- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 28, 2001

CRAWFORD, Texas — Less than a month after Helen Thomas, doyenne of the White House press corps, complained that President Bush was hiding from the media, there are signs that the new president is warming up to members of the Fourth Estate.

Mr. Bush is expected to host a picnic for the press on his 1,600-acre ranch today or tomorrow. On Friday, he led reporters on an extraordinarily thorough tour of his property.

A day earlier, he held a press conference in which he patiently waited for journalists to ask follow-up questions, even inviting these second queries from surprised reporters. It was a far cry from the president's earlier press conferences, when he routinely chided reporters for trying to turn a single question into two or three.

Journalists also noticed that Mr. Bush seemed more relaxed when he fielded questions in the Crawford Community Center near his ranch. He hugged the podium, draping his wrists over the front in a gesture of casual confidence.

His answers were more conversational than stilted. For example, he urged Congress not to go "hog wild" with spending. He warned the United Nations not to "pick on" Israel. And although he was animated and quick with quips, he did not seem worried about making a gaffe.

Gone were previous displays of testiness to the press, although Mr. Bush did bristle when asked by The Washington Times whether his effort to relax immigration rules on Mexicans was a bid for Hispanic votes. In general, however, the president seemed to be making a concerted effort to be patient with questioners and even tried to find nice things to say about the queries.

Mr. Bush evidently felt so confident about facing reporters last week that he announced the press conference 24 hours in advance, allowing journalists plenty of time to concoct tricky questions designed to trip him up. Previously, the White House had given just 20 minutes' notice before the president would appear in the James S. Brady press-briefing room, sending reporters scrambling to come up with questions and, in some cases, hustle over to the White House.

The day after his Crawford press conference, Mr. Bush took reporters on an exhaustive tour of his ranch that lasted nearly six times as long as the 15 minutes that were originally scheduled. Instead of placing a lot of restrictions on the journalists, Mr. Bush repeatedly deferred to their wishes, even soliciting their preferences on how long to hike, and where.

"We can keep going, if you like," he said. "This will give you a feel for what it's like. It's up to you all."

"Sure," said an astonished reporter.

"Yes, we'd like to," managed another.

"Good with me," the president said as he continued the tour.

He even offered to personally drive various journalists from one section of his ranch to another.

"I've got room for five people," he said. "We'll get the scribblers, AP and Reuters."

Hard-bitten reporters who had grumbled about their lack of access to Mr. Bush suddenly found themselves bouncing across the Texas countryside in a sport utility vehicle being driven by none other than the commander in chief himself. Getting this kind of face time with the leader of the free world is invaluable to journalists, some of whom couldn't help but see the president in a new light.

With seven months of governing under his belt, Mr. Bush now seems willing to risk a greater degree of intimacy with the press. He appears open to the argument that if reporters come to understand him as a person, they might do a better job of conveying his agenda to the public.

For example, before last week's tour of the ranch, many reporters could not fathom why the president likes to spend so much time in central Texas, which they consider geographically uninteresting. But Mr. Bush pointed out that the topography of his ranch, with its canyons and waterfalls and abundant wildlife, is dramatically different from the monotonous stretch of Texas prairie reporters usually see during their daily drive between the press filing center in Crawford and the hotels of Waco.

"Now we sort of get it," reporter David Jackson of the Dallas Morning News told Mr. Bush during the tour. "I mean, get why you guys come down here so much."

"Well, it's our home and we love it here," the president replied. "I'm thrilled you got to see it. It will help you understand."

The next day, during a flight to Pittsburgh, the president even made a rare appearance in the press compartment of Air Force One. Reporters had grown so accustomed to Mr. Bush shunning them on the presidential aircraft that no one had the presence of mind to ask a question.

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