Bush's Wake-Up Call Was a Snooze Alarm
By Tom Shales
[Washington Post - Friday, March 7, 2003; Page C01]:
George W. Bush kept seeming to lose interest in his own remarks last night as the president did that rarest of rare things -- for him -- and held a prime-time news conference. Televised live on all the major networks from the East Room of the White House, the occasion found Bush declaring this to be "an important moment" for America and the world, yet he spoke with little urgency and no perceptible passion.
Have ever a people been led more listlessly into war? It's tempting to speculate how history would have changed if Winston Churchill or FDR had been as lethargic as Bush about rallying their nations in an hour of crisis. There were times when it appeared his train of thought had jumped the tracks.
Occasionally he would stare blankly into space during lengthy pauses between statements -- pauses that once or twice threatened to be endless. There were times when it seemed every sentence Bush spoke was of the same duration and delivered in the same dour monotone, giving his comments a numbing, soporific aura. Watching him was like counting sheep.
Network commentators by and large tippy-toed around the subject of Bush's curiously subdued performance. But at least Terry Moran of ABC News dared to say that the White House press corps had definitely seen Bush "sharper" than he was last night. Tactfully and gingerly, Moran said Bush seemed to be "trying to keep his mannerisms as cool as possible" as he fielded questions and spoke of ultimatums. The lethargy was contagious; correspondents were almost as logy as Bush was.
Nobody even bothered to ask a question about Osama bin Laden, whose capture was rumored to be imminent yesterday and is still in the public mind a more reprehensible monster than Saddam Hussein.
Bush popped the balloon that bin Laden had been found when he failed to make a dramatic opening statement, instead reiterating for the umpteenth time some of his many charges against Hussein, whose token efforts at disarmament amounted to "a willful charade," Bush said. In one of his more effective moments, Bush said that the tragedy of 9/11 showed what terrorists can do with only four airplanes and so we should imagine what Saddam Hussein could do with his notorious weapons of mass destruction. But there were few effective moments.
At times during the hour, Bush almost appeared to be backing off the previously immutable notion that Hussein's intransigence makes war virtually inevitable. "We don't have to go to war," he said at one point. "I'm hopeful that he does disarm," Bush said of Hussein. "It may require force" to get him to do it, but "I hope it can be done peacefully," he said in separate remarks. While at another point he seemed to say, contrary to previous statements, that he was "optimistic" about "diplomacy" doing the job so that U.S. troops won't have to, he also said, with respect to disarming Hussein: "Diplomacy hasn't worked. We've tried diplomacy for 12 years."
He also said the "use of force" remains "my last choice" as a means to disarm the Iraqi leader.
"I recognize there are people who don't like war. I don't like war," Bush said. But as in the past, he referred to Hussein at various points as a cancer, a murderer, a master of deception and just generally an inhuman fiend who must be destroyed or exiled. The statements did not come across as particularly cogent or consistent. Then again, perhaps Bush was just offering a summary of everything that's been said on the issue over the past few months.
The contrast between the foggy Bush of last night and the gung-ho Bush who delivered a persuasive State of the Union message to Congress not so long ago was considerable. Maybe Bush thought he was, indeed, coming across as cool and temperate instead of bored and enervated, and this was simply a rhetorical miscalculation. On the other hand, it hardly seems out of order to speculate that, given the particularly heavy burden of being president in this new age of terrorism -- a time in which America has, as Bush said, become a "battlefield" -- the president may have been ever so slightly medicated.
He would hardly be the first president ever to take a pill.
There were brief interludes during the news conference -- especially the long languid pauses -- when some viewers might have flashed back to the presidency of Richard Nixon. That is, the Nixon Years at their most tumultuous and Twilight Zoney, when the old Trickster would come on TV and you'd sit there not just fascinated but a trifle terrified of what he might say, who he'd accuse of persecuting him, and whether he might come completely unglued or just melt into a hideous puddle right before your horrified eyes.
Obviously Bush was not likely to inspire anything approaching that kind of fear last night, even in the most paranoid of viewers. But by his tone and his demeanor, he certainly didn't inspire a great burst of hopeful confidence, either. It was as if he didn't quite realize he was on national television and being watched closely by millions of people who were hanging on his every word and on his every expression and gesture, too.
And that we might be a nation at war in a matter of days. Or . . . might we?