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Press corps uses strategy on Bush

The members of the White House press corps prepare assiduously for the rare chance to ask President Bush a single question.
Reporters raise their hands, hoping to be called on by President Bush, at a press conference in Washington on April 13.
Reporters raise their hands, hoping to be called on by President Bush, at a press conference in Washington on April 13.Susan Biddle / The Washington Post file
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President Bush and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe were dripping with sweat as they took questions from reporters at the end of Bush's four-hour visit last week to Cartagena, a port that was built as a defense against pirates and now tries to fend off cocaine traffickers and leftist terrorists.

Bush, following his usual practice when he appears with a foreign leader, was holding what is billed as a press conference. But, in reality, it was what the White House calls a "two and two" — two questions from the White House press corps, and two from the reporters following the other head of state.

There were plenty of topics for the American reporters to choose from for those two chances to probe the mind of the leader of the free world: Iran and Iraq, Ukraine and North Korea, intelligence reform and the dollar. David Morgan of Reuters used one of the precious openings to ask the president about a sideshow: tensions between the Secret Service and local authorities during Bush's visit to Chile, where he had spent the previous three nights and at one point had retrieved one of his Secret Service agents from a brawl with Chilean security.

"Why do you think there was such friction between the U.S. delegation and the Chilean delegation?" Morgan asked.

By the standards that the White House press pack uses to gauge a deft question, this one failed roundly: It was about yesterday's news; Bush was unlikely to answer it with any specificity, and it wouldn't "make news" (produce a headline) if he did.

In the networks' nearby transmission room, out of Bush's earshot, correspondents and producers groaned loudly and grunted their disapproval.

"This is a question?" Bush replied. Now, the audience in the network workspace was laughing. (Morgan did not reply to three e-mails over four days seeking his comments. Bush responded that he had a spectacular visit and "appreciated the hospitality of our Chilean friends." Then he left the stage, dismissing his host's plea that they take one more question with a curt, "That's plenty. No, thank you."

Quest for a quote
The exchange — and the unforgiving reaction of a press corps that tends to be more collegial than cutthroat — exposed one of the dark arts of covering a prickly president who has held the fewest formal news conferences of any president beginning with Eisenhower and prides himself on his ability to stay on message. White House reporters can go months ’ or even years — without getting the chance to ask Bush a question. (This reporter has been called on about 15 times in four years.)

Bush has held 16 solo news conferences, compared to 43 for Bill Clinton, 84 for George H.W. Bush and 26 for Ronald Reagan at this point in their presidencies, according to research by Martha Joynt Kumar of Towson University.

These sessions are a contest between Bush's desire to repeat his previously articulated views ("sticking a tape in the VCR," as one frequent Bush questioner puts it), and the reporters' quest to elicit something that will contribute to democracy, not to mention getting them on television or the front page.

"Bush, like most skilled politicians, will tend to answer the way he wants, no matter what the question," says Dana Bash of CNN. "The hardest thing is to ask the question in a way he can't do that. One way is to ask him something with an edge, or something that will make him want to respond."

Carefully chosen questions
Reporters save up questions, and seek ideas from their bosses and even from competitors. They edit the wording, trying to cut off escape hatches the president might run for. Rules of thumb are adopted: A question with hostile wording, according to many on the Bush watch, has a zero percent chance of eliciting news from this president because he erects defenses and moves on.

Terry Moran of ABC News sounds like a football player trying to psych out an opponent. "Don't let yourself be intimidated. Don't let yourself be charmed," Moran says. "Bush likes to try to do both. Just remember that he is a public servant, and part of his job is to take your questions."

Moran elicited one of the more memorable unscripted quotations of Bush's first term during an Oval Office photo opportunity in April 2002 when the president was discussing Middle East peace with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. "Mr. President, you said progress has been made toward our vision," Moran said. "Where? And secondly, do you believe that Ariel Sharon is a man of peace, and are you satisfied with his and his government's assurances that there was no massacre in Jenin?"

"I do believe Ariel Sharon is a man of peace," Bush replied, making headlines around the world.

Deconstructing the exchange, Moran says he finds that "focused, forceful and direct questions work best with Bush — the shorter the better.

"He responds sharply to sharp challenges. He gives better answers to fact-based queries than to open-ended invitations to muse or reflect on events or policies. And sometimes, his Texan habit of answering direct questions quickly and directly leads him to make news inadvertently."

Keep it simple, keep it direct
The White House does its own pre-game preparation, and one aide said Bush's staff often gets ready for "a Sanger question." That would be David E. Sanger, a national security specialist and White House correspondent for the New York Times, who says he finds it "most productive to ask about something that's not directly on the news of the day.

