Four times during his prime-time press conference Tuesday, George W. Bush was asked whether he has made any mistakes in his presidency, whether there was anything -- his decision to invade Iraq on what turned out to be false pretenses, his failure to take decisive action in response to a memo that warned of terrorist attacks in the United States -- for which he might apologize.
Three times, Bush gave rambling responses that addressed everything but the questions presented. The fourth time, the president took a deep breath, blew it out, looked at the ground, looked at the ceiling, stalled for time, then said: "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 an answer, but it hadn't yet."
It apparently never did. While Bush has found time to visit his ranch in Crawford 33 times in the last three and a half years, he has given only 12 solo press conferences. Tuesday night, it was easy to see why. The president -- who won't testify before the 9/11 commission unless he can do it in private and only if his vice president can come with him -- presided over a press conference that left him looking like a high school kid surprised by a pop quiz on a book he didn't read.
Bush had words to say -- "tough week," "historic opportunity," "free Iraq" -- and he said them so often that he began to sound like one of those tape-loop parody songs that make the rounds on the Web. What he didn't have was answers.
To whom will the United States hand over Iraqi sovereignty on June 30? "We'll find that out soon." Why haven't U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces been effective in quelling the uprisings? "We'll need to find out why." Was the information contained in the infamous Aug. 6, 2001, President's Daily Brief accurate? "I presume the 9/11 commission will find out." What about those weapons of mass destruction? "Of course I want to know why we haven't found a weapon yet," the president said. Later, he said of the WMD: "I look forward to hearing the truth as to exactly where they are."
Bush had a script Tuesday night -- he began the press conference with a 17-minute opening statement that sounded more like an Oval Office speech -- and he didn't let questions about Iraq or Sept. 11 throw him off of it. In his opening statement and later in his responses to questions, Bush repeatedly cast the war in Iraq as an integral part of the war on terror. Although there has never been any credible evidence linking Saddam Hussein to the attacks of Sept. 11, Bush said that the insurgents now fighting U.S. troops in Iraq -- he called them "terrorists" -- share an "ideology of murder" with the attackers who hijacked jetliners and smashed them into the Twin Towers.
And Bush articulated, again and again, the neocon dream that a free Iraq will promote both stability and democratic reform throughout the Middle East. At one point -- while responding to charges that Iraq had become Bush's Vietnam -- the president took his Wolfowitzian Iraq fantasies even a step further: "I fully understand the consequence of what we're doing," he said. "We're changing the world, and the world will be better off and America will be more secure as a result of the actions we're taking."
The burden is on Bush to make that case to the American people, and he seemed to acknowledge as much Tuesday night. Nearly 700 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq (though not all in combat). Eighty-three U.S. troops have died in Iraq in the first 12 days of April, more than were killed in the same number of days at the start of the war. Iraqi insurgents are holding more than 40 hostages, and the mutilated remains of four bodies -- likely those of missing American contractors -- were discovered in Iraq Tuesday. Bush's approval ratings are at an all-time low, and polls show Americans losing confidence fast in the way he is handling the war. "There's no question it's been a tough, tough series of weeks for the American people," Bush said Tuesday. "It's been really tough for the families. I understand that. It's been tough on this administration."
It may soon get tougher. While Sen. John Kerry was initially slow to attack Bush as Iraq fell into chaos, he has begun to speak out forcefully on the need for Bush to "level" with the American people and put forth a clear plan for success in Iraq. In a Washington Post Op-Ed piece Tuesday, Kerry said: "Increasingly, the American people are confused about our goals in Iraq, particularly why we are going it almost alone. The president must rally the country around a clear and credible goal."
Try as he might, the president didn't do that Tuesday night. Bush's much-awaited Feb. 8 appearance on "Meet the Press" did not reverse his downward slide on Iraq, and his shaky performance in the question-and-answer portion of Tuesday's show is unlikely to serve him any better.
It could have been worse. Bush wasn't asked about the economy. He wasn't asked about the White House's release Tuesday of the tax returns for the Bush and Cheney families -- returns that underscored the fact that Bush's tax cuts disproportionately help wealthy Americans like, say, Bush and Cheney. And he wasn't asked about the 9/11 commission staff report Tuesday that quoted a former acting FBI director who said that, in the summer of 2001, Attorney General John Ashcroft didn't want to hear warnings of terrorist attacks.
Still, when Bush wasn't avoiding questions or declining the opportunity to take responsibility for administration actions on Sept. 11 or Iraq, he was stumbling through his usual fumbles and malaprops. He misidentified Donald Rumsfeld as the secretary of state. He referred to the Pakistani nuclear trading network headed by Abdul Qadeer Khan as a "shadowy network of 'folks'" and said that Saddam Hussein had "funded 'suiciders.'" He proclaimed that "a free Iraq in the midst of the Middle East will have incredible change." And when asked about the domestic political ramifications of the war in Iraq, the president rather indelicately explained, "Look, nobody likes to see dead people on their television screens."
Nobody likes it, Bush said, but America can't alter its course now. The president made a threat, and he had to follow through. He started a war, and he has to finish it. U.S. soldiers have died in that war, and now they can't be allowed to die in vain. "We're carrying out a decision that has already been made and will not change," Bush explained. Was it the right decision? Where will it lead? How much more will it cost? On Tuesday night, these were questions for which the president had few answers.