Press Conference Aweigh
Is the president's conviction enough?


William F. Buckley Jr.

Supporters of our enterprise in Iraq are whispering to themselves, “What could President Bush do to impress on the world the importance of our undertaking?” Some of us have sat in a room where that question was asked. Nowhere has a formula been suggested that would seem, in and of itself, to guarantee conversion, by the skeptic, to the cause. Galvanizing rhetorical calls to action are usually honored as such after the fact, as in the late recognition of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. In 1917, when we went to war in Europe, coming in however late on the most massive (and useless) bloodletting enterprise of the century, everybody in America simply wished to go to war, so that Woodrow Wilson wasn’t required to come in with stirring words. The words that transformed the British at Agincourt were devised not by King Henry, but by Shakespeare. George Bush is not a poet, but it isn’t safely assumed that, if he were, the language would be sufficient to inspirit the unconvinced in the Iraq cause.

”I hope today you’ve got a sense of my conviction about what we’re doing,” Mr. Bush said to his final questioner at his press conference. “If you don’t, maybe I need to learn to communicate better. I feel strongly about what we’re doing.”

This was the point that President Bush stressed at that conference, yet again: the strength of his own conviction. But even those who do not question the sincerity of his conviction are not necessarily moved by it. On the contrary, some of his critics are indignant and even inflamed by it. That much is human nature: If the leader stresses the purity of his own thought, dissenters are being asked to consider the impurity of theirs. How do such conflicts get settled? Mr. Bush has a very clear answer to that question: by democratic elections. He told the journalists that he was certain the American people would back him by returning him to office in November.

A day after that conference, the contender, Senator Kerry, showed that it would not be easy to appease those Americans who are flat-out opposed to our mission in Iraq. John Kerry is saying that Bush was disorganized in his preparation for the crisis, undiscriminating in his choice of targets, ill-prepared for the challenge that evolved, and—anything else one can think of. But, the challenger is careful not to disparage Bush’s motives for our mission in Iraq and emphatic that we cannot at this stage simply walk away from it. If the election were being held tomorrow, the voters would be registering simply whether they like the feel of George Bush at the helm, or would prefer John Kerry. Not whether we should pull out of Iraq.

Mr. Bush is entitled to wonder about whether he communicates best in the press conference situation. This was his first prime-time press conference since the Iraq war began, and clearly he was uncomfortable. He handled himself competently, and there was no mistaking his resolution of purpose, if that was one of the questions the press wished to plumb.

There were, though, irritating moments. Sometimes George Bush will simply not answer the question. This is hardly a unique problem: It was often a simple impossibility to decipher what President Eisenhower was trying to say. But Ike’s trick was a fog of subordinate thoughts and commentary which mystified the listener, leaving him, if not informed, at least not resentful. By contrast, Mr. Bush is incisive in his phrasing, but that does not mean he is answering the question raised. When asked whether the Iraq experience put one in mind of Vietnam, he said that “the analogy is false,” but 200 words later, he had not said why, reiterating, as he would several times do in the balance of the hour, his conviction that we were doing the right thing. The cow will jump over the moon before President Bush volunteers an answer to how it is we were deceived about the presence of weapons of mass destruction; or, for that matter, how it is that we misreckoned the fractious behavior of the resistance. Mr. Bush’s only recent approach to the problem of Muslim antagonism has been to cede some of the West Bank settlements to Israel.

The evolution of the presidential press conference is interesting. Up until President Eisenhower, no transcripts were permitted: only paraphrases of what had been said. The thought was that presidential commentary shouldn’t be exactly deciphered because to do so discouraged spontaneity on the one hand, and on the other encouraged partisans, clinging to discrete sentences, to attach to them such self-serving constructions as they sought out.

President Bush’s discomfort has resulted, simply, in an infrequency of exposure. But he more than once told the assembly that he looks forward to campaigning. And that means a full season of questions and answers—including debates. That will be a very open season.