POTUS with the press

William F. Buckley
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Posted: Mar 10, 2003 12:00 AM
A postmortem on President Bush's press conference, conducted with a friend who has been intimately involved in the past, reminds us that what's important to every president is to get said what he wants to say. "Twist your answer to the question around to what you want to get out," my informant summarized his experiences with one president; and of course the device, one or another form of the non sequitur, is applicable in non-presidential affairs.

In courtrooms there is a lawyer and a judge to require the witness to stick to the point. In debates, adversaries capitalize on others' evasions. But in presidential press conferences there is no immediate opportunity to do this except after the fact, and the broader listening public tends not to care. But restive listeners to a presidential press conference are entitled to wonder, if they are left squirming, why the press conference forum was selected, the president having always the alternative of simply making a statement or giving a speech.

Mr. President -- one reporter asked -- Secretary Powell has said that we have shared with our allies all the current up-to-date intelligence information on the imminence of the threat we face from Saddam Hussein. That being so, how do you account for "their reluctance to think the threat is so real, so imminent?"

The president handled that question by not answering it. His evening's inventory, drawn on repeatedly during the conference, was that Hussein was a threat, was not disarming, had been given 12 years to disarm; that his failure to do so activated the president's supreme responsibility, which is to look after the security of the American people. All of the above is correct, but leaves entirely unanswered why Germany and France are less concerned for security than the United States.

Don't say anything, Mr. President, critical of our allies! One can hear the warning stressed at the dress rehearsal, and indeed it is entirely understandable that a president should avoid unnecessary provocations. What would he be expected to say, for heaven's sake? That the leaders of Germany and France are delinquent civil officials? That they are as immaterial in the world of public presidential affairs. So ... you don't answer the question of a reporter. Are you arguing you should satisfy the reporter and antagonize President Chirac and Chancellor Schroeder? The president had a terrible time on the matter of the United Nations. The reporter wanted to know whether President Bush would be "defiant of the United Nations if you went ahead with military action without specific authorization of the U.N.?"

The only answer to that is: Yes. What we got was that it was Mr. Bush who took the issue to the United Nations in September 2002; that he wants the U.N. to be effective; that it's important for it to be a "robust, capable body;" and where our security is involved, we "really don't need the United Nations' approval." The president reminded the reporters that there had been skepticism about the U.N. last fall, but that when it came to a vote, Resolution 1441 was passed unanimously by the Security Council. He expressed the hope that the U.N. would, when it came down to it, concur with the new resolution.

Much presidential sweat was undoubtedly expended on the implications of his saying we'd go with or without U.N. approval. Two analyses were undoubtedly examined, the first, that to defy the United Nations hypothetically would encourage Security Council hostility; the second, that firmness would bring the benefits of resolute leadership.

But Mr. Bush, tied down by requirements of protocol and diplomacy, was not denied the opportunity to exhibit his great personal skills, which are sincerity of demeanor and his identification with high purpose. He revealed a true humility in telling the world that he sought guidance from the Almighty, and his professed gratitude for spiritual support was arresting. "It's a humbling experience to think that people I will never have met have lifted me and my family up in prayer. And for that I'm grateful. That's ... it's been a comforting feeling to know that is true. I pray for peace."

The exposure to George W. Bush was the only harvest of the press conference, and justified the hour.