President Bush's goal while appearing on NBC's Meet the Press yesterday was to give every impression of a serious person squarely facing serious questions. Perception and reality are two different things, however, even in Washington.
Bush famously has declared his lack of interest in media reports. He rarely gives full press conferences and yesterday's television appearance was his first on a Sunday morning network talk show since his inauguration. But in this early stage of the 2004 presidential campaign, he selected Meet The Press as a forum in which to head off mounting public concern about two major issues - the justification for the war in Iraq and the sluggish economy.
At the outset of the show, Bush's body language was relaxed, his tone welcoming. He chuckled when NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert cited Republican Senator Charles Grassley's belief that the United States will capture Osama bin Laden before the November election. He also called several inquiries "legitimate questions," while at the same time invoking his status as a wartime president confronting terrorists and "rogue nations." As the hour continued, however, Bush became more tentative and his posture increasingly pinched. He was unlikely to have allayed serious public concerns in his interview yesterday, as he failed to answer with consistency Russert's questions definitively or even all that directly.
Russert bored in on the invasion of Iraq, with a respectful but unrelenting manner. "In light of not finding weapons of mass destruction," Russert asked late in the hour, "Do you believe the war in Iraq was a war of choice or a war of necessity?"
Bush stalled like a spelling-bee contestant hoping for inspiration. "That's an interesting question. Please elaborate on that a little bit," he said, pausing warily before repeating Russert's phrase. "A war of choice or a war of necessity. It's a war of necessity. In my judgment, we had no choice."
Yet Bush gave little concrete reason yesterday why, absent any such weapons, Saddam should have been considered a threat to Americans - or why that conclusion, based on ambiguous evidence, should have been used to go to war.
Bush also suggested that Saddam some day could have made dangerous weapons that could have fallen into the hands of a "shadowy network." Ultimately, however, Bush seemed to imply that the U.S. had to invade Iraq because American rhetoric had become so acute that a failure to do so would have been taken as weakness: "People [would] look at us and say - 'They don't mean what they say. They don't follow through'."
Bush cast several key questions as political instead of substantive, choosing to leave them for some future exchange with an undetermined Democratic rival. "We're in a political season," Bush told Russert. "There's going to be ample time for the American people to assess whether or not I made good calls, whether I used good judgment, whether or not I made the right decision in removing Saddam Hussein from power, and I look forward to that debate." Translation: "I'll be happy to address that in a format where I can make questions seem like partisan smears."
The interview was taped Saturday as though it were live. Russert handled the rare opportunity with dexterity, pressing the president on questions that had been skirted. Russert was prepared with props that are now familiar to regular viewers - selections of quotes and detailed charts to set up key questions.
Twice, sporting a smile, Bush suggested that Russert was playing unfairly by expressly declaring that he was not: "I'm not suggesting that you're pulling one of those Washington tricks where you leave half the equation out," Bush said, thus firmly planting in viewers' minds the notion that Russert indeed had played a cheap trick.
The hour-long session nonetheless represented tricky terrain for the president. Russert kept pounding away: Why should you be given a chance to lead the economy again? How will foreign governments trust future American claims about rogue nations? How about your own service record, Mr. President?
Yesterday morning, in advance of the program's airing, Bush aides put out the word to reporters that they were delighted with how the interview unfolded. But Bush's performance on television is unlikely to have shaken the questions that have dogged him lately - both on and off the air.