This paper was presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and
Mass Communication in Toronto, Canada, August 2004.
If you have questions about this paper, please contact the author
directly. If you have questions about the archives, email
[log in to unmask] For an explanation of the subject line, send email to
[log in to unmask] with just the four words, "get help info aejmc," in the
body (drop the "").
Eating the Zombies
Eating the Zombies:
George W. Bush Feeds on Reporters at a Pre-war Press Conference
James E. Mueller
University of North Texas
Department of Journalism
P.O. Box 311460
Denton, TX 76203-1460
[log in to unmask]
Professor Patricia McNeely
AEJMC History Division Research Chair
School of Journalism and Mass Communications
University of South Carolina
Columbia, SC 29208
April 1, 2004
Eating the Zombies:
George W. Bush Feeds on Reporters at a Pre-war Press Conference
This paper uses Carolyn Smith's methodology for analyzing presidential
press conferences to study the March 6, 2003, session in which George W.
Bush discussed war with Iraq. Bush called reporters from a list of names
and joked that the press conference was "scripted." Many did not appreciate
the joke; however, and the press conference quickly became notorious as an
example of the administration's ability to bully and manipulate the White
House press. One reporter at the press conference said Bush made the
journalists look like "zombies" and another critic called it the
"mini-Alamo" for American journalism. Other commentators thought the
president appeared appropriately somber and the reporters asked tough if
not rude questions. This paper argues that although some of the questioning
was flawed, both the president and press did their jobs, the former by
conveying his ideas and determination, the latter by asking him the
Eating the Zombies:
George W. Bush Feeds on Reporters at a Pre-war Press Conference
This paper analyzes the March 6, 2003, press conference in which George W.
Bush discussed war with Iraq. Bush joked that event was "scripted," and it
quickly became notorious as an example of a toothless White House press.
This paper argues that although some of the questioning was flawed, both
the president and press did their jobs, the former by conveying his ideas
and determination, and the latter by asking him the appropriate questions.
After President George W. Bush held a press conference in March 2003 to
discuss the possibility of war with Iraq, one observer wrote that "The
entire White House Press corps should be herded into a cargo plane, flown
to an altitude of 30,000 feet, and pushed out, kicking and screaming, over
the North Atlantic." Although the quote sounds like an angry criticism
of the liberal media, it was in fact written by the New York Press' Matt
Taibbi, who argued that the reporters fed Bush softball questions and
participated in a scripted press conference. Even some of the White
House reporters agreed their group had done a poor job. ABC News reporter
Terry Moran, quoted in a New York Observer piece titled "Bush Eats the
Press," said the president was not "sufficiently challenged" in the press
conference and made the journalists look like "zombies."
But Bush is a president dubbed "the Great Polarizer" by Time magazine, and
it is not surprising that others had an opposite view. Brent Bozell
wrote that the reporters asked tough questions, including one by Moran that
"lectured" Bush that international opinion perceived the United States as
"an arrogant power. "The standard for the event's worth, then, was not
whether Bush was held accountable to his audience, but whether the press
pounded him sufficiently."
Did the press hold the president accountable? Did Bush communicate his
ideas? In summary, was Bush's pre-war press conference useful for the
American public? This paper seeks to answer those questions using Carolyn
Smith's critical method of analyzing presidential press conferences.
II. Literature Review
Steven E. Clayman and John Heritage noted that "there is a lively and
illuminating tradition of historical research" about presidential press
conferences, although most of the research focuses on "institutional
conditions" rather than the content of the press conferences. They found
that reporters had become had become much more aggressive and less
deferential during the intervening 30 years between the Eisenhower and
Some critics argue that while the presidential press conference appears to
be an open forum for reporters, the president maintains control through
things like scheduling and deciding who asks questions. Because there
are large numbers of journalists involved, the opportunity for follow-up
questions is reduced, and presidents find press conferences easier to
control than one-on-one interviews. Theodore Roosevelt's sessions were
a kind of "club" that only the most privileged reporters could attend, but
by the 1980s press conferences had become more of a show for the public,
and "their intrinsic value to a thoughtful reporter" had declined."
William S. White blamed television for adding "sheer theater" to press
conferences, and that TV tends to favor the more aggressive reporters over
But many reporters consider open presidential press conferences
"sacrosanct" because they protect the collective interest of the White
House Press corps. The members achieve an important status as a group
that most would never achieve as individuals, and the president's ability
to "divide and conquer" by favoring certain reporters is greatly
reduced. Nevertheless, the "adversarial relationship appears to be a
well-established fact of life" and reporters have turned the event into an
irritating and embarrassing situation for modern presidents, encouraging
them to use more televised speeches, talks to special groups, and press
conferences held outside of Washington. Research shows that presidents
are progressively giving more speeches but holding fewer press
William J. Small argued that although the president "holds most of the
cards" because he arranges the press conference and chooses the
questioners, the press conference "still retains enough spontaneity that it
can serve public and press well."
