George W. Bush held a press conference this morning. We suppose it was an attempt -- another attempt -- to turn around the president's free-fall in the polls, but the effort came off more like one of those bad '80s remix singles. Call it "Bush on 45."
With nothing to say that he hasn't already said, the president said it all again. Whatever the question, Bush reached for lines that he's used in a hundred speeches before. The attacks of 9/11 changed the way I think. We've got a plan for victory. I saw a threat in Iraq. This is a global war on terror. It's hard work.
Did the president answer questions along the way? A few. He thinks Donald Rumsfeld is doing a "fine job" and shouldn't resign. He thinks the economy is strong and getting stronger. He thinks that Iraqis have looked into the abyss of civil war and chosen another future for their country.
But then there were the questions that Bush couldn't or wouldn't really answer. When Helen Thomas asked Bush why he really went to war three years ago, he engaged in an extended argument with her about the premise of her question. "To assume I wanted war is just flat wrong, Helen, in all due respect," Bush said. When she tried to follow up, he shot back, "Hold on for a second, please. Excuse me. Excuse me," then talked about how 9/11 had changed his "attitude" about defending America.
More puzzling still, he refused to answer a straightforward question that might have helped take some of the wind out of the Iraqi insurgency. Asked whether a day would come -- ever -- when U.S. troops would leave Iraq, Bush refused to say. He said the departure of U.S. troops is "of course an objective," but he repeatedly declined to say whether it would be met. He dismissed it as a question about "timetables" -- it wasn't -- and said that future presidents and commanders on the ground would have to make any decisions about the presence of U.S. troops. For Americans who already think the war has gone on too long, it was a tacit admission that it will go on for at least three more years.
Asked about how Americans might respond to future developments in Iraq, Bush said it was a "trick question" because it presumed that he pays attention to polls when he doesn't. Asked about the electoral worries of his own party -- New Jersey state Sen. Thomas Kean Jr. managed Monday to be elsewhere when Dick Cheney came to campaign for him -- the president dismissed any such concerns as the sort of "nervousness" that preceded elections in 2002 and 2004, too.
The president isn't willing to acknowledge his low standing with the American public in public, but he clearly seemed beaten down by the reality he faces. When a reporter began to ask whether the public's attitude toward the president suggests the need for staff changes at the White House, Bush interrupted: "Wait a minute," he said. "Is this a personal attack launching over here?" Asked about the "political capital" of which he once boasted, he said he's spending it on the war in Iraq. Social Security reform? "It didn't get done." Bush's face turned sour when he was told about a supporter in Cleveland who said that he'd lost her over the war. He grew testy with reporters -- not just with the combative Thomas but also with USA Today's easygoing David Jackson. He bristled at the notion that anyone -- let alone reporters -- would "stand up and say to the president, 'Here's what you ought to be doing.'" At one point, looking down a list of reporters' names, he mumbled randomly, "Let's see ... They've told me what to say."
The president stumbled and stammered like a schoolboy on quiz day as he tried to lay out a vision for the universality of liberty. Trying to explain the difference between tyranny and democracy, Bush suggested that the Taliban probably never had a press conference like this one. When the next round of polls comes out, he may wish that he hadn't, either.