N.Y. Times TV Critic Says Bush Went On Larry King To Boost 'Ever-Sliding' Polls

July 7th, 2006 6:32 AM

New York Times TV writer Alessandra Stanley reviewed George and Laura Bush's Thursday night interview on CNN's "Larry King Live" as a desperately needed chance for a softball interview. "The standoff with North Korea over its missile tests, the war in Iraq and ever-sliding ratings in the polls have given the president little reason to celebrate. Mr. King gave the president a chance to defend his policies without risk of interruption or follow-up."

This adjective, "ever-sliding," may be what Miss Stanley wishes and hopes for, but it could not be described as accurate. Bush fans would look silly to describe Bush's poll ratings as good. But they have been creeping upward since the killing of Iraqi al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The PollingReport.com summary shows that several polls have him up a bit since a low point in early May:

-- Fox News-Opinion Dynamics, approval up eight (41 percent on 6/27-28, compared to 33 percent on 5/2-3)

-- USA Today-Gallup, approval up six (37 percent on 6/23-25, 31 percent on 5/5-7)

-- ABC-Washington Post, approval up five (38 percent on 6/22-25, 33 percent on 5/11-15)

Others on the page don't show a margin creep greater than a margin of error. Again, you wouldn't want to dance to these poll results. The last two I cited are 37-60 and 38-60, approval vs. disapproval. But "ever-sliding" is certainly not the best word to describe them. Perhaps Stanley would have considered adding an approval rating for the New York Times right now? When a Fox poll found 60 percent of Americans thinking their hot scoop on the SWIFT program helped the terrorists more than the public?

Stanley's piece was headlined "President Has a Smooth Ride on 'Larry King Live.'" She began:

Two kinds of celebrities go on "Larry King Live" on CNN: those with something to sell and those with something to hide.

Al Gore and Brandon Routh, the young star of the newly released "Superman Returns," recently appeared on the show to promote their new movies. The second category includes guests like Star Jones Reynolds, Mary Kay Letourneau, and, right after his indictment in 2004, Kenneth L. Lay of Enron. "Larry King Live" is the first stop in any damage control operation — a chance to explain oneself to the least contentious journalist in the land.

And that is why President Bush invited the CNN talk show host to the White House on his 60th birthday. [The 'ever-sliding' sentence came next.]

...Even when he ventured into areas like the war in Iraq, public opinion polls or the president's past friendship with Mr. Lay, Mr. King looked less like an interrogator than a hotel concierge gently removing lint from a customer's coat. Mr. King's questions rarely rile his guests; instead, his cozy, incurious style encourages them to expose themselves.

And just as Liza Minnelli seemed to come unglued all on her own in her appearance on the show last March, Mr. Bush at times seemed tense and defensive even without needling from his host. "I've been popular before, as president," Mr. Bush said tightly. "And I've been — people have accepted what I've been doing." He added: "Sometimes things go up and down. The best way to lead and the best way to solve problems is to focus on a set of principles. And do what you think is right."

The president appeared on Mr. King's show twice before, in 2000 and in 2004, but those were campaign interviews. On Thursday, the president was fighting to improve his battered image.

And look who is doing the battering on a daily basis. The New York Times. All the battering that's fit to print. Now, look, just for fun, at the transcript to see if Bush reads like he's coming unglued on the polling questions:

KING: When the polls are bad, doesn't that affect you emotionally?

G. BUSH: No.

KING: Doesn't it hurt to say more people are -- don't like what I'm doing than like what I'm doing?

G. BUSH: Well...

KING: Does it bother you?

L. BUSH: Not really. I mean, the polls are just...

KING: But it's a sign.

L. BUSH: It's a sign, but it's not necessarily really what we see. I mean, when we travel around the country, when we visit with people, that's not what we hear all the time. When they're good polls -- I think I told you this the last time I interviewed with you, you don't see them on the front page.

And you know, just -- we've been in politics for a very long time. We've seen somebody else we loved a lot in this job, George's dad. And we know what it's like. And we know what to expect. And are there going to be good times? Sure. And are there going to be bad times? Absolutely. That's just a fact of life. Everyone's life, really.

But it's very magnified when you are the president of the most affluent country in the world, the country who every other country bring their problems to.

G. BUSH: Let me tell you something about polls. If you had a president who worries about polls, that means you could have a president who makes decisions based upon the polls. We cannot achieve big goals and accomplish hard things if you're worried about opinion polls. The president that chases the opinion poll is the president that will have failed policy, in my judgment.

I like to tell people I would rather be -- when history looks back, I'd rather be judged as solving problems and being correct, rather than being popular.

KING: As Truman once said.

G. BUSH: Is that what he said?

KING: I think he was the most unpopular president, leaving office, since, I guess, Wilson.

G. BUSH: I will tell you, and that may be true. But his legacy is a strong legacy. And one of the reasons why I'm able to go to Graceland with Koizumi, Prime Minister Koizumi, is because Harry Truman helped Japan become a democracy. He had faith. And it wasn't an easy decision on his part.

KING: Wouldn't you rather be popular?

G. BUSH: No -- I mean, you know, look --

KING: We all want to be popular.

G. BUSH: You're a guy who relies on ratings. No wonder you're asking about the popularity question.

KING: No, I mean, it's human.

G. BUSH: I've been popular before, as president. And I've been -- people have accepted what I've been doing. Sometimes things go up and down. The best way to lead and the best way to solve problems is to focus on a set of principles. And do what you think is right.