Press conferences are in fact important to both journalists and politicians
because their careers often hinge on their performances in them. Blaire
Atherton French concluded that the institution is a "vital servant" of
democracy because it contains aspects of leadership, accountability,
information and image-building in one venue and serves both the president
and the press.Although various modern presidents have experimented with
changes in the format of the press conference in terms of location, time
and other elements, the event "continues to be an enduring publicity forum
for chief executives." The forum is important to the public as well
because it shows the president "in action under conditions likely to
illuminate his mind at work and his techniques . . . (and) stand alone as
first hand records of presidential 'action' and 'reflection.'"
What of Bush's press relations? Three years into his term, Bush and his
administration appears to be skilled at managing the press, particularly at
a time of national crisis. One collection of essays addresses various
issues of Bush's presidency but not specifically his press relations other
than to note that his political communication is marked by the same
discipline he brings to his fitness routine, that press communication
is tightly controlled and that White House reporters were surprised by
Bush's "direct stance" on issues—"that his people generally said what they
meant, that they were manipulative but sincere." Another collection
noted that the press has regularly criticized the administration for an
"undue" level of secrecy, which might hurt the administration if it needs
"goodwill" from the media. One essay concluded that Bush's
communications team helped him "masterfully" perform the communications
role of "dignified authenticity" required of a president after an event
like 9-11, and that Bush had subsequently captured "many hearts and minds
Another study showed that the administration successfully used "strategic
public communications" to get the U.S.A. Patriot Act approved by
Congress. One scholar concluded Bush's communication's department is a
"forward-looking" operation with good planning that "has often allowed them
to get ahead of the president's critics." A follow-up article noted
that after two and a half years, Bush had held 52 press conferences, just
about half as many as Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush had held at the
same point in their administrations, but substantially more than Ronald
Reagan and Richard Nixon had held. George W. Bush had held eight solo
press conferences during that period, but 44 joint press
conferences—''lower risk" sessions that involve fewer reporters and of such
a short length "that the president never gets pressed on any one
issue." But one scholar argued that Bush was never pressed in any case
because of the post-9-11 "media climate of compelling 'personal
narratives,' super-patriotism, and timid opposition by the Democrats," and
concluded "Bush II has been Teflon II."
Pundits also criticized the press. Allan Wolper wrote, "It seems the Bush
White House is wearing down the press." Tom Wicker blamed the press for
failing to probe Bush's reasons for invading Iraq. Richard Reeves,
rejoiced when Bush was attacked by John Kerry early in the presidential
campaign because "We haven't seen that in a while—neither press nor
politicians have laid a glove on the 'war president.'"
The pre-war press conference has become the main example of the idea that
reporters are easy on Bush. American Journalism Review, for example, used
the press conference to lead its nine-page cover story, "Are the News Media
Soft on Bush?" However, others thought the reporters were fair. Former
Bush speechwriter David Frum said reporters "were properly skeptical
without going too far."
Whether journalists are properly skeptical or gullible in dealing with the
presidency is a crucial question at any time, but perhaps never more
important than during a global war against terrorism. This paper attempts
to analyze one aspect of press coverage of the Bush administration—a press
conference—in order to shed some light on the vigor and quality of that
The March 6, 2003, press conference was chosen for analysis because it
concerned the most serious topic facing the administration, it was held in
prime time, and reaction to the press conference was swift and included
extreme criticism from reporters, pundits and Democrats. The paper uses
Smith's critical approach to analyzing presidential press conferences
explained in detail in her book.
Smith argued that most press conferences critics evaluate them from the
viewpoint of either the press or the president. They then evaluate the
press conference based on one of two standards: whether the president was
persuasive or whether the press held the president accountable. She argued
that critics should instead evaluate the quality of the press conference
from both sides. Every good press conference should reflect the inherent
tension; the press should be neither hostile nor fawning.
Smith wrote that the first step in evaluating a press conference is to
determine the agenda of the press conference, which is a combination of the
agendas of the president and the press. The heart of Smith's approach
is the second step; analyzing the quality of the press questions and the
president's responses to them. Lastly, the critic examines news
coverage and public reaction to the press conference to try to determine
its effects. This paper follows these three steps and concludes with a
discussion of Bush's pre-war press conference.
IV. The Agendas
The president's agenda, or purpose for a press conference, may be evident
from his opening statement or the news cycle leading to the session, or the
president may have a hidden agenda, hoping to diffuse a potential
controversy be addressing it obliquely in the session.  Press
conferences can also be "institutional," and have no apparent purpose other
than to maintain contact between the president and the press. In the
case of the Iraq press conference, Bush's agenda was clearly to persuade
the public of the necessity of war if Saddam Hussein did not comply with a
UN resolution demanding that he disarm. The press conference was among a
series of speeches and public appearances by various members of the
administration, including Bush, to make the case that Iraq must be
disarmed. The press conference was held the day before UN Chief Weapons
Inspector Hans Blix was to deliver an updated report on Iraq. Bush, in a
rather lengthy opening statement of 15 paragraphs, first briefly mentioned
the capture of one of the planners of the 9-11 attacks, Khalid Sheikh
Mohammed, but then immediately referred to Blix's upcoming report as "an
important moment in confronting the threat posed to our nation and to
peace." Bush said there was only one question to ask: "Has the Iraqi
regime fully and unconditionally disarmed, as required by Resolution 1441,
or has it not?" Both David Gergen, former Clinton adviser, and William
Kristol, editor of the conservative The Weekly Standard, said that Bush's
question framed the upcoming debate over invading Iraq around an absolute
standard of compliance with the resolution, rather than whether Blix
reported that Iraq was making progress toward compliance.
