President Bush doesn’t really like the press and with good reason. The media “gotcha game” has been elevated to almost hysterical levels, and any mistake or misstatement by a President is front page news. Would you want to walk a high wire everyday?
So the President rarely gives in-depth interviews, and his press conferences are held to a minimum. One on one, Mr. Bush is an engaging guy, but it’s tough to be relaxed when every word you say is parsed and dissected. Unlike Bill Clinton, George W. Bush does not seek personal approval, at least not openly. Mr. Clinton loves adoration; Mr. Bush is much more private in his presentation.
Therefore, I approached my thirty minute interview with the President cautiously. I kept my presence low key, which is a tremendous departure for me. There are certain rules that have to be followed when talking with the most powerful man in the world, and I respected the guidelines.
For example, I am known for confrontational interviews, but you simply cannot tell a sitting President that you, the interviewer, know more than he does. That would make you look like a moron. So open confrontation goes right out the window.
Also, the tone of your questions must be respectful. Although I asked everything I wanted to ask and there were no restrictions in the interview, my queries were posed less aggressively than usual. I was direct, but subdued, another departure for me. By the way, I never show my questions to anyone in advance, and that rule applied to the President.
Security is massive for every presidential appearance. To even get to the interview room in a New York City hotel, I had to go through hoops that make U.S. airport security look like the Mexican border. Back elevators were taken, I was perused by at least a dozen Secret Service Agents, and everything was bulletproof except my questions.
The President, himself, is a different man than the one I interviewed four years ago. Back then, as the Governor of Texas, he was more casual in his language, both body and verbal. He carried himself with authority in 2000, but now he seems to be aware that he is a life and death decision maker and that awesome responsibility has seeped into his persona. He’s very aware of his position in life.
Mr. Bush was much more business-like this time around. He kept the chit-chat short and seemed anxious to answer the questions. I believe he likes the joust when he thinks the playing field is fair. I gave him a square deal last time around, and he remembered.
A TV interview is far different than a print one in the sense that facial expressions and posture play a key roll. My job is to break down the image and give viewers a glimpse at the real person sitting in front of me. I asked the President very short questions about very precise things: his National Guard service, the Swift Boat ads, Iraq and Iran, the Mexican border, Jacques Chirac, the fairness of the press and how his faith in God influences his decisions.
Most of the time, Mr. Bush was direct and to the point. A few times he evaded. He was, however, intensely focused, and so was I, except for one secