by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
April 19, 2004
NOT MUCH 'PRESS' IN THIS CONFERENCE
LOS ANGELES -- Why presidential press conferences are not viewed as a national embarrassment, I am at a loss to explain. The abject performance by the world press at the April 13, 2004, presidential news conference can be favorably compared only to the disingenuous collection of cliches, excuses and denials made by the President.
The fawning and scraping by the reporters in attendance does not spell the end of the free press. But it is a tame press; why do seemingly honest reporters permit the President to determine in advance who will get to ask questions? Braver journalists would sit out their opportunities in protest, to make sure the White House press corps preserves its integrity against the possibility that the journalists a president calls upon may have already been compromised by the White House.
This conference was, however, in contrast to the trend in the national media to examine the record of President George W. Bush more aggressively than ever before.
As to the press conference itself, there were seemingly two President Bushes in participation. The first President Bush read a long speech aloud that might have earned a grade of barely passing in a high school speech class. The second President Bush took questions from the audience.
What we have come to expect from our President is that he will deliver written text haltingly. It is beyond being wooden. "Wooden" means reading the text while lacking inflection - in short, being deficient in the vocal arts.
President Bush reads a few words and stops. He reads a few more words and stops. On and on it goes. Abruptly, he will stop speaking near the end of a phrase or sentence, then go on, finishing one thought and beginning another without pause, breath or inflection.
This may seem petty, but President Bush is, after all, a professional politician, and we are entitled to evaluate him by the standards of his chosen field. Public speaking is among the very least of the skills we expect from someone who wants to lead this land. If he can't even do that, what does this tell us about him?
In the question-and-answer period, President Bush was a different person altogether. His speech pattern was more natural. The words flowed together. This was a more likable sort of guy.
When Bush spoke to reporters more or less on his own rather than reading the prepared text, the level of thought and logic dropped dramatically. Let's look at Bush's answer to what was a straightforward question.
Question: Mr. President, I'd like to follow up on a couple of these questions that have been asked. One of the biggest criticisms of you is that whether it's WMD in Iraq, postwar planning in Iraq, or even the question of whether this administration did enough to ward off 9/11, you never admit a mistake. Is that a fair criticism? And do you believe there were any errors in judgment that you made related to any of those topics I brought up?
The President: Well, I think, as I mentioned, it's - the country wasn't on war footing, and yet we're at war. And that's just a reality, Dave. I mean, that's - that was the situation that existed prior to 9/11, because the truth of the matter is, most in the country never felt that we'd be vulnerable to an attack such as the one that Osama bin Laden unleashed on us. We knew he had designs on us, we knew he hated us. But there was a - nobody in our government, at least, and I don't think the prior government, could envision flying airplanes into buildings on such a massive scale.
"The people know where I stand. I mean, in terms of Iraq, I was very clear about what I believed. And, of course, I want to know why we haven't found a weapon yet. But I still know Saddam Hussein was a threat, and the world is better off without Saddam Hussein. I don't think anybody can - maybe people can argue that. I know the Iraqi people don't believe that, that they're better off with Saddam Hussein - would be better off with Saddam Hussein in power. I also know that there's a historic opportunity here to change the world. And it's very important for the loved ones of our troops to understand that the mission is an important, vital mission for the security of America and for the ability to change the world for the better."
The question was simple: Do you admit to making any errors in regard to attacks which have cost thousands of American lives?
President Bush responded with nearly incomprehensible gibberish and successfully avoided answering the question. In a more robust system, numerous reporters would be shouting out the same question and challenging the President to give a believable answer. Instead, the cream of the Western press sat in obedient silence.
Careful evaluation of the rest of the question/answer session shows much the same thing. In answers to questions on specific issues - culpability for failure to stop the Sept. 11 attacks, the continuing hostilities in Iraq in spite of this administration's rosy forecasts, questions as to what the President knew in the month prior to September 11 - the President typically offered a few generalizations that failed to answer the question and then changed the subject.
There has of course been some negative fallout, particularly where it comes President Bush's refusal to admit any error or to apologize. What is disappointing, however, is the failure by the mass media to point out in detail the substantial intellectual failure that is evident in the President's answers.
Yes, the liberals on the Internet managed to find a few symbolic issues to jump on, but a careful discussion of what President Bush actually said in his press conference is lacking.
The text of the April 13 press conference is available on the Internet and was published in some newspapers. Why haven't the media dissected the President's answers carefully, and shown them for what they are - cheap rhetorical tricks and evasions of critical questions?
It is understandable why the reporters who actually participated failed, by and large, at forcing realistic answers from the President. This administration has created a format for its press conferences in which reporters are expected to sit quietly until summoned. It is less jarring than the old tradition in which every scribe in the room yelled "Mr. President" in a grand cacophony at any pause in the proceedings.
That was loud and it was irritating, but real questions got asked and once in a while, real answers were given. President Bush has remodeled the press conference in a form that is less uncivilized and more irrelevant.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, something very different has been happening. The figurative "school of circling sharks" that the national media represent has started to circle, but the victim may be unusual this year.
Remember how this all works: During the last presidential election year of 2000, little bits and pieces of anti-Gore propaganda got blown way out of proportion. A misquote of a remark Al Gore made about his part in facilitating the development of the Internet was turned into a national joke. A couple of other such statements and suddenly Gore was the incurable exaggerator.
The press picked up on each of these stories, amplified them, and rebroadcast them to the readership.
What are the hot stories this year? They are not Kerry's war record, nor are they Kerry's alleged flip-flops.
The hot stories this month all involve the competence of the Bush administration: Why didn't the President act more aggressively in response to the Aug. 6, 2001 Daily Presidential Briefing, which referred specifically to Bin Laden's intent to attack America? Where was CIA Director George Tenet during the six weeks preceding Sept. 11? Why was Attorney General Ashcroft not more engaged in this topic?
These questions are all damaging to the Bush campaign. What is significant and even surprising is that the subject of these inquiries is a conservative Republican president. For all the misrepresentation by the right wing about the liberal media, history shows that Republican Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush the elder got off relatively lightly when it came to press scrutiny. As to Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, the record speaks for itself.
The media feeding frenzy has not quite begun, but we are starting to see a few dorsal fins. "Could you have prevented 9/11?" is not the sort of question the incumbent wants tossed at him week after week.
Curiously, one story has yet to become a national scandal.
This potentially explosive allegation has been quietly circulating since shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. It is described in the new book House of Bush, House of Saud, has been excerpted in Salon.com and was discussed by Al Franken on Air America Radio. The story is that a few days after the attacks many Saudis, some related to Bin Laden, were allowed to leave the country without being questioned by U.S. intelligence officials.
If and when the mass media make this the question of the day, the damage to the Bush campaign will be enormous.