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April 13, 2004

"THE VIOLENCE IN IRAQ IS A POWER GRAB by ruthless extremists. It is not a civil war, or a popular uprising." Part of Bush's opening.

Bush will never be Clinton when it comes to speechifying, but it seems to me that he did a pretty good job by Bush standards. He was focused and specific, stressed -- wisely, I think -- that the June 30 transfer-of-sovereignty date is firm, but made clear that the transfer doesn't mean the end of our commitment. There was a lot of stuff (prompted by Kerry's oped today?) on international cooperation. (Mentioning Kosovo may have been bad salesmanship, though).

"The enemies of the civilized world are testing the will of the civilized world." He connected the mentality behind the Iraqi insurgencies with bombings in Madrid, and Bali, and the murder of Daniel Pearl, along with the Beirut Marine barracks bombing. "None of these acts is the work of a religion. All are the work of a fanatical political ideology. The servants of this ideology seek tyranny in the Middle East and beyond. . . . They seek to intimidate America into panic and retreat, and to set free nations against one another. . . We've seen that any concession or retreat on our part will only embolden our enemy and lead to more bloodshed."

"The terrorists have lost the shelter of the Taliban and the training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They lost an ally in Baghdad, and Libya has turned its back on terror."

Bush said that there's no safe alternative to resolute action, and stressed that the terrorists fear democracy and freedom in the Arab world.

Overall, a pretty good opening speech -- though he probably should have given it weeks ago. The first question was a "quagmire" question. "How do you answer the Vietnam question?"

I think Bush handled that pretty well, and he looked confident and quick on his feet (for Bush). More importantly, he seemed sincere, and determined ("tough" was an oft-repeated word), while admitting problems. And he stayed on message. [I've moved my liveblogging to the "extended entry" area. I don't know why I bothered liveblogging something that was on TV -- I just made a few notes and it turned into a blog entry. (All quotes are approximate -- I'm not a transcriptionist).]

How will it play? I don't know how many people watched it, but I think it will reassure a lot of people who haven't paid a lot of attention day to day, and who wanted evidence that Bush is serious, has a plan, and is on top of things. Lots of talk about cooperation, to deflect claims of unilateralism. He was pretty good, and I wonder why he doesn't do this more often. Ultimately, though, the issue isn't the communication, but the way things work out. It's not the talk, but the results.

UPDATE: Bush's tie comes in for criticism. (Related tie post here, in case you care where Bush and Kerry get their ties.)

ANOTHER UPDATE: Stephen Bainbridge liked the speech less:

I just don't think this speech did it. One did not come away with the dominant impression being one of fire and brimstone, that we're going to kick butt and take names, that messing with America is a fatal mistake.

I don't think that was the speech Bush was trying to give, and I don't think that's the speech we needed right now. I think that would have come across as overly bellicose, and maybe even insecure. But I could be wrong.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: The press is getting a bad review, with this as the best line: "It's less than unimportant. It's press corps important. And it's why I find myself listening to the press less and less these days."

I thought that the press was better than usual, too, actually -- by, again, its own not very exacting standard. But maybe I'm just in a mellow mood tonight.

MORE: Roger Simon (he's a Hollywood guy, so he should know) liked the speech:

I think Bush did very well and helped himself with this press conference. Most of all, he comes off as sincere and passionately committed--and I think on the War on Terror he is. . . .

I also think he should give more press conferences because, although he certainly does not have the verbal skill of a Clinton, he does not seem as if he is trying to gull anyone either. Against the media, which is populated with people desperate to stand out from the crowd to make themselves known, he automatically looks good.

I think that was the White House strategy. Click "read more" and scroll to the bottom for the Don Gonyea question to see what I mean.

Donald Sensing says that Bush and Kerry are sounding more alike on Iraq. And Jeff Jarvis observes that the President seems to have listened to Jay Rosen, and adds:

Just amazing that the reporters keep harping on wanting Bush to say that he made a "mistake" or "failed" or should "apologize."

Jeesh, do they think this is Oprah and they're all Dr. Phil?

They hope.

STILL MORE: Jack O'Toole gives a mixed review: the speech was "quite good," the press conference "disappointing." Meanwhile reader Eric Hall emails:

One thing I noticed besides Bush's excellent closing ("change the world, our responsibility, make America safe") is that the press is trying to define Bush for the election. They touched on "inability to communicate", "needs to apologize" and "failed to act". Get ready for seven months of that.

