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April 13, 2004

A Prime Time News Conference Before a Special Interest: Make Sense to You?

The moment calls for a rough grilling by a special interest group eager to sink your standing with voters. (Liberals, too.) This would appear to be the logic of tonight's White House press conference. But that logic went bust this week.

President Bush will be on national television tonight, taking questions from a special interest group.

It would seem to be an odd practice, but unless the New Yorker’s Ken Auletta is making things up, that’s what the White House decided yesterday: appear on prime time before a self-serving bunch who don’t represent anyone, and indeed have been losing authority. “For perhaps the first time,” Aluetta wrote, “the White House has come to see reporters as special pleaders—pleaders for more access and better headlines—as if the press were simply another interest group, and, moreover, an interest group that’s not nearly as powerful.”

But according to the New York Times account of why Bush decided to meet the press tonight, a sense of alarm explains it: “Officials say they are concerned that events beyond their control, from the battlefields of Iraq to a hearing room in Washington, threaten a carefully planned re-election campaign,” wrote Adam Nagourney. “The unease in Mr. Bush’s circles was one reason, an aide said, that Mr. Bush scheduled a prime-time news conference, a custom he has never liked.”

Then some supportive Republicans are brought in to explain why it’s a good idea:

“There are many things he should say and will be saying over the next few days,” said Representative Roy Blunt of Missouri, the No. 3 Republican in the House. “And I’m glad he’s doing that. He should be explaining some of the positive things that are happening in Iraq. I think he should be explaining the level of resistance, and what he intends to do about it.”

But if “explaining” were the point, surely a prime time address to the nation—fully justified by the turn of events in Iraq—would do better. Why doesn’t Bush speak over the heads of the press and explain himself that way? That’s what savvy presidents do, I am told. Then I read in the Washington Times, a paper more friendly to Bush, the remarks of Republican political consultant Scott Reed. “I sense that the White House recognizes that it’s time to get this commander in chief back on the offensive,” Reed says. “He will remind the American people that we’re in a global war on terrorism and reconnect with concerned voters who are concerned about what is going on in the world.”

Hmmm. Reconnecting with voters, certainly an honorable aim, is much easier when you can speak directly to them. This again argues for a speech in prime time, not a press conference. Reminding the American people that we are in a global war on terror is what the administration does every day. Bush never tires of saying it. Not apparent why a press conference is a better “reminding” medium.

Bush dislikes the drama of the televised press conference (this will only be his third in prime time). His advisors see the press as a special pleader, full of careerists looking for handouts or dirt. His most passionate supporters find justice served when the liberal press is put down or treated with contempt— since they believe the press shows contempt for Bush, for Republicans, and for the majority of right-thinking Americans.

These, then, are the people and circumstances the White House chose for question time. Seems a bit weird. For according to the Times again: “Officials say they are concerned that events beyond their control, from the battlefields of Iraq to a hearing room in Washington, threaten a carefully planned re-election campaign.” And from The Note, a product of ABC News, comes this explanation:

A senior White House official tells ABC News’ Kate Snow: “The decision for a press conference was to give the American people an update on the war. Last week was tough, and military operations have now been underway for several days, so he thought it was the right time to provide context as well as explain the way forward. We know 9-11 will come up, but we believe the American people are far more interested in what’s happening in Iraq.”

Let me see if I’ve got it. In tough times, the moment calls for a rough grilling by a special interest group eager to see your standing with voters sink. This will permit you to re-gain control of the national agenda and the election campaign— far more effectively than a leader speaking directly to hearts and minds of the American people.

Make a lot of sense to you?

Actually, there is a logic to what the White House is doing. But it collides with White House press think in the years of W. Bush. The argument for a press conference is hinted at in the Washington Post’s story today: “The news conference will give Bush a forum to address concerns that have caused a dip in his election-year popularity.”

The “forum” idea is that it helps the President when he is seen as facing his critics, answering questions that are on people’s minds, explaining policy to those who are more skeptical, more probing. That’s not done in a speech. The evening news conference is a live test of leadership. When your leadership is in doubt, or polls show a softening, you take the test on national TV. If you pass, you have “answered the questions.” You have responded to critics, and your defenders have more to work with. It’s not difficult to imagine momentum being regained from a sequence like that.

But this works for Bush only if the press is in fact a legitimate critic, and seen as such by Americans whose doubts you are trying to answer. Only if the press conference is a legitimate forum for raising and answering doubts can it have any effect in restoring the glow of leadership. The test argument is weak unless it’s a strong test the President meets tonight.

And if the press with its probing provides President Bush the opportunity to show leadership, explain policy, add context and re-connect with voters at a moment of political trouble, all things his supporters have said, then the press cannot be merely a special interest group and it cannot deserve the administration’s contempt. But will that attitude be re-considered? Auletta’s lengthy New Yorker piece included this:

At the tenth solo press conference of the Bush Presidency, on October 28th, Bush was asked twenty-three questions, all but two of them on international issues. His staff was unhappy with the nature and tone of many of the questions, and thought they displayed the distance between what concerns the press and what concerns the public.

Of course, “distance between what concerns the press and what concerns the public” cannot be the premise of tonight’s event. The White House must be counting on reporters who articulate some of the concerns of the public. Otherwise, why take the risk? Auletta continues:

Catherine Martin, a public-affairs assistant to Cheney, saw what she referred to as an “unconscious” liberal bias. “It’s interesting how, before they ask their question, reporters stand up and give a little spiel that taints what the question is,” she said. “It’s their view of what is going on… . And it’s not the same thing as objective reporting.”

