Grovel and smile
Don't ask me any hard questions
Ireland: I wanted to slap him
George W Bush was so upset by Carole Coleman’s White House interview that an official complaint was lodged with the Irish embassy. The RTE journalist explains why the president made her blood boil
"Thanks for comin', Mr President" I said, sticking out my hand. I had borrowed this greeting directly from him. When Bush made a speech at a rally or town hall, he always began by saying "Thanks for comin'" in his man-of-the-people manner. If he detected the humour in my greeting, he didn't let on. He took my hand with a firm grip and, bringing his face right up close to mine, stared me straight in the eyes for several seconds, as though drinking in every detail of my face. He sat down and an aide attached a microphone to his jacket.
Nobody said a word. "We don't address the president unless he speaks first," a member of the film crew had told me earlier. The resulting silence seemed odd and discomforting, so I broke it. "How has your day been, Mr President?" Without looking up at me, he continued to straighten his tie and replied in a strong Texan drawl, "Very busy."
MC, a White House press officer whom I've decided not to identify, had phoned me three days earlier to say that President Bush would do an interview with RTE. "Good news," she had said. "It goes this Thursday at 4.20pm. You will have 10 minutes with the president and Turkish television will talk to him just before you."
Mr President," I began. "You will arrive in Ireland in less than 24 hours' time. While our political leaders will welcome you, unfortunately the majority of our people will not. They are annoyed about the war in Iraq and about Abu Ghraib. Are you bothered by what Irish people think?"
The president was reclining in his seat and had a half-smile on his face, a smile I had often seen when he had to deal with something he would rather not.
"Listen. I hope the Irish people understand the great values of our country. And if they think that a few soldiers represent the entirety of America, they don't really understand America then . . . We are a compassionate country. We're a strong country, and we'll defend ourselves. But we help people. And we've helped the Irish and we'll continue to do so. We've got a good relationship with Ireland."
"And they are angry over Iraq as well and particularly the continuing death toll there," I added, moving him on to the war that had claimed 100 Iraqi lives that very day. He continued to smile, but just barely.
"Well, I can understand that. People don't like war. But what they should be angry about is the fact that there was a brutal dictator there that had destroyed lives and put them in mass graves and torture rooms . . . Look, Saddam Hussein had used weapons of mass destruction against his own people, against the neighbourhood. He was a brutal dictator who posed a threat that the United Nations voted unanimously to say, Mr Saddam Hussein . . ."
Having noted the tone of my questions, the president had now sat forward in his chair and had become animated, gesturing with his hands for emphasis. But as I listened to the history of Saddam Hussein and the weapons inspectors and the UN resolutions, my heart was sinking. He was resorting to the type of meandering stock answer I had heard scores of times and had hoped to avoid. Going back over this old ground could take two or three minutes and allow him to keep talking without dealing with the current state of the war. It was a filibuster of sorts. If I didn't challenge him, the interview would be a wasted opportunity.
"But, Mr President, you didn't find any weapons," I interjected.
"Let me finish, let me finish. May I finish?"
With his hand raised, he requested that I stop speaking. He paused and looked me straight in the eye to make sure I had got the message. He wanted to continue, so I backed off and he went on. "The United Nations said, ‘Disarm or face serious consequences'. That's what the United Nations said. And guess what? He didn't disarm. He didn't disclose his arms. And therefore he faced serious consequences. But we have found a capacity for him to make a weapon. See, he had the capacity to make weapons . . ."
I was now beginning to feel shut out of this event. He had the floor and he wasn't letting me dance. My blood was boiling to such a point that I felt like slapping him. But I was dealing with the president of the United States; and he was too far away anyway. I suppose I had been naive to think that he was making himself available to me so I could spar with him or plumb the depths of his thought processes. Sitting there, I knew that I was nobody special and that this was just another opportunity for the president to repeat his mantra. He seemed irked to be faced with someone who wasn't nodding gravely at him as he was speaking.
"But Mr President," I interrupted again, "the world is a more dangerous place today. I don't know whether you can see that or not."
"Why do you say that?"
"There are terrorist bombings every single day. It's now a daily event. It wasn't like that two years ago."
