A Faux Interview With the President
If there was once a time when Diane Sawyer was a serious journalist -- and for the sake of argument, let us say there was -- it is officially over, as last week's interview with President Bush showed.
Given what was surely one of the sweetest plums in journalism, the chance to interview a president just days after the capture of the dictator he has overthrown, Sawyer couldn't decide whether she wanted to be Walter Cronkite or Oprah Winfrey. Torn between pressing Bush on Iraq and probing for a touchy-feely soundbite, she came across as uncertain, unprepared and painfully unspontaneous, and in so doing achieved the unusual feat of making President Bush sound verbally dexterous.
Let us first dispense with Sawyer's attempts to explore the sensitive side of President Bush. She asked whether he had bought Laura Bush a Christmas present; about who was tougher on his daughters' boyfriends, he or his wife; about what movies he was watching these days. (When Laura Bush revealed that her husband wanted to see Elf, ABC duly played a clip from that film, apparently thinking that an interview with the president was insufficiently entertaining and needed to be spiced up.)
Is there anyone in this country outside of Laura Bush who gives a damn whether the president has bought his wife a Christmas present? If so, I hope he or she doesn't vote.
I suppose I wouldn't have minded such silliness if Sawyer did a better job with more important matters. But in interviewing Bush about the rationale for the war, Sawyer made only token efforts to ask tough questions while wasting time with "gotcha" questions that any decent politician could easily sidestep.
She pointed out that Bush had called for Saddam's capture "dead or alive," then asked, "Were you sorry it was alive?" There is no point to this question other than to hope the response is a buzz-producing soundbite, and I almost applauded Bush's non-answer: "I'm glad that chapter in Iraq's history is over," he said. Later, Sawyer compounded her mistake by asking if Bush wanted to capture Osama Bin Laden "dead or alive." (As if there were another option.) She didn't get him the first time -- might as well keep plugging away.
And indeed, the juvenile questions just kept coming. "Fifty percent of the American people have said that they think the administration exaggerated the evidence going into the war with Iraq," Sawyer said. "Are the American people wrong?"
Now, there's no reason to frame the question this way other than a wan hope that Bush will commit the gaffe of saying yes, the American people are wrong. (Good luck.) Its purpose is immature; it hopes only that the president will say something embarrassing. It also reflects Sawyer's condescension towards Bush, a knee-jerk faith that he could be easily duped.
Sometimes I think the president must sit back and laugh at how journalist after journalist thinks he's such a dingbat that they ask him softball question after softball question.
In yet another embarrassing moment, Sawyer actually plugged an ABC drama by asking, "Once again, through that door this morning, presumably, you received the threat matrix which you get every morning." A gratuitous lead-in to a question about Al Qaeda, that line just happened to paraphrase the promo for the ABC show Threat Matrix.
Really, Sawyer should be more direct. Why not just ask Bush to talk for a while about his favorite television shows on the ABC network?
Sawyer's interview did produce one significant piece of news. When she queried Bush about whether Saddam had weapons of mass destruction or just might try to acquire them, Bush said, "What's the difference?...If he wants to acquire weapons, that would be the danger...And so we got rid of him."
There is an almost imperative follow-up: "President Bush, are you really saying that there's no difference between whether Saddam had weapons of mass destruction or just wanted them? Because that's not what you told this nation when you asked us to go to war."
Too bad Sawyer didn't ask that, or anything like it. The president gave Diane Sawyer the gotcha moment she was so desperately seeking, and Sawyer didn't even realize it. This is why presidents give interviews to television journalists.
Richard Blow is the former executive editor of George Magazine. He is author of American Son: A Portrait of John F. Kennedy, Jr., and is writing a book about Harvard University.