President shows his softer side
A more outgoing, mediafriendly President Bush has been on display in recent days, holding unprecedented intimate sessions with reporters and hosting European leaders in unusual settings.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Nov. 9 visit to Mr. Bush’s Crawford, Texas, ranch was the White House’s latest effort to maintain influence abroad and at home during the president’s last year in office.
“The president is going to continue to have to look for new and innovative ways to talk about what
they’re trying to accomplish,” said Scott McClellan, who served as Mr. Bush’s press secretary from 2003 to 2006.
The White House communications office has perennially sought to put “a new twist on things,” but the approaching close of Mr. Bush’s term has made that search more important, said Mr. McClellan, who works in the private sector and is close to completing a memoir.
“Attention will continue to shift more toward the [presidential] candidates than toward the incumbent, especially because the incumbent is not on the ballot,” he said.
Stephen Hess, a George Washington University professor who has worked as a staffer or adviser in four administrations since President Eisenhower, said the need for the president to wield a larger megaphone near the end of his term is “a law of presidential physics.”
“The longer presidents remain in office, the harder they must work to stay on the center stage,” Mr. Hess said.
For the visits last week of Mrs. Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the White House took steps to keep things interesting.
Mr. Bush and Mr. Sarkozy held their meeting and a press conference on Nov. 8 at Mount Vernon, the Northern Virginia estate of America’s first president, George Washington.
And Mr. Bush made Mrs. Merkel the 15th foreign leader to be invited to his ranch, a reciprocation of her warmth toward the U.S. and a sign of her clout.
Mr. Bush’s meetings with Mrs. Merkel focused on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the fight against al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Iraq stabilization, global warming and peace efforts in Lebanon and in the Is- raeli-Palestinian conflict.
Mr. Bush’s meetings with Mr. Sarkozy focused on the same issues.
In addition to feting two of the most U.S.-friendly European leaders last week, Mr. Bush has spent more time with the press in a clear attempt to keep pace with the increasing coverage of the 2008 presidential campaigns.
Two weeks ago, he invited six reporters into the Oval Office to talk about a speech on fighting terrorism that he would give later that day.
Mr. Bush said he had been inspired to hold the first pen-and-pad briefing of his presidency when he saw a picture of Mr. Eisenhower speaking to reporters from his Oval Office desk.
Over the years, Mr. Bush has held several get-to-know-you sessions with reporters, but his comments at these gatherings were always off the record. During the recent availability, the president surprised reporters by speaking at length on the record. Moreover, instead of allowing aides to rush reporters out of the room after a few questions, Mr. Bush sat back and said, “OK, what else?”
After answering a few questions, the president then asked reporters to turn off their tape recorders. He spoke off the record for another 10 minutes, engaging in a casual back-andforth on politics.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and President George W. Bush arrive for a press conference at the Mount Vernon estate of George Washington, America’s first president, in Mount Vernon, Va. on Nov. 7.