The Presidential Three-Year-Old
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Is it just me, or was that the worst presidential press conference in history? So I went back and read it over. Of course, in print you don't get the testy tone: I heard it on radio and thought the man was about to blow up -- not just because he was being questioned, which Bush appears to consider an offensive action in the first place, but because people continue to refuse to see things the way he does. How can they be so stupid or malign, he appears to wonder.
I ask: How can he be so repetitive, repeatedly using the oldest tactic of a verbal bully -- saying the same thing louder, as though that would make it true?
Last Friday's Rose Garden press conference seemed so awful I thought it worth wading through it again to see what set him off. Maybe if you saw it on television, it seemed better. Perhaps his banter with reporters works better on TV. But I left with the impression that this is a spoiled man whose frustration level when someone disagrees with him is that of a 3-year-old and that he's the last person you want to see operating under a lot of stress because he doesn't handle it well. See what you think:
Q: "On both the eavesdropping program and the detainee issues --"
A: "We call it the terrorist surveillance program, Hutch."
Yo. Sometimes I'm convinced this is a war of words. Should we call it surveillance or eavesdropping? Is the detainee issue about holding terrorists, or is it about torturing them and then trying them without telling them what evidence we have against them? If we stop calling it eavesdropping plus torture with kangaroo trials, will it stop being eavesdropping, torture and kangaroo trials, and become "anti-terrorist activity"? Who gets to name things? Would a rose by any other name, like skunkwort, smell as sweet?
Sen. John McCain, who knows more than President Bush about torture in captivity, thinks abandoning the Geneva Convention rules leaves American soldiers in peril of being tortured in turn and us without a court of resort to look to.
It's a thorny issue, but Bush kept getting more and more annoyed as he reiterated, "And I will tell you again, David, you can ask every hypothetical (question) you want, but the American people have got to know the facts. And the bottom line is simple: If Congress passes a law that does not clarify the rules, if they do not do that, the program is not going forward." (In other words, we will not hold tribunals for suspected terrorists.) In what court in what world is not allowing the defendant to hear the evidence against him held to be just?
Bush kept insisting the legislation to permit such tribunals is vital and "the program will not go forward without it" because young intelligence officers might be accused of breaking the law(!).
"Let's see if I can put it (Article III of the Geneva Convention) this way for people to understand. There is a very vague standard that the (U.S. Supreme) Court said must kind of be the guide for our conduct in the war on terror and detainee policy. It's so vague that it's impossible to ask anybody to participate in the program for fear ... of breaking the law. That's the problem."
Actually, the problem is the proposed program of tribunals is illegal -- and not just young intelligence officers, but potentially old war criminals are at risk, as well.
Now here's a Bush classic, clarifying the matter with exquisite precision:
Q: "Well, recently you've also described bin Laden as sort of a modern-day Hitler or Mussolini. And I'm wondering why, if you can explain why you think it's a bad idea to send more resources to hunt down bin Laden, wherever he is? "
A: "We are, Richard. Thank you. Thanks for asking the question. They were asking me about somebody's report, well, special forces here -- Pakistan -- if he is in Pakistan, as this person thought he might be, who is asking the question -- Pakistan is a sovereign nation. In order for us to send thousands of troops into a sovereign nation, we've got to be invited by the government of Pakistan.
"Secondly, the best way to find somebody who is hiding is to enhance your intelligence and to spend the resources necessary to do that; then when you find him, you bring him to justice. And there is a kind of an urban myth here in Washington about how this administration hasn't stayed focused on Osama bin Laden. Forget it. It's convenient throw-away lines when people say that."
Now that's a problem. Because in the summer lead-up to the war in Iraq, both administration officials and Bush himself repeatedly deemphasized the importance of Osama bin Laden. This was, of course, after they had let him slip away at Tora Bora, a mistake increasingly denounced within the military itself.
As resources were transferred out of Afghanistan and toward Iraq, we were repeatedly told that bin Laden was not central to the war on terror, it would continue with or without him, he was no longer our focus. There was a flurry of commentary at the time about this odd decision, but Saddam Hussein was being presented as the great menace and monster, and bin Laden was off the table.
You might think this is a classic fork: either they were lying then or they are lying now. But it would just take Bush longer to explain.
Molly Ivins writes about politics, Texas and other bizarre happenings.