Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Anatomy of a question: W's April 13, 2004, Press Conference

I am going to review just the questions asked of W, not the answers given. How a question is posed, what facts it subsumes, what answer it suggests or demands - all give insights to the questioner. Let's see what the beautiful people are like ... if you want the full text of the interview, WaPo has it here. (WaPo is a free registration ... sorry ... I just gave up on boycotting such things. I made up a unique user name and password and registered it everywhere.)

QUESTION: Mr. President, April is turning into the deadliest month in Iraq since the fall of Baghdad, and some people are comparing Iraq to Vietnam and talking about a quagmire. Polls show that support for your policy is declining and that fewer than half of Americans now support it. What does that say to you? And how do you answer the Vietnam comparison?

" ... turning into the deadliest ... " Is this a straight line extrapolation based up one-half observations? Why would you ask a question whose initial premise can be disproved in a mere two weeks? It further presumes that every month can be accurately compared one to another. It relies on emotion and not fact. How amateurish. If it proves correct in the body count, the guy is smug ... until the next similarly posed almost-fact proves wrong. "What does that say to you?" seems to modify, or belong to, the alleged declining polls. Polls are mentioned only when the end result supports the preconceived notions of the questioner. Do other polls show that most people continue to support the president? This inclusion of selective fact is thin at best. So we have speculative fact and selective fact. But the best part of the question is using the words "Vietnam" and "quagmire." The only people making such comparisons are the leaders of the democrat party. Kennedy must have heard that question and responded: "Good boy, that reporter. Get me his name and picture of his wife. Is she a good swimmer? Get me a drink while you're up ..." Just as many outside of Kerry's camp are saying the Vietnam quagmire comparison is ridiculous.

This question does not lend legitimacy to the Vietnam comparison because the questioner is not a person of respected insight and intellect. He is just a pretty boy who can read with an appropriate range of affect. It does, however, tell you that the pretty boy and his employer think the comparison is so ingrained in the American psyche that they should focus on it as their only topic. That shows how deeply out of sync with the public the mainstream press is at present.

Speculative fact, selective fact, opposition allegation. Poor use of time.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. What's your best prediction on how long U.S. troops will have to be in Iraq? And it sounds like you will have to add some troops. Is that a fair assessment?

Not a bad question. Presumes very little fact and asks W to verify what little fact is presumed. It is also teed up for stock answers like, "as long as it takes." Fairly worded, but not probing. Should have been one of many questions posed, not the reporter's only shot.

QUESTION: Mr. President, before the war, you and members of your administration made several claims about Iraq: that U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators with sweets and flowers; that Iraqi oil revenue would pay for most of the reconstruction; and that Iraq not only had weapons of mass destruction but, as Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said, we know where they are. How do you explain to Americans how you got that so wrong? And how do you answer your opponents who say that you took this nation to war on the basis of what have turned out to be a series of false premises?

Little Johnny takes a test and gets a "B." He answered 85 questions correctly and 15 incorrectly. Instead of praising him for getting the overwhelming majority of the questions correct and also for substantially achieving the objective of a high grade, Little Johnny's parents berate him for getting 15 answers wrong: "You're stupid!!! How could you do this?!? Do you have any idea how it makes us feel?!? What the neighbors must be thinking about us as parents?!?"

The question is in three parts: selective facts; broad inquiry; narrow inquiry.

The selective presentation of facts - particularly the "sweets and flowers" reference which is an absurd phrase to draw out of hundreds stated - were all made by Rumsfeld in his daily briefings. None were made by W. The questioner doesn't balance with even a toss-away - "Although many of the things you said were true, such as ... " But it is only a set-up. It lays the groundwork for the "middle eight" that is the broad, almost impish, inquiry that can be easily slapped down - "got things so wrong" is to stare at a tree and ignore the forest. But then the real question: Having presented you with selected facts and mentioning as a toss-away the word "Americans," tell us how you went to war based upon false pretenses? Did you feel the knife? "False pretenses" is a lie, not a mistake. The questioner hides behind the tree of "opponents" when asking it. How pathetic. How transparent.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE), Mr. President. To move to the 9-11 commission, you yourself have acknowledged that Osama bin Laden was not a central focus of the administration in the months before September 11th. "I was not on point," you told the journalist Bob Woodward. "I didn't feel that sense of urgency." Two and a half years later, do you feel any sense of personal responsibility for September 11th?

