Brooks and Oliphant
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JIM LEHRER: Now back to David Brooks and Tom Oliphant. Tom, the president was asked several questions tonight in his news conference about 9/11 and most of them related to not only today’s testimony but other earlier testimony by — before the 9/11 commission. And the first question was he was asked whether he had a sense of personal responsibility about 9/11. Later he was asked about whether he felt he should apologize to the families of the victims as did Richard Clarke, et cetera. How, what kind of marks would you give him for how he handled those personal-type questions?
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, given the fact that they are a virtually direct invitation to utter your political talking points, he handled them perfectly. As David was saying earlier, this is what happens when you get questions like how did this make you feel — or how did you, et cetera? You put nothing on the line when you ask a question like that. You get very little in return. There were two exceptions, however. There were two very direct questions, both of which he dodged. What did you do after you got that briefing on Aug. 6, 2001? And he ran for the Hinterlands rather than answer it. The second one was even better.
JIM LEHRER: He said I didn’t think there was anything new in it — that he heard anything new.
TOM OLIPHANT: That’s right. But the question was what happened in the immediate after math of that briefing and there was no answer. And the second question even better which will really get I think some critical comment, and that is why did you insist that you and Vice President Cheney appear together? And the way he avoided answering that one was to say, well, so we could both answer the commission’s questions. Why did he insist that it be together rather than separately the way we wanted it, and he gave nothing. The president has decided that the issue of mistakes, even lessons, is not one to be dealt with where Sept. 11 is concerned. And that is something that all officials, whether it’s Ashcroft today at the commission, Condi Rice last week before the commission, everyone does the same thing. They are unique in this regard.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that analysis?
DAVID BROOKS: Not entirely. I agree that they are very slow admit mistakes, Lord knows. I thought his best moment in regard to these personal questions was when he said Osama bin Laden is responsible for this, not us. I think the apologies are a little histrionic.
Personally I think Osama bin Laden is responsible for it. He and the people who did it and organized it should apologize — the fact that we didn’t prevent it I think it would have taken super human foresight to prevent it given all the many different things that were happening in the world. As for his responses to the two particular issues Tom mentioned on the why and he Cheney are responding together that was truly a perfect non-answer. That really was. It was almost unapologetic as a non-answer.
JIM LEHRER: He even answered the same way twice. They asked him a follow-up.
DAVID BROOKS: While looking uncomfortable and angry at the same time, so that was just pure stonewalling. On the other answer I give him a little more credit on how he responded to this Aug. 6 PDB, daily briefing. First of all if you read it, you don’t learn much about it. The quality of the briefing is pretty poor. There’s not much new information. It says all these FBI investigations are going on. If you’re a president sitting there in one of the early months of your administration, you read this and you figure they have it under control somehow. I don’t blame him for not taking some specific action after reading that.
JIM LEHRER: What about the — back to the mistake thing. He was asked specifically about — you don’t seem to go for admitting mistakes. His answer kind of…
DAVID BROOKS: I was stunned he wasn’t briefed on that question. It was such an obvious thing. It’s been such a theme in the press for months and years. He should have some easy mistake he can say I messed this up. This is something we’ve talked about quite a lot. They think it doesn’t pay to admit mistakes because people give you no credit for candor. Instead they leap all over you. Once you admit an inch, then it’s another week where you have to admit a yard. Their policy is if we can have a normal conversation in this town, we do it. But we can’t so we won’t admit.
TOM OLIPHANT: Actually I did discover a token mistake that the president was willing to admit this evening. He does wish, looking back, that there had been a Department of Homeland Security before 9/11. I do not know anybody else on this earth who wishes there had been a Department of Homeland Security.
DAVID BROOKS: Tom Ridge.
JIM LEHRER: He was also asked, in fact, the last question about — related specifically to Iraq. But it had to do with his abilities as a communicator. How did you think he handled that?
DAVID BROOKS: I thought he handled that one pretty well. He said maybe I’m a bad communicator. You said it; it’s not for me to decide. I’m not going to do it on the basis of polls. You know, again, I think you ask about Najaf. We’re negotiating with this guy Sadr; is he going to come back after the cease-fire and be stronger? That’s a decision the man is taking. The president of the United States is a decision-maker. He’s not a touchy-feely guy who has feelings about how he communicates. Ask him about the decisions.
JIM LEHRER: You said at the beginning that reassurance was what the motive was here tonight. Did he do it?
TOM OLIPHANT: I think as he narrowly defines it. If I can just expand on what David just said –
JIM LEHRER: A few seconds.
TOM OLIPHANT: You bet. The communicator here is the motivator. That is a message aimed at one’s supporters. It’s not really aimed at anybody else.
JIM LEHRER: Thank you both very much.