- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 17, 2004

The Bush administration, which has long been criticized for being secretive, is suddenly opening up just in time for re-election.

Since the beginning of June, President Bush, first lady Laura Bush, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and other senior administration officials have made themselves unusually accessible to the media.

“The president has done three extended news conferences in the very recent past,” said White House deputy press secretary Trent Duffy. “That is something that is new.”

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During last week’s Group of Eight economic summit in Georgia, Mrs. Bush granted interviews to Fox News Channel, CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC and USA Today, among others.

Reporters who previously had difficulty getting their phone calls to the West Wing returned suddenly were offered access to a host of senior administration officials, ranging from White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. to Bush aide Elliot Abrams.

“We have a long list of surrogates, from Dr. Rice, Secretary Card, Elliott Abrams, a whole list of foreign policy experts, who will be down here, who will be available for one-on-ones,” Rice spokesman Jim Wilkinson told reporters in Georgia. “We’ve brought a whole team down to facilitate one-on-one interviews if you want to talk to some of these folks.”

Many of the press who cover the White House said they had never seen the kind of outreach they experienced at the summit.

It caused one reporter to ask Mr. Wilkinson: “Is it safe to infer that you see this as a positive moment for the United States in terms of Iraq?”

Although Mr. Wilkinson did not directly answer the question, Bush aides yesterday said the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq, scheduled for June 30, is a major reason for the president’s sudden accessibility.

“He wants to continue to play a leading, active role as educator in chief,” Mr. Duffy said. “Not only in speeches, but in exchanges with the press.”

Although Mr. Bush is in the midst of half a dozen high-profile speeches to educate the public about the turnover, press interest waned after the first couple of addresses. Bush supporters have concluded that presidential press conferences sometimes get better coverage than speeches on Iraq.

“A network is more likely to play a response to its own question than a phrase that every other network has,” said a senior Republican official.

Bush campaign officials hope that raising the president’s profile will also pay political dividends in the final months of the re-election effort. Although Mr. Bush’s job approval ratings have slipped in recent months, polls show most Americans still admire his leadership.

“The president’s personal attributes have been as steady as a rock,” said a senior Bush campaign official. “I mean, we’re talking about who’s better on leadership, who has more personal appeal, who would you rather have lunch with.

“All those things have remained strong, and those are the president’s greatest asset in the campaign,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “As the campaign season progresses, I think we’ll see that strong asset leveraged a lot more.”

To soften the president’s image, Mrs. Bush has stepped up her public appearances. With strong approval ratings, the first lady has become the campaign’s not-so-secret weapon.

“She’s popular, she’s eloquent,” said Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt. “She spoke at the unveiling ceremony for the portrait of former President Clinton the other day and the room was more attentive when she spoke than during any of the other speakers.

“She has a certain command that’s going to be very important in the campaign,” he added. “It’s a long way from 2000, when you didn’t see her that much. Things will be different this time around.”

Mrs. Bush, who once made her husband promise she would never have to give a political speech for him, appears to have grown more comfortable in the limelight.

“She likes it and says so in her interviews,” Mr. Duffy said. “The first lady is very effective and as much a part of the whole public education effort as anyone. She’s on a par with the vice president.”

Mrs. Bush’s press secretary, Gordon Johndroe, said the first lady’s heightened profile is only partly driven by the administration. It’s also driven by the press itself, which is eager to profile the president’s spouse in an election year.

“She has a lot to talk about, so she’s certainly out there more,” he said. “But there are also more media requests.”

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