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President Bush appeared on Meet the Press with Tim Russert this morning to discuss his decision to go to war in Iraq, intelligence failures, and the upcoming election. I had some qualms about Bush in an extemporaneous setting and at least in the first half of the show, my fears proved justified. The president appeared rattled during the entire span of Russert's questioning on the war and intelligence, stammering, leaning forward, repeating phrases time and again, and providing disjointed and borderline non-responsive responses.
The inarticulate nature of George Bush is no campaign secret, although in prepared speeches he can often become inspiring. Even in press conferences, Bush usually presents a businesslike and efficient tone. In a one-on-one interview, however, he often has trouble forming complete sentences as he tries to organize his thoughts. You can almost see the wheels turning. He falls back on stock catchphrases, such as "Saddam was a madman" and "Saddam was a danger". Both of these are true, and if spoken once or twice in a 30-minute period would have been effective. Instead, Bush repeated these and other snippets of phrasing in response to almost every question Russert asked. I found myself thinking that I could have presented a more articulate defense of the Iraq war, and at times spoke aloud to the television, trying to coach Bush. (The First Mate wondered if I had lost my mind, as I wore headphones and the external sound was off on the TV).
Bush did much better in the second half of the interview, discussing subjects that obviously were more in his comfort zone: his National Guard service, the economy, and the upcoming election. The stammering decreased and his posture improved, demonstrating an ease which eluded him in the first half. As a result, Russert also seemed to relax and threw a couple of softball questions out to Bush. (Example -- Russert: "What will you do if you lose?" Bush: "I'm not going to lose.") Bush ably defended tax cuts as an economic stimulus, saying that the only way to grow an economy was to put money in the hands of consumers, and refused to rule out more tax cuts, saying, "A president has to keep all his options open." When asked about Kerry's comment that Kerry knew Bush at Yale and he hadn't changed at all, Bush bluntly replied that he never knew Kerry at Yale. Bush finished the interview at the peak of his performance, but declined to answer Russert when asked if they could do this again later during the campaign.
The overall impression Bush delivered -- and remember, I'm one of his supporters -- is that he is very uncomfortable answering questions on Iraq and doesn't have ready answers to questions that have been percolating for weeks now. Quibbling on testifying before the select committee on intelligence made him look vacillating and weak. In short, Bush gave a poor performance, one that will likely haunt him in the weeks ahead. If he can't do any better explaining the very-much-justified action in Iraq than this during the campaign, then Bush and the Republicans will have a very difficult autumn ahead of them.
UPDATE: Wired Opinion has a more charitable take on this than I do, from Jonathan's liveblogging.
UPDATE II: Welcome Instapundit readers!Sphere It View blog reactions
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