Typical Monday-morning quarterback inquiry. "Looking back on {insert anything here} ... would you have done it differently?" John Madden once said that success is a great deodorant, meaning that if your football team wins people will lose sight of the badly played downs, the missed opportunities, the poor decisions. Those things still existed and an honest coach will focus on them for the next performance. An honest coach - who lost a game - will still discuss the good performance he or she witnessed.

So if W was successful in stopping attacks, he will look for ways in which to improve data gathering and analysis; if an attack happens on his watch, he will do the same thing. To translate this to "personal responsibility" for an attack is feel-good, let's-all-hug-and-cry journalism. No substance. Next.

QUESTION: Mr. President, I'd like to follow up on a couple of these questions that have been asked. One of the biggest criticisms of you is that whether it's WMD in Iraq, postwar planning in Iraq, or even the question of whether this administration did enough to ward off 9-11, you never admit a mistake. Is that a fair criticism, and do you believe that there were any errors in judgment that you made related to any of those topics I brought up?

The first question presumes that he never admits mistakes. It can be fairly rewritten as, "You never admit a mistake in a manner acceptable to me. Why?" We do not express ourselves in the same words, with the same outward emotions. My father passed away two years. He never once told me he loved me. Never once. He had many opportunities. He died when I was 42. He told me once he was proud of me (June 1981, when I received my undergraduate degree). Yet even when he was alive, I knew he loved me, I knew he was proud of me many times.

I know W has made mistakes, and I know that he knows. He says, "We can always do things better. We are always looking for better ways to accomplish our tasks. We are always open to suggestion." That tells me that he is focused on solving the problems facing the country. Should he look over his shoulder and use words that effect an apology to liberal journalists? No.

The second question, asking if he made any errors in judgment, is again backward looking. Why does the press ask W what he did and Kerry what he will do? Because W's past is commendable and an error must be ferreted out. Kerry's past is to be avoided.

QUESTION: Mr. President, good evening. I'd like to ask you about the August 6th PDB. You've mentioned it at Fort Hood on Sunday. You pointed out that it did not warn of a hijacking of airplanes to crash into buildings, but that it warned of hijacking to obviously take hostages and to secure the release of extremists that are being held by the U.S. Did that trigger some specific actions on your part in the administration, since it dealt with potentially hundreds of lives and a blackmail attempt on the United States government?

Excellent question. The facts are current. Quoting very recent statements by W. Probes into what he did in response that may not yet be part of the public record. Commendable.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. You mentioned the PDB and the assurance you got that the FBI was working on terrorism investigations here. The number they had used was 70. But we learned today in the September 11th hearings that the acting director of the FBI at the time now says the FBI tells him that number was wrong, that he doesn't even know how it got into your PDB. And two of the commissioners strongly suggested the number was exaggerated. Have you learned anything else about that report since that time? And do you now believe you were falsely comforted by the FBI?

The facts are clean and objective in the opening. The questioner loses focus when he claims that two members of the 9-11 commission "strongly suggested" the number was high. Anyone can strongly suggest anything. Ask Galileo when he said that the Earth revolved around the Sun and the Catholic Church got up close and personal with him - strongly suggesting that he was wrong. In the press conference question, the cite to the 9-11 commission is simply unnecessary and undercuts the questioner's credibility.

"Have you learned anything else about that report since that time?" is the appropriate manner to proceed.

