On Tuesday, National Public Radio's "Fresh Air with Terry Gross" interviewed Fred Barnes of FNC and the Weekly Standard on his new book "Rebel In Chief." Gross began by asking Barnes if after the anti-Bush books by old Bush officials like Paul O'Neill and Bruce Bartlett, he set out to be a pro-Bush counterweight to those. (He said no.) NPR's website also posted an excerpt of the book, including Barnes reporting on an afternoon meeting with network anchors before the 2005 State of the Union address:
For now, though, the president has to attend an off-the-record lunch in the White House study adjacent to the State Dining Room. "Why do I have to go to this meeting?" Bush asks his communications director, Dan Bartlett. "It's traditional," Bartlett explains. Indeed, for years, the president has hosted the TV news anchors for lunch on the day of the State of the Union address. It's an invitation the anchors eagerly accept. Peter Jennings and George Stephanopoulos of ABC, Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams of NBC, Chris Wallace and Brit Hume of Fox, and Wolf Blitzer and Judy Woodruff of CNN will be there. So will Dan Rather of CBS, magnanimously invited in spite of having sought to derail the president's reelection campaign by spotlighting four documents (later proved to be fabrications) that indicated Bush had used political pull to get into the Texas Air National Guard and avoid Vietnam duty, and that he had been honorably discharged without fully completing his service. (At the lunch, Rather will suddenly appear solicitous of Bush. "Thank you, Mr. President," he will say as he leaves. "Thank you, Mr. President." Bush will betray no hint of satisfaction.)
Bush's dread of the lunch is understandable. With few exceptions -- Hume is one -- the anchors are faithful purveyors of the conventional wisdom, which is usually gloomy regarding outcomes that might cast Bush in a good light. It is also tinged with liberalism, and wrong. The president agrees with practically none of it.
Sure enough, once the lunch meeting begins, the president takes issue with many of the anchors' claims. Stephanopoulos suggests congressional Republicans rightly fear that Social Security reform will hurt them in the 2006 midterm election. "You don't understand the politics of the issue," Bush responds. Woodruff says that critics worry the president is resolved to take on tyrannies everywhere. "I wasn't aware that was a criticism," Bush answers sarcastically. Jennings says an American general in Iraq told him that the Syrians are helpful there. "I'd like to talk to that general," Bush says in disbelief. In fact, the Syrians are nothing but trouble, he adds, and have been all along. Bush chastises his media guests for negativism. "Nobody around this table thought the elections were going to go that well in Afghanistan, Palestine, Ukraine, and Iraq." And they darn well should understand that he intends to dominate Washington and impose his priorities: "If the president doesn't set the agenda," Bush declares firmly, "it'll be set for you."
Bush's conduct at the lunch -- edgy, blunt, self-confident, a bit smart-alecky, disdainful of what the media icons are peddling -- is typical. In private or public, he is defiant of the press, scornful of the conventional wisdom, and keen to reverse or at least substantially reform long-standing policies like support for undemocratic but friendly autocracies and the no-tinkering approach to Social Security. Stephanopoulos's notion about potential political harm from seeking to reform Social Security, Bush says, is thirty years behind the times.
Years ago, Donald Rumsfeld answered a reporter's query by saying, "First let me unravel the flaws in your question." Bush has adopted a less bellicose version of the Rumsfeld model.