This AP story is somewhat amusing. Bush uses the press quite masterfully, but he really (1) doesn’t seem willing to answer unscripted questions (based on the paucity of press conferences) and (2) doesn’t want to be seen answering unscripted questions, as this quote illustrates:
White House officials promised a wide-ranging exchange, and as Monday’s meeting began Bush repeatedly said he wanted to work with the governors. As the meeting ended, he [President Bush] asked “Questions?” and then stopped as reporters were still filing out of the room before the meeting began. “Not yet, get the press out.”
Historically, the press does stay for the Goivernors’ Q&A with the president. In this case, the governors’ questions were not even unscripted:
Kempthorne, vice chairman of the National Governors Association, said he was confident the meeting would be open and constructive. He said he was asked to give the administration his question beforehand “so no one’s caught flatfooted.”
Just curious, but who is “no one”? How could anyone in the room other than the person answering, or attempting to answer, questions be caught flat-footed? In this case, the President’s strategists likely feared tough questions from governors facing massive budget shortfalls and, given the federal deficits, little prospect of a federal bailout (Federal bailouts may be a bad idea–why should any state ever balance it’s budget if the federal government will bail them out? But I digress). Bush gets positive coverage from the press, not just the op-ed pages, but in news pages. The New York Times’ Frank Bruni stands out as one of the more sycophantic, but in every story, the tone and tenor just feel positive as I read them. That’s subjective and you may disagree, but certainly it’s hard to argue that the press is hard on Bush. The point is that Bush gets good press while holding almost no press conference and while sending Ari Fleischer out for exchanges like this (I saw this on Alas A Blog):
Mokhiber: You said last week that, “Every step will be taken to protect civilian and innocent life in Iraq.” But Pentagon officials have said that under a battle plan called ‘shock and awe,’ “there will not be a safe place in Baghdad when we attack.” Baghdad is a city the size of Paris, with five million residents. If there will not be a safe place in Baghdad when we attack, then how do you plan to protect every civilian life?
Ari Fleischer: First of all, I think that any construing of any statements that are made by anybody at the Pentagon to suggest that the Pentagon does not and will not take every step to protect innocent lives is an unfair representation of what the Pentagon would say. It’s well-known how the United States conducts itself in military affairs. We are very proud of the fact that any time force is reluctantly used, the force is applied to military targets and innocents are protected.
The exchange comes from “Ari & I, White House Press Briefing with Ari Fleischer” by Russell Mokhiber. Here’s one more:
Mokhiber: Ari, two questions. Why is the President appointing convicted criminals like Eliot Abrams to policy positions at the White House?
Ari Fleischer: Russell, you asked that question last week.
Mokhiber: I did not ask that question last week.
Fleischer: You asked it about somebody else. I dispute the premise of your question.
Mokhiber: I have a second question.
Fleischer: I dispute the premise of your second question (laughter.)
As you can see, it’s an amusing read, and Fleischer and Mokhiber seem to enjoy (at least in print) the sparring. But the substantive point of all of this is that Bush doesn’t interact directly with the press, and Ari Fleischer just doesn’t give straight answers, and the press (except Helen Thomas) doesn’t complain.