By: Greg Mitchell
Even those who rarely feel sorry for George W. Bush might admit to experiencing a few pangs of sympathy this week. His approval ratings hit rock bottom, Michael Moore’s bushwhacking film opened big and, to top it off, the president had to contend with a journalist who actually had the temerity to ask him tough questions.
The flap over his brief interview with Carole Coleman of RTE, Ireland’s state TV network, on June 25, continued Wednesday, as news spread that, in retaliation for her sometimes rude interruptions, the White House had lodged a complaint with the Irish embassy in Washington and canceled RTE’s meeting with Laura Bush.
Also Wednesday, a reporter badgered Bush spokesman Scott McClellan concerning Coleman’s claim that the White House had pre-approved her tough questions three days in advance. Since when, several journalists asked, did the White House OK questions from interviewers ahead of time? McClellan denied that he had asked for her questions, saying that wasn’t official policy, but could not say whether another office had seen them.
This may be nothing but a blip in America, but Ireland is still buzzing about it. It was the first Irish TV interview with an American president since Ronald Reagan occupied the White House, and it came just before Bush’s heavily-guarded visit to the Emerald Isle last Saturday. “Many viewed Bush’s repeated chastisements of Coleman when she tried to challenge him as testy and defensive,” Jim Dee of the Irish Times wrote for the Boston Herald.
Writing in the Irish Echo, an American newspaper, Susan Falvella-Garraty observed that Bush probably now thinks that RTE stands for “Radio-Television-Evil.”
Still, one could feel a little sorry for Bush, as he has grown so accustomed to reporters who are stenographic, not confrontational. Since he has done so few interviews outside this feel-good bubble, he couldn’t have been fully prepared for the quite different European style of aggressively holding officials accountable. Reporters there, when they get the chance, often pepper even the most admired politicians with harsh queries, sometimes butting in before a national leader has finished a sound bite.
Predictably, Coleman succeeded in getting Bush’s Irish up. During the interview he must have considered repeating what Dick Cheney said to Patrick Leahy, or recalling when he told Michael Moore to get a real job. “Bono was never like this,” he might have pondered.
According to the Irish embassy, the White House seemed most concerned about Coleman interrupting or “talking over” the president. Indeed, impatient with stock answers, she did. Here’s a little flavor, if you haven’t caught any excerpts on the telly:
BUSH: “Look, Saddam Hussein had used weapons of mass destruction against his own people, against the neighborhood. He was a brutal dictator who posed a threat, such a threat that the United Nations voted unanimously to say, Mr. Saddam Hussein …
COLEMAN: Indeed, Mr. President, but you didn’t find the weapons of mass destruction.
BUSH: Let me finish. Let me finish. May I finish?
BUSH: Of course, I’m not going to put people in harm’s way, our young, if I didn’t think the world would be better. And …
COLEMAN: Why is it that others …
BUSH: Let me finish.
BUSH: Like Iraq, the Palestinian and the Israeli issue is going to require good security measures. And …
COLEMAN: And a bit more even-handedness from America?
BUSH: … and we’re working on security measures.
Writing for the libertarian Web site, Reasononline, Jesse Walker claimed Coleman “wasn’t rude to Bush at all,” but was “fair and professional.” The president simply “seemed unfamiliar with the idea that a journalist might want some say in the direction of an interview.” He noted that at one juncture, Bush “expressed his displeasure by emitting one of those deliberately audible mouth-noises that worked so well for Al Gore in 2000’s first presidential debate.”
Coleman herself admitted, “There were a few stages at which I had to move him along for reasons of timing and he’s not used to being moved along by the American media. Perhaps they’re a bit more deferential.”
Well, if the American reporters don’t think they go along to get along, the White House seems to think so. According to Miriam Lord in the Irish Independent, a White House staffer suggested to Coleman as she went into the interview that she ask him a question about the outfit that Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern wore to the recent G8 summit. Ahern, in case you missed it, wore a pair of canary-yellow trousers.
Perhaps Coleman, instead, should have asked Bush, former Texas Rangers owner, what he thinks of Michael Moore’s baseball cap.