Maybe it's just because the event happened between 2am and 3am China time. But I listened with mounting amazement to President Bush's post-election press conference on Wednesday.
It was not simply the tone of relative reasonableness and contrition—or as close to it as we've ever heard in public from this man—that was so surprising. Contrition? What the transcript renders as "It was a thumping," and what was actually delivered as "It was a thumpin,'" was more frank-sounding than anything the President has ever said about, well, Iraq.
The amazing aspect was that this man sounded smart. Consider the whole passage of which "thumpin'" was a part. It followed a question that had the giveaway introduction of, "With all due respect..." and went on to recount Nancy Pelosi's recent descriptions of George Bush as "incompetent, a liar, the emperor with no clothes," etc. How was he going to work with her now?
THE PRESIDENT: Suzanne, I've been around politics a long time; I understand when campaigns end, and I know when governing begins. And I am going to work with people of both parties.
Look, people say unfortunate things at times. But if you hold grudges in this line of work, you're never going to get anything done. And my intention is to get some things done. And as I said, I'm going to start visiting with her on Friday, with the idea of coming together.
Look, this was a close election. If you look at race by race, it was close. The cumulative effect, however, was not too close. It was a thumping. But nevertheless, the people expect us to work together. That's what they expect. And as I said in my opening comments, there comes responsibility with victory. And that's what Nancy Pelosi told me this morning. She said in the phone call she wants to work together. And so do I. And so that's how you deal with it.
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There, as words on the screen, it might not look remarkable. And on the merits, you could find things to admire (Hey, let's get things done) or to criticize (Hey, in campaigns anything goes, just think of the Swift Boats) in its underlying assumptions. But it also reflected a person who understood clearly the realities of his situation. And as delivered it was coherent, quick, and precise. Both "cumulative" and "nevertheless" flowed right off his tongue (as opposed to being shown off as trophy words, which the President is proud to have come up with) and were the right words for those moments. Each sentence is correctly formed.
Over six years we've become unbearably familiar with the tongue-tied George Bush of "the Google," of "is our children learning," of the anguished and humiliating pauses as he tries to fish out an appropriate word. After I described the startling contrast between the relatively glib Bush who governed Texas and the aphasic-seeming character who was our President, a number of readers wrote in to suggest that his increasingly-halting expression was in fact a sign of clinical mental deterioration, even of early-onset Alzheimer's disease. (We published such a letter.)
But now it appears that this diagnosis must have been wrong. Yesterday's George Bush didn't pause for a word and didn't get a point wrong. He was quick! In real time the exchange below showed a man in exact command of what he wanted to say:
Q: A little earlier you said that you truly believe that the Democratic leaders care about the security of this country as much as you do. Yet just about at every campaign stop you expressed pretty much the opposite. You talked about them having a different mind-set—
THE PRESIDENT: I did.
Q:—about having a different philosophy, about waiting—about being happy that America gets attacked before responding.
THE PRESIDENT: [CUTTING IN] What did you just say, "happy"?
Q: You said they will be satisfied to see America—
THE PRESIDENT: No, I didn't say, "happy." Let's make sure.
Q: You left that impression, forgive me.
THE PRESIDENT: [INSTANTLY, with Noel Coward-like timing] With you. Go ahead.
Where has this man been for the last six years? In political stance, he had none of the rigidity and cockyness that have accounted for much of the hostility to him. And in personal bearing, he was someone you could stand to listen to for an extended period.
(Mild discordant note: His explanation about why he said before the election that Donald Rumsfeld would stay, knowing that he would go, was an exception to the rule I am suggesting here.)
Might he have sounded this way from the start if he had had to work with a Democratic majority in the Congress (rather than steamroll a Democratic minority)? How much differently would the public, or history, have viewed him if he had? We'll never know. As he put it yesterday, sharply, and with a sense of self knowledge:
Q: Thank you, Mr. President. If you had any do-overs to do—
THE PRESIDENT: You don't get to do them. (Laughter.)
Q: Or if Mr. Rove had any do-overs to do in this—
THE PRESIDENT: You don't get do-overs. Anyway, go ahead.