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REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

Jocular Bush Keeps It Light for Most Part

At his first news conference in three months, the president makes a kind of peace with the press corps.

October 29, 2003|Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In the space of 48 minutes, on matters large and small, the many sides of George Walker Bush were on full display Tuesday as the president held his first news conference in nearly three months.

He chided one reporter for posing a "trick question." He brusquely refused to entertain a question from another who had interrupted him. He teased a third by angling for a softball question by dangling a luncheon invitation as an incentive. He mocked one reporter for having "a face for radio," and complimented a nattily attired correspondent on his vest.

Along the way, Bush invented a label for Condoleezza Rice, his national security advisor, calling her an "unsticker," and showed once again that, above all, he could stay on message, delivering his spiel no matter what the question.

The session also heralded something of a detente -- however temporary -- between the president and the occasionally churlish White House press corps, still smarting after Bush granted a series of interviews to regional reporters while circumventing the regulars, whom he considers "filters" with a world view often at odds with his own.

Bush opened the Rose Garden news conference Tuesday morning by saying he hoped that the reporters who had accompanied him on his recent trip to Asia "had a restful weekend."

It wasn't until nearly halfway into his news conference that the president's easygoing manner emerged, as he began calling on a few reporters by their surnames and, in the case of Richard Keil, a lanky Bloomberg correspondent, by his presidentially conferred nickname, "Stretch." A short time later, a two-part question from Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times elicited a mixed reaction from the president. He curtly dismissed as "a trick question" her invitation to assure the American public that a year from now there would be fewer U.S. troops in Iraq.

But in the next breath, he praised Rice while explaining her duties as an interagency coordinator. In addition to providing him with advice, Bush said, "her job is also to deal interagency and to help unstick things that may get stuck, is the best way to put it. She's an unsticker."

Rice, who was standing nearby with several other top Bush aides, laughed and shook her head in mock bafflement.

When the president called on Mark Smith, the Associated Press radio reporter thanked him for "including radio folks" in the give-and-take.

"A face for radio," Bush rejoined, invoking a line he has applied to other radio reporters.

To that, a slightly chagrined Smith replied: "I wish I could say that was the first time you told me that, sir." Amid the short bursts of laughter, the smiling president retorted: "The first time I did it to a national audience, though."

Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution analyst who has studied the presidency and the media, said he was struck by Bush's jocular demeanor "in the face of some pretty tough questioning," especially amid the slide in his job-approval ratings, now down to about 50%.

"At this stage, when things get difficult, presidents usually get testier," Hess said. Instead, Bush "did it with a certain degree of equanimity."

"I hope it reminded the president that press conferences are not by any means unhelpful to him," Hess said. "It was a good afternoon for the American people."

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