The questions that weren't asked

It took a couple of junior Metro reporters to break the Watergate story. What will it take to get somebody to ask Bush about the Downing Street memo?

By Tim Grieve
Published June 1, 2005 12:45PM (EDT)

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were junior Metro reporters, the kind of guys who normally wouldn't have been allowed anywhere near the national political coverage of one of the nation's biggest newspapers. How is it that they were breaking stories that would ultimately help bring down a president, stories that the more experienced hands in the White House press corps weren't getting?

It all seemed so improbable then. It doesn't seem so today.

Yesterday morning in the White House Rose Garden, George W. Bush held his first full press conference since the Sunday Times of London revealed that Tony Blair was told in July of 2002 that the Bush administration had decided to use military force to overthrow Saddam Hussein and that "the intelligence and facts were being fixed" to support that decision.

What did Bush say about the now infamous Downing Street memo at yesterday's news conference? Not a word. Nobody bothered to ask him about it.

The White House press corps got the better part of an hour with the president. There were about 20 questions in there, and they covered all sorts of topics: the current situation in Iraq, the nomination of John Bolton, Bush's thoughts on replacing William Rehnquist and his views as to whether the Secret Service should have alerted him when it appeared that Washington was under attack last month. Reporters had time to ask Bush about the sentencing of the former head of Russia's oil company, about the decision to let Iran apply for WTO status and about his commitment to making his tax cuts permanent. They queried the president about his relations with Congress, about the way America is viewed in the world, about how often he disagrees with his wife.

They were important questions -- well, most of them -- but would it have been so hard to ask just one about that Downing Street memo? Couldn't someone have asked whether Bush in fact had made up his mind to go to war at a time when he was telling the American public that he hadn't? Couldn't someone have stood up in the Rose Garden and said, "Mr. President, a top British official says that your administration 'fixed' the facts and the intelligence on Iraq. Care to comment on that, sir?" And would it have been some sort of breach of press conference protocol to ask whether the current state of disarray in Iraq might have something to do with what the memo said was "little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action" in the country?

We know that it can be scary to ask a question at a press conference, but the president doesn't bite, at least not on live TV. The worst thing he can do is ignore the question, but he's done that already. In early May, more than 80 members of Congress joined Rep. John Conyers in a letter asking Bush a few questions about the Downing Street memo. They're still waiting for the answers -- and for a White House press corps that will take the questions seriously.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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