The usual mangled speech but Bush is let off the hook in rare press conference

By Rupert Cornwell in Washington

31 July 2003

It didn't reveal much, but the White House press corps were grateful for anything. George Bush's press conference yesterday was only the ninth he has held in 30 months of office and a offered rare chance for reporters to get to grips with the most disciplined, and arguably the most secretive, White House of modern times. Except that they didn't.

This ought to have been a tricky occasion for the President. His poll ratings are sagging, budget deficits are ballooning, jobs are vanishing and American soldiers are dying almost daily in Iraq. And not one of Saddam's alleged weapons has turned up. But in the end it was a breeze.

The main lesson to emerge from the 50-minute session, the first since the invasion of Iraq four months ago, was how easily the chief executive evaded any serious damage - and how the reporters made it easy for him to do so.

The Bush on display was familiar: a bit macho, a bit matey and condescending. On occasion he flashed that unappealing smirk, or a spark of temper when a trusted aide was challenged. For a man who does not like being asked to explain himself, he looked relaxed and in command not only of his audience, but also (by his own unexacting standards) of the English language.

There were the usual odd breakdowns in brain-mouth co-ordination. "I will never assume the restraint and goodwill of dangerous enemies when lives of our citizens are at work," he proclaimed during a chest-beating passage about pursuing the war against terrorism. On occasion he moved his hands silently groping for words. But the ones he finally came up with more or less did the job.

As usual, reporters did not follow up each other's questions. At one point Mr Bush was pressed on the dodgy pre-war intelligence (and the even dodgier use made of it) about Saddam's supposed weapons' programmes. Predictably, he launched into an answer about how much better the world off was without Saddam Hussein.

The reporter pressed him but Mr Bush cut him off, calling the next question - which was about gay marriage. The President, as only to be expected, didn't think it was a good idea. The chance to pin him down was gone.

From then on it was downhill all the way. We saw the truculent Bush ("Since I'm in charge of the war on terror, we won't reveal source and methods," he said of his refusal to declassify 28 pages of the congressional report on the 11 September attacks). Then there was the carelessly dismissive Bush ("I didn't expect Thomas Jefferson to emerge in Iraq in a 90-day period," he said of the shambles there).

The 43rd President is known to view journalists as a tiresome accompaniment to power. While this was only Mr Bush's ninth press conference, Bill Clinton had held 33 by this stage of his presidency, and Mr Bush's father an astonishing 61. If yesterday was anything to go by, he can risk a few more.

Bush Q&A

Why is Condoleezza Rice not being held accountable for the statement that the White House has acknowledged was a mistake in your State of the Union address regarding Iraq's attempts to purchase uranium? Also, do you take personal responsibility for that inaccuracy?

Bush: I take responsibility for everything I say, of course. And I analysed a thorough body of intelligence ... that led me to the conclusion that it was necessary to remove Saddam Hussein from power. America is lucky to have [Ms Rice's] service. Period.

How close is the US to capturing Saddam?

I can't say for sure whether our troops are closing in on Saddam. We're closer than we were yesterday. All I know is, we're on the hunt.

Were the links [with al-Qa'ida] exaggerated to justify war? Or can you offer us some definitive evidence that Saddam was working with al-Qa'ida terrorists?

Yes ... but it's going to take time to gather the evidence and analyse the mounds, ... the miles of documents we have uncovered.

Has the US has lost credibility by building the case for war on sometimes flimsy or, some have complained, non-existent evidence?

I'm confident that our search will yield that which I strongly believe, that Saddam had a weapons programme.

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