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Brooks and Oliphant

April 13, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, some preview thoughts about President Bush’s news conference later this evening. They come from Brooks and Oliphant: New York Times columnist David Brooks and Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant. David, is it fair to say that events have literally forced the president to have this news conference tonight?

DAVID BROOKS: Actually George Bush wakes up every morning and says, can you please let me into a room of reporters? That’s what I really want to do today. No, it’s clearly there’s a sense, first of all, we have the crisis in Iraq last week. I think people are going to want to know what’s the shape of this crisis? Do you have any plan? Do you have any clue what’s going on? Secondly there’s erosion. Not so much for the war but for Bush. There’s a sense, especially among conservative ranks that we assume this guy knew what he was doing. Now we’re not quite so sure. So I think there is that sense spreading around the Republican ranks and around the country that forced the administration to do this.

JIM LEHRER: Sounds grave. Do you think it’s that grave, Tom?

TOM OLIPHANT: No, nowhere near grave. This is a very serious situation in Iraq and I think it’s politically also I’d add the president has not had a particularly good month despite the expenditure of something like $50 million on television advertisements. But one of the great powers of the presidency is the power to tell people what’s going on and what they can look forward to. I think it’s very interesting that the White House has decided to begin this thing with a 12-minute statement which is a little unusual.

JIM LEHRER: So the news conference tonight will start a 12-minute statement.

TOM OLIPHANT: That’s correct. And I think we want to ask — are we talking reassurance here, reaffirmation in the short term or is this going to be an effort to once again explain to Americans what our policy is, what they can expect, what they have to stick out. And to the extent it’s short term it will not be term terribly successful in my view. To the extent it addresses the deeper question and some of the ones that David brought up, it will be a success.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think he has to go toward — talk about the June 30 handover, he has to talk about what are we going to do about Najaf? Does it have to be that specific?

DAVID BROOKS: I think he has to talk about the general contour of what happened last week. The real question that’s on people’s mind is do we have a handle on this thing? Did we just cross a tipping point where the whole thing is in collapse? Or did we have a crisis there three or four days and now we’re beginning to go see some calm and there’s a fundamental majority on our side that wants democracy which we want and that there’s a way to feel our way through. I don’t think he needs to say June 30 we’re going to do this. We’re going to hand off power to Mr. X, Mr. Y and Mr. Z. He has to give a sense that there’s a contour and a basic path that we can feel our way through.

JIM LEHRER: The other big movement … moving story, of course, are the 9/11 commission hearings. Is there something he needs to say about that?

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, now of course this will be largely up to the reporters. I mean, you want to look at the mix here.

JIM LEHRER: The president is going to talk about Iraq in his 12-minute statement.

TOM OLIPHANT: You want to look at the mix. Is it mostly 9/11 or hopefully is it more about what appears to matter to Americans more which is a policy in Iraq. There is one thing hanging on 9/11, however. There was a famous conference call on Saturday night with some administration officials one can’t name trying to put in context this daily briefing that was released that day. One question they would not answer, after you heard this, read this thing, what did you do? And I think that question may come up tonight. And the answer might be interesting.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about the 9/11 issue?

DAVID BROOKS: I generally don’t think it’s politically that important. If you look at what’s happened over the past week, if you ask people what’s the most important issue to you, Iraq has gone from 11 percent up to 26 percent. Suddenly that’s become the most important issue. The 9/11 commission hearings far fewer people are paying attention to the hearings. When you ask them who is to blame Bush or Clinton. They say both about equally. Who do you believe — Rice or Clarke? They give Rice a slight advantage but very marginal. They’re will to go give a pass politically on the 9/11 stuff. Iraq is where they think this country really might be….

JIM LEHRER: You think style and tone is important too. He must show he knows what he’s doing.

DAVID BROOKS: If it was up to me he wouldn’t be giving a press conference but he’d be giving an Oval Office address.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think?

TOM OLIPHANT: No, not entirely this time. That’s because the one thing that I think is different about this atmosphere is that it’s a more factual atmosphere. The reassurance that people are looking for is not mood or style or is Bush confident. It’s what’s going to happen? How much is it going to cost? How long is it going to last? I think the questions that people have are quite specific. Therefore, the attention politically will be on the specificity of his answers.

DAVID BROOKS: Also it’s Pollyannaish. The worst thing he could do is be too Pollyannaish, too much happy talk. That would be the worst possible outcome.

JIM LEHRER: What’s his record on that?

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, actually there’s another thing I’m also interested, and that is the description of the current conflict still going to be thugs, terrorists, tiny minority. Or is it going to resemble every discussion I’ve had about this in the last two weeks and the discussion which was just heard.

DAVID BROOKS: That was about thugs mostly. Sadr is a thug. I mean, I think he’s actually generally right about that, that there’s Sadr and then a lot of people hanging around in the middle who are basically on our side without wanting … not on our side but not on Sadr’s side.

TOM OLIPHANT: I’m interested to hear if the approach to the insurgency is primarily military or also political.

JIM LEHRER: We will know soon and we’ll talk to you all or most folks who are lucky enough on PBS will get to hear what you all have to say after the fact as well. Thank you both.