Some observers believed Bush needed to make his case for war to both
Americans and their allies. For example, NBC reporter Tim Russert said Bush
needed to answer two questions: Why Iraq? and Why Now? However, others
thought Bush had already made his case in previous speeches, and the
purpose of the press conference was largely to reassure the American people
that he had carefully considered his decision. Bush's opening statement
contained no new information but instead repeated arguments he had made in
previous speeches, including one to the American Medical Association that
was focused on Medicare reform. His tone was so somber that it was
commented upon by numerous critics. Washington Post columnist Tom Shales
wrote that Bush was too somber: "There were times when it seemed every
sentence Bush spoke was of the same duration and delivered in the same dour
monotone, giving his comments a numbing, soporific aura." But Kristol
praised Bush because "he didn't seem reckless, he didn't seem
impetuous." Different viewers took away different impressions, but it
is clear that Bush tried to set an extremely serious tone through his
mannerisms and speech. White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett
confirmed that Bush scheduled the press conference because he knew what the
majority of the questions would be and he wanted to answer them. "We think
the public will see the thought and care and attention he's given to a lot
of the different questions that are being asked about the diplomatic side
and the military side and the potential post-Iraq issue. These are all
legitimate questions that he has answers for and wants to talk about."
The questions on the journalists' agenda is easy to discover by reading the
front pages of major newspapers for a few days before the event. The
best reporters will ask questions based on current stories because obscure
questions and the president's answers to them will not make news. In
the case of the March 6, 2003, press conference, it was obvious the topic
would be Iraq. Major U.S. newspapers often carried multiple stories on the
crisis in the week preceding the press conference. The journalists'
agenda is also shown by the first few questions of the press conference,
which are usually asked by senior reporters and set the tone for the
event. The first question, a rambling paragraph that actually included
three questions, and the second question, a follow-up, essentially asked
Bush how soon the United States would go to war. Although the next
question concerned North Korea, 21 out of the 23 questions concerned the
crisis with Iraq.
V. Questions and Answers
The heart of press conference analysis is an examination of questions and
answers. A good press conference will have compelling questions and
persuasive answers. "The best press exchanges are those which reveal that
the president is exercising legitimate leadership and the press is
exercising its legitimate watchdog role."
The first question was a poorly worded five-line statement that sought to
pin Bush down on a date for war. It also strongly hinted the reporter's own
position through the phrasing "And what harm would it do to give Saddam a
final ultimatum?" Smith notes that questions for new information are
"usually unproductive" and that "the advocacy question has no legitimate
place in a presidential press conference." In this case, Bush ignored
the question, vaguely stating the administration was in the "final stages
of diplomacy" and repeating the argument he had made in his opening
statement. Although several critics of the press conference decried the
lack of follow-up questions, the next reporter re-stated the question,
"Are we days away?" but Bush, as one would expect for military reasons,
refused to give a specific date for war, saying "We are days away from
resolving this issue at the (UN) Security Council."
This exchange was fairly representative of the rest of the press
conference. The reporters exercised their watchdog role by asking Bush
questions on various aspects of about the war, but the questions were often
too long, poorly worded and seemed to advocate an anti-war position. Some
questions were ones that Bush obviously could not answer. One could hardly
expect Bush to say, "We will attack in three days." Had Bush wanted to
issue an ultimatum, he would have done so in a speech, as he did in fact
several days later when he warned Hussein to leave Iraq.
The third question was better phrased but took the president off the topic
that was on everyone's mind. "If North Korea restarts their plutonium
plant, will that change your thinking about how to handle this crisis, or
are you resigned to North Korea becoming a nuclear power?" Bush answered
the question appropriately, reaffirming that the issue was important to the
United States and its allies and that he believed the best course was the
current one of "multilateral" negotiations. The next reporter made the
biggest mistake of the night from the standpoint of holding the president
accountable. A natural follow-up would have queried Bush about an apparent
inconsistency: Why a multilateral solution for North Korea but not for
Iraq? This type of question is often the best for holding a president
accountable for his policies.
The next question asked Bush why some U.S. allies did not think the Iraqi
threat was imminent when they were privy to the same intelligence data. The
question was important and legitimate and set up a controversy Bush could
settle. But like many others, it was too long—10 lines in the
transcript—and indicated the reporter favored the Canadian proposal to give
Hussein more time. The phrases "that would give you a little bit of a
chance to build more support" and "Is that something the government should
be pursuing?" show bias and weaken the reporter's legitimacy. The
rambling nature of the question allowed Bush to answer the easier part
first and demonstrate his resolve by saying: "We, of course, are consulting
with our allies at the United Nations. But I meant what I said, this is the
last phase of diplomacy." Bush brushed aside the intelligence issue by
repeating that there were a number of allies involved in the coalition.
