October 11, 2001
Following the president's news conference, Tom Oliphant and David Brooks assess the key points and discuss the effectiveness of Mr. Bush's performance.
JIM LEHRER: And there we have it -- President George W. Bush's first prime time news conference; it's comes as we said one month, exactly one month since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
David Brooks and Tom Oliphant. David Brooks of the Weekly Standard, Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe have been watching this news conference with me. Tom, what's the headline, if you were to have to write the headline of the most important piece of news that came out of here, what was it?
TOM OLIPHANT: I think it would be an optimistic sounding as well as in terms of specifics report on the military action so far abroad. This is the area where the American support is essentially unanimous for all intents and purposes, and I think the president was able to be somewhat more detailed in his reporting both about alliance politics and about the military campaign, to put a positive gloss on it, even though it's far from over, and I think that will be the headline.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think, David? What was the most important thing?
DAVID BROOKS: Bush himself was the headline. Here was a president who was slow, gave long answers, stately, remember in the campaign there was that issue about the smirk, does the man smirk? There was none of that. People have been coming out of meetings with him saying he's a different man since September 11th. I think there was a little of that, a little seriousness, a little confidence projection. This is a time of terror in which with these anthrax warnings, the FBI warnings, we really do have to trust the government. And I do think Bush sort of merited that trust with a calm commanding slightly vague performance, but--
JIM LEHRER: Slightly vague -- what do you mean slightly vague?
DAVID BROOKS: I wanted two bits of information out of this, one of which was slightly unrealistic. We may be on the verge of a transition in our military strategy, away from bombing toward helicopters, toward ground troops. I was hoping to get some indication of where that was headed. That didn't happen.
There was a second bit of information, which we did get, which is the future of Afghanistan after we presumably win this war, after the Taliban leaves, and there he did lay out a road map. He said he wanted all the parties involved, he said the UN should be involved; he said we're not going to leave. He said in effect we are going to be nation-building. So in that bit of substance we really did get something.
JIM LEHRER: Do you think -- How do you come down on the aid?
TOM OLIPHANT: I think the report on the action and the foreign side of this today was detailed and thorough and when you see it as a news event in conjunction with the kinds of briefings we've been getting for the last three weeks, the picture is a fairly full one. What I think is difficult right now and I think it showed here tonight, however, is that we are dealing with two unprecedented crises at the same time, each of equal severity. One is this new war the President is talking about, clearly. But the other is the threat in this country, because the front lines are here in this war, and where the most death has been.
And partly this is, I think, unavoidable, that there's a mixed message from government and a mixed message from President Bush tonight. I want you to go out and be normal and be happy and shop. But at the same time I saw the intelligence on which our FBI just warned you that something terrible could happen in the next several days. It doesn't compute. And I don't think he is able yet, maybe because the circumstances don't allow it, to give Americans the kind of reassurance that they so clearly want right now. I mean this isn't panic -- that the President has not yet figured out how to communicate a notion of safety along with concern to the people.
JIM LEHRER: Is it possible?
DAVID BROOKS: It is by inspiring trust. This is not something the terror, the anthrax, whatever it is, that we can respond to as individuals. You can buy gas masks; you can buy antibiotics. But realistically this is something we have to respond to as a nation, and it something Americans, who are an individualist country, a country very into our private sphere, building little private paradises for ourselves have trouble with responding as a nation, saying we will trust our institutions, we will trust our central authorities, the way Israel does really defers to the military in almost all regards. Americans have a hard time doing that. But by handling himself reasonably well, by inspiring confidence just with his mere being, I think that's all Bush can do. Specifically when he said this blanket warning, we had a piece of intelligence which made us issue a warning about danger in the next few days, I would love to have him have told us where it came from. Who issued the threat? Maybe he couldn't do that. But I would look for a little more specificity there.
TOM OLIPHANT: Well, as I think we'll notice in the papers, in news report tomorrow, there is some -- officials have been telling us a little about this since 4:00 this afternoon.
