By: Dave Astor
Kathleen Parker was in her home state of South Carolina Tuesday when she received a call from the White House. Did she want to join seven other conservative columnists in a Wednesday meeting/interview with President Bush?
“Of course I said yes, and came on up,” Parker told E&P, when reached by phone today.
Parker, whose column appears in about 350 newspapers via the Washington Post Writers Group, said she had met Bush only once before.
“I had never been in the Oval Office with him — or with Bill Clinton either!,” Parker quipped. But, just before she left the meeting, things were congenial enough that Parker gave Bush a book she had just finished reading (more on that later in this story).
Parker said there were humorous moments during the hour-plus session, but mostly serious talk by Bush about the Iraq War and other issues.
The impression Parker got was that Bush “would not budge” on his Iraq War policies even if his poll numbers became lower than they are now. “His focus on Iraq as central to the war on terror has not relaxed in the least,” Parker noted, adding that she doesn’t think Bush said anything substantially different at the meeting than he has said before.
Parker — whose column often (but not always) leans conservative — told E&P that she has basically supported Bush’s policies in Iraq and thinks it would be “disastrous” to “just leave.” But at the same time, Parker said she has been “frustrated and disheartened” about the way things are going in that wartorn country.
Did the Oval Office meeting make her feel any differently? “I can’t say my column is full of praise,” Parker said of her post-meeting piece that’s being sent out today. But she thinks Bush does have a plan to try to improve things in Iraq — and also thinks that Bush’s argument that “if we leave, they will follow us here” is a more “concrete” reason for staying in Iraq than Bush’s talk about how “they hate our freedom.”
Parker, like others who have met Bush, said the president does better in smaller settings like Wednesday’s meeting. “He is much more knowledgeable and articulate than Americans know,” the columnist commented. “He didn’t fumble for words, and there was no one whispering in his ear. He is much better on his feet when not facing down a camera.”
Of course, it helped that Bush was with a relatively sympathetic audience. “It wasn’t a roomful of David Gregorys,” joked Parker, referring to the NBC chief White House correspondent who has asked Bush and his press secretaries some tough questions. But Parker said the conservative columnists also asked some tough questions on Wednesday.
Why did Bush invite the columnists to the White House? Parker — who mentioned that she was the only woman writer at the meeting — said some people probably think it was an invitation from a “panicked” president who’s “on the run.” But she added that Bush probably felt he “needed to get his side of the story out” and that he would “get a fair hearing” from the columnists.
Another thing Bush got was the aforementioned book. Parker had come to the meeting with Mark Steyn’s “America Alone” in her purse, and Bush expressed an interest in the book. So Parker gave it to the president, but not before Steyn — one of the other seven columnists at the meeting — inscribed it at Bush’s request.
“I figure when the president seems to want your book, you give it to him,” said Parker.
Meanwhile, another columnist at the meeting expressed a wish that Parker had been carrying HIS book in her purse. “Actually, I wish I had my OWN book with me,” she said, “but I’m still working on it.”
Related E&P Column by Greg Mitchell: Bush Among Friends