A follow-up question on the intelligence issue would have been justified,
and the next question followed it after a fashion, but in a confused
round-about way and with another suggestion of advocacy on the part of the
reporter. The reporter first asked Bush what he was "waiting to hear or
see" before deciding on war. The question was poor because Bush would
have revealed this already if he intended to. Instead, he just repeated his
earlier statements that Hussein must disarm. The second part of the
question referred to peace protestors and seemed to attack Bush by quoting
their idea "that the U.S. was a threat to peace" and asking "I wonder why
you think so many people around the world take a different view of the
threat that Saddam Hussein poses than you and your allies(?)" The
question was legitimate and challenged Bush. The president's response was
measured. He acknowledged the view of the protestors and agreed that he
does not want a war. But Bush reasserted forcefully that he believed
disarming Hussein was necessary. "The risk of doing nothing, the risk of
hoping that Saddam Hussein changes his mind and becomes a gentle soul, the
risk that somehow—that inaction will make the world safer, is a risk I'm
not willing to take for the American people."
The next exchange became the most controversial part of the press
conference when Bush called on the next reporter by saying "We'll be there
in a minute. King, John King. This is scripted—(laughter)." Bush was
joking about the process of calling reporters from a list—something Reagan,
George H.W. Bush and Clinton had done as well—and the correspondents
acknowledged he was joking by laughing at his aside. But critics seized on
the joke as an indication that the entire press conference was scripted in
an unusual manner. Neither the press nor Bush profited from the
exchange. Although presidents should demonstrate good humor during a press
conference, the sensitivity of the press about their role made this a
poor joke. Critics, on the other hand, looked petulant by complaining about
a practice that is fairly standard. Presidents practice before press
conferences and know who they call on. The spontaneity occurs because
reporters are free to ask whatever they want, and indeed they did during
the pre-war event. King's question following Bush's joke was certainly not
one Bush would have scripted: "How would you answer your critics who say
that they think this is somehow personal? As Senator Kennedy put it
tonight, he said your fixation with Saddam Hussein is making the world a
more dangerous place." The topic was legitimate and phrased in a way to
challenge Bush, but King made the mistake of going on too long and asking
Bush to provide details on worst-case scenarios in terms of casualties and
financial costs—something the president was unlikely to share. Bush
answered the question by dramatically raising his hand as if taking the
oath of office and saying: "People can ascribe all kinds of intentions. I
swore to protect and defend the Constitution; that's what I swore to do. I
put my hand on the Bible and took that oath, and that's exactly what I am
going to do." The question seemed to anger Bush, and after reiterating why
he believed Hussein was a threat, he said, "The rest of your six-point
question?"  Ordinarily, presidents look bad when they show displeasure
in a press conference. But King looked worse in the exchange by asking a
question that implied the president would go to war to avenge his father.
The phrasing seemed to be a personal attack on the president, something
Americans instinctively dislike.
The next question was another lengthy, strongly worded attack question,
following up on previous questions about the rift between the U.S. and some
of its allies. The reporter, ABC's Terry Moran, was widely quoted later for
his criticism of his fellow correspondents, calling them "zombies."
Moran's question indicated he was a zombie, if the description means
creatures that are out for blood: "May I ask, what went wrong that so many
governments and people around the world now not only disagree with you very
strongly, but see the U.S. under your leadership as an arrogant power?"
The question was pure emotion, and showed in no uncertain terms Moran's
view that Bush's leadership was ineffective. In general, the more hostile
the question, the more benign the answer should be, and Bush backed off
from his sarcastic response to King, instead answering Moran evenly,
repeating that "a lot" of nations would be with the coalition, although he
understood that France and Germany disagreed with the U.S. on the use of
force. "Having said that, they're still our friends and we will deal with
them as friends. We've got a lot of common interests. Our transatlantic
relationships are very important. While they may disagree with how we deal
with Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction, there's no
disagreement when it came time to vote on 1441, at least as far as France
was concerned. They joined us. They said Saddam Hussein has one last chance
of disarming. If they think more time will cause him to disarm, I disagree
The next question was one of the shortest of the evening—one sign of a
good question—and effective in that it tried to hold the president
accountable for past rhetoric, in this case his famous statement that he
wanted Osama bin Laden "dead or alive." The reporter asked if the Iraq
operation would be a success if the United States did not capture Hussein,
"dead or alive." Bush tried to evade the question by responding that the
regime would change, "and replacing this cancer" would be a better
government. The reporter repeated the question in an even more economical
phrasing, and Bush repeated that the "regime" would change. The
question was legitimate and phrased well, but Bush could have answered it
better by stating more forcefully the administration goals did not depend
upon the capture of one man. His answer made him seem evasive.
The next question followed up on other queries about the necessity of the
war. It was a poor question because it was long, confusing and referred to
the reporter's own opinion: "Mr. President, to a lot of people, it seems
that war is probably inevitable, because many people doubt—most people, I
would guess—that Saddam Hussein will ever do what we are demanding that he
do, which is disarm." The reporter cited polls and attacked Bush by
suggesting that many people don't believe him: "...A lot of people ... who
agree that he should be disarmed, who listen to you say that you (Bush)
have the evidence, but who feel they haven't seen it, and who still wonder
why blood has to be shed if he hasn't attacked us." Did the reporter
want Bush to respond to poll results or explain why the U.S. should attack
if Hussein hasn't attacked first? The bias and confrontational nature of
the question made Bush look sympathetic, and the confusing question
structure allowed Bush to answer any way he chose. He handled it well by
referring to the reporter's statement that if people believe Hussein should
be disarmed but he is not going to disarm—there is only way to do it, "And
that happens to be my last choice—the use of force."