"And do you now believe you were falsely comforted by the FBI?" That presumes that W was "comforted" by the report - a term widely open to interpretation. "Informed" is much more on point.

In total, the question simply has too emotion and not enough focused inquiry. Probably reflects the liberal education of the mouthpiece.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. Two weeks ago, a former counterterrorism official at the NSC, Richard Clarke, offered an unequivocal apology to the American people for failing them prior to 9-11. Do you believe the American people deserve a similar apology from you, and would you prepared to give them one?

How pathetic. The question presumes that Mr. Clarke's apology was "unequivocal" and appropriate. Clarke's actual words: "Your government failed you. Those entrusted with protecting you failed you, and I failed you. "We tried hard, but that doesn't matter, because we failed. And for that failure, I would ask -- once all the facts are out -- for your understanding and your forgiveness."

He speaks beyond himself. "Your government," and "those entrusted with protecting you." Further, "We" tried hard. "We failed."

But wait ... let's not cast aspersions just yet ... let's wait until "all the facts are out."

For Clarke to speak on behalf of the entire United States government is the height of hypocrisy. For the reporter to lend credence to such a selfish act is pitiful. To ask the president to buy into such claptrap and emulate it is journalistic malpractice.

QUESTION: Mr. President, thank you. You mentioned that 17 of the 26 NATO members providing some help on the ground in Iraq. But if you look at the numbers -- 135,000 U.S. troops, 10,000 or 12,000 British troops. Then the next largest, perhaps even the second-largest contingent of guns on the ground are private contractors, literally hired guns. Your critics, including your Democratic opponents, say that's proof to them your coalition is window dressing. How would you answer those critics? And can you assure the American people that, post-sovereignty, when the handover takes place, that there will be more burden-sharing by allies in terms of security forces?

In general a fair question because its focus is on the post-sovereignty era. But the set-up is atrocious. If a poor widow gives to the church two small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny, and a wealthy man puts in one hundred times that amount, who has given more? Isn't the concept one of equal sacrifice, not equal giving? How dare the pseudo-reporter propound a question whose natural extrapolation is that the life of a Polish man is worth less than the life of an American. Is that not a conclusion in the same realm of denouncing the Polish contribution because it is so much less than our commitment? The Polish soldier is "window dressing?" What a drive-by insult. The basic premise of the question, then, is revolting.

Better stated, "To date, America has contributed significantly more resources to the Iraq situation than other countries. Will the contributions of those other countries increase, thus allowing our relative contribution to decrease, as time moves forward?"

QUESTION: Mr. President, why are you and the vice president insisting on appearing together before the 9-11 commission? And, Mr. President, who will we be handing the Iraqi government over to on June 30th? ... (OFF-MIKE) I was asking why you're appearing together, rather than separately, which was their request.

Direct, straight-forward. Requests information. No subsumed or speculative facts. Good job.

QUESTION: You have been accused of letting the 9-11 threat mature too far, but not letting the Iraq threat mature far enough. First, could you respond to that general criticism? And, secondly, in the wake of these two conflicts, what is the appropriate threat level to justify action in perhaps other situations going forward?

Couching something in "general criticism" is unfortunate. Frankly, I have heard support and criticism in every conceivable combination of action and inaction. To label any of it "general" is inaccurate.

"Could" you respond? Yes. Next question. I remember an old movie where a schoolkid needs to go to the bathroom. The teacher would not let him leave the room based upon "Can I go ...," insisting instead on "May I go ..." Seems rather fundamental English to me.

"In the wake of these two conflicts" assumes that the positions can be reduced to such a common denominator that they can be seen to conflict. Very amateurish.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. Sir, you've made it very clear tonight that you're committed to continuing the mission in Iraq, yet, as Terry pointed out, increasing numbers of Americans have qualms about it. And this is an election year ... [w]ill it have been worth it, even if you lose your job because of it?

