I know my limitations and one of them is that I can’t watch George W. Bush on television. Televisions are expensive to replace. So on these exceedingly rare occasions when he holds a televised press conference (I think I read recently that Bush Sr. and Clinton had each held about 72 press conferences at this stage in their presidencies; W. has held 12), I find lots of things to do, and then read the text of his remarks in the paper the next day. But, of course, the day after a televised press conference – coming, as they do, with the frequency of a major comet – it’s almost impossible to avoid seeing parts of it recapped, replayed, and dissected on the news. The news was on as I passed hastily through the kitchen this morning, eyes averted, just in time to hear the President saying “I don’t want to sound like I’ve made no mistakes. I’m confident I have. I just haven’t – you just put me under the spot here and maybe I’m not quick, as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one.” Well, it’s just a good thing I had already put down my can of diet cola, because we’d be short a television.
As an elitist intellectual liberal might say, let’s “deconstruct” that remark. A fascinating combination of studied humility, and reflexive arrogance. Remember the old saw that still shows up on t-shirts and bumperstickers? “I thought I was wrong once, but I was mistaken.” Over the years, Mr. Bush has been trying to perfect what his handlers apparently think is a clever strategy for beating critics to the punch: just admit right up front that you can’t always think of good answers “on the spot,” under the glare of television lighting, etc. This makes him more “human.” It resonates with those of us who can’t always think on our feet, who think of good answers a day late. (This doesn’t explain the bad answers he gives when he has time to formulate them, but that’s neither here nor there.) It’s also supposed to defuse and deflect and – as we have seen even in less formal question/answer settings – when it doesn’t work, when the questions persist, the President gets testy, irritable, and sarcastic. How dare we question his judgement! But on this occasion, he just squinted and “thought” and could not come up with a single mistake worth mentioning.
It’s increasingly clear to many Americans that the President is not in charge of the White House, that he’s not in command of the facts on many of the issues over which he presides, that – indeed – his closest advisors seem to shield him from the facts when they are not politically expedient (this is not difficult for them to do; he famously remarked that he doesn’t need to read or watch news because he trusts his staff to tell him what’s important). And when confronted with indisputable evidence of mistakes, or mistruths, Bush himself goes silent and disappears from view while his staff finds someone to take the fall. This administration is heavily invested in Bush’s infallibility. So how long are you willing to hold your breath until this happens?