The next exchange was brief and effective. The reporter asked Bush if he
would call for a UN Security Council vote on attacking Iraq even if he
thought the United States would not win the vote. The reporter followed up
immediately to get Bush to confirm his answer. Bush did so in memorable
language: "No matter what the whip count is, we're calling for the vote. We
want people to stand up and say what their opinion is about Saddam Hussein
and the utility of the United Nations Security Council. And so, you bet.
It's time for people to show their cards, to let the world know where they
stand when it comes to Saddam." It was a good question that elicited
new information, and the whole exchange took fewer lines than several of
the long-winded previous questions.
The next question was also brief and effective, pursuing the UN theme
asking Bush what would happen if the United States attacked without UN
approval. The reporter's biased phrasing, asking Bush if he would be
"worried" if the United States was seen as "defiant" of the UN, actually
worked well by provoking Bush to a revealing response about his thinking.
"No, I'm not worried about that," Bush said immediately. He added that
although the U.S. had been working through the UN, American security was
paramount. "When it comes to our security, we really don't need anybody's
The next reporter followed the theme of asking about the reaction of
allies, specifically Turkey's hesitancy to allow troops to attack from its
territory. The first part of the question suggested casualties would be
higher without Turkey's cooperation, an opinion that Bush could be expected
to dismiss, and he did, saying he was "confident" it would not be a
"hardship." The second half of the question was effective, asking Bush if
he would stop backing Turkey's entry into the European Union if it didn't
cooperate on the war. Bush answered unhesitatingly that he would continue
to support Turkey, which he described as a "friend."
After asking several tough questions in a row trying to get Bush to explain
aspects of the possible war, a reporter asked Bush a rambling question
about his faith that critics later cited as an example of a "softball"
because it let Bush expound on his Christianity. But the reporter was
really trying to get Bush to swing and miss at a curve. The first half of
the confusingly worded question referred to critics of Bush's policy: "Mr.
President, as the nation is at odds over war, with many organizations like
the Congressional Black Caucus pushing for continued diplomacy through the
U.N., how is your faith guiding you?" The question suggested the reporter's
attitude that there was discrepancy between faith and support for the war,
but it was so poorly worded the president could answer however he wanted.
The former baseball executive hit the question out of the park, answering
emotionally that "My faith sustains me because I pray daily." Bush
skillfully connected himself with the millions of his fellow citizens who
are religious: "One thing that's really great about our country, April, is
there are thousands of people who pray for me that I'll never see and be
able to thank. But it's a humbling experience to think that people I will
never have met have lifted me and family up in prayer. And for that I'm
grateful. That's—it's been a comforting feeling to know that is true. I
pray for peace, April. I pray for peace."  The exchange definitely
favored the president, but not because the reporter was trying to be his
foil. The question was poorly constructed but was a legitimate attempt to
make Bush comment on the role of his faith in the crisis, an important
topic given his emphasis upon it in his campaigns.
The next reporter raised another good topic, asking Bush whether the war
would lead to more terrorism and instability in the Middle East. The
reporter attacked Bush and revealed some of his own opinion by prefacing
the question, "As you know, not everyone shares your optimistic vision of
how this might play out." Bush refused to be baited and answered evenly
that, "It's hard to envision more terror on America than September the
11th, 2002." Bush, focusing on his main purpose for the press conference,
said he had "thought long and hard about the use of troops" but concluded
the cost of inaction more dangerous than war and that a better world would
develop after the liberation of Iraq. The question and answer were both
The next question at first glance appears to be a waste of valuable time in
a rare presidential press conference. The reporter asked whether the
president would give enough warning to let weapons inspectors, humanitarian
workers and journalists out of Baghdad before the war started. Although the
question appeared to be self-serving, it induced Bush to essentially
declare that he would not launch a surprise attack. Several previous
questions had tried to nail Bush down on how soon a war might commence, but
Bush evaded them. In this exchange, he confirmed that, "Of course. We will
give people a chance to leave." Although not a dramatic exchange, this
answer put Bush on the record for the coming course of events.
The next reporter sought to put Bush on the record for the fiscal cost of
the war but awkwardly tied it to Bush's rhetoric about tax cuts. "Sir,
you've talked a lot about trusting the American people when it comes to
making decisions about their own lives, about how to spend their own money.
When it comes to the financial costs of the war, sir, it would seem that
the administration, surely, has costed out various scenarios. If that's the
case, why not present some of them to the American people so they know what
to expect, sir?" It would have been legitimate to ask Bush whether he would
be compelled to change the tax cut because of military costs, and the
reporter could have constructed an either/or question to force Bush on the
record. Instead, the question attacked Bush's rhetoric and was almost a
pleading for information. Bush handled the question easily, saying he
would send a supplemental spending bill to Congress if the U.S. did go to
war. Bush turned the topic back to 9-11, reminding the reporter that the
U.S. had already suffered significant financial costs from terrorists. The
president made the reporter look insensitive and foolish when he answered
that human life, freedom and security—"Those are immeasurable costs. And I
weigh those very seriously, Ed." Bush had made the fiscal cost, which was a
legitimate question, as a minor side issue."
