WASHINGTON, March 30, 2006 (RFE/RL) - President Bush began his March 21 news conference with an opening statement on policy issues and then opened the session to questions. Among to the first to be recognized was veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas.
Stormy Press Conference
Bush initially chatted amiably with Thomas, but the pleasantries didn’t last long and a heated exchange began. Thomas noted that all of Bush's reasons for invading Iraq -- including alleged weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein's purported links to Al-Qaeda -- turned out to not to be valid. Why, she asked, had Bush wanted to go to war since the start of his administration?
Bush began to answer, and refused to stop as Thomas tried to interrupt.
"I think your premise, in all due respect to your question -- and to you, as a life-long journalist -- [is wrong,]" Bush said. "I didn't want war. To assume I wanted war is just -- is just flat wrong, Helen, in all due respect. [Thomas attempts to interrupt.] Hold on a second, please. Excuse me, excuse me. No president wants war. Everything you may have heard is that, but it's just simply not true."
Another reporter told Bush about speaking with people outside a hall in the central U.S. city of Cleveland, where the president had made a speech seeking to improve Americans' perceptions of the Iraq war.
Explaining The Iraq War
The reporter said he had spoken to a woman who was losing her faith in Bush, and he asked the president what he could say to her to restore her confidence. Bush replied that his administration is trying to defeat a cruel insurgency whose violence is eclipsing what he called the good news that's coming out of Iraq - and not shown on television.
"They're [ Iraqi insurgents] capable of blowing up innocent life so it shows up on your TV show," Bush said. "And therefore it affects the woman in Cleveland you were talking to. And I can understand how Americans are worried about whether or not we can win. I think most Americans understand we need to win, but they're concerned about whether or not we can win. So one of the reasons I go around the country -- to Cleveland -- is to explain why I think we can win."
Feeling The Pressure?
Robert Spitzer, a professor of political science at the State University of New York at Cortland, says that Bush is likely feeling the pressure of all the bad news of the past six months.
Still, Spitzer says, this isn't the first time that Bush has had difficulty handling criticism. During the 2004 presidential-election campaign, for example, Spitzer says the president seemed flustered when responding to negative comments by his Democratic challenger, Senator John Kerry.
Spitzer says Bush, at least in public discourse, lacks the skills of such predecessors as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, possibly because he is usually surrounded by extremely loyal aides and therefore isolated from criticism.
"He's not all that quick on his feet," Spitzer said. "I mean, he's a good speaker and he's an affable and friendly fellow and that comes across. But he's no Bill Clinton and, for that matter, I'd say no Ronald Reagan either, in terms of his ability to field a difficult question and turn it to his advantage. It's never really been strong point for him, and that's partly why he had so few direct press interactions in his first term. To some degree he has been quite isolated. Certainly the added stresses of the last few months can only make that more difficult for him."
Another observer, Larry Sabato, interprets Bush's performance entirely differently. Sabato -- a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville -- thinks Bush handled himself well at last week's news conference.
Sabato says Bush didn't seem to be nearly as nervous during that news conference -- conducted in the casual setting of the White House pressroom -- as he does during more formal press conferences in the mansion's stately East Room. Still, he says, Bush's exchange with Helen Thomas was another matter.
"I've seen him far more tense," Sabato said. "Whenever he has a formal press conference in the East Room or something, he's terrible. I mean, he's really tense and nervous. I thought he was relatively relaxed -- after that confrontation with Helen Thomas [in which] he let his real self show, that is, the self that many of his advisers see in private. [Laughs] He's known to have quite a temper and to cut people off when he disagrees."
Sabato says if Bush weren't feeling confident about the job his administration is doing, he would have fired some of his top aides. As it stands, only one is leaving, White House Chief of Staff Andy Card. He notes that Bush's choice for Card's replacement, White House Budget Director Joshua Bolten, signals no change in policy.