Gaffe riot: Didn't the president get tutored before his 100-days interview blitz?

Published April 26, 2001 11:56AM (EDT)

The soft bigotry of no expectations

"I think it's important for states to devise their own test ... I think they should also devise the test to make sure their children are learning what they want them to learn." -- Laura Bush during an interview on CNN's "Larry King Live" last week.

With that little bit of ironclad logic, the first lady neatly summed up the case for standardized testing, long championed by her husband, and dismissed concerns that teachers now merely "teach to the test" -- steering away from complex ideas and "truths" unattainable by rote memorization. Why not test kids on what we want them to know, the Bushes apparently believe, and the president's wife makes that notion seem appealingly practical and no-nonsense, just like the first lady herself.

But it also prompts a question following the president's gaffes during a three-day whirlwind of interviews about his first 100 days. That would seem to be a test set up by his handlers, who'd mostly kept Bush from media one-on-ones for the previous 90. So who's teaching the president, and why are they letting him fail this test?

It's not that Bush always seems unprepared. During a 15-minute interview with CNN's John King Wednesday, he was relaxed but commanding, reflective and incisive. (It may have helped that, according to the Washington Post, the White House asked for a commercial break to interrupt the questioning, giving Bush time to regroup.) But for the 48 hours prior to that, he had been an embarrassment. Rambling and malaprop-prone to the Washington Post, awkward and forlorn with "The Early Show," and then, on "Good Morning America," possibly reckless, offering a promise to defend Taiwan that went beyond the bounds of U.S. policy, causing paroxysms of concern by Democrats in Congress and angry Chinese leaders.

The White House sent out the experts to defend the president. But it's tough to believe that, policy or not, Bush really knew where he was headed when he let loose with this one. It follows some nasty confusion over a statement regarding North Korea, an off-message remark about Russia during the second presidential debate, references to "Grecians" and failed pop quizzes on foreign leaders. Now comes the even more disturbing news that Bush gave the OK to bomb Iraq without a full briefing.

Bizarrely, after his recovery on CNN (and an all-night cram session with Karl and Condi?), he seemed to revert to form Thursday, with an awkward performance on "Today," and an inappropriately self-deprecatory interview with the Associated Press, in which he downplayed the idea of a second term. When asked about expectations for his presidency, Bush joked, "I'm doing everything I can to keep 'em low."

The president needs to remember the "soft bigotry of low expectations," which could return to bite him in the ass, and fast. It's one thing not to know what he's talking about, but, as anyone who has watched "Hardball" knows, plenty of stupid people can do a great job pretending they know what they're talking about. Clearly, he's not one of them. Note the way most major stories about Bush's "GMA" goof dwell as much on the likelihood that Bush misspoke -- quoting the more knowledgeable, reassuring Rice -- as they do on what such a policy shift would mean. The primary assumption, when Bush says something unexpected, is that it was a mistake. And perhaps that's one hidden blessing in these public embarrassments: He seems incapable of faking it.

Later in her Larry King interview, Laura Bush conceded that she missed teaching, though adding, "I have the opportunity because I visit schools all the time, to still read with children and work with children." We know someone a little closer to home who could use her attention.

-- K.L.

Poll watch

As Bush gets battered on his China policy, he continues to get fairly good news from public opinion polls. The latest survey from Zogby shows that 63 percent of Americans have a somewhat or very favorable view of Bush. That's up 3 points since the previous Zogby poll, conducted from March 27 to 28. The most recent survey was conducted from April 23 to 25 and has a margin of error of 3.7 points.

But other Zogby findings were not as positive for Bush. The number of Americans who had an unfavorable opinion of the president rose from 30 percent in the last survey to 35 percent in the new one. In addition, the portion of those polled who believed Bush was doing an excellent or good job running the country slipped 1 point to 52 percent, while 44 percent rated his performance as fair or poor.

Bush's primary Achilles' heel appears to be environmental policy. Zogby found that 65 percent of Americans opposed his decision to back out of a campaign promise to reduce factory carbon dioxide emissions; 53 percent were against his decision to back out of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming; and 52 percent didn't agree with his choice to reverse a Clinton administration call for tougher arsenic standards in drinking water.

-- A.M.

Daily line

"The Taiwan Relations Act makes very clear that the United States has an obligation that Taiwan's peaceful way of life is not upset by force. What he [the president] said clearly is how seriously and resolutely he takes this obligation. A secure Taiwan will be better able to engage in cross-strait dialogue."
-- National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, clarifying the president's statements on his China policy

Bush buzz

Literally hours after Bush was taking his final bows for a highly regarded weapons deal for Taiwan, the president was backtracking big time on comments he made about China policy. (See "Wordplay," below.)

China scholars and administration critics have reached for the panic button since, claiming the statement will needlessly embolden Taiwan and infuriate the Chinese. Regional allies, congressional leaders and Pentagon officials wondered aloud whether Bush was carelessly scrapping the "strategic ambiguity" of America's China policy. The Washington Post suggested that the president keep his mouth shut on China policy unless he's sure of all the facts.