The next question was wasted. The reporter said he wanted to follow up on
the earlier question about North Korea. Unfortunately, the reporter did not
follow up but asked essentially the same question in different words,
querying Bush about his attitude toward negotiations over North Korea's
nuclear program. Bush, as one would expect, repeated a variation of his
earlier answer that the administration was making progress on the issue.
The next question was factually inaccurate because it stated the United
States entered the Vietnam War with the goal of "regime change."
Nevertheless, the question challenged Bush "to assure them (the American
people) that you will not lead this country down a similar path in Iraq."
Bush either didn't notice or chose to ignore the reporter's embarrassing
ignorance of history, but instead called it a "great question" and seized
on it to distinguish the difference between the Vietnam War the upcoming
operation, using the word "clear" three times in five lines to describe the
war's mission to disarm Iraq: "Our mission is precisely what I just stated.
We have got a plan that will achieve that mission, should we need to send
forces in." The question was legitimate and forced Bush to go on the
record that he would not let Iraq turn into a quagmire. Bush's response
showed determination and his understanding of the potential problem.
The final question's poor construction allowed Bush to wrap up the press
conference the way he wanted. The reporter tried to ask Bush his attitude
toward a possible deadline being added to the UN resolution but unwisely
gave Bush an out by including the phrase "I know you don't want to tip your
hand." Bush immediately responded, "You're right, I'm not going to tip my
hand," and concluded the event by saying it was up to Hussein to stop the
war. "He's the person that can make the choice of war and peace," Bush
said. "Thus far, he's made the wrong choice. If we have to, for the sake of
the American people, for the sake of the peace of the world, and for the
freedom to the Iraqi people, we will disarm Saddam Hussein. And by we, it's
more than America. A lot of nations will join us."
As noted earlier, a number of pundits criticized the White House Press
corps for being too soft on Bush and failing in its watchdog role. Since
this critique of the press conference was being repeated months after the
event, including in magazines ranging from Columbia Journalism Review to
Vanity Fair, we can conclude that a lowering of the professional
reputation of the White House Press and an increase in the reputation of
Bush as a press manipulator were a pair of long-term results of the press
But what was the immediate effect on the news agenda? Most news stories
emphasized Bush's statements on talks at the United Nations and often
quoted his statement that the United States did not need the U.N.'s
permission to invade. Wolf Blitzer said on CNN that the press conference
"dispelled" any idea that Bush would hesitate to attack Iraq if it did not
disarm and described Bush as "a man who refused to deviate from his
stance." The New York Times led with the "permission" quote, saying
that Bush "vowed that he would press for a vote on a new resolution at the
United Nations in the next few days." The Washington Post had a very
similar lead about the UN negotiations, writing that Bush "left no doubt
that he would act to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein even without the
blessing of the world body."
Bush was successful in getting the media to report that he was a
determined leader who was ready to wage war regardless of the actions of
the U.N. because he believed disarming Iraq was crucial to U.S. security.
Was he successful in persuading editorial page boards and pundits to back
him? No. Those who criticized Bush before the press conference continued to
do so. The New York Times argued on its editorial page that the United
States should not attack without broad international support, and The
Washington Post likewise editorialized that diplomacy should be given
another chance. The Times' Maureen Dowd, a frequent Bush critic,
ripped him after the press conference as the "Xanax Cowboy," a "scary"
president who tried to sound reasonable but appeared "tranquilized."
But those who agreed with the president found no reason to change their
opinion after his scrum with the press. The Dallas Morning News, for
example, editorialized that "Mr. Bush convincingly made the case for
war." Jay Nordlinger, writing in the conservative National Review,
argued that he could not imagine anyone doing better than Bush had done.
"He did everything right, said everything right, thought everything
The media remained polarized, but the public did not. A New York Times/CBS
news polls taken two days after the press conference showed 44 percent of
respondents favored military action against Iraq "soon," compared to 36
percent two weeks earlier. The poll showed 58 percent of Americans thought
the UN was doing a poor job, which was up 10 points from the previous
month, and 55 percent said they would support an invasion without UN
approval.  The Times concluded that the results "suggest that
President Bush has made progress, at least at home, in portraying Saddam
Hussein as a threat to peace while rallying support for a war over rising
objections from the international community." 