Nonsense. That would be partisanship, and they're professionals.

Lily Malcolm: "I agree with Glenn that the President did a good job, certainly relative to some of his other extemporaneous public speaking performances. There wasn't too much of that cringe-inducing nervous cockiness we've seen from him in the past." High praise!

BlackFive: "Overall, he didn't do so well. . . . He did better the longer it went on."

Rene: "Bush doesn't have the polish and command of facts that Clinton had nor does he have the stage presence and comforting voice of Reagan. However, as I see it, he exudes resolve."

Here's an online transcript of the press conference, which makes my liveblogging pointless except for a few interspersed comments.

Andrew Sullivan: "I found the president clear, forceful, impassioned, determined, real. This was not an average performance."

Virginia Postrel: "George W. Bush is not the most articulate of men, but he is really good at one kind of speech: laying out in simple language the way he's thought through a policy decision."

Neal Boortz: "We started this orgy of apologies during the Clintonista era. They are little more than moral exhibitionism."

Another roundup of blog-reactions here. And Porphyrogenitus finds evidence that the Bush playbook looks a lot like the Den Beste playbook.

Spoons didn't like it much: "Well, it wasn't universally horrible, but it wasn't good."

Tom Maguire: "The speech was strong (we are no longer surprised by this); the press conference was not weak (yes, this is a bit surprising)."

Glittering Eye: "Adequate but lackluster. . . . What did impress me was the palpable disdain the press had for the President and the clear sense that they were gunning for a useable sound-bite."

Finally (it's my bedtime) here's Charles Austin's observation on the dog that didn't bark:

There weren't any questions from Big Media about the state of the economy. Hard to imagine a clearer signal that the economy is strong and probably getting stronger.

Several readers sent this kind of thought, but I think the White House let it be known that the topic was the war. Then again, if the press thought they could nail Bush on the economy, somebody probably would have asked anyway.

FINAL UPDATE: On Don Gonyea's question, reader Jonathan Miller emails:

Good God, what was that? The only hope he has of not losing all credibility is if the networks didn't identify him as an NPR reporter. [Oops!]

A side note: Gonyea has been the WH correspondent for the past five years or so. I ferociously dislike his wafer-thin reporting (and his Shatner-esque delivery). That question confirmed what I thought of him. Ugh.

"Shatner-esque?" That's not my take on Gonyea's reporting, but I'll certainly listen to him in a new light, next time.


Liveblogging:

Bush (Answering the Vietnam question): The analogy is false, and it sends the wrong message to our troops and our enemy. We've been there a year, and it's been tough, but we're making progress. We're changing the world.

How long will troops be in Iraq? "As long as necessary and not one day more." How many troops? If Abizaid needs more troops, he'll get 'em.

Bush: I was disappointed at the performance of some of the Iraqi troops. Some performed brilliantly, some didn't. But eventually Iraq's security will be handled by the Iraqis themselves. If the problem is training or equipment, we'll send more.

False premises on WMD and reconstruction? Bush: The lesson of 9/11 is that if we see a gathering threat we deal with it. Saddam Hussein was a threat. He was a threat to the region, to the United States. I thought so, Congress thought so, the UN thought so. I told the UN "you take care of him or we will," and it was important to follow through. Empty words would embolden terrorists. Answer gets a bit muddled here, but essence is that Saddam was cheating. What about oil revenues? Bigger than we expected at this point in time. Will it fund reconstruction? Yes. "It's their oil and they'll use it to reconstruct their country."

On attitude of Iraqis: "They're really pleased that we got rid of Saddam Hussein, and you can understand why." But he says they're still fearful from the Saddam experience. "They're not happy they're occupied . . . that's why transfer of sovereignty is important."

On 9/11 Commission: Bush corrects a reporter's question on how serious he was [quick on his feet for Bush!]-- "my blood wasn't boiling" on terrorism before 9/11. Does he feel personal responsibility? "I feel incredibly grieved when I meet with family members.. . . There are some things I wish we had done. Hindsight's easy. . . . We weren't on a war footing, yet the enemy was at war with us. It didn't take me long to put us on a war footing, and we've been on one sense. This country must go on offense. We must find these killers before they hurt us again, and they want to hurt us again."

