Maybe Tony Blair had the right idea. If you're going to hold a televised news conference -- especially on what turns out to be a huge news day -- and if you've got nothing much to say except that progress is being made in Iraq, then it's probably best to go before the cameras at a time of the night when pretty much no one in your country is watching.
Do it otherwise, and you run the risk of looking irrelevant. See Bush, George W.
Bush and Blair just went before the television cameras for a long-planned White House press conference. It started after midnight in London, but it was just 7:30 p.m. in Washington on a day when viewers inclined to tune in to TV news would probably have been anxious to hear about the convictions of Enron's Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling, the Senate's passage of an immigration bill or the latest developments in the Valerie Plame case. Instead, what they saw was Bush saying the same things they've heard him say a million times before: When Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down ... Freedom is a universal concept ... 12 million people voted in December ... making progress ... Al-Qaida has made it clear, their intentions in Iraq ... The decisions will be made by the commanders on the ground.
Bush and Blair both described the formation of a government in Iraq as a chance for a fresh start for Iraq and what's left of the coalition that invaded it, but they had little fresh to say about their own plans. The first question out of the box: Does the formation of a government put the U.S. on a "sound footing" to bring its troops home? Bush seemed to be caught flat-footed, as if he didn't know that the question would be coming. He didn't have much of an answer.
The president was ready, however, when he was asked a variation of a question he's failed to answer before: What mistakes do you most regret about Iraq? "Saying, 'Bring it on,'" Bush said. "Kind of tough talk, sent the wrong signal to people. I learned some lessons about expressing myself in a more sophisticated manner. 'Wanted dead or alive,' that kind of talk. I think in certain parts of the world, it was misinterpreted. So I learned from that." Continuing, Bush said the "biggest mistake" of "our country's involvement in Iraq" was Abu Ghraib. "We've been paying for that for a long time," Bush said.
So far as we could tell, that was the extent of the news here.
For much of the press conference -- really, right up until Bush abruptly cut it short by asking Blair if he could buy him dinner -- the president seemed tired and a little listless. The reporters just seemed bored. There were other, more important stories they could be covering: Will the Senate and the House agree on an immigration bill? Will Dick Cheney testify at Scooter Libby's trial? Is Dennis Hastert really under investigation in the Jack Abramoff case? But the reporters were stuck with the Blair-Bush project, where they seemed to feel constrained to ask mostly about Iraq. There were no questions about immigration, nothing about the upcoming midterm elections, nothing about Plamegate, not a word about the showdown between members of Congress and the Bush administration over the search of Rep. William Jefferson's office. The members of the White House press corps were right there in the room with two of the most powerful men in the world, but they were as far from the news of the day as they were the other day on Air Force One, where they were strapped in their seats watching "King Kong" during Michael Hayden's CIA confirmation hearings.
At one point in the sleepy proceedings tonight, Bush reminded a reporter that he'll be the commander in chief for an additional two and a half years. A few minutes later, a British reporter asked Blair and Bush what they'll miss about each other once they're out of office. Bush said he'd miss Blair's red ties, and then he talked briefly about the prime minister's vision and resolve. Blair laughed, said he should leave it at that, then gently chided his countrymen for not asking more serious questions. If there's something he'll miss about Bush, he didn't bother to say what it is.