The poll showed Bush achieved what he wanted from the press conference. He
and other members of his administration had been making their case for
disarming Iraq for many months. Little new information was revealed at the
press conference. He could not reasonably expect to change the minds of the
leaders of France or Germany nor could he expect to sway many partisans
from the unfriendly side of a polarized body politic. That was never his
intent. But Bush did show that he was a resolute leader determined to oust
Hussein unless he disarmed. Bush, through his language and mannerisms,
demonstrated he was serious and was not going to war like a cowboy shooting
up Dodge City. A majority of the country, the audience he wanted to reach,
Some members of the working press engaged in a round of self-flagellation
and were given some additional vicious strokes of the rhetorical lash from
pundits on the left side of the political spectrum. A detailed analysis of
the questions and answers at the press conference shows that although many
of the questions were poorly worded, the White House reporters tried to do
their job of holding the president accountable. They concentrated on the
Iraq crisis, as they should have. It's true that they didn't ask questions
about Osama bin Laden, Medicare or Ephedra—all front page stories the week
before the press conference—but they shouldn't have. No power of the
national government is more serious than war, and that was the topic on
The reporters covered all of the proper topics about Iraq: the costs of
war (both financial and human), the participation of Turkey, the resolution
before the UN Security Council, the effect on the rest of the Middle East
and even whether Bush would attack Iraq because he was "fixated" on the
country. The last question alone should put to rest the absurd idea that
the press corps, as the New York Press indelicately wrote, "grab(bed) its
ankles" for Bush. Many of the questions were prefaced with hostilely
worded or at least challenging statements quoting positions critical of
Bush's policies. Bush was able to evade or ignore many of these questions
because they were so long as to be incoherent or because they appeared to
advocate a position. The most effective question, at least in terms of
prompting Bush to give newsworthy information, was a simply worded question
asking whether Bush would push for a Security Council vote. Had other
reporters done less grandstanding and more straightforward questioning,
they might have gotten better answers. But the fact remains that they did
quiz Bush on the appropriate topics in a challenging manner and forced him
to go on the record on several items such as promising the war would not
turn into a quagmire. The press conference was not perfect, but the press
did hold Bush accountable, and Bush did communicate his ideas and his
determination. The public was served.
Of course different people will evaluate a press conference in different
ways. Smith acknowledged that "Criticism is a creative art that involves
the critic in the internal dynamics of the press session he is
criticizing." Future research on Bush's press conferences could
compare his sessions to Bill Clinton's or other presidents using a
quantitative method such as that developed by Clayman and Heritage. Such a
comparison could shed more light on the quality of presidential press
coverage during one of the more crucial periods in American and world history.
 Matt Taibbi, "Cleaning the Pool," New York Press, 12-18 March 2003.
 Michael Crowley, "Bush Eats the Press," The New York Observer, 17
 John F. Dickerson and Karen Tumulty, "The Love Him, Hate Him
President," Time, 1 December 2003.
 Brent Bozell, "White House Press Zombies?", www.townhall.com, 14 March
 Carolyn Smith, Presidential Press Conferences: A Critical Approach
(New York: Praeger Publishers, 1990).
 Steven E. Clayman and John Heritage, "Questioning Presidents:
Journalistic Deference and Adversarialness in the Press Conferences of U.S.
Presidents Eisenhower and Reagan," Journal of Communication 52, no. 4
 Ibid., 749.
 Michael Baruch Grossman and Martha Joynt Kumar, Portraying the
President: The White House and the News Media (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins
University Press, 1981).
 Ibid., 8.
 Ray Scherer, "The Presidential Press Conference," in The Credibility
of Institutions, Polices and Leadership, ed., Kenneth W. Thompson, vol. 5
of The Media (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1985), p. 90.
 William S. White, "Analyzing the 'Adversary' Relationship," in The
Presidency and the Press, ed. Hoyt Purvis (Austin, Texas: Lyndon B. Johnson
School of Public Affairs, The University of Texas at Austin, 1976), 7.
 Samuel Kernell, Going Public: New Strategies of Presidential
Leadership (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 1997), 77-78.
 Ibid., 92, 96-97.
 Richard W. Waterman, Robert Wright, and Gilbert St. Clair, The
Image-Is-Everything Presidency (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1999),
 William J. Small, Political Power and the Press (New York: W.W.
Norton and Company, Inc., 1972), 184, 187.
 Steven Clayman and John Heritage, The News Interview: Journalists and
Public Figures on the Air (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University
Press, 2002), 3.
 Blaire Atherton French, The Presidential Press Conference: Its
History and Role in the American Political System (Washington, D.C.:
University Press of America, 1982), 35
 Martha Joynt Kumar, "Source Material: 'Does This Constitute a Press
Conference?' Defining and Tabulating Modern Presidential Press
Conferences," Presidential Studies Quarterly 33, no. 1 (March 2003: 221-238.)
 Elmer E. Cornwell, Jr., Presidential Leadership of Public Opinion
(Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1965), 74, quoted in
 Hugh Heclo, "The Political Ethos of George W. Bush," in The George W.
Bush Presidency: An Early Assessment, Fred I. Greenstein, ed., (Baltimore:
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 40-41.
 John J. Dilulio, Jr., "A View From Within," in The George W. Bush
Presidency: An Early Assessment, Fred I. Greenstein, ed., (Baltimore: The
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 250.
 Heclo, 36.
 Kathryn Dunn Tenpas and Stephen Hess, "Organizing the Bush
Presidency: Assessing Its Early Performance," in Considering the Bush
Presidency, Gary L. Gregg II and Mark J. Rozell, eds.,
(New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2004), 48.
 Gary L. Gregg II, "Dignified Authenticity: George W. Bush and the
Symbolic Presidency," in Considering the Bush Presidency, Gary L. Gregg II
and Mark J. Rozell, eds., (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2004),
 Erica S. Graham, David Domke, Kevin Coe, Sue L. John and Ted Coopman,
"The Bush Administration, News Media and Passage of the U.S.A. Patriot
Act," unpublished paper presented to the Association of Education in
Journalism and Mass Communication, Kansas City, Missouri, 2003.
