Friday, April 16, 2004

The Press at a Presidential Press Conference

Well, you can see why George Bush rarely does press conferences (only 12 so far), let alone in prime time (the one on April 13th was only his third). He can't -- or won't -- go off message, and the longer the conference goes on, the more dim the President seems because he's reduced to repeating himself over and over.

He never looks good after the first few questions. So resoluteness becomes stubbornness; conviction becomes cement; concern becomes cynicism. He converts his assets, as time goes on, into negatives. As a critic of Bush's policies, I think this process reveals a truth -- he lacks imagination. He's intellectually lazy and dishonest. He doesn't question a decision once it's been made, even when the actions taken need adjustment.

He rushed to war on March 19, 2003. He made the war primarily about Saddam's WMD and argued we could no longer wait for him to disarm and that we were in immediate danger from those WMD's. Even though, given the lack of WMD's to date, Saddam had apparently disarmed. Bush could have taken more time -- the summer, another year, to let more inspections play out, and used that time to build a coalition with U.N. imprimatur (not control, but just backing) that would have made the post invasion safer and more likely to succeed. But he didn't.

If the war is about democracy and freedom and America's role as a country which needs to foster that --a laudable goal-- then Bush should have taken the lead up and planning for war far more seriously than he has. But he rushed into war and bungled the postwar planning. The war was the easy part; our military shredded a paper tiger. But winning the war and winning the peace and securing democracy are markedly different. And Bush has so far failed miserably in planning for peace and democracy.

Bush has failed as a President not so much for going to war, but for making the public argument for war predominantly about WMD because that was the scariest scenario, for politicizing the war very early on via Karl Rove's strategies, for not revealing --and not looking to see-- the true cost of such an effort in terms of lives, monies, resources. He's failed not in boldness, but in honesty on what the war would cost. He also failed to truly trust the American people; he duped them into the war by linking Saddam to September 11.

Bush didn't have the patience to make the case that this war was needed to spread democracy and to bring a tyrant to his knees. He didn't have the courage to tell the people and congress what this war would cost in people and money. And he didn't have the foresight to see how difficult and continually dangerous the post war occupation would be.

In September of 2002, USA Today ran a cover story about Bush's war preparations which reported that analysts were being told not to prepare any reports or estimates that considered the complications and possible negative outcomes of invading Iraq. That is, in part of the propaganda effort, there was a deliberate --and unconscionable-- decision made to not consider the true costs, the true effort, the true sacrifices this war would require.

But that is not surprising. Bush failed to put into his budget an 87 million dollar funding for post Afghanistan war efforts. Embarrassed republicans in congress had to remember that and add it into the budget. Bush is negligent and dangerous because he doesn't attend to the details.

And that's why the press did so poorly at the press conference -- they never pressed on the details, but instead on the symbolic and the trivial. The reporters turned their brief question period not into a moment to learn new information or to ask questions that pressed on the details of Bush's actions in calling for the war, in starting it, and in carrying out the aftermath. No, they focused on cheap --and stupid-- gotcha questions. How many times was he asked to admit mistakes? How many times was he asked to apologize? And how many times did Bush deflect those questions and repeat his speech?

Why not ask questions about policy details? Why not ask questions strategy? When those were asked -- who will we be turning sovereignty over to? -- Bush didn't have good answers, but at least he tried to answer those, and in the trying, we got some measure of his thinking and planning and learned how abysmal they've been.

But no. For the most part, the press focused on issues or aspects of issues made them like jackals, hoping Bush would slip. So as bad as Bush came across, the press came across as worse.