Staying the course

hamster in wheel

Even if nobody knows what it is

The president deigned to hold a press conference the other night. I was looking forward to it. I had my laptop open, ready to take notes.

ready to take notes

I will confess to a certain Schadenfreude in my anticipation. On the one hand, there were some important and newsworthy things the president could address: Exactly who is the US is going to turn over sovereignty of Iraq to on June 30? Who is going to be the ambassador to Iraq, heading up this 3000 person embassy, the largest US embassy in the world, that will take over from Paul Bremer on that day? If the Iraqis are going to be in charge of their own government on June 30, what will that mean about all the US troops that will be there? What's the plan for stabilizing Iraq, currently spiraling ever deeper into chaos and violence? What does Bush think about all the revelations coming out of the 9/11 commission? On the other hand, if none of those newsworthy topics were addressed, The Shrub might say something stupid that I could make fun of.

Paul Zahn Wolf Blitzer

The drama. CNN was building a crescendo of excitement not seen since Punxatawney Phil came out to check his shadow. Paula and Wolf nattered away telling us what the president would say, before he said it. A screen caption told us this was the "12th news conference of Bush presidency" — not that anybody's counting.

CNN set the scene for us: the majesty of the lighted White House against the dark night sky; the podium with presidential seal standing between flags and at the end of a long red carpet; the reporters waiting with their notebooks and pens ready.

White House exterior podium in White House reporters waiting for press conference to start Bush at podium

Finally, President George W Bush strode down that red carpet and took his place behind the podium and began a lengthy prepared statement.

Message: Stay the course. It's our calling.

The White House imagemeisters go to great lengths to portray this Bush as a man of action. We see him in his work clothes clearing brush from the ranch in Crawford. We see him in a flight suit commuting by fighter jet to the USS Lincoln. We see him striding purposefully and resolutely to take his place at ceremonial functions. We hear him challenging his enemies: "Bring 'em on!" We hear nothing but resoluteness and determination in his speeches.

Luckovich cartoon Mike Luckovich (Click image to enlarge)

At the same time there is a frightening passivity to this Bush. When something important comes along, he waits for someone else to figure it out. He's waiting for General Abizaid to tell him if more troops are needed in Iraq. He's expecting Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy, to figure out "the exact form of the government that will receive sovereignty on June 30th." He didn't take any action after receiving a stream of briefings about Bin Laden's determination to strike inside the US because the counterterrorism group didn't come up and say, "This is where we see something happening." He doesn't know what went wrong with 9/11 because he presumes "the 9-11 commission will find out."

This isn't a healthy willingness to collaborate with and rely on others. This isn't a search for input and counsel. This is abdication of responsibility.

Bush puzzled

The most frightening and sorrowful moment of the press conference came when Bush was asked "After 9-11, what would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have learned from it?" Bush stood in obvious discomfort, looking down at his podium, and was not able to think of even one mistake he's made or one thing he's learned in the last nearly two years. He later tried to cover by saying, "I hope -- I don't want to sound like I have made no mistakes. I'm confident I have. I just haven't -- you just put me under the spot here, and maybe I'm not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one." Truer words were never spoken.

I started to watch the press conference with a sense of Schadenfreude. I ended only with a sense of sorrow and no joy at all.

This White House has mastered the stagecraft of the presidency. Unfortunately, this is real life, not make-believe.

We're in a hole here, folks, and we keep on digging.