 Martha Joynt Kumar, "The Contemporary Presidency: Communications
Operations in the White Hosue of President George W. Bush: Making News On
His Terms," Presidential Studies Quarterly 33, no. 2 (June 2003).
 Martha Joynt Kumar, "Source Material: The White House and the Press:
News Organizations as a Presidential Resource and as a Source of Pressure,"
Presidential Studies Quarterly 33, no. 3 (September 2003: 669-683.)
 Jane Hall, "Coverage of George W. Bush," Harvard International
Journal of Press/Politics 8, no. 2 : 115-120.
 Allan Wolper, "In Photos We Trust," Editor & Publisher, 9 June 2003.
 Tom Wicker, "Campaign Preview," Editor & Publisher, January 2004.
 Richard Reeves, "A Dirty 'Blowback' Campaign," The Denton
Record-Chronicle, 10 March 2004.
 Rachel Smolkin, "Are the News Media Soft on Bush?" American
Journalism Review, October/November 2003.
 David Frum, interview by Howard Kurtz, "Were White House Reporters
Used as Cogs in Pro-War Machine?; What is Life Like for Journalists on
Front Lines?" CNN Reliable Sources, Cable News Network, television, 9 March
2003, transcript #030900CN.V50.
 Taibbi; Crowley; Jim VanderHei and Helen Dewar, "Democrats Lambaste
Bush on Iraq," The Washington Post, 7 March 2003.
 Ibid., 65.
 Ibid., 80, 89.
 Ibid., 93.
 Ibid., 118-119.
 Ibid., 84.
 Ibid., 90.
 "President George Bush Discusses Iraq in National Press Conference,"
 Bill Kristol and David Gergen, interview by Greta Van Susteren,
"Interview with Bill Kristol, David Gergen About Bush Press Conference,"
Fox on the Record with Greta Van Susteren, Fox News Network, Inc.,
television, 6 March 2003, transcript #030601cb.260.
 Tim Russert, interview by Katie Couric, "Tim Russert Discusses
President Bush's Press Conference and Whether He Made His Case for War
Against Iraq," Today, National Broadcasting Corporation, Inc., television,
7 March 2003, NBC News transcripts.
 Kristol; David Frum, interview by Paula Zahn, "Tough Stance on Iraq
by President Bush," CNN American Morning with Paula Zahn, Cable News
Network, television, 7 March 2003, transcript #030711CN.V74.
 "President's Radio Address," transcript, 1 March 2003,
"President Announces Framework to Modernize and Improve Medicare,"
transcript, 4 March 2003,
 Tom Shales, "Bush's Wake-up Call Was a Snooze Alarm," The Washington
Post, 7 March 2003.
 Mike Allen, "Bush's Distaste for News Conference Keeps Them Rare,"
The Washington Post, 7 March 2003.
 Smith, 89.
 Smith, 110.
 The author examined the front pages of The New York Times, The
Washington Post and The Dallas Morning News.
 Smith, 90.
 Press conference transcript.
 Ibid. The transcript lists 24 "Q" items, but one entry is actually a
reporter stating that she has a question to ask. If one counted the
multiple questions and re-phrasings of questions asked by various reporters
during their turns at the microphone, one would get a much larger number
 Smith, 109.
 Press conference transcript.
 Smith, 99, 103.
 Katrina Vanden Heuvel, interview by Howard Kurtz, "Were White House
Reporters Used as Cogs in Pro-War Machine?; What is Life Like for
Journalists on Front Lines?" CNN Reliable Sources, Cable News Network,
television, 9 March 2003, transcript #030900CN.V50.
 Press conference transcript.
 Smith, 95.
 Press conference transcript.
 "'Scripted' Bush Press Conference Continues to Rankle Some White
House Reporters," The White House Bulletin, 11 March 2003.
 Taibbi; Crowley.
 Press conference transcript.
 Smith, 103.
 Press conference transcript.
 Taibbi; Crowley.
 Press conference transcript.
 Scott Sherman, "The Avenger," Columbia Journalism Review, July/August
2003, p. 44, referred to the "notorious March 6 White House Press
conference; James Wolcott, "Round Up the Cattle!" Vanity Fair, June 2003,
p. 86, called the press conference a "hollow piece of absurdist theater."
 Wolf Blitzer, "Bush: U.S. Doesn't 'Need Anybody's Permission' to
Attack," CNN.com, 7 March 2003,
 David E. Sanger with Felicty Barringer, "Threats and Responses: The
President; President Readies U.S. for Prospect of Imminent War," The New
York Times, 7 March 2003.
 Dana Milbank and Mike Allen, The Washington Post, 7 March 2003.
 "Saying No to War," The New York Times, 9 March 2003.
 "The President Looks Toward War," The Washington Post, 7 March 2003.
 Maureen Dowd, "The Xanax Cowboy," The New York Times, 9 March 2003.
 "Iraqi Endgame," The Dallas Morning News, 8 March 2003.
 Jay Nordlinger, "A President Who Means It. What Good the Student
Exchange? Straight from the Emir's Mouth—And More," National Review Online,
11 March 2003.
 Adam Nagourney and Janet Elder, "Threats and Responses: The Poll;
More Americans Now Faulting U.N. on Iraq, Poll Finds," The New York Times,
11 March 2003.
 Smith, 110, 123.