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KINDERGARTEN CORPS! The queries were hopeless on Tuesday night. Here’s what the scribes should have asked:

FRIDAY, APRIL 16, 2004

SCHEDULE: Tomorrow, Rice Under Oath, part 4.

THE GOOD SHIPWRECK TIMES: We suggest you read Charles Pierce’s take on “Kit” Seelye’s latest work for the Times. (Pierce is filling in for Eric Alterman at his semi-eponymous web site.) During Campaign 2000, Seelye’s astonishing coverage of Candidate Gore helped define the shipwreck the Times has become, but through all the clowning she dumped on Gore’s head, we never could spot an ideology. Now, Seelye is bashing Candidate Kerry over a set of religious concerns. At long last, we may be starting to get a glimpse of the disordered shape of this journalist’s mind. But her kooky work keeps defining the Times. The New York Times is a vast shipwreck.

KINDERGARTEN PRESS CORPS: What a perfectly matched pair of players we saw at Tuesday ’s press conference! On the one hand, we saw a president prepared to move mountains to stop an attack—if Osama will tell him where it will happen. On the other hand, we saw a press corps eager to report the president’s mistake—if he’ll just say what his big mistakes were. What were our “reporters” thinking when they posed endless questions like this one?

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. 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?

Time’s John Dickerson posed that groaner, the last in a string of invitations-to-confess. And so, let the word go forth from this web site: Reporters are supposed to identify a president’s mistakes on their own. A president doesn’t have to stage an event where he stands up in public and lists them.

How inane were the press corps’ questions? On Thursday evening’s Special Report, the “all-stars” discussed the topic—and even their comments made lots of sense! Even Fred Barnes got it right:

BARNES: It’s not difficult. There’s nothing difficult about it. It’s very easy to ask an informational question, which is what reporters are supposed to ask, when they’re seeking information from the president…

BARNES: It’s not a burden to have to come up with those questions. It’s easy. Look, all you have to think is, Now I want to ask the president a question and his answer might expand human knowledge, you know? The reporters might learn something. It might move the ball. It might advance things.

Yep! The press corps’ questions were so inept, even Barnes could see what was wrong! But what sort of questions should they have asked? Incomparably, we’re willing to tell you.

Let’s look at one of the less awful questions—a question by ABC’s Terry Moran. His query was better than Dickerson’s groaner. But keep two general rules in mind. Generally speaking, questions at events like this should involve specifics. And questions shouldn’t have more than two parts. Moran’s question broke both rules. Result? Bush’s “answer” was worthless.

Moran supplied the evening’s third question. Where do these kids learn their skills?

MORAN: Mr. President, before the war you and members of your administration made several claims about Iraq: that U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators with sweets and flowers; that Iraqi oil revenue would pay for most of the reconstruction; and that Iraq not only had weapons of mass destruction, but as Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said, we know where they are. How do you explain to Americans how you got that so wrong? And how do you answer your opponents, who say that you took this nation to war on the basis of what has turned out to be a series of false premises?
What’s wrong with that question? Moran asked Bush about three different topics. He included few specific facts or quotations. Anyone could have guessed the result. Because Bush hadn’t been asked to address specifics, he offered a rambling, generalized answer—an answer we’d heard many times in the past. In the process, none of Moran’s three concerns were addressed in a serious way, and Bush killed a big chunk of time.

Bush began with Moran’s third topic—those missing WMD. Why was Bush wrong on those WMD? This question has already been asked many times! Result? Bush offered an endless, rambling discussion, stringing together a series of points we have heard many times in the past. (Opening remark: “Well, let me step back and review my thinking…”) And alas! This sleep-inducing, first part of Bush’s answer took two minutes and 35 seconds. Get a cup of good strong coffee, then read what the president said:

BUSH: Well, let me step back and review my thinking prior to going into Iraq.

First, the lesson of September 11th is when this nation sees a threat, a gathering threat, we’ve got to deal with it. We can no longer hope that oceans protect us from harm. Every threat we must take seriously. Saddam Hussein was a threat. He was a threat because he had used weapons of mass destruction on his own people. He was a threat because he coddled terrorists. He was a threat because he funded suiciders. He was a threat to the region. He was a threat to the United States. That’s the assessment that I made from the intelligence, the assessment that Congress made from the intelligence; that's the exact same assessment that the United Nations Security Council made with the intelligence.

I went to the UN, as you might recall, and said either you take care of him or we will. Anytime an American president says “if you don’t we will,” we better be prepared to. And I was prepared to. I thought it was important for the United Nations Security Council that when it says something it means something, for the sake of security in the world.

See, the war on terror had changed the calculations. We needed to work with people. People needed to come together. And therefore, empty words would embolden the actions of those who are willing to kill indiscriminately.

The United Nations passed a Security Council resolution unanimously that said disarm or face serious consequences, and he refused to disarm.

I thought it was very interesting, Charlie Duelfer, who just came back—he’s the head of the Iraqi Survey Group—reported some interesting findings from his recent tour there. And one of the things was he was amazed at how deceptive the Iraqis had been toward UNMOVIC and UNSCOM, deceptive in hiding things. We knew they were hiding things. A country that hides something is a country that is afraid of getting caught, and that was part of our calculation. Charlie confirmed that.

He also confirmed that Saddam had the ability to produce biological and chemical weapons. In other words, he was a danger. He had long-range missiles that were undeclared to the United Nations. He was a danger. And so we dealt with him.

As noted, two and a half minutes had come off the clock—and Bush had said almost nothing we hadn’t heard many times in the past. But then, why didn’t Bush give a real answer? Because Terry Moran hadn’t asked a real question! We’ll show you what he might have asked—but first, Part 2 of Bush’s response. By this time, neither Bush nor anyone else on earth could even recall what Moran had asked. Those present were fighting for consciousness:
BUSH (continuing directly): And what else part of the question—oh, oil revenues! Well, the oil revenues, they’re bigger than we thought they would be at this point in time. I mean, one year after the liberation of Iraq, the revenues, or the oil stream, is pretty darn significant.

One of the things I was concerned about prior to going into Iraq was that the oil fields would be destroyed. But they weren’t. They’re now up and running, and that money is—it will benefit the Iraqi people. It’s their oil, and they’ll use it to reconstruct the country.

Needless to say, this “answer” evaded the premise of Moran’s question. After all, if oil revenues are higher than expected, why aren’t they covering the cost of the war? But by this time, very few people could even recall what Moran had specifically asked. Did Moran really want an answer on this? If so, he should have asked a more detailed question. But now, Part 3 of Bush’s response, the part about “bouquets and sweets.” Again, because Moran’s question had been so vague, Bush did what many pols would have done—he answered by reciting old scripts:
BUSH (continuing directly): Finally, the attitude of the Iraqis toward the American people. It’s an interesting question. They’re really pleased we got rid of Saddam Hussein, and you can understand why. Because the guy’s a torturer, a killer, a maimer. There’s mass graves! I mean, he was a horrible individual that really shocked the country in many ways, shocked it into a kind of a fear of making decisions toward liberty. That’s what we’ve seen recently. Some citizens are fearful of stepping up. And they were happy that—they’re not happy they’re occupied. I wouldn’t be happy if I were occupied either. They do want us there to help with security, and that’s why this transfer of sovereignty is an important signal to send, and it’s why it’s also important for them to hear we will stand with them until they become a free country.
Bush said “occupied” instead of “liberated.” But four full minutes had now gone by since Moran proffered his vague, three-part question. And all we had heard was familiar old cant. Moran’s question insured that result.

What should Moran have asked? And what should other scribes have asked if they wanted to hear about Bush’s mistakes? Questions should have been specific and focussed. Here are a few ideas:

Why were you wrong about WMD: Why was Bush wrong about WMD? Moran asked a vague, general question—a question we’ve heard ten million times—and he got the answer his question deserved. Suggestion: He could have worked from the 3000-word, front-page report which appeared in the March 28 Los Angeles Times. In their detailed piece, Bob Drogin and Greg Miller reported on one of the Chalabi-connected Iraqi defectors who fed the U.S. fake information about WMD. The public needs to hear this discussed. Here is a possible question:

SAMPLE QUESTION: Mr. President, as the Los Angeles Times reported on March 28, Colin Powell’s pre-war presentation to the UN included information about alleged mobile labs supplied by an Iraqi informant code-named “Curveball.” As Secretary Powell has now acknowledged, it seems that this information was false. Indeed, David Kay has said that this Iraqi informant turned out to be, and I quote, an “out-and-out fabricator,” and he has even said that Powell’s presentation before the UN was, and I quote, “disingenuous.” With so much at stake, how is it possible that your administration accepted information of this kind? And since this discredited informant was allied with Ahmed Chalabi, why are we still engaged with Chalabi as we work toward Iraq’s independence?
We spent two minutes assembling that question; Moran could have crafted a much tighter version. But that is an actual question about an actual failure—a failure Bush should be asked to explain. And because this question is built on specifics, it would have been hard to answer the question by saying, “Saddam was a maimer. There were mass graves!” No question can force a politician to respond. But if President Bush had evaded this question, his evasion would have been rather clear. If fifteen scribes had asked questions like this, you would have seen a real press conference.