The whole China mess might explain the melancholy tone of some of Bush's comments during a Wednesday chat with the Associated Press. The president left open the possibility that he would be a one-term wonder, and not run for reelection in 2004. "If I run again," he said, "I would like to carry California." In another sign of his ambivalence, Bush observed, "The idea of talking about reelection, with my frame of mind the way it is, it's foreign right now." The president also poked fun at the low bar that was being set for his administration. When asked about expectations of his presidency, Bush remarked, "I'm doing everything I can to keep 'em low."

Thursday schedule

Bush will be in Houston headlining a "celebration of reading" with first lady Laura Bush. He plans to spend the night at his Crawford, Texas, ranch. No public events are scheduled for Vice President Dick Cheney.

-- A.M.


Bush had been getting fairly good marks for his weapons policy with Taiwan -- until he opened his mouth Tuesday. In a series of interviews about his first 100 days in office, he came across as alternately strident and unsure when discussing America's policy on China and Taiwan. The remarks that caused the biggest stir came during his interview on ABC's "Good Morning America" with Charles Gibson that aired Wednesday, though excerpts were released the day before, when the interview was recorded. The controversial exchange:

Gibson: You made the decision on arms sales to Taiwan.

Bush: Yes.

Gibson: I'm curious if you, in your own mind, feel that if Taiwan were attacked by China, do we have an obligation to defend the Taiwanese?

Bush: Yes, we do.

Gibson: And ...

Bush: And the Chinese must understand that. Yes, I would.

Gibson: With the full force of American military?

Bush: Whatever it took to help Taiwan defend theirself [sic].

Those words prompted a public rebuke from Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who blasted Bush from the Senate floor, arguing that all parties understood America's devotion to the one-China policy, which requires that China not try to forcibly take back Taiwan, and requires Taiwan to not declare its independence. But, Kerry said, Bush's indelicate way with words could throw off the balance. "We have been deliberately vague about the circumstances under which we would come to Taiwan's defense," Kerry said, "not only to discourage Taiwan from drawing us in by declaring independence but also to deter a Chinese attack by keeping Beijing guessing." Kerry blasted Bush for appearing to abandon this policy of "strategic ambiguity," with "absolutely no consultation with members of Congress or our allies in the region."

In other interviews made public Wednesday, Bush's attitudes toward China remained murky. In an interview with the Washington Post, published Wednesday, Bush vacillated between praising the role of free markets in China's transformation to a more free society and condemning China for stubbornly adhering to authoritarian tactics:

I do not view China as an enemy. I view China as a partner on some issues and a competitor on others. However, the spirit of competition does not mean -- that does not necessarily mean distrust, anger, you know, furor. We're just going to have to work through issues. Taiwan is an issue. Arms sales throughout the world could be an issue. Religious freedom is an issue, and we'll make it clear to the Chinese it is an issue.

On the other hand, I recognize the fact that this nation is making progress toward more freedom, albeit not at the pace we'd like to see in America. But when the marketplace takes hold, it's by necessity a freer world, a freer country. And I was distressed today to see that they had detained the archbishop of the underground Catholic Church there in China. That's not a good sign, at all. And they will hear that from our administration.

The same ambiguous tone characterized his appearance on CBS's "The Early Show," which also aired Wednesday, during which he said:

I think that the Chinese are beginning to learn what my administration meant when I said on the campaign trail that we will be strategic competitors ... [But] I am not going to allow harsh rhetoric to create an environment where we can't find areas of agreement.

Then, on NBC's "Today," on Wednesday, he still seemed to struggle in his description of his Taiwan policy:

I think that a president makes the decisions that are -- that will help Taiwan defend theirself, and we'll help Taiwan defend theirself. That's the spirit of the Taiwan relations law, and I will continue to -- over my time as president -- to review Taiwan's defensive needs, and if I think it's in our country's interest, sell [weapons] to them.

Bush finally seemed to have learned his script in time for a live interview Wednesday morning with CNN's John King:

I am candid in my support of the Taiwan Relations Act. And I have said this during the course of the campaign appearance, and I'll say it right now, that our nation will help Taiwan defend herself, at the same time that we support the one-China policy, where we expect and hope and believe there will be peaceful resolution to any differences of opinion.

Whether this will be enough to hush congressional critics or China scholars, who by midafternoon Wednesday were already raising concerns in press reports, remains to be seen.

-- A.M.

Twins watch

During the campaign, the Bushes asked the media to provide their twin daughters, Barbara and Jenna, with the same courtesy afforded Chelsea Clinton. In other words: Leave them alone!

Nobody told the tabloid editors of the Yale Rumpus, who were recently beaten into submission by the school's enraged dean of student affairs, Betty Trachtenberg. Their crime? "O Daughter, Where Art Thou?" a cover story that reported that the Secret Service had trouble keeping track of their first charge, daughter Barbara, a freshman at Yale, her daddy's alma mater. At a meeting with the students, Trachtenberg accused them of "exploiting" Bush, and the students quickly caved, immediately removing the issue that includes the story from their Web site. Still running scared a week later, they refused to talk to Salon.

