For a President who, while on the stump, told Oprah his favorite historical figure was "Churchill," George W. Bush keeps his gifts for stirring rhetoric well-concealed.
That may have been the point—as some Reason readers speculate—of last night's press conference. It has become a Bush tactic to wear his heavy heart on his sleeve when making an aggressive case. He turned on a similar manner in his call for Yasser Arafat's overthrow last spring. The general assumption that Bush has no skills as an actor is absurd.
The subdued Bush press conference, however, was dismaying because it didn't even measure up to his last prime-time appearance before the press corps. In his October 2001 conference, Bush was relaxed, seemingly in good command of the issues, even articulate. Why did he appear to be falling asleep last night? (All those commentators expressing pity for our "exhausted" commander in chief might recall that the 2001 conference took place during a considerably graver, and presumably more tiring, crisis than the current one, which in any event is a crisis "of choice" for the President).
The President didn't even seem to have the energy to correct reporters' carelessly wrong assumptions: The war in Vietnam was never advertised or fought as an effort at "regime change," and Bush made his infamous "dead or alive" comment about Osama bin Laden, not Saddam Hussein. Between Bush's droopy turn at the podium and Dan Rather's narcoleptic interview a few weeks back, Saddam Hussein must be betting that the Americans (no doubt enfeebled by lack of a good swimming regimen) will be too sleepy to invade Iraq.
The difference between the two performances may be with their content. The case for invading Afghanistan in the fall of 2001 had a clear basis in self-defense, and hardly needed an eloquent defender. But Bush's confidence in the project helped immeasurably. The case for invading Iraq now remains as murky as ever, and each iteration of the argument drains the topic of interest and conviction. If the President of the United States can't convince the world of the case for invading Iraq, who can?
To date, only Tony Blair has come close to laying out something like a vision behind this war. Blair could even claim to have done the impossible—actually changing a few minds on a topic where opinions have long ossified.
This is not to make an invidious—or worse, an anglophilic—comparison between a plodding president and a deft prime minister. But perhaps there is some inspiration to be gained from Anglo-American history. Specifically, the perpetually closed-and-reopened question of whether actor Norman Shelley actually read Winston Churchill's speeches will, it can safely be said, be with us until the end of time. Perhaps actor Timothy Bottoms, our premier Bush interpreter after presidential turns in Crocodile Hunter and the Parker/Stone parody That's My Bush, could fill in when the President's feeling a little low? With Jerry Haleva portraying Saddam, we might even get a crack at that debate the Iraqi dictator wants so badly.