Ramblin' Man

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, April 22, 2004; 9:54 AM

Most of the time President Bush is out in public these days, he trots out one of a couple stock speeches. At his news conference last week, he returned over and over again to a handful of scripted lines.

So it was a bit of a shock yesterday when Bush showed up at a luncheon for newspaper executives and gave a meandering, relaxed, unscripted talk, poking a little fun at his hosts and making all sorts of news here and there.

He started with a salutation. "Members of the politburo," he said, looking around the dais with an impish smile as laughter rippled through the audience. "I mean, my fellow Americans." (The politburo is the chief political and executive committee of a Communist party.)

Major media outlets picked different aspects of the speech to lead with this morning.

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush told newspaper editors in Washington yesterday that Iran 'will be dealt with, starting through the United Nations' if it does not stop developing nuclear weapons and begin total cooperation with international inspectors."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "President Bush expressed no surprise on Wednesday that the majority of Americans think it is somewhat likely that there will be a terrorist attack in the United States before the November election, and he suggested that they had a reason to be concerned."

Richard Benedetto writes in USA Today: "President Bush said Wednesday that the war on terror 'is going to take a while' and pleaded for patience and resolve."

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "It's tough to protect the United States against terrorism, President Bush said Wednesday, adding that he understands why two-thirds of Americans in an Associated Press poll think terrorists are likely to strike the nation again before the November election."

Adam Entous writes for Reuters: "U.S. President George W. Bush on Wednesday rejected international condemnation of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and said world leaders owed him a 'thank you' for his plans for the Gaza Strip and the West Bank."

Bill Sammon writes in the Washington Times: "President Bush yesterday said democracy in Iraq is an imperative, not an option, as Sen. John Kerry has asserted. . . . "

Jim Angle says on Fox News: "The president seemed to be on a mission to charm those who decide how he's portrayed in the nation's newspapers, they saw a relaxed and jovial president. . . . "

Here's the full text of Bush's remarks, and the video.

Pre-Screened Questions

Yesterday, in both my column and my Live Online appearance, I tried to knock down the conspiracy theory running around the blogosphere that reporters submit their questions to the White House before presidential news conferences.

It's pure poppycock.

(Now that said, it's hardly a mystery to anyone in the White House what reporters are going to ask the president, because more often than not those questions are the same ones they've been fruitlessly asking press secretary Scott McClellan over and over again for weeks.)

Anyway, here I was hoping to quell this nonsense with some pretty unequivocal statements from, among others, Mike Allen of The Washington Post, who had this to say:

"I have checked this out thoroughly with both colleagues in the press and the staff at the White House and I have no one who has ever heard of a question being submitted in advance. It is simply not done."

And then what happens? Even while I'm Live Online, the president goes to the Associated Press annual luncheon -- and answers three questions, from those submitted in advance by AP members! (And read to him by Burl Osborne, chairman of the AP board of directors and former publisher of the Dallas Morning News.)

As a result, several readers e-mailed me, demanding that I apologize for calling them conspiracy theorists.

I will not.

1.) This was not a news conference.

2.) These were not reporters. They were publishers and newspaper executives. Entirely different species.

More on Questions

Greg Mitchell and Joe Strupp write in Editor and Publisher: "The whole issue of questions from the audience at the Associated Press annual luncheon was a running joke for the president during his talk. He opened his speech by saying, 'I kind of like ducking questions,' and said he would be 'glad to duck any questions like my mother once told me to do' following his remarks.

Yet More Questions

Bush will sit down for an interview this afternoon in the Oval Office. And this time, he may have a hard time anticipating -- or ducking -- the questions.

Keith J. Kelly of the New York Post reports: "President George W. Bush is slated to give a surprise interview to Tom Kelly, the 8-year-old son of the late Michael Kelly, the Atlantic Monthly editor at large who just over a year ago became the first American journalist killed in the war in Iraq."

The Woodward Du Jour

The Washington Post today prints the last of five articles adapted from Bob Woodward's book, "Plan of Attack." (See my last three columns for all the background, if somehow you have missed it.)

Today's excerpt describes the frantic activity in the White House on March 19, 2003. That morning, Bush launched the war in Iraq. He told Woodward: "Going into this period, I was praying for strength to do the Lord's will. . . . I'm surely not going to justify war based upon God. Understand that. Nevertheless, in my case I pray that I be as good a messenger of His will as possible. And then, of course, I pray for personal strength and for forgiveness."

Later in the day, after a flurry of meetings, Bush approved an attempt to kill Saddam Hussein based on unconfirmed intelligence, and moved up his speech to the nation. Gripping stuff.

The Post also prints a few short excerpts from Woodward's interview with Bush.

The Condensed Bob Woodward

Bryan Curtis of Slate writes: "Want to read Bob Woodward's new book, Plan of Attack, without plowing through all 467 gossip-soaked pages? We can help!"

Why the White House is Happy

Still wondering why, when all is said and done, the White House actually likes Woodward and his book so much? Here's Woodward with Gwen Ifill on the Newshour last night.

"So the president is the decision-maker. . . . [H]e said, explicitly, he believes we have a duty to free people, to liberate people.

"And I asked him directly, I said, 'is this not kind of a dangerous paternalism where people are going to say, now, wait a minute, where's the United States coming in and liberating us?'

"And he said, quite directly, he said, 'that's an elite view,' and that people who are liberated are delighted and happy with it. And he wants to fix things. I think it is a moral determination which we've not seen in the White House maybe in 100 years."

And this:

"What's the campaign about this year?

"A lot of it's about being tough, and people want a tough president, and this man is tough. And a lot of people are going to like it -- a lot of people aren't going to like it. It's not a one-dimensional portrait of him or of this team."

Saudi: No Quid Pro Quo

Pete Yost of the Associated Press writes: "The Saudi ambassador to the United States on Wednesday denied any linkage between the U.S. presidential election campaign and a Saudi pledge to the Bush administration to push for lower oil prices.

"There was no 'quid pro quo,' Prince Bandar bin Sultan told reporters after a meeting with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice about the latest terrorist strike in Saudi Arabia."

Woodward, in his book, writes that according to Bandar, "the Saudis hoped to fine-tune oil prices over 10 months to prime the economy" for the 2004 election. But he did not say there was an explicit quid pro quo.

Today's Calendar (Happy Earth Day!)

John Heilprin writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush, trying to shore up his environmental record against attacks by Democratic rival John Kerry, is celebrating Earth Day by highlighting efforts to shore up wetlands at a Maine nature reserve.

"Bush will talk Thursday about 'how much environmental progress the country has made since the first Earth Day 30 years ago,' White House spokesman Trent Duffy said Wednesday."

Press Corps Watch

Joe Hagan quotes ABC's Terry Moran in the New York Observer as saying, "We need people who are not polite" in the White House press corps. And Helen Thomas describes the current corps as "better educated. . . . A lot more finesse, but I don't think they're better reporters."

Still, writes Hagan, "many reporters say that the soft-shoe approach works best." He quotes The Post's Mike Allen: "The trick is to balance persistence with the decorum this President insists on. . . . If you yell, all you're going to get is a glare -- guaranteed. The President knows when a question is aimed at tripping him up. He's a lot more likely to make news if you ask something out of genuine curiosity, or that is designed to elicit his thinking about a particular decision or situation."

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