But press intimidation will go only so far, because if the first twins have demonstrated one thing in the first 100 days of their father's presidency, it's that their lives are far less boring than those of their parents. Jenna already made a dazzling debut earlier in the year on the cover of the National Enquirer, brandishing a cigarette and embracing a beer-toting gal pal as a randy-looking jock gazes upon them from behind, under the headline "Get Ready America! Here Comes George W.'s Wild Daughter!" (If you haven't seen the vaguely erotic spread, don't worry. Betty Bowers, "America's Best Christian," and the woman who coined the phrase "Love the sinner -- hate their clothes," has archived a copy for you on her Web page.) And this week, Barbara graces the pages of the tabloid under the headline "Prez's Daughter in Spring Break Booze Binge." It's already a talker. "Beer. Hunky guys. The hot Mexican sun. Tequila shots -- lots of them. It was a recipe for disaster for the 19-year-old Yale University freshman." The story goes on to weakly allege that Barbara blacked out during her spring daze in Mexico. The report refers tantalizingly to Barbara's "spring break boyfriend," raising a question as to whether the Yale twin has a different boyfriend for every holiday. (Friday is Arbor Day!)

But the award for the dishiest twin gossip goes to TheFirstTwins.com, where a guest poster recently uploaded glossies of the Bush girls to HotorNot.com, a Web site where users rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, the beauty of pinups with anonymous brutality. Fortunately, the results bode well for young Barbara and Jenna. A picture of Jenna, cutting up the dance floor with her notoriously stiff-footed father, netted a rating of 8 after 2,183 votes. Barbara scored even better, getting a "yes, she is a hottie" rating of 9 after 2,179 votes. What do these numbers mean? A pretty serious babe factor for the twins -- especially, as First Twins creator Wag points out, "Only women in bikinis seem to be in the 9-10 range."

-- D.L.

"That's My Bush!" recap

The setup: In Episode 4 ("S.D.I.-aye-AYE!") George is furious that he cannot get the White House hooked up to cable. ("I even took the day off work and your guy never showed," he complains. He's put on hold.) By the time wacky neighbor Larry bursts in, the president is literally hopping mad. Larry offers to hook up the White House with free cable by breaking into the cable box outside for $20. George (despite Laura's objections) is giddy. Almost as giddy as when top aide Karl Rove and Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld showed him the cool new "Star Wars" system that he can operate from his very own desk.

The subplot: George's personal secretary, Princess ("Va-va-voom!" as the Comedy Central press release says), arrives late to the meeting ("I locked myself in the car again"), and is not allowed to stay by Rove and Rumsfeld. She decides it must be because she's stupid. Laura and nutty housekeeper Maggie can't argue with her. She decides to order "smart drugs" off the "World Wide Intranet."

The rub: Lovable Larry doesn't know what he's doing and, while wiring the cable, accidentally taps into the S.D.I. system. Austria is bombed. Princess starts taking her "memory enhancement" drugs -- but viewers see that the bottle actually reads "mammary enhancement"!

The high jinks: The Austrians retaliate by sending a missile that is shot down by the S.D.I. shield. Rove says the system, "which many liberals were against," worked, and gloats ("Nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah"). Don can't peel his eyes away from Princess, whose mammary enhancement has been mammoth. The Austrians decide to get around the defense shield by digging a hole from Austria to the White House's front doors, where Maggie lets them in after they impersonate German-accented, brown-shirted telephone repairmen. They quickly tie up Karl, Don and Princess with ropes.

The switcheroo: George, thinking the Austrians are from the cable company, accidentally lets it slip where the S.D.I. controls are located. But as they try to manipulate the system, Princess, empowered by her drugs, tries to "think real hard," and her continued "enhancement" allows her to burst through the ropes. She sets the others free, and Don uses the S.D.I. to incinerate the evil Austrians.

Reality ranking: As tensions mount with China, the foreign bombing plot rings eerily true. Plus: George's cable problems fairly portray the lousy service of D.C.'s District Cablevision -- which doesn't even carry Comedy Central! Score: 8 (out of a possible 10).

-- K.L.

This day in Bush history

On April 26, 1994, during his run for the Texas governorship, Bush told an audience of crime victims and their families that the state should reject a "1960s notion of collective guilt" and realize some prisoners cannot be rehabilitated. He proposed housing prisoners in tents to alleviate the state's prison overcrowding problems, and said it was up to parents -- not him -- to keep their children from getting sent to prison. "I don't know how to create love at the government level. It must spring from the heart of mankind at the local level."

Burning Bush

Links to the Web's best sites for hardcore Bush watchers.

Send questions, comments and tips to bushed@salon.com.

Bushed! contributors: Kerry Lauerman, Daryl Lindsey, Alicia Montgomery, Fiona Morgan, Jake Tapper, Joan Walsh, Anthony York

Take a look at the previous edition of Bushed!

By Salon Staff

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