Tuesday, June 1, 2004

I was about to write a fairly gloomy column on the failure of the Bush White House to explain events in Iraq, when I chanced to tune in President Bush’s impromptu press conference yesterday morning. It was a strong beginning for an effective White House communications strategy: Let Mr. Bush mix it up with the Washington press corps without a script. Where last week’s remarks were stilted, and heavily over-edited, yesterday’s were spontaneous, fresh, honest, informed and uplifting.

It was fascinating to observe the transformation in front of one’s very eyes. Yesterday’s comments had been characterized by the White House, before the event, as a brief prepared statement, after which he might take a few questions. Indeed, the opening statement was standard bureaucratic gibberish. I cannot remember a word of it. It was the kind of statement that results after many senior State Department and National Security Council staffers have over-vetted all life out of a few paragraphs: Cautious, hortatory, on-message, official.

As the president started to take a few questions, his answers remained in that dull, careful mode. Then, suddenly, he looked up at the sky, exclaimed what a beautiful day it was and blurted out that he was turning his remarks into “a full blown press conference,” playfully asking the press corp whether he would “get credit for it.”

From that moment on his comments came alive. Instead of giving prepared answers to already anticipated questions, he actually paused, pondered the questions and tried to answer them honestly. When he was asked when he wanted the new Iraqi government to send a representative to the United Nations to participate in deliberations on the Anglo-U.S-sought Iraq resolution, his first answer was “soon.” A moment later he added, “as soon as possible.” Then, as an afterthought, he elaborated on the critical role of such a new Iraqi representative.

This may not seem like much, but consider that the government he is talking about was in the process of being aborne even as he was speaking. The Iraqi men and women assuming office over the next few days do not yet have a formed U.N. policy. The normal State Department-vetted presidential statement under such circumstances would remain noncommittal. But, as the State Department did not expect a presidential press conference, they hadn’t had a chance to strongly advise the president to say nothing if the topic came up.

As a result, President Bush committed leadership. He thought about the matter and recognized that intense and immediate Iraqi involvement was critical to success. In about 45 seconds of honest, open comment, Mr. Bush signaled to both the United Nations and the forming Iraqi government what needed to be done. And by saying so in public, he risked being judged adversely if it doesn’t happen in the way he described.

In another instance, the president was asked to comment on the recent rude statement by Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer, the Iraqi president who was chosen only hours before the press conference. Mr. al-Yawer had complained about the “blunders” of U.S. postwar planning.

At first, the president fell back on the oft-heard canned response that several things didn’t go wrong (refugees, oil field disruptions, food shortages). But then he agreed the violence remained bad, that he expects Iraqi leaders to speak for Iraq, not the United States and, at another moment he observed that it was “up to the [Iraqi] leaders to prove their worth to the Iraqi people” — a blunt and useful, if not very diplomatic statement.

For the first time that I can recall he admitted that the violence in Iraq was not only going to get worse leading up to June 30, but afterward as well. When he was asked whether there will be a major commitment of new foreign troops, he responded; “I don’t know.” How much more refreshing that honest answer was than the usual three paragraphs that describe the latest State Department seven-stage process of consultation premised on four principles, the results of which the government will closely monitor, etc., etc.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the American people are not impatient when it comes to world events. We may want our television shows to complete their stories in an hour with a lot of fast-cut action, but we persisted for a half-century during the Cold War and for almost a decade in Vietnam (giving up only when President Nixon himself essentially gave up by declaring we were turning it over to the Vietnamese).

However, we do expect our leaders to get off their high horses and talk practically and frankly about what’s going on and what he’s trying to do to fix it. President Bush started doing that yesterday. He ought to continue to extemporize in public on a very regular basis: No speeches, no notes, no sugar coating — and most importantly, no staff preparation. If he will share his blunt thoughts with the public now, they will probably share their votes with him in November.

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