JIM LEHRER: What have they been telling you?
TOM OLIPHANT: It's foreign intelligence primarily, and this is official information. I don't want to have Condoleezza Rice get mad at me. But it was chatter -- all around -- that seemed to indicate activity. It wasn't specific. And the problem I think, and in the President's performance tonight, and I think it undercuts what David is looking for in a way, and that is this is the third time this has happened. Attorney General John Ashcroft made a fairly big deal out of business about September 22nd, that many in the FBI thought was overstated. There was a similar alert that was issued Sunday when the military action began -- and now this.
People -- because they're concerned right now -- and there's somebody who's been traveling, you see it all the time. When there are these warnings issued, it may be seen as almost bureaucratic here in Washington. And President Bush's explanation about this verged on the bureaucratic. But people don't react that way -- at a time like this, not when 6,000 people have lost their lives.
JIM LEHRER: On another issue, adding the words to the tone to the style, tonight, is there any doubt in your mind about the president's resolve to see this thing through?
DAVID BROOKS: No. If there's one thing he made clear, he considers this the long haul, as long as he's President, he expects to be holding these briefings, he said our goal again is to root out terror wherever it is in the world, all the countries that could be involved in it.
This is one thing he talks in moral terms, I was struck by the number of times he used the word "evil" in this talk, he referred to Osama bin Laden as the "evil one" at one point. This is what he said in his speech to the Congress, "In our grief and anger; we have found our mission and our moment." I And that is something he clearly feels deeply.
JIM LEHRER: What did you make, Tom, of his kind of invitation to the Taliban, we'll give you a second chance, it's not too late, guys, if you want to give us Osama bin Laden and all, we'll call off the bombers... that was kind... I found that...
TOM OLIPHANT: There is always hope. We're going to be able to pick nits with the specifics of this strategy all the way, however long it takes. None of it will have anything to do with the overwhelming public support that the president has and deserves. But there are these moments when you can see that we are in a little built of danger of getting somewhat bogged down in Afghanistan. This question of whether Iran or Iraq or Syria is down the road, who knows. He did not deal with that, I mean, you can't -- because we don't know yet. And it's a problem.
I just wanted to add one other thing about the strength of his performance tonight. The other element of his leadership that is mattering more and more is his ability to articulate what ordinary Americans feel. And the best example I thought was his expression of disbelief that people could hate us, which is a quintessentially American reaction to this kind of thing, and he articulates it in a way that everybody feels. It's a legitimate confusion. The other is this request to kids to send in a buck for kids in Afghanistan, you watch, there will be an overwhelming response to this.
DAVID BROOKS: This is the thing we've always noticed during the campaign, when you ask what do you think of Bush, people would say we feel he could come to the barber shop and he'd fit in with us. That is his great gift.
But on Afghanistan, I think he did something important. He is -- we are getting bogged down, we are going to be nation building, but he didn't say we want to get rid of the Taliban regime. Donald Rumsfeld has come very close to saying that. He carefully did not.
JIM LEHRER: And Blair has said it.
DAVID BROOKS: Blair has said it. But Bush has not said it. And he came close, and clearly consciously that's not our official policy, perhaps because it would upset Pakistan, perhaps for some other reason.
JIM LEHRER: Do you share David's disappointment that the President didn't move the military action to another phase here tonight?
TOM OLIPHANT: No. And the reason is that I think he, in some ways better than Rumsfeld, by the way, maybe because his communication now is so direct and modulated and easy to follow, that he's made it clear to me anyway, already, that we are not going to announce the start of special operations in Afghanistan. It's not going to happen that way. And accordingly, obviously, the moment is coming, and it will just happen.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. David and Tom, thank you all very much. And we'll be back at our regular news hour time tomorrow night with a Newsmaker interview with Vice President Cheney among other things. Until then I'm Jim Lehrer. Thank you and good night.