Why did you make so many mistakes: The Kindergarten Press Corps was very eager to catch Bush in a troubling mistake. Sadly, they were too inept to identify such mistakes—they wanted Bush to do their work for them! But as Barnes said, questions at news conferences should try to elicit actual information—information that moves public knowledge forward. Current topic: As Bush himself said on Tuesday night, we are now increasing troop levels in Iraq. Instead of asking Bush for a list of blunders, why couldn’t one of our gun-totin’ scribes have asked about this apparent mistake? A question could have sounded like this:

SAMPLE QUESTION: Mr. President, in March 2003, General Eric Shinseki told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “something on the order of several hundred thousand” troops would be required to occupy postwar Iraq. Soon after, Secretary Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, disputed Shinseki’s estimate, rather aggressively. At one point, Rumsfeld predicted that our troop levels would be down to NUMBER OF TROOPS by DATE. (Note to reporters: This is where you do something called “research.”) With troop deployments now being raised, isn’t it clear that Shinseki was right, and Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were wrong? And are you concerned by the way Secretary Rumsfeld misjudged such a basic matter?
We don’t know much about this topic; a journalist could make that question much stronger. But this is an actual, specific mistake—one the public deserves to hear discussed. But your “press corps” is too pampered and lazy to identify Bush’s mistakes. They want Bush to do the job for them. (Another apparent mistake? Those oil revenues. Moran could have assembled a specific question about that specific mistake.)

For ourselves, if we had a chance to ask one question, we would have asked about Condi Rice. Here at the HOWLER, we’re tired of Rice’s carnival show—her bizarre public statements about major matters, and, of course, her endless dissembling. We might have asked about a recent example:

SAMPLE QUESTION: Mr. President, your National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, said in May 2002 that no one could have imagined the use of airplanes as weapons. Last week, speaking under oath, she said that she could not have imagined such an attack, although others in the administration might have been able to do so. But in July 2001, you and Rice attended the G-8 summit in Genoa, and the Italian prime minister later said that just such an air attack had been threatened at that event. Meanwhile, the intelligence community had recorded a long string of warnings about airplanes-as-weapons, starting in the mid-1990s. Can you tell us if there was such a threat at the G-8 summit in Genoa? And how is it possible that your National Security Adviser didn’t know the history of this topic even by 2002, when it had been widely discussed on the front pages of American newspapers?
Questions like this would be hard to answer by saying Saddam was a very bad man.

Bush’s performance Tuesday night was disturbing. But the president’s stale, disjointed, rambling answers were perfectly matched by the corps’ inane questions. Was that a press corps we saw—or a kindergarten class? Final question: How is it possible that such inept and disengaged people serve as stewards of America’s discourse?

MUSTARD GAS ON A TURKEY FARM: Yes, we know—Bush’s answer about those oil revenues was factually bogus. So was his statement, made two times, about mustard gas on that turkey farm. (The president seems to have this matter confused with his favorite sandwich.) But don’t worry! No one in the Washington “press” will ask about these misstatements. Nor will anyone ask about Bush’s oddest claim—his statement that the August 6 PDB was “comforting” because it said that the FBI was conducting 70 full-field domestic investigations of al Qaeda. (To Bush, that came as a comfort!) No, one will ask about these things. After all, Bush and Rice lied in the press corps’ face last week—saying the August 6 PDB had nothing to do with domestic warnings—and no one dared to ask about that! Readers, we’ve told you this again and again. You no longer have a Washington press corps. In its place, you have a kindergarten, and it showed you its skills Tuesday night.

LIS AND BILL SPEAK: We should probably look at Elisabeth Bumiller’s question because we previewed her work this week. Fortified by a belt of good scotch, the timorous scribe managed this:

BUMILLER: Thank you, Mr. President. To move to the 9/11 Commission, you yourself have acknowledged that Osama bin Laden was not a central focus of the administration in the months before September 11th.

“I was not on point,” you told the journalist Bob Woodward, “I didn't feel that sense of urgency.”

Two-and-a-half years later, do you feel any sense of personal responsibility for September 11th?

“To move to the 9/11 Commission,” she said—then asked about Woodward’s book instead. But these are truly minor complaints. At least she didn’t ask the prez to explain how he stays so punctual.

A less minor complaint might concern that quote from Woodward’s book. As we have noted, the White House has spent the past two weeks saying this quote was taken out of context. Karen Hughes has said it all over cable, and Rice said the same thing at the 9/11 hearings, seeming to read from a transcript of Bush’s interview with Woodward. A real reporter might have tried to get a look at that transcript, to increase our understanding of what Bush really said. But Bumiller is a tired incompetent. Result? She asked a pointless question, already knowing the answer:

BUSH: Let me put that quote to Woodward in context. He’d asked me if I was—something about killing bin Laden. That’s what the question was.
Bush rambled on from there, semi-coherently. And oh yes—Bush feels grief, not responsibility. But then, we all knew that part too.

One last truly horrendous question. Yes, Bill Sammon really “asked” this. Try to believe that he did it:

SAMMON: You have been accused of letting the 9/11 threat mature too far, but not letting the Iraq threat mature far enough. First, could you respond to that general criticism? And secondly, in the wake of these two conflicts, what is the appropriate threat level to justify action in perhaps other situations going forward?
Good God! Sammon stated a “general criticism” that is really an incoherent, Hannity-level, pseudo-conservative spin-point. Let’s play softball, Sammon said. And he got the moment he sought. Bush agreed that this “general criticism” had been just a trifle unfair.