Bush: Regrets? Confessions? Bring 'Em On!

This editorial was originally published in the Boston Globe.

To Tim Russert it was a "remarkable, remarkable admission." Bob Schieffer called it an "extraordinary statement." Chris Matthews found in it nothing less than "a little bit of Lincoln." The political talk shows were swooning over President Bush's press-conference admission last week that two of his most famous expressions were, in fact, bloopers.

"Saying 'bring it on,' kind of tough talk, you know, that sent the wrong signal to people," the president said in answer to a question about mistakes he made in Iraq. "I learned some lessons about expressing myself maybe in a little more sophisticated manner -- you know, 'wanted dead or alive,' that kind of talk."

"For him to be so open, so open tonight," said NBC's Norah O'Donnell, "suggests a reflectiveness, suggests a man who in his second term is willing to perhaps change, who is willing again to seek reconciliation."

Or maybe it suggests a Washington punditry so willing to reconcile with the president that they're experiencing deja vu all over again.

In the second week of January 2005, with his reelection safely in the bag, Bush made two publicity stops in which he confessed to the same infractions of phrase. First, in a pre-Inaugural interview on "20/20," with wife Laura at his side, he told the nation's regret-elicitor Barbara Walters, "I said some things in the first term that were probably a little blunt. 'Bring it on' was a little blunt." Ditto on "dead or alive." He pledged, "I'll be more disciplined in how I say things."

The same week, in a roundtable interview with 14 major newspapers, he repeated the My Bad theme. "One of the things I've learned," he said, "is that sometimes words have consequences that you don't intend. 'Bring 'em on' was really a classic example." Regarding his vow to get Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden "dead or alive," Bush said, "I remember getting back to the White House and Laura said, "'What'd you say that for?' " He says he told her, "I didn't rehearse it. It just was there when they asked for my opinion."

"So put that down," Bush told the gathered reporters, and he added, "I don't know if you'd call that a confession, a regret, something."

Since Bush had twice received big media play for recanting the same offending words just 17 months earlier (or as Matthews might say, three score and eight weeks ago), last week's "confession" was hardly extraordinary. Only a handful of journalists recalled Confession 1 or Confession 2. Much of the media reacted like Drew Barrymore in "50 First Dates," their memories as virginal as they were the first, second, and third time the administration claimed to have "turned a corner" in the war on terrorism.

Bush's verbal misgivings received more excited press coverage than his mention at the same press conference with Tony Blair that the prison abuse at Abu Ghraib was "the biggest mistake that's happened so far." (Actually, that's not new either, and, in any case, the mistake's been fixed because, he said, "the people who committed those acts were brought to justice," which handily excuses the chain of command for its responsibility.) Anyway, who wants to comb through that rat's nest? It's way easier to play with these fun phrases.

What Bush was really doing when he initially uttered his wayward catchphrases wasn't talking cowboy or talking tough so much as talking pop: the punchline-like, media-glamorized words and phrases that help us all score a point or close a deal. Bush used "Bring 'em on" and "Dead or alive" in the first place to blow through any skepticism about whether he was a competent "war president."

Now, like Peter listening for the cock to crow, he has three times repudiated these same pop phrases to blow through any skepticism about whether he is in touch with reality.

The whole episode echoes former CIA director George Tenet's use of the phrase "slam dunk" to blow through Bush's own skepticism over whether "Joe Public" (as Bush put it) would find convincing the administration's assertions about Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction. Tenet, too, expressed regret later, saying, "Those were the two dumbest words I ever said."

In each instance, the pitchman drew on some road-tested populist persuasion. That's the power of pop: an individual speaks it, but it has the roar of a crowd behind it.

Bush's ability to talk like a regular guy was supposed to be his strength, and some on the far right now see his apology for what it is: a rhetorical collapse. "One of the attractive things about the president is that he talks Texas," William Bennett said on his radio show. "But what broke my heart is when he said, 'I need to be more sophisticated.' What is this, Kerry talk?"

The big fuss over six little words is really about how the press -- especially the inside-the-Beltway press -- keep hoping that Bush will change. If journalists can just will him to say the magic words and do the humility thing, then they can like him again (and feel better about themselves). They'll not only forgive his rash choice of words, they'll even forget that he already apologized for them -- and did so as a way to not apologize for his rash war of choice.

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