"Increasing numbers" is ambiguous. "We all know ... the overwhelming majority of Americans ... the American people feel that ... speaking on behalf of the American people ... " Make my skin crawl!! Can't these people focus for a moment? Can't they articulate a question without trying to work in a personal dig? Whatever happened to respect? Compare resumes, ladies ... where's your Harvard MBA? Where's your successful management of a major league baseball team? Where's your re-election in Texas?

Ask him a simple question - "If public sentiment expressed in November removes you from office because of your Iraq policy, will it be worth it to you?" Direct. No garbage. But without the frills, the question lacks substance. If I lose my job because I stood up for principle ... would that bother me? If I meet an Iraqi father whose son is alive because my decision to remove Saddam saved that boy's life by removing him from prison, would I say or feel, "good for you, but I lost my job"? Wow. Knowing the question came from a reporter hostile to the president makes the question he asked absurd and simplistic.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. In the last campaign, you were asked a question about the biggest mistake you'd made in your life, and you used to like to joke that it was trading Sammy Sosa. You've looked back before 9-11 for what mistakes might have been made. After 9-11, what would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have learned from it?

Is this a recurring theme in this conference? Do collusion laws apply to this pack of jackals? What is the reason for trying to get the president to say some magic phrase, "if I could do something differently, it would be ... "

The question itself is framed properly, but is otherwise useless. This isn't group therapy.

QUESTION: Looking forward about keeping United States safe, a group representing about several thousand FBI agents today wrote to your administration begging you not to split up the law enforcement and the counterterrorism ... because they say it ties their hands, it gives them blinders, that they're partners. Yet you mentioned yesterday that you think perhaps the time has come for some real intelligence reforms. That can't happen without real leadership from the White House. Will you? And how will you?

The set-up and questions are dissimilar. The letter has not surfaced on the net yet (I did a very quick look). Let's presume that the use of the word "begging" isn't hyperbole - but, really, do you think FBI agents would form a group across several thousand and write a letter that "begs"? I doubt it, too.

The next statement begins, "[y]et you mentioned ... " This takes a stance that W is about to do something adverse to the wishes of the agents. But the question doesn't continue in that vein. Very poor, but perhaps insightful, beginning.

The next opinion is amazing. In order to make a change, "real leadership" is required from the White House. As opposed to, say, fake leadership, soy leadership, or surreal leadership? How about strong leadership? Or, um, dare I suggest, simply "leadership"?

Then - will you lead? How will you lead? Man, what a convoluted question. Insightful only in that it reveals the depth of the problem in the American educational system ... a reporter left behind.

QUESTION: Following on both Judy and John's questions, and it comes out of what you just said in some ways, with public support for your policies in Iraq falling off the way they have, quite significantly over the past couple of months, I guess I'd like to know if you feel, in any way, that you have failed as a communicator on this topic. ... Well, you deliver a lot of speeches, and a lot of them contain similar phrases and may vary very little from one to the next. And they often include a pretty upbeat assessment of how things are going, with the exception of tonight. It's pretty somber. ... But I guess I just wonder if you feel that you have failed in any way. You don't have many of these press conferences where you engage in this kind of exchange. Have you failed in any way to really make the case to the American public?

Where do I start? "Quite significant" falling off of public support? From the time of active engagement in battle when numbers are always extremely high? Kinda like the Primary Bounce Kerry saw and has now eroded.

"Failed as a communicator ... " Did anyone miss the deliberate intent to draw a distinction between W and Reagan?

"Your speeches vary very little ... " Gee, sorry, Don, I try to give a personal message in a lot of different locations. I would love to hear you express the same thing twenty different ways and not be accused of changing positions. This questioner is such a child ...

"Have you failed ..." No, Don, you failed. You give equal voice to absurd positions vomited by democrats.

Overall impression of the questioners - a sorry set of people. No deep, probing questions. Too many weak facts. Too many opinions drawn from dubious sources. Anyway, I think W performed well. He seems to suffer fools gladly.

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