The White House reporters who won a rare, golden opportunity to ask President Bush questions before a national audience last night didn't cast their queries wide, dwelling mainly on the Iraq debacle and how the administration acted, or rather didn't, during the summer of threat before 9/11. But Bush probably wishes a few reporters varied the themes a bit more. To his obvious chagrin, several reporters harped on something similar. Did the president feel personal responsibility for Sept. 11th? What was his biggest mistake since 2001? Would he apologize for 9/11? Is it fair for critics to say he never admits a mistake? Was he a failed communicator?
All of this talk of failure obviously caught Bush off-guard. During one non-answer, he looked up at the ceiling. He looked down, biting his lip. He stammered and hemmed. The failures of this administration's policies are obvious to all, and perhaps too voluminous to catalog in the hour Bush set aside for the nation. But here's how he responded to reporters' questions:
Q: "Do you feel personal responsibility for Sept. 11th?"
A: "There are some things I wish we'd have done, when I look back. I mean, hindsight's easy. It's easy for a president to stand up and say, now that I know what happened, it would have been nice if there were certain things in place. For example, a Homeland Security Department."
President Bush did not mention that he originally opposed the creation of the Homeland Security Department.
Q: "One of the biggest criticisms of you is that whether it's WMD in Iraq, postwar planning in Iraq, or even the question of whether this administration did enough to ward off 9-11, you never admit a mistake. Is that a fair criticism, and do you believe that there were any errors in judgment that you made?"
A: "The country wasn't on war footing, and yet we're at war ... There was nobody in our government, at least, and I don't think the prior government that could envision flying airplanes into buildings on such a massive scale."
Here, still not admitting errors in judgment, Bush repeats something we already know not to be true. People in his government did envision Islamic terrorists flying planes into buildings. In July of 2001, U.S. officials were warned about that scenario regarding the G-8 summit in Genoa. The threats to the Genoa conference prompted Bush to request the now-infamous Aug. 6, 2001 briefing titled "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.," he said last night. And the 9/11 panel reports in newly-declassified information that threat information about hijackings and other types of potential attacks flooded into the White House in the spring and summer of 2001, including memos titled "Bin Laden planning multiple operations," "Bin Laden network's plans advancing" and "Bin Laden threats are real."
Another reporter tried the question another way:
Q: "Two weeks ago, a former counterterrorism official at the NSC, Richard Clarke, offered an unequivocal apology to the American people for failing them prior to 9-11. Do you believe the American people deserve a similar apology from you, and would you prepared to give them one?"
A: "... As I mentioned, I oftentimes think about what I could have done differently. I can assure the American people that had we had any inkling that this was going to happen, we would have done everything in our power to stop the attack. Here's what I feel about that: The person responsible for the attacks was Osama bin Laden. That's who's responsible for killing Americans."
In other words: No apologies here. Here's another try:
Q: "In the last campaign, you were asked a question about the biggest mistake you'd made in your life, and you used to like to joke that it was trading Sammy Sosa. You've looked back before 9-11 for what mistakes might have been made. After 9-11, what would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have learned from it?"
A: "I wish you'd have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it. John, I'm sure historians will look back and say, gosh, he could've done it better this way or that way. You know, I just -- I'm sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with answer, but it hadn't yet."
Q: "I guess I'd like to know if you feel, in any way, that you have failed as a communicator on this topic."
A: "Gosh, I don't know. I mean ... You know, that's, I guess, if you put it into a political context, that's the kind of thing the voters will decide next November. .... One thing is for certain, though, about me, and the world has learned this: When I say something, I mean it. And the credibility of the United States is incredibly important for keeping world peace and freedom."
Sadly, the world has learned just the opposite about Bush's words. There are still no WMDs, and there was no al-Qaida connection to Saddam. That's partly why the credibility of the United States has suffered around the globe, as this depressing poll showed. Taking responsibility -- something he urges others to do -- might help Bush bridge the global gap in trust. Last night, though reporters tried to help him take that step, the president stubbornly stuck to his script.