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Why Bush Held His Own with Russert (Noonan is wrong) ^ | 02-09-04 | Fraser Seitel

Posted on 02/09/2004 10:02:05 AM PST by veronica

With apologies to the Democratic candidates, The New York Times editorial page, Don Imus, and -- of all people -- Peggy Noonan, I beg to differ. I think President Bush acquitted himself smartly this weekend in his head-to-head battle with the dreaded Tim Russert on Meet the Press.

He didn't appear "tired, unsure, and often bumbling," as Ms. Noonan asserts. Rather, he appeared calm, confident, firm and self-assured. Moreover, he refused to let himself get drawn in by the famous Russert baited barbs that so easily trap lesser interviewees.

Ms. Noonan, who wrote a book about how, as a White House speechwriter, she invented some of the greatest phrases that President Reagan and Bush I ever uttered, is particularly distressed that the President "did not seem prepared" for the Russert interview.


In terms of preparation -- what communications consultants like me call "media training" -- here are several positive performance techniques that the President displayed on Sunday, all of which helped make his case.

Find your sea legs.

The toughest part of any TV interview is the first question. The interviewer holds all the marbles. He knows what he will ask. You don't. So an interviewee must "fight off" that first question -- get acclimated, get comfortable, "find his sea legs," before trying to make his points.

"On Friday," Russert began, "You announced a commission to look into our intelligence failures in Iraq. You have been reluctant to do that for some time. Why?"

Bush parried, "First, let me step back and talk about intelligence in general if I might."

He then elaborated on the role of intelligence in fighting terrorism, on what terrorists are all about, and what the commission's mission will be. Bush critics decried that he never answered the question. True. But to his credit, he had kabuki danced enough to find his sea legs, relax, and enter a "comfort zone" that would carry him through the remainder of the interview.

Stay on message.

The cardinal rule of media training. No matter what they ask, you give your answers.

Ms. Noonan says Mr. Bush "fumbled" his talking points. Not true. Here, in essence, was the President's primary message.

"This is a dangerous world. I wish it wasn't. I'm a war President. I make decisions here in the Oval Office with war on my mind. The American people deserve someone who sees the world for what it is and acts decisively."

Bush hammered at those same broad themes -- war on terrorism, experience in command, willingness to make tough decisions -- throughout the interview. In so doing, he not only set the tone for the Russert interview, but previewed the primary Republican messages separating the incumbent from his challenger in the campaign to come.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

The real reason that smart executives consider media training mandatory before entering the ring of media combat is to drill home the three or four points that must be repeated.

Prior to launching into the dangers posed by Saddam Hussein for the umpteenth time in the hour-long interview, Bush apologized in advance, "I don't want to sound like a broken record."

Sure he did.

A well-trained interviewee wants to lay on those "must air points" as many times as possible, so all those latte-guzzling channel surfers at home get the message loud and clear.

The Bush message -- that "Saddam was a threat who needed to be taken out, with or without WMDs" -- may have been too repetitive for Ms. Noonan and not precise enough for The New York Times. But that doesn't mean a lot of voters don't agree with him.

Preempt the follow up.

Tim Russert is a master at cornering a guest with a seemingly straightforward set up question and then lowering the boom with a follow up dagger.

The only way to fend off such a one-two knockout is by preempting the question to come, thereby deflating the potential impact.

TR: "Will you testify before the intelligence commission?"

GWB: "I'd be glad to visit with them. I want to make sure the intelligence gathering system works well. And by the way, I believe the CIA is ably led by George Tenet. "

TR: "His job is not in jeopardy?"

GWB: "No not at all."

By raising the issue of his embattled CIA director before Russert could exhibit his trademark negative quotes and graphics, the President defused the issue and escaped unscathed.

Drop back.

The quickest way to get unhinged by a nasty question is to denounce it, deny it, or otherwise attack it frontally. Ordinarily much better is to verbally "take a step back" and transition to your rehearsed answer.

All it requires is a simple phrase: "Let me put your question in context"…"Let's examine that issue you raise"…or when Russert raised the specter of an economy run amuck…

TR: "The unemployment rate has gone up 33%. There's been a loss of 2.2 million jobs. We've gone from an $81 billion surplus to a $521 billion deficit. The debt is up 23%. Based on that record, why should the American people rehire you as CEO?"

GWB: "Because I have been the President during a period of tremendous stress on our economy and made the decisions necessary to enhance recovery. I want to review the bidding here."

Then, having "stepped back" from the question, the President proceeded to methodically depict the various elements -- from pre-Bush stock market declines to war to corporate scandals, etc. -- that led to economic decline and what he has prescribed to engender recovery.

Whether his prescription makes sense is for voters to decide. But his TV explanation was clear and committed and, because of his media training, framed in context.