To Bush: The biggest criticism is that you never make a mistake. Bush: "I said we weren't on a war footing, yet we were at war. . . . We knew he had designs on us, we knew he hated us."

About the 8/6 PDB: "I asked for the briefing, because there had been a lot of threat intelligence from overseas -- about the Genoa G8 conference. I said let's make sure we're paying attention at home, as well. The report was mainly history -- '97, '98, '99 -- there was an indication that Bin Laden might hijack an airplane, but not to fly it into a building, but to release a person from jail. I was dealing with terrorism a lot when George Tenet came to brief me. I wanted Tenet in the Oval Office all the time. . . . The way my administration worked was that I met with Tenet all the time."

"I've asked myself a lot -- is there anything I could have done to stop these attacks? If I'd had any inkling we'd have moved heaven and earth. Just like we are now."

Were you falsely comforted by the FBI? "I expect to get valid information. We'll look at that and see what can be done better."

Richard Clarke apologized. Will you apologize? "I'm sick when I think about the death that took place on that day. . . . I often think about what I could have done differently. But the person responsible for the attacks was Osama bin Laden. And that's why we will stay on the offense until we bring people to justice."

What about forces from other countries and private military contractors? "I don't think that people ought to demean the contributions of our friends. These are people who are putting themselves in harm's way, for the good of the world." Bush says he'd like to get another Security Council resolution out. "It's the intention of the enemy to shake our will. They want us to leave. We're not going to leave. A free Iraq will be a major blow to terrorism."

"People want to be free. Some people think that if you're Muslim, or if you have brown skin, you somehow don't want to be free. I reject that."

You've been accused of letting the 9/11 threat mature too far, but not letting the Iraq threat mature enough. What's the appropriate threat level?

"I guess there are some who say we should have taken preemptive action in Afghanistan, who turn around and say we shouldn't have taken preemptive action in Iraq. We weren't on a war footing." And it would have been diplomatically difficult. "I didn't contemplate" an invasion of Afghanistan. "After 9/11 the world changed for me." [This is a recurring theme, obviously planned, but obviously sincere, too.]

What's the standard for preemption? Military action is a last choice. But we'll never take the military off the table. Notes success with Libya via diplomatic pressure backed by military threat.

"Iraq is a part of the war on terror. It is not the war on terror. It is a theater in the war on terror."

Will it be worth it even if you lose your job? "I don't plan to lose my job. I plan to explain to the American people what we're doing." Nobody likes to see bodies on their television screens, but the sacrifice is in the name of security for America and freedom for the world. What's important is to never allow our youngsters to die in vain. Withdrawing from Iraq would be just that. The American people may decide to change, that's democracy, but I don't think so. I look forward to making my case."

What was your biggest mistake after 9/11? "I'm sure historians will look back and say he could have done it better this way or that way. I don't know. I still would have called upon the world to deal with Saddam Hussein."

Intelligence reform? Will you, and how will you? Bush: An MI5 approach? I'm open for suggestions. I look forward to what the commissions come up with. Let the discussions begin and I won't prejudge the conclusion.

"We are in a long war. The war on terror isn't going to end immediately."

Can you ever win the war on terror? Yes, by spreading freedom. Free societies are hopeful societies. They don't breed suicide bombers. I believe strongly in the power of freedom. Freedom is not this country's gift to the world. Freedom is the Almighty's gift to the world. As the world's richest most powerful country, we have an obligation to spread that gift.

Weeks such as we've had in Iraq make some people doubt we're making progress. We're making progress. We'll stay the course.

(Don Gonyea, NPR, whom Bush singled out because apparently he's never called on him before -- maybe this question explains why) With public support falling, do you feel that you've failed as a communicator. You deliver a lot of speeches and they vary very little from one to the next. Do you feel that you've failed in any way?

Bush: That's what the voters will decide. They'll take a look at me and my opponent and ask who'll do the best job. If I tried to fine-tune my messages based on polls I'd be ineffective. I feel strongly about what we're doing. I feel strongly that what we're doing will make America safer and the world more free. I look forward to the debate and the campaign. I look forward to discussing the proper use of American power. I'll give it my best shot.

I think the White House planned it to end this way: weedy NPR guy in tweeds prods plain-talking man of action.