Yes, President Bush does eventually 'get it'. He may have been aloof and indifferent to the press and the public for most of his administration, but now with the lowest ratings of his time in office - not Truman low, but damned low - he's doing his best to make up for it by going out in public and letting everyone and anyone ask him questions, not just the press but the common rabble as well. Just this week he's answered more questions than he usually does in a year, and his honesty and candor have been kind of endearing.
In the past Bush has come under criticism for staging town hall meetings where the attendees are coached and where those who might ask troubling questions are kept out. Now that he's a lame duck with nothing to do but save his personna for posterity, Bush has decided that he can let it all hang out, be himself and take on all comers. His critics have always said that Bush is weak when he talks off the cuff, but my belief going back to when he was governor of Texas has always been that while he may not always have all the facts at his command, he is at his most engaging when he is just shooting the bull in an informal exchange which lets his personality come through more. Plus he really doesn't read speeches or canned answers all that well anyway.
This more open format makes for some lively exchanges and really lets Bush shine, but it also makes me wish they were still screening the questioners, because apparently randomly selected Americans are a pack of babbling lunatics most of whom seem to be looking for free advertising time on C-Span.
In three days he's made three question and answer appearances; one in Cleveland, one with the White House press, and today one in West Virginia. The press conference was jocular and informative, except when Helen Thomas bleated something that sounded a bit like “waaaar is baaaad”. The West Virginia event was short, relaxed and seemed to have an audience filled mostly with school children asking hardball questions like “Do you like living in the White House.” Cleveland was where the real fun was, with all the crazies coming out to the City Club to share their concerns.
The dominant style of question was the rambling biography in search of an actual question, where someone stands up and then decides to tell their whole life story, plug their business or their cause, and then usually forgets to even ask a question. The best examples of this come from Cleveland. It's hard to beat the guy from the Hungarian-American society who decided to recite most of the history of Hungary for the last 50 years, invite Bush to a party and then never actually ask a question. Or his soul-brother who used to train Ernie Shavers and is now working with contractors in Mississippi, but also doesn't actually have a question. The Cleveland event was clearly the least controlled of the events and was full of questions like this. Who cares what the president has to say, he's only there so you can plug your pet projects, after all.
But the great question which really defined the week was the opening question in Cleveland, which was a shout out to tinfoil-hatted glue-sniffers living in their mom's basements all over the nation.
Thank you for coming to Cleveland, Mr. President, and to the City Club. My question is that author and former Nixon administration official Kevin Phillips, in his latest book, American Theocracy, discusses what has been called radical Christianity and its growing involvement into government and politics. He makes the point that members of your administration have reached out to prophetic Christians who see the war in Iraq and the rise of terrorism as signs of the apocalypse. Do you believe this, that the war in Iraq and the rise of terrorism are signs of the apocalypse? And if not, why not?
The best part is that last sentence, which seems to presuppose that most people actually do think the Iraq war is a sign of the apocalypse and challenges Bush to deny this obvious truth. Bush was a bit flabbergasted, replying with:
The answer is -- I haven't really thought of it that way. (Laughter.) Here's how I think of it. The first I've heard of that, by the way. I guess I'm more of a practical fellow.
He recovered quickly and went to a fairly standard explanation of why he believes in the War on Terror, but he was clearly rattled. This isn't exactly the kind of question you expect anyone not dressed in a trashbag belted with a piece of old rope to ask.
Of course, based on some of what you read in the blogosphere this may be one of the burning questions of the day. There are more than a few people who are convinced that the War on Terror is a front for protecting the investment of the Apocalypticons in the state of Israel, whose continued existence is vital to the summoning of the messiah. That being the case, it's kind of reassuring to see Bush actually do a double take when the question is asked, confirming that he thinks the idea is just as crazy as the rest of us 'practical fellows' do.
Now I'm worrying a lot less about the apocalypse, but just a little bit more about the peculiar thought processes of Americans who get a chance to ask the President a question.