"Otherwise," he says, "no matter what the question is, you're likely to hear another version of the message of the day. So if the headlines are full of Iraq, ask about Social Security or North Korea or something that Vladimir Putin said about the Ukraine. ... The biggest challenge is getting the president to reflect on choices that he has made, explore alternative paths he might have taken, or illuminate how he came to a decision."

CNN's John King says a rookie mistake is to ask questions that are too convoluted, allowing Bush to answer only the part he wants to. King says he makes sure his questions have "one, or no more than two elements."

Question formulation is one of the rare enterprises on which reporters collaborate, because they know only a few of them will be picked, and the others don't want a clever question to go to waste. Ed Chen, a White House reporter for the Los Angeles Times, keeps a running list of "just in case" questions on his Palm Pilot, his desktop computer and his laptop.

But even as prepared an interrogator as Chen is no match for a president who is determined not to answer. In the Rose Garden last summer, Chen asked Bush how he planned to promote his Middle East peace initiative during an upcoming trip to Europe. Bush responded that he would be "giving a speech at the Air Force Academy that will help answer your question."

"I won't be there," Chen parried, to laughter.

"Ed, they do have C-SPAN, you know," Bush replied. "I'll be glad to rent it for you for an hour."

A 'Dickersonian' question
Score one for a risk-averse, disciplined White House: Question asked, answer avoided, see you later. But every now and then, the press has its day. The master of the game is John Dickerson of Time magazine, who has knocked Bush off script so many times that his colleagues have coined a term for cleverly worded, seemingly harmless, but incisive questions: "Dickersonian."

And yet Dickerson's disarming charm has preserved his status as one of the few reporters whom Bush and his staff actually like, so he keeps getting called on. He once asked Bush whether Muslims worship the same Almighty as Christians. (Bush said they did, prompting a stir among some evangelicals.) In the Rose Garden two summers ago, Dickerson asked Bush his view of homosexuality, leading into it by noting that many of his supporters believe it is immoral. ("Yes. I am mindful that we are all sinners," Bush began, going on to make news by saying he had lawyers looking into a way to codify the sanctity of marriage, the prelude to his endorsement of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.)

In April, Dickerson asked one of the most famous questions of Bush's presidency: "In the last campaign, you were asked a question about the biggest mistake you'd made in your life, and you used to like to joke that it was trading Sammy Sosa. You've looked back before 9/11 for what mistakes might have been made. After 9/11, what would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have you learned from it?"

Bush did not have a tape ready to stick into his VCR and he struggled to improvise. "I wish you would have given me this written question ahead of time, so I could plan for it," Bush said. He went on to say he could not think of a mistake he had made, providing months of fodder for his critics.

At the black-tie White House Correspondents' Association dinner a month later, Bush recounted the exchange and acknowledged, "It's an excellent question that totally stumped me. I guess looking at it practically, my biggest mistake was calling on John."

Dickerson, 36, says his mission when he questions Bush is to "get him to think out loud." He is the son of the late Nancy Dickerson, who was the first female correspondent at CBS News and was a longtime White House correspondent for NBC. "The first thing I think about when I think of question-asking is my mom," he writes in an e-mail. "Press writers were always writing about how she didn't belong there, how women couldn't ask serious questions and so it's probably osmosis." Dickerson says he thinks about "how Bush will react, what might shut him down, what might bore him, what might smell like a trap to him.

"He knows a lot about what we do and measures our motivations with a fine gauge," Dickerson writes. "There are a lot of hurdles with a president who doesn't particularly like the press and thinks we're there only to 'peacock,' as he calls it."

Dickerson says he also benefits from the traditional order at the rare presidential news conference — first, reporters from wire services are called on, then networks, then national newspapers, then newsmagazines, radio and regional newspapers. "I have it easy because I'm in the back of the order and you guys have already softened him up," he says. "For all of his ability to stay on-message, he does recognize when he's repeating himself and so I get lucky because by the time he gets around to me, he's working on thinking up another answer."

Even with Dickerson's example, highly paid reporters still struggle. One correspondent who does not buy the widespread theory that deference is key is John Roberts of CBS News. He once was so persistent in asking Bush why he took the nation to war in Iraq based upon what Roberts called "sometimes flimsy or, some people have complained, nonexistent evidence" that Bush scolded sharply, "Hold on for a second. You're through, John."

Roberts said in a BlackBerry message yesterday from Andrews Air Force Base, where he was waiting to board the press plane to Canada, that Bush "has worked very hard to create an atmosphere of 'protocol' around all of his events" and uses stern looks to shoot down any question he doesn't want to take. "It's all part of the message-control regime at the White House, but it's not something the White House press corps should roll over and play dead for."

Ann Compton of ABC News, who has covered every president going back to Gerald R. Ford, says Bush surveys the crowd and will lock eyes with a reporter who is eager enough to get into the mix. "Questions to Bush get the best answers when they are tough but respectful," she says. "And not in French."