The Bush Dialogues

The president in Ireland


I left Ireland about 90 minutes before President Bush was scheduled to arrive. The original plan had been to come home a day earlier, but my wife and I had been bumped from our flight, giving us an extra 24 hours to explore the environs of Shannon Airport. There is, it turns out, only so much time you can spend wandering around an area that's been heavily garrisoned in anticipation of the president's visit, watching the military convoys, chatting with the odd soldier back at the hotel, drinking Murphy's and Guinness at the hotel bar, and reading the books you'd meant to save for the plane. Sooner or later, you will get reacquainted with your old friend television.

And so it was that we found ourselves watching the Irish network RTE when it aired its correspondent Carole Coleman's interview from Washington with George W. Bush. I know that pieces of this exchange have surfaced on American television, and it's possible that at some point a domestic outlet aired the whole thing. If you were really interested, you could have watched it—still can watch it—online. But most people stateside, I suspect, have had to rely on excerpts and second-hand accounts, most of which stress the president's displeasure that Coleman kept interrupting him. Indeed, it's widely believed that it was this experience that led the White House to cancel RTE's scheduled interview with the first lady.

But the interviewer actually wasn't rude to Bush at all. She was fair and professional, posing challenging questions but never in a belligerent manner; she exhibited no "gotcha" tactics, and when she interrupted, it was to bring Bush's rambling replies back on point. The president seemed unfamiliar with the idea that a journalist might want some say in the direction of an interview, and took to announcing, Perot-style, that Coleman wasn't letting him finish his answers. At another juncture, he 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.

Bush's complaint would have been more credible if his answers didn't typically consist of loosely connected talking points, not all of them related to the question originally posed. This piece of the transcript should give you the flavor, though you have to watch it to get the full effect of Bush's drifty, condescending style:

COLEMAN: Why is it that others don't understand what you're about?

THE PRESIDENT: I don't know. History will judge what I'm about. But I'm the kind of person, I don't really try to chase popular polls, or popularity polls. My job is to do my job and make the decisions that I think are important for our country and for the world. And I argue strongly that the world is better off because of the decisions I have made—along with others. America is not in this alone. One of our greatest allies of—in the world is your neighbor, Great Britain. Tony Blair has been a strong advocate for not only battling terrorists, but promoting freedom, for which I am grateful. Let me say one other thing about America that your viewers must know—is that not only are we working hard to promote security and peace, we're also working to eradicate famine and disease. There is no more generous country on the face of the earth than the United States of America, when it comes to fighting HIV/AIDS. As a matter of fact, it was my initiative—

COLEMAN: Indeed, that's understood—

THE PRESIDENT:—my initiative, that asked Congress to spend $15 billion over five years to battle this pandemic. And we're following through on it. And no other country in the world feeds more of the hungry than the United States. We're a compassionate nation.

In one reply, he mentioned that he was the first American president to support the creation of a Palestinian state. Then he started to make another point. Coleman interrupted. Bush testily pushed on to finish his answer, by pointing out that he…was the first American president to support the creation of a Palestinian state. Glad you managed to get that last bit in there, George.

It was, in short, a terrible performance. Coincidentally, that same night we caught Charlie Rose's interview with president-turned-memoirist Bill Clinton. Here was a bad interviewer, notorious not just for interrupting his guests but for interjecting the answers he imagines they're about to give; he's also a shameless suckup, coaxing his subjects with flattery before breaking into the middle of their replies. He must be much less easy to deal with than Carole Coleman. But Clinton handled himself well and seemed to enjoy the experience, presumably because there are few things that make him happier than an opportunity to talk about himself. One of the better features of the Bush era is that, at last, we have a president who likes to shut up. One of the lesser features is that, when he does open his mouth, he performs so abysmally. (Or is that a good thing too?)

The exception was his surreal and charming appearance in January at the Nothin' Fancy Café in Roswell, New Mexico, a restaurant best known, apparently, for its 50-cent beer. For those of you who missed it, here's how it began:

THE PRESIDENT: I need some ribs.

Q: Mr. President, how are you?

THE PRESIDENT: I'm hungry and I'm going to order some ribs.

Q: What would you like?

THE PRESIDENT: Whatever you think I'd like.

Q: Sir, on homeland security, critics would say you simply haven't spent enough to keep the country secure.

THE PRESIDENT: My job is to secure the homeland and that's exactly what we're going to do. But I'm here to take somebody's order. That would be you, Stretch—what would you like? Put some of your high-priced money right here to try to help the local economy. You get paid a lot of money, you ought to be buying some food here. It's part of how the economy grows. You've got plenty of money in your pocket, and when you spend it, it drives the economy forward. So what would you like to eat?

Q: Right behind you, whatever you order.

THE PRESIDENT: I'm ordering ribs.

Stick him in a situation where he has a good excuse to change the subject, and the man performs admirably. And really, if you were forced to speak with the president, which would you rather discuss, current events or ribs? Personally, I'd rather tackle the topic he knows more about.

In Ireland, the local correlates to 50-cent beer and spare ribs are Guinness and lamb. The president doesn't drink, but I'm sure he'd enjoy some good lamb chops. Send him to a cookout in County Clare and the man might manage to charm some Irishmen. Put him on TV and ask him to defend his policies, and he's just going to make them angrier.