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The President, the Press, and Curveballs

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On Thursday, the president and the press corps met for a news conference. The results were predictable: the president took only a dozen questions in the 50 minute session, most of his answers were non-responsive, and he used the questions to deliver short speeches attempting to justify his actions.

That's the norm for a press conference, so that isn't what bothered me. What bothered me is that the White House press corps fails to hear what the president says and therefore misses opportunities to make "real news" at what is usually a canned news event.

Yesterday a reporter asked the president, "...Senator Joe Biden said al Qaeda in Iraq is a 'Bush-fulfilling prophecy'... can you respond to that?" After suggesting that al Qaeda would be defeated by "hunting them down and bringing them to justice," the president added "and by offering a different, alternative form of government."

He also said, "The Middle East looked nice and cozy for a while. Everything looked fine on the surface but beneath the surface, there was a lot of resentment, there was a lot of frustration, such that 19 kids got on airplanes and killed 3,000 Americans. It's in the long-term interest of this country to address the root causes of these extremists and radicals exploiting people that cause them to kill themselves and all Americans and others." As if our war on Iraq would have prevented 9/11.

But none of the 19 kids who "got on airplanes and killed 3,000 Americans" were Iraqis. 15 were Saudis, two were Arabs from the Emirates, one was a Lebanese, and the last an Egyptian. How come nobody asked the president, "just how is it that our war against Iraq addresses the root causes that drove 19 Arabs from other nations to hijack the airplanes? Wouldn't we, the U.S., have been better off addressing "root causes" by challenging the regime in Saudi Arabia?" I admit, that's a "gotcha" question, but we all like to ask "gotcha" questions.

We all know the president never intended to "offer a different, alternative form of government" to those living under despotism in the Middle East. But why did he target a secular, non-Islamisist country with one of the largest middle classes in the region? The reasons he gave at the press conference were so obviously flimsy that, as a journalist, it shamed me when no reporter pushed him on his answers.

I once ran a news company and wanted our reporters to listen to what the president was saying. Maybe he'd say something that offered us an opportunity to "make news" if we asked the right question. There isn't much of that now. Too many reporters go into press conferences with their questions written on their cuffs. They don't pick up on the president's words and that makes it easy for the president. When a reporter asks him a prepared question, the president invariably has a prepared answer. You've got to throw him a curve ball every once in a while. That's what I told our guys. Why did President Bush attack Iraq instead of Saudi Arabia? -- that's a curve ball!