I watched Bush's press conference yesterday. I skipped the opening statement (rehearsed statements are a tad bit dull) and tuned into the questions. I was struck by how much Bush actually rambled; in response to questions he went into a series of relatively unconnected statements punctuated with pauses used to come up with the right words. This made this press conference especially interesting because, more than other public appearances by Bush, it offered a window into how the man thinks.
Bush is something of a mythical creature to me, like the unicorn. I've read a lot about him. My understanding of him is constantly mediated by the praises I read coming from conservatives and the criticisms I hear coming from liberals. It has been a long time since I actually watched an event by him that was not rehearsed to the last detail -- and it was a bit eerie to watch the man struggle to find words (how ordinary).
Bush's rhetoric was surprisingly neoconservative. Typically, liberal narratives of the last three years emphasize the role played in the administration by neocons like Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz in "hijacking" the administartion's agenda. In fact, Bush seems to strongly believe in neoconservatives principles -- that America can be a force for good in the world, that liberating people from brutal dictatorships is worth any damage to international law. He clearly shares the idealism that drives neoconservatives and rejects the realism that drove the first Bush administration -- which was skeptical of forcing democracy on dictatorships and sought instead to cut deals with the various dictators around the world. Time and time again when asked a question, Bush would retreat into a ramble that played on one of these neoconservative themes -- freedom, idealism, a war on tyranny and opression.
There were also a few embarassing moments. Bush was stumped when he asked about mistakes he made since 9/11; he did not have a good answer on the question of WMDs -- retreating into "the weapons may still be found", "I look forward to reading the reports of the weapons commission," and "regardless, Saddam was still a threat." Of course, if Saddam did not have WMDs he was not more threatening than scores of other anti-American dictators around the world.
Bush has been vilified to no end by his critics, including myself. It is difficult for me to reconcile a policy I can only describe as evil -- a policy that involved misleading the American public about the likelihood of WMDs in Iraq -- a policy that supported an anti-democratic coup in Venezuela while using pro-democratic rhetoric to justify war in Irq -- a policy that has allowed Afghanistan to degenerate into a state torn apart by rival warlords with a weak central government -- with this rambling idealistic man that came out on stage yesterday.
Update: An example of ithe idealism and neoconservatism I was talking about, from a transcript of the press conference:
I believe so strongly in the power of freedom.
You know why I do? Because I've seen freedom work right here in our own country. I also have this belief, strong belief, that freedom is not this country's gift to the world; freedom is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman in this world. And as the greatest power on the face of the Earth, we have an obligation to help the spread of freedom. We have an obligation to help feed the hungry. I think the American people find it interesting that we're providing food for the North Korea people who starve. We have an obligation to lead the fight on AIDS, on Africa. And we have an obligation to work toward a more free world. That's our obligation. That is what we have been called to do, as far as I'm concerned.
Of course the rhetoric falls far short of reality -- we are not leading the fight on AIDS in Africa for example.