This is the liberal bias thesis, but I wonder how people who hold it view Bush’s decision to submit to grilling by a bunch of liberals. After all, just two weeks ago, Philip J. Trounstine of the liberal journal Salon was demanding it.

It’s time for the political writers to push, probe and prod candidate Bush just as enthusiastically as they have John Kerry and the merry band of roadkill Democratic contenders. They should be screaming for a full-blown, hour-long press conference. They cannot be satisfied with two-question opportunities from the White House press pool or Tim Russert’s one-on-one on “Meet the Press.”

Given how they have peppered Kerry with questions about name-calling, claims of foreign support, Botox, and other minor “issues,” isn’t it time to bore in on Bush regarding 9/11 and the war in Iraq?

Now there is one theory that would explain why Bush agrees to face on national television a crowd of discredited, reflexively liberal, contemptuous and contemptible people who either wish him ill or unconsciously taint their every word. It’s the idea of press as foil, the useful idiot, so outrageously biased or pedantic, so carping and clueless, that by comparison Bush appears in a flattering light, and gets the people at home cheering when he handles the situation with ease. The President re-connects this way with the audience, which also detests the press.

I am sure there are some who believe this, too. But if it were true, then the White House, praised for its sense of control, would be regularly availing itself of this controlled fix, and Bush would love press conferences. (He would love going on with Tim Russert too.) And he doesn’t. He hates it. His people try to avoid it. The contempt for journalists and the “special interest” thesis, both of which look like realpolitik thinking about the press, always had one weakness from a realist perspective. And when the President walks into that brightly-lit room tonight, the folly of it will be clear.

Not only does the White House need the press to reach the nation where the nation is right now, but the President would like to have before him a legitimate—and, yes, representative—press corps raising legitimate and representative doubts. Otherwise, tonight’s move is senseless. But suppose the campaign to discredit and marginalize journalists—as a special interest no different from the trucking association or teacher’s unions—had actually succeeded?

Then there would be no leadership forum available tonight. The option of re-gaining momentum that way would be lost. I doubt the lesson will be learned among the Bush team, but it will be there to absorb for anyone with eyes and ears.

UPDATE, April 13: After the Event… I don’t get into how Bush or the press “did,” leaving that to more classical pundits.

One thing in particular made me think during the event and after— this matter of mistakes. It was a big theme of the questioning, and it gave the President the most trouble, literally baffling him at one point. He had to remark how he was under pressure to come up with an answer and… couldn’t. Some anger at being “tricked” or put unfairly on the spot by the question (any mistakes after September 11th?) was also apparent.

BUSH: I wish you’d have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it. John, I’m sure historians will look back and say, gosh, he could’ve done it better this way or that way. You know, I just — I’m sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with answer, but it hadn’t yet.

No doubt there will be criticism of the press for harping on the you never made a mistake? issue, and trying to bait the President. And there will be criticism of the Bush camp for tending to rely on the doctine of infallability, and of Bush for being dumbstruck at the question: any mistakes? All three complaints are valid.

Bush did not succeed tonight in discussing any of his mistakes, or notifying us of their existence, except for one moment, and I thought it was done with his voice, not the words. He repeated in reply to one of the mistakes questions, “the country wasn’t on war footing, and yet we’re at war.”

Since sole responsibility for putting us on the footing belongs to the Commander in Chief, who is also responsible for knowing when we are at war, those statements in sequence might suggest a mistake. It was Bush’s voice that suggested, at least to my ear, the pain of knowing you had sole responsibility, and had failed.

David Brooks, reviewing the week with Jim Lehrer and Mark Shields last Friday, spoke up about the infallability doctrine in the Bush White House. He said he had asked people in the operation, “why don’t you ever admit a mistake?” and was told: we tried it. That’s right. During the summer, Wolfowitz came back from Iraq and said, we didn’t do some things well. The next day… bam, all the coverage was about that: Wolfowitz admits… The press ignored everything he said about Iraq working as planned!

Thus: why bother? You’re going to get slammed either way. It isn’t realistic to go around admitting to even small mistakes. We tried it. Brooks told this story, and shrugged in “that’s what the White House will tell you” style, which he has perfected.

But here’s what no one ever tries to explain to me (and it won’t happen in tomorrow’s punditry, either): Let’s say it isn’t realistic, politically, for the President to admit mistakes. Does that mean Presidential infallability, which the White House went back to after the Wolfowitz experiment, is to be treated by serious players as the more realistic premise? It hasn’t done well for the Popes.

Aftermath: Notes, Reactions & Links…

Click here for the transcript, April 13th Presidential Press Conference.

Jeff Jarvis comments on this post.

The American Spectator’s John Tabin writes: “Next time, Bush ought to take the advice that NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen gave on his blog yesterday: skip the dance with the press, and just give a speech.” I wasn’t aware that I gave any advice, but thanks, Spectator people.

Others seem to suggest I was advising Bush. Instapundit, for example.

Ross Mayfield comments on watching the press conference to see if this post’s thesis was borne out.

Political philosopher Peter Levine comments on this post and the event:

“Reporters basically asked the president, over and over again, “Do you feel bad for what you thought or did in the past? Do you feel that you are competent?” That kind of question makes reporters look like adversaries (the “liberal media”), but it’s actually a total softball. What can the president say except, “No, I am not a failure”? There was virtually no chance that such questions would illicit interesting news.

Posted by Jay Rosen at April 13, 2004 4:16 PM