"Mr President, you are a man who has a great faith in God. I've heard you say many times that you strive to serve somebody greater than yourself."
"Do you believe that the hand of God is guiding you in this war on terror?"
This question had been on my mind ever since September 11, when Bush began to invoke God in his speeches. He spoke as if he believed that his job of stewarding America through the attacks and beyond was somehow preordained, that he had been chosen for this role. He closed his eyes as he began to answer.
"Listen, I think that God . . . that my relationship with God is a very personal relationship. And I turn to the Good Lord for strength. I turn to the Good Lord for guidance. I turn to the Good Lord for forgiveness. But the God I know is not one that . . . the God I know is one that promotes peace and freedom. But I get great sustenance from my personal relationship."
He sat forward again. "That doesn't make me think I'm a better person than you are, by the way. Because one of the great admonitions in the Good Book is, ‘Don't try to take a speck out of your eye if I've got a log in my own'."
I felt that the President had now become personally involved in this interview, even quoting a Bible passage, so I made one more stab at trying to get inside his head.
"Why is it that others don't understand what you are about?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. History will judge what I'm about."
"Is that how you do it in Ireland — interrupting people all the time?"
I froze. He was not happy with me and was letting me know it.
"Yes," I stuttered, determined to maintain my own half-smile.
At the studio I handed over the tapes. My phone rang. It was MC, and her voice was cold.
"We just want to say how disappointed we are in the way you conducted the interview," she said.
"How is that?" I asked.
"You talked over the president, not letting him finish his answers."
"Oh, I was just moving him on," I said, explaining that I wanted some new insight from him, not two-year-old answers.
"He did give you plenty of new stuff."
She estimated that I had interrupted the president eight times and added that I had upset him. I was upset too, I told her. The line started to break up; I was in a basement with a bad phone signal. I took her number and agreed to call her back. I dialled the White House number and she was on the line again.
"I'm here with Colby," she indicated.
"You were given an opportunity to interview the leader of the free world and you blew it," she began.
I was beginning to feel as if I might be dreaming. I had naively believed the American president was referred to as the "leader of the free world" only in an unofficial tongue-in-cheek sort of way by outsiders, and not among his closest staff.
"You were more vicious than any of the White House press corps or even some of them up on Capitol Hill . . .The president leads the interview," she said.
"I don't agree," I replied, my initial worry now turning to frustration. "It's the journalist's job to lead the interview."
It was suggested that perhaps I could edit the tapes to take out the interruptions, but I made it clear that this would not be possible.
As the conversation progressed, I learnt that I might find it difficult to secure further co-operation from the White House. A man's voice then came on the line. Colby, I assumed. "And, it goes without saying, you can forget about the interview with Laura Bush."
Clearly the White House had thought they would be dealing with an Irish "colleen" bowled over by the opportunity to interview the Bushes. If anyone there had done their research on RTE's interviewing techniques, they might have known better.
MC also indicated that she would be contacting the Irish Embassy in Washington — in other words, an official complaint from Washington to Dublin.
When I returned to my little world on the street called M in Washington, I felt a tad more conspicuous than when I'd left for Ireland. Google was returning more than 100,000 results on the subject of the 12-minute interview. The vast majority of bloggers felt it was time a reporter had challenged Bush.
At the White House, the fact that I had been asked to submit questions prior to the interview generated enquiries from the American press corps. "Any time a reporter sits down with the president they are welcome to ask him whatever questions they want to ask," Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, told the CBS correspondent Bill Plante.
"Yes, but that's beside the point," replied Plante.
Under repeated questioning, McClellan conceded that other staff members might have asked for questions. "Certainly there will be staff-level discussion, talking about what issues reporters may want to bring up in some of these interviews. I mean that happens all the time."
I had not been prevented from asking any of my questions. The only topics I had been warned away from were the Bush daughters Jenna and Barbara, regular fodder for the tabloids, and Michael Moore — neither of which was on my list.
Moore did notice RTE's interview with the president and in the weeks that followed urged American journalists to follow the example of "that Irish woman".
"In the end, doesn't it always take the Irish to speak up?" he said. "She's my hero. Where are the Carole Colemans in the US press?"
posted by Steve @ 3:25:00 PM