctions work." Then Bush went back to the talking points he'd been given the week before when he authorized a bombing mission against Iraq, one that his spokesman Ari Fleischer told the Washington Post was "supported by all but the most partisan Americans."

Roberts asked a follow-up question about sanctions, since Bush hadn't answered his question. "How would you characterize sanctions that work, sir?"

"Sanctions that work are sanctions that, when a -- the collective will of the region supports the policy, that we have a coalition of countries that agree with the policy set out by the United States. To me, that's the most effective form of sanctions. Many nations in that part of the world aren't adhering to the sanction policy that had been in place, and as a result, a lot of goods are heading into Iraq that were not supposed to," the president said. "And so, good sanction policy is one where the United States is able to build a coalition around the strategy."

Whatever one's opinion about sanctions against Iraq, which Bush just inherited, questions about the effectiveness of the sanctions require a response that's a little deeper than that.

"You've shown a lot of interest in Latin America issues," said another reporter.

"Si," said Bush, before saying that he was "concerned about the amount of acreage in cultivation for the growth of cocoa leaves." That was helpfully cleaned up for the official transcript to be "coca leaves." Cocoa is the powder from which chocolate is made; cocaine comes from coca.

This went on. It was not a total disaster, nothing truly horrifying, but it was disconcerting. Bush is lucky that so many softballs came his way -- including no fewer than three questions in which he was practically begged to take a shot at Bill Clinton's sleazy pardon auction.

No questions about the fact that Christian conservatives are questioning Bush's faith-based initiative program; no questions about Republican senators like Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Jim Jeffords of Vermont, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island -- all of whom have expressed concern about the fiscal responsibility of Bush's tax proposal.

And not a single question about how Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., Bush's Senate liaison, was trying to shut Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., out of negotiations on the patients rights bill that bears McCain's name.

I mean, why would any reporter ask: "Given the questions that are being raised about the involvement of Sen. Hillary Clinton's brother in the pardons process, what kind of guidance would you give members of your own politically active family in not only seeking pardons but seeking any other influence on any other issues with your administration?" Especially after President Bush had already twice begged off taking a shot at Clinton on this issue? What was the point?

There were a few tough questions, but they went unreassuringly unanswered.

"Mr. President," said a reporter with the BBC, "you have a meeting with Prime Minster Blair tomorrow -- "

"Correct," Bush said.

"There are some concerns in this country about the European plan for what they call a rapid-reaction force, their own military capability. What will you tell Prime Minister Blair about the American attitude to this rapid-reaction force?"

Again, Bush didn't answer the question; it must not have been on his cheat sheets. "I, first, look forward to the visit," Bush said. "I'm anxious to meet the prime minister. We've had a couple of good conversations on the telephone. I'm thankful that he's coming across the -- actually coming down from Canada -- but coming across to see, to visit us. Laura and I are looking to having a private dinner with he and Mrs. Blair Friday night. We'll be having a press availability after our meeting, and -- "

"I know, but I think a lot of people would like to -- "

"Well, why don't we wait until after he and I visit," Bush said, "so I don't have to give the same answer twice."

"But just on the whole outline of the question of the European defense capability -- "

"You bet," said the president. "I understand; you're trying to get me to tell you the answer twice. Britain and the United States have got a special relationship; we'll keep it that way. I look forward to talking to the prime minister about the importance of NATO. It is -- anyway, let me visit with him first. I promise to call upon you tomorrow."

An informal poll of White House reporters indicated that 100 percent were confident Bush had absolutely no idea what the BBC reporter was talking about. That won't be in their stories Friday, I'll bet.

After half an hour of this, Bush nicely, charmingly, bid us adieu. And Fleischer scampered to the stage, grabbed three or four pages of President Bush's notes and disappeared, probably to the White House shredder.

The cable news networks quickly returned to the subject of Hugh Rodham and other slimy Clinton-related pardon scandals, for which Bush should be grateful. For the second period in his life, Bush can thank his predecessor's propensity for sleaze for overshadowing his own wanting grasp of the issues.

But sooner or later, Clinton will, one hopes, go away.

By Jake Tapper

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

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