Bush may get chance to show his stuff

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- As was the case the other day when George W. Bush held the first solo news conference of his presidency, his delivery as well as his substance will be under the news media's microscope tomorrow night when he delivers his first State of the Union address.

The new president, in his first month in office, has passed the charisma test with flying colors -- he got another "A" for his amusing quips at that news conference. But still hanging over him among skeptics in the public and press is the question of his intellectual heft. Does he really know his stuff or is he at bottom an empty suit fleshed out by a seasoned team of advisers and Cabinet members?


The news conference, held in a folksy fashion in the White House press briefing room rather than in the much larger, ornate East Room often used by former presidents, showed Mr. Bush to be competent and generally precise in his responses.

Gone were the marathon answers of Bill Clinton, touching every aspect of the question asked and some aspects not asked, in a dazzling display of the man's erudition.


But some reports of the conference pointed out minor grammatical and substantive errors by Mr. Bush, such as saying about the imminent arrival of British Prime Minister Tony Blair that he and his wife Laura were "looking forward to having a private dinner with he and Mrs. Blair." And seeming to say "cocoa leaves" when he clearly meant "coca leaves" in discussing not the chocolate derivative but the raw material for cocaine grown in abundance in Colombia.

These minor journalistic "gotchas" are a hangover from Mr. Bush's frequent verbal faux pas on the campaign trail.

More serious is whether his relatively narrow responses reflect commendable brevity or self-caution against putting his foot in the presidential mouth. The jury is still out. One way to hasten the verdict is for the new president to hold more frequent news conferences to demonstrate he is not intimidated by them, but rather recognizes how they can help him sell himself to the skeptics.

When Mr. Bush was asked at the close of his maiden White House news conference about his plans for frequent formal sessions with the press, he replied with a jocular answer: "You don't want to see me once a week. You'll run out of questions." And when a reporter suggested maybe twice a week, he clowned: "Oh, twice. I'll be running out of ties."

Whenever a new president delays in holding his first formal press conference, the press corps gets nervous. Too many presidents have talked in their campaigns for the White House about how accessible to the press they intended to be, and then backed off once in office. This is especially so when they or their administration are enduring rough sledding. Even the loquacious and self-confident Bill Clinton took cover for months when the news hounds were barking at his door.

The State of the Union address will give Mr. Bush a vehicle to show himself in a fashion that may be more advantageous to him. It will be a set piece in all likelihood, read from a TelePrompTer in words crafted for him by his staff wordsmiths. He demonstrated in his Republican convention acceptance speech that he can rise to such occasions, even when his remarks must be delivered from a podium limiting his talents as a back-slapping kidder.

One windfall for Mr. Bush has been the post-inaugural behavior and disclosures of presidential excess that have cast a pall over the White House departure of his predecessor. Comparisons with Mr. Clinton as a speaker, thinker or intellect are less likely to be raised as long as the former president continues to demean himself as a private citizen.

The near-even division by party in Congress presents the new president with a potentially tough audience. His narrow acquisition of power through the conservative-majority Supreme Court are fresh in the minds of those who will fill the Democratic side of the aisle in the House chamber that will play host to the joint session.


But the televising of the State of the Union speech to the country should minimize if not eliminate anything less than a respectful welcome for the new president, who repeatedly said in his first news conference that he intends to "move forward" with the nation's business.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau.