- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 7, 2004

Showing a side of himself not much in public view the past four years, the President Bush we saw at a press conference Thursday was supremely self-assured, perfectly at ease, in splendid good humor, focused and alert. The best way to describe him? He was playing within himself.

If you don’t devote attention to college basketball, which follows in my affections right after God, country and family, you might not know what this phrase about playing within yourself means. Rather than attempt a definition, let me show you the phrase in action. The context: The University of Kentucky has just completed its first exhibition game of the season, and Tubby Smith, the coach, is talking about Lukasz Obrzut, a 7-foot-tall sophomore center.

“I was pleased with Lukasz and his effort tonight,” the coach is quoted as saying. “He played within himself and didn’t try to do things rushed or panicked. He played with a lot of poise and a lot of control.”

Now, back to Mr. Bush, whose lack of enjoyment in dealing with reporters up to now is evident in how few solo press conferences he has held before this most recent one: 15. Given how he joked Thursday with reporters — a contentious lot by professional creed — you would have thought he couldn’t get enough of them.

After lavishing praise on how a free, hard-working press serves the country, he said, “With that overt pandering, I’ll answer a few questions.”

Right out of the blocks came several questions disguised as one.

“Now that I’ve got the will of the people at my back, I’m going to start enforcing the one-question rule,” the president said. “That was three questions.”

The reporters laughed.

Later, the president says to the bunch: “I’ve got a question for you: How many of you are going to be here for a second term, please raise your hand.” As the hands went up, he said, “Gosh, we’re going to have a lot of fun.”

On serious issues, the president was also in top form.

He outlined an impressive agenda: making Iraq more secure before the January elections, rescuing Social Security from the difficulties that await it when Baby Boomers retire, enacting lawsuit reform and simplifying the taxes — all issues he campaigned on.

The president told the reporters he would try to find “common ground” with Democrats while aiming for the “ideal,” an interesting way of saying compromise is possible up to the point where the goal gets lost. He made it clear he would be faithful to his campaign pledges, as he should be. It’s a principle of democratic governance that elected officials adhere to the positions they outline in their campaigns unless events or conditions change dramatically.

Mr. Bush’s tone was conciliatory, his manner adult last Thursday. It was a performance that inspired as much confidence as it displayed. The flavor seemed different from any previously offered, and so where, you might ask, did this particular George Bush come from?

We all know the answer: After a very, very tough campaign, he was elected by a decisive majority and the largest vote in American history. He did better with almost all groups of voters than he did four years ago, and there is nothing like voter validation to make you feel good.

There’s something else, too: the backdrop of the victory. During the past term, some critics refused to let up on their insistence that the Supreme Court stole the election of 2000 and that the Bush presidency was therefore illegitimate. A sense of that may have infected congressional Democrats, who might have backed up more on some issues if they had thought the president had won fair and square.

Of course, one press conference does not a successful presidency make. It is by no means sure Mr. Bush can overcome the second-term jinx of scandal or nonaccomplishment that has afflicted other presidents. Much could go badly — Iraq, for instance — and fierce fights are certain over Supreme Court nominations and Social Security.

Even so, the chances of great achievement are vastly improved if Mr. Bush can keep playing within himself.

Jay Ambrose is director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard Newspapers.

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