President Bush's Rose Garden press conference on Friday morning began with the president making a forceful statement about the need to keep the country safe, and how new legislation to curtail interrogations and surveillance programs could make that job harder. But the goofiest question of the day had to be the one from CNN White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux:
Malveaux: "Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian President, will actually be in the same building as you next week, in Manhattan for the United Nations General Assembly. You say that you want to give the message to the Iranian people that you respect them. Is this not an opportunity, perhaps, to show that you also respect their leader? Would you be willing to, perhaps, meet face-to-face with Ahmadinejad, and would this possibly be a breakthrough, some sort of opportunity for a breakthrough on a personal level?"
Bush: "No, I'm not going to meet with him. I have made it clear to the Iranian regime that we will sit down with the Iranians once they verifiably suspend their enrichment program. I meant what I said."
It may have been Bush's shortest answer of the day. He didn't get into how he was supposed to show respect for the Iranian president's Israel-threatening or anti-Semitism or Holocaust denial.
Perhaps Bush's best quip of the day came in his exchange with Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times who described her paper as "friendly." To laughter, Bush retorted: "I'd hate to see unfriendly." Plus, NBC's David Gregory was again the Man Who Wouldn't Shut Up in an antagonistic exchange with Bush. (More on both below.)
Video clip #1, of Gregory/Bush (4:30): Windows Media (2.9 MB)
Humorous Stolberg/Bush back-and-forth about New York Times as "friendly" newspaper:
Bush: "Let's see, New York Times, Sheryl."
Stolberg: "Hi, Mr. President."
Bush: "Fine. How are you doing?"
Stolberg: "I'm well today, thank you." (Laughter.)
Bush: "Did you start with, hi, Mr. President?"
Stolberg: "Hello, Mr. President."
Bush: "Okay, that's fine. Either way, that's always a friendly greeting, thank you."
Stolberg: "We're a friendly newspaper."
Bush, with look of disbelief: "Yeah. (Laughter.) Let me just say, I'd hate to see unfriendly." (Laughter.)
Stolberg did go ahead with today's typical question, about the Republican rebellion against his preferences in fighting the terrorists.
Gregory/Bush exchange (video above): If Stolberg's first words look meek on paper, NBC's David Gregory was again the Man Who Wouldn't Shut Up. Everyone else pretty much followed Bush's preference to avoid follow-up questions. (Why get follow-ups when the next reporter will repeat the liberal question of the day?) Not Gregory. Bush started out whimsical:
Bush: "I must say, having gone through those gyrations, you're looking beautiful today, Dave." (Laughter.)
Gregory: "Mr. President, critics of your proposed bill on interrogation rules say there's another important test -- these critics include John McCain, who you've mentioned several times this morning -- and that test is this: If a CIA officer, paramilitary or special operations soldier from the United States were captured in Iran or North Korea, and they were roughed up, and those governments said, well, they were interrogated in accordance with our interpretation of the Geneva Conventions, and then they were put on trial and they were convicted based on secret evidence that they were not able to see, how would you react to that, as Commander-in-Chief?"
Bush: "David, my reaction is, is that if the nations such as those you named, adopted the standards within the Detainee Detention Act, the world would be better. That's my reaction. We're trying to clarify law. We're trying to set high standards, not ambiguous standards.
"And let me just repeat, Dave, we can debate this issue all we want, but the practical matter is, if our professionals don't have clear standards in the law, the program is not going to go forward. You cannot ask a young intelligence officer to violate the law. And they're not going to. They -- let me finish, please -- they will not violate the law. You can ask this question all you want, but the bottom line is -- and the American people have got to understand this -- that this program won't go forward; if there is vague standards applied, like those in Common Article III from the Geneva Convention, it's just not going to go forward. You can't ask a young professional on the front line of protecting this country to violate law.
"Now, I know they said they're not going to prosecute them. Think about that: Go ahead and violate it, we won't prosecute you. These people aren't going to do that, Dave. Now, we can justify anything you want and bring up this example or that example, I'm just telling you the bottom line, and that's why this debate is important, and it's a vital debate.
"Now, perhaps some in Congress don't think the program is important. That's fine. I don't know if they do or don't. I think it's vital, and I have the obligation to make sure that our professionals who I would ask to go conduct interrogations to find out what might be happening or who might be coming to this country, I got to give them the tools they need. And that is clear law.
Gregory (first interruption/follow-up): "But sir, this is an important point, and I think it depends --"
Bush: "The point I just made is the most important point."
Bush: "And that is the program is not going forward. David, you can give a hypothetical about North Korea, or any other country, the point is that the program is not going to go forward if our professionals do not have clarity in the law. And the best way to provide clarity in the law is to make sure the Detainee Treatment Act is the crux of the law. That's how we define Common Article III, and it sets a good standard for the countries that you just talked about. Next man."
Gregory (second): "No, but wait a second, I think this is an important point --"
Bush: "I know you think it's an important point." (Laughter.)
Gregory (third): "Sir, with respect, if other countries interpret the Geneva Conventions as they see fit -- as they see fit -- you're saying that you'd be okay with that?"
Bush: "I am saying that I would hope that they would adopt the same standards we adopt; and that by clarifying Article III, we make it stronger, we make it clearer, we make it definite. And I will tell you again, David, you can ask every hypothetical you want, but the American people have got to know the facts. And the bottom line is simple: If Congress passes a law that does not clarify the rules, if they do not do that, the program is not going forward."
Gregory (fourth): "This will not endanger U.S. troops, in your -- "
Bush: "Next man."
Gregory (fifth): This will not endanger U.S. troops --
Bush: "David, next man, please. Thank you. It took you a long time to unravel, and it took you a long time to ask your question."