We weren't paying a whole lot of attention to the TV today as George W. Bush delivered yet another speech in defense of the war in Iraq. But we happened to look up as the president finished speaking, and we saw something we hadn't expected: Bush was offering to take questions from the audience.
It's rare enough for Bush to speak before an audience comprised of something other than uniformed members of the military. It's more unusual still for him to engage in any sort of back-and-forth with anyone who hasn't been carefully preselected by White House advance teams. Indeed, when Bush spoke just last week at the Council on Foreign Relations, he refused to participate in the council's traditional post-speech Q&A session.
But there was the president in Philadelphia today, taking questions from members of the audience at the World Affairs Council. And the thing is, he actually handled them pretty well. In prepared remarks, Bush delivered many of the same lines we've heard from him before, leavened with a long, metaphorical treatise on the difficulties the United States itself faced in building its own democracy. It was meant as a way to explain away slow progress in Iraq, but it was deeply unconvincing: When Bush talks about the "tensions between the mercantile North and the agricultural South that threatened to break apart our young republic," you know he's simply reading words that someone else has written for him. But in responding to questions from the audience -- even when the questions were hostile -- Bush came off as engaged and even engaging.
Asked how many Iraqis have died in the war, Bush gave the not implausible number 30,000 and volunteered that the United States has "lost about 2,140 of our own troops," which is just about right. Asked about progress in standing up Iraqi troops, Bush sounded reasonable in explaining that the United States initially focused on training Iraqis against external threats but then changed its focus once it became clear that internal threats were "a heck of a lot more" serious. He likened success in Iraq to success in a political campaign back home: You've got to persuade the people that you're offering them a better life.
And along the way, he offered up joking asides that will probably remind some Americans of the "I'd like to have a beer with that guy" president they thought they had elected but haven't seen much lately. At one point, Bush said he'd repeat the questions being asked so that everyone could hear them but said he'd make up new questions if he didn't like the ones people were asking. Later, explaining that Americans are Americans first, whatever their cultural differences, Bush said to a questioner: "I happen to be a Methodist. You're a Sunni." And at the end, when he needed to wrap up the event, Bush said, "Last question. I've actually got something to do. You're paying me all this money, I better get back to work."
OK, so it wasn't exactly a laugh riot. Bush wasn't always articulate or persuasive. When an audience member asked why the White House persists in linking the war in Iraq to the attacks of 9/11, the president said that 9/11 had changed his outlook on foreign policy. "It said that oceans no longer protect us, that we can't take threats for granted, that if we see a threat we've got to deal with it, doesn't have to be military necessarily, but we've got to deal with it. We can't just hope for the best anymore." And the president reached too often for stock lines from speeches past. Do we really need to hear one more time how neat it is that the president is friends with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi despite the fact that the United States and Japan were enemies in World War II?
But more often than not, Bush unscripted was a whole lot better than the teleprompted president has been lately. He may not be able to change the way Americans think about Iraq, but more appearances like this one could change the way Americans think about their president. As the New York Times said the other day, Bush should get out more.