An interviewee can't come across as a bully. That was among Bush's TV failings in his campaign four years ago. A guest should be gracious and deferential.

But, he can't be a patsy either. Once a python like Russert senses hesitancy, indecision or unease -- in other words, "smells blood" -- he springs straight for the jugular. So you must interrupt. To wit:

GWB: "We're fighting a war so the Iraqis can build a nation."

TR: "But the United Nations………."

GWB: "The war is against terrorists and disgruntled Baathists who want to stop the spread of freedom."

TR: "I, I…"

GWB: "If I might, people say to me………………."

By refusing to cede the floor, Bush interrupted Russert's momentum, dominated the dialogue, and successfully kept his eager interlocutor off balance.

Shift the blame.

One time-honored interview technique, which Russert practices religiously, is to quote nasty adversaries and goad a guest into teeing off on an absent party.

A good media training student will never attack someone not there to defend himself. An exceptional student will go one step further, subtly shifting the blame to his accuser. Here, Bush excelled.

TR: "The chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Terrence McAuliffe, said, 'George Bush is a man who was AWOL in the Alabama National Guard.' How do you respond?"

GWB: "Political season is here. I served in the National Guard and got an honorable discharge. I would be careful to not denigrate the Guard. It's fine to go after me. But I wouldn't denigrate service to the Guard. There are really a lot of fine people who serve in the National Guard and today are serving in Iraq."

McAuliffe, of course, wasn't "denigrating the National Guard"; he was denigrating Bush. No matter. The President skillfully turned the tables on his rabid dog accuser by shifting the blame and the focus away from himself.

Peggy Noonan compares the significance of the Bush-Russert interview to Teddy Kennedy's horrifying, post-Chappaquiddick kamikaze performance with Roger Mudd in 1980. This characterization, a full 10 months before the election with many TV interviews and speeches and unexpected revelations to come, may be just a tad overwrought.

The fact is to answer his accusers; Bush chose to enter the ring with the best interviewer on television. And the President held his own. He appeared conversational, controlled, candid and committed. As the initial media salvo in his reelection campaign, President Bush did fine.

TOPICS: Constitution/Conservatism; Editorial; Foreign Affairs; News/Current Events; Politics/Elections
KEYWORDS: 2004; bush; gwb2004; mtp; nbc; peggynoonan; russert
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1 posted on 02/09/2004 10:02:07 AM PST by veronica
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To: veronica
I agree Bush did a very good job on MTP.
2 posted on 02/09/2004 10:08:58 AM PST by rushmom
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To: veronica
"The interviewer holds all the marbles. He knows what he will ask. You don't."

Not necessarily! For example...let's take any interview with Hillary Clinton.

3 posted on 02/09/2004 10:09:35 AM PST by Maria S ("I will do whatever the Americans want…I saw what happened in Iraq, and I was afraid." Gaddafi, 9/03)
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Comment #4 Removed by Moderator

To: rushmom
You are right. I don't pay much attention to Peggy Noonan. She is so boring and she can take a one page essay and drag it out to four pages.
5 posted on 02/09/2004 10:11:56 AM PST by Sangria
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To: veronica
I agree, I don't think it was so bad. The last half of the interview, in fact, was very good (esp. the 'I won't lose,' and 'I wouldn't denigrate the National Guard' quotes).

Must take issue with the writer on this, however: "McAuliffe, of course, wasn't "denigrating the National Guard"; he was denigrating Bush."

McAullife WAS denigrating the Guard when he stated that Bush "had never done military service." McAuliffe's implication was that serving in the Guard was chopped liver.

6 posted on 02/09/2004 10:13:06 AM PST by shhrubbery!
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To: veronica
Nice article (it agrees with MY assessment, IOW) thanks for posting. ;-D
7 posted on 02/09/2004 10:13:31 AM PST by Judith Anne (Send a message to the Democrat traitors--ROCKEFELLER MUST RESIGN!)
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To: veronica
Tim blew it big time. He had a chance to ask the President of the United States what information we have gotten out of Saddam and he didn't even think to ask the question.
8 posted on 02/09/2004 10:13:51 AM PST by bayourod ( Dean's anti-terrorism plan: "treat people with respect and they will treat you with respect"12/1/03)
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To: veronica
Peggy has been hanging around Chris Matthews and Howard Fineman too long....
9 posted on 02/09/2004 10:17:15 AM PST by mystery-ak (*terrorism has been exaggerated*....Kerry....We must defeat him, our lives depend on it.)
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To: veronica
Today Rush seems to be saying that Bush should have wielded a club in the interview. I think Seitel correctly points out that Bush deftly used a scalpel.
10 posted on 02/09/2004 10:17:34 AM PST by DeFault User
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To: bayourod
Tim blew it big time. He had a chance to ask the President of the United States what information we have gotten out of Saddam and he didn't even think to ask the question.

There were probably "ground rules" for the interview -- something like (not that I necessarilty believe that this was specifically it): don't ask me to reveal classified/sensitive information and stay away from my family.

11 posted on 02/09/2004 10:17:51 AM PST by kevkrom (YEEEEEAAAAAAAARRRRRRGGGGGGHHHHHHHH! <splat> -- a prarie dog coming off a speed high)
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To: veronica

What I saw of the interview wasn't especially terrible, but wasn't especially great. I don't think he put to rest the "Bush lied" nonsense, which appeared to be the purpose.

However, I thought Russert's performance was similarly mediocre.

It all seems like a wash to me. Very forgettable.

12 posted on 02/09/2004 10:18:01 AM PST by Sabertooth (The Republicans have a coalition, if they can keep it.)
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To: veronica
Sorry agree w/Peggy... I thought it was a bad idea in the first place. Bush is much better in large group settings (i.e. in debates and press conferences) than one-on-one because he is too much of a gentleman to go on the offensive. Also, he is given to too much colloquial hesitation in his speech patterns, due probably to his regional (Southwest) upbringing, but it comes off as rambling with "ers" and "uhs" as he carefully constructs a sentence.

The Eastern establishment press, naturally, is going to seize upon every flap he makes while playing up Kerry's dry monotone delivery. Still, there's a lot of hope left...remember Mondale scored with "Where's the Beef?" in his one-on-one with Reagan--that was until Nancy stepped in with her demand to let "Reagan be Reagan!" Same needs to be done with "W". Get him away for the GOPO handlers trying for the perfect response...let George do it his way; otherwise, we will all be saying President Kerry this time next year...

13 posted on 02/09/2004 10:22:39 AM PST by meandog ("Do unto others before they do unto you!")
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To: veronica; MEG33; gatorbait; Texasforever; Bitwhacker; prairiebreeze; Mo1
Now this is quite an interesting analysis.

I tend to agree on this guys points.
14 posted on 02/09/2004 10:24:11 AM PST by Neets (I always feel like somebody's watching me.~)
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To: veronica
I think Bush could have done better, but he did fine, considering the way Russert interviewed him.He kept Russert off balance, which is no small feat in itself! Russert's tactics were tantamount to an interrogation of a criminal suspect!
15 posted on 02/09/2004 10:26:22 AM PST by international american (Support our troops..............................................revoke Hillary's visa!!)
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To: veronica
I agree with Fraser. In addition, note that the President was direct, made good contact and seemed genuine. Seemingly, Noonan and Rush seem to believe that psychopathic fluency and talking points insincerity are the sine qua non of an effective leader.
16 posted on 02/09/2004 10:26:44 AM PST by shrinkermd (i)
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To: veronica
I thought GW came off quite well. He's got the compassionate down. But along with it he reminds me of the British solders marching in a row & the rebels (dems, media)picking them off. He will get NO traction if he doesn't come out STRONG & hit the oppostion hard with their lameness.
17 posted on 02/09/2004 10:27:26 AM PST by Digger
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To: shrinkermd
I agree. They seems to be an underlying "Bush needs to be a smooth talker" in some of their criticism.
18 posted on 02/09/2004 10:29:57 AM PST by Freemyland
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To: veronica
Thank you for posting this! I agree with this article, and it confirms what my own speech and drama background have taught me about controlling the interview, and the tactics that must be employed. President Bush struck very good notes, there are some valuable sound-bites that the Dems won't be able to ignore, and while EVERYBODY on the far left and right was waiting for him to stumble, he didn't. In settings such as these (if you compare his other interviews as well), looking TOO rehearsed would have been grounds for a whole other raft of complaints. So, he stuck with being himself. He stayed presidential and above the fray except when the people in the guards were attacked. Perfect for the purpose, IMHO. Let the party politicos give a more aggressive response. We don't need our President breathing fire on issues that haven't played out yet.
19 posted on 02/09/2004 10:32:49 AM PST by alwaysconservative (It wasn't easy, but Democrats found a candidate with less charm than Gore!)
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To: Sabertooth
I thought the President did just fine. Actually, watching the interview a second time really makes him come off better than the initial viewing.

The left (and Noonan, apparently) paint Bush as a bumbler. I've seen the President enought on TV now to know that this man measures his words very carefully. He does this all the time.

As has been said earlier, for the start of his re-election campaign, this interview came off just fine.

There may also be a strategery playing here. Think about it. The dems are practically foaming at the mouth these days. Who can blame them? They're in the middle of a contentous primary campaign. All I'm saying here is that with all these people running around ramping up the rhetoric, it seems comforting that the President comes across as cool and confident. In effect, he's not going to let the others dictate his demeanor. my $.02
20 posted on 02/09/2004 10:38:37 AM PST by WI Conservative 4 Bush (Nobody speaks English, and everything's broken...)
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