Friday, March 07, 2003

Flat and flat-footed. So how did George W. Bush do at his televised news conference last night? To this consumer (after all, the president was selling, hoping we'll buy; we're all consumers now, citizenship being so 20th-century), he was okay, sort of, neither soaring to the heights nor making a blithering idiot of himself.

On WBUR Radio (90.9 FM), I heard the Atlantic Monthly's Jack Beatty tell the On Point audience that Bush had "fallen below the moment" -- I think that was his phrase, though I was in my car and not taking notes -- persuading absolutely no one who has not yet been persuaded, especially among the European allies. Beatty was right.

A few random observations.

-- About 20 minutes into it, I was bored and distracted, and felt guilty for not focusing more closely on what was, after all, a momentous discussion of war and peace. So I was relieved to read Tom Shales in this morning's Washington Post, who asked -- under the headline "Bush's Wake-Up Call Was a Snooze Alarm" -- "Have ever a people been led more listlessly into war?" In the New York Times, Elisabeth Bumiller pussyfooted around the same topic, calling Bush's demeanor "extraordinarily tranquil." So it wasn't just me.

-- Even conservative commentator David Brooks, a cofounder (with Weekly Standard editor William Kristol) of the John McCain-inspired "national greatness" school of conservatism, is worried about how "bold" Bush's go-it-alone approach is. In a piece for the Standard's website, Brooks writes:

Maybe Bush thinks that by essentially threatening the diplomatic equivalent of the doomsday scenario, he can induce Russia, China, and France to abstain, rather than veto the resolution. But it is an incredible gamble. It certainly does nothing to help Tony Blair, who has been trying to somehow finesse things at the United Nations.

-- In Slate, William Saletan observes that in trading Bill Clinton for Bush, we traded ambiguity for certainty -- something that sounds good in the abstract, but that doesn't always play well in the real world. Saletan observes:

[S]ometimes, things aren't black and white. Sometimes they're gray. When the governments of France, China, or Mexico don't see things your way, you have to start the process of persuasion by understanding where they're coming from. That's where Clinton was at his best and Bush is at his worst. Four times at his press conference, Bush was asked why other countries weren't seeing things our way. Four times, he had no idea.

-- In the Boston Globe, John Aloysius Farrell took note of Bush's frequent references to 9/11. Indeed, Bush intoned "September eleventh, two thousand and one" so many times last night that it began to take on the aspect of a chant. But it came across as either disingenuous (polls show that an enormous percentage of Americans believe -- wrongly -- that there is evidence showing Iraq was involved in 9/11) or desperate, with the president hoping that the memory of that horror will impel Americans to give him a free pass to do whatever he wants to dislodge Saddam Hussein.

This was only Bush's second prime-time news conference since assuming office more than two years ago. If last night was any indication, we haven't been missing much.

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