George Bush is a quick wit. When a camera fell and dangled from the briefing room ceiling at his Jan. 26 press conference, he quipped to those seated below: "Are you wearing your helmets?" Later, a radio reporter prefaced his question about the Jack Abramoff scandal by saying he wasn't interested in pictures of Bush and the disgraced lobbyist. "Easy for a radio guy to say," Bush interjected.
I wish the president's serious answers were as tart and on point. Dealing with delicate issues on camera, Bush's mind may work just as quickly, but he keeps his mouth shut. The pause to think gives him away. When he doesn't punch out a response, he's not puzzling out the answer. He's puzzling out the spin.
Here are three of the president's favorite dodges, as executed at the press conference:
Hamas: Put on a Happy Face
President Bush believes in a simple formula. Democracy is good. Terrorism is evil. When democracy is introduced in hostile countries it acts like enchanted water: Apply a drop and liberty flowers. That theory, never plausible, obviously has now been undone: The victory of the radical Islamic organization Hamas in the Palestinian elections demonstrates that democracy and terrorism are not mutually exclusive.
Instead of dealing with the topsy-turvy result, the president focused on the sunny side. He said the elections "remind me of the power of democracy" and added, "I like the competition of ideas." Groovy. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, one of Bush's strongest allies in the war on terror, was blunter. He said the result was "very, very, very bad."
The president did restate the U.S. position that he will not deal with Hamas, which advocates, among other things, the eradication of Israel. But he never tried to reconcile this position with his glowing remarks about liberty spreading across the Middle East. Nor did he explain how he reacts to the fact that his black-and-white world has suddenly gone gray.
NSA Spying:Just Trust Us
The president was asked six questions about the NSA's warrantless eavesdropping, which he carefully calls a "terrorist surveillance program." The questions and answers hopped around over well-worn territory. Finally, Bush played the trump card that shuts off further discussion: To talk any more about the program, or even consider legislation to codify it, would help the terrorists. This doesn't avoid the question so much as it makes asking too many pointed ones an act of treachery. "This program is so sensitive and so important that if information gets out to how we do it, how we run it, or how we operate, it will help the enemy," he said. "I think the American people understand that. Why tell the enemy what we're doing, if the program is necessary to protect us from the enemy?"
It's very hard to get past such a statement, which is why the issue has the potential to work for the president politically. Any Democrat or Republican who wants to poke at the premises behind Bush's assertion is helping the terrorists. Ultimately, Bush demands that we trust that he has asked the questions for us. He says it's legal and our civil liberties are protected. How does he know? He's asked his own staff. He asked Al Gonzales, now his attorney general, and other administration lawyers, and they gave the thumbs up. He's asked officials at the NSA and they've given the OK, too. If we don't trust him, the president is saying, we should at least trust his employees he's told to tell us to trust him.
Abramoff:Look at the Shiny Ornament!
Another trick: Distract the questioner with something else. Show reporters a sparkly ornament, and hope we'll forget the tree it's hanging on. (Talking about Saddam Hussein has served this purpose in ducking tricky Iraq questions.) When talking about Jack Abramoff, Bush focused on the pictures of the two together rather than the larger issue of what influence the lobbyist had with White House officials and what, if anything, he may have gotten in return for all of that campaign cash.
The president continued to define the photographs as a few of the thousand taken at "grip and grin" sessions. This wasn't a dodge: It was a deception. At least one of the snapshots with the chairman of the Kickapoo Indians was clearly something more. Bush had a scripted joke for this eventuality. "Having my picture taken with someone doesn't mean that, you know, I'm a friend with them or know them very well," he said setting up the gag. "I've had my picture taken with you at holiday parties."
Bush's questioners' fixation on the pictures helped him stay focused on just the pictures. (Have you seen how shiny the ornament is!Yes, and he just mentioned us!) The real questions are: What happened in the rooms where there were no photographs taken and where Abramoff met with White House staff? Whom did Abramoff meet with, what did he want, and what did the White House officials want from him?
Other White House officials have refused to answer those questions. And today, the president just ducked them. Asked about the staff meetings he said in his reply: "It's part of the job of the president to shake hands and—with people, and smile. And I do."