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President clearly uneasy in first news conference

By SARA FRITTZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2001


WASHINGTON -- He forced a nervous smile, cracked a few jokes, winked at favored reporters and called them by nicknames. But in the final analysis, George W. Bush was unable to mask an awkward lack of confidence Thursday during his first formal news conference as president.

Both in his answers and his demeanor, Bush, whose first month as president has won him many positive reviews, clearly demonstrated that one of his biggest challenges over the next four years will be mastering the skills of a communicator.

Because Bush said nothing especially newsworthy, his halting performance quickly became the focus of the half-hour question-and-answer session. In many ways, he seemed more nervous and less polished than he was during most of his campaign for the presidency.

Of course, Bush will get some credit for holding a formal news conference after only a month in office, particularly given his reputation for struggling with questions. The truth is that most presidents dislike formal news conferences, and many of them have held as few as possible.

Also to his credit, Bush avoided any serious blunders. When he mistakenly said he had been visiting "important states," he quickly corrected himself: "All the states are important, of course."

Bush called reporters to the White House on short notice in the midst of a snowstorm. It seemed to be a good day to get the first news conference behind him. It also seemed to be a way to recapture the attention of the media, which has been diverted recently by the controversy over former President Bill Clinton's pardons.

If that was Bush's strategy, it failed, however, because Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., held a news conference Thursday on Capitol Hill, once again overshadowing the new president.

As he has in the past, Bush refused to comment on the wisdom of Clinton's pardons. "I have too much to do to get a budget passed, to get reforms passed for education, to get a tax cut passed, to strengthen the military, than to be worrying about decisions that my predecessor made," he told reporters.

On other issues, Bush said:

He thinks he has made good on his promise to "change the tone here in the nation's capital, to encourage civil discourse." He thanked Democrats and Republicans both for visiting him at the White House and responding to his proposals.

He has confidence in FBI Director Louis Freeh, despite the recent arrest of an agent on charges he spied for the Russians. He looks forward to receiving a report on FBI procedures from former Director William Webster before he decides to make any changes at the agency.

He was encouraged by a recent statement made in Moscow indicating that the Russians may see a need for a nuclear missile defense system.

He decided to take action against Iraq last week for two reasons: to send a message that he intends to "remain engaged in that part of the world" and to diminish Iraq's capacity to shoot down U.S. planes over the no-fly zone.

He does not want to compromise on the overall size of his proposed $1.6-trillion tax cut, and he will resist efforts in Congress to add tax cuts for business.

He is concerned about Chinese military assistance to Iraq and is sending China an "appropriate response."

He intends to initiate an effort in Congress to obtain so-called "fast track" authority to make it easier to negotiate international trade agreements.

He is worried the United States' military mission in Colombia could escalate, but he is committed to limiting the role of American servicemen to training Colombian soldiers.

Like most people under pressure, Bush alternated between bravado and humor in his effort to overcome his nervousness.

The bravado emerged initially in response to a hostile question from long-time White House correspondent Helen Thomas, who now writes a column for Hearst newspapers. She asked about his effort to support faith-based social programs with federal funds.

Thomas: "Why do you refuse to respect the wall between church and state?"

Bush: "Helen, I strongly respect the separation of church and state."

Thomas: "Well, you wouldn't have a religious office in the White House if you did."

Bush: "I didn't get to finish my answer, in all due respect."

The president also spoke very forcefully about Colombia -- clearly a subject that made him feel comfortable.

But when he was asked about his upcoming meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush tried without success to dismiss the question with humor. "Why don't you wait until after he and I visit, so I don't have to give the same answer twice," he said, grinning.

When the reporter persisted, Bush left a clear impression that he had not yet studied his briefing books for the Blair visit.

"Britain and the United States have got a special relationship," he said. "We'll keep it that way."

Bush apparently had decided in advance on a list of reporters he intended to call on. And he dutifully followed his list, even though it meant calling on reporters who did not have their hands raised. In addition, he referred to two journalists by nicknames -- "Stretch" and "Pancho."

When it was over, Bush was clearly relieved. Asked if he planned to have frequent news conferences in the future, he replied that reporters might grow weary of him if he did. Then he thought of another reason. "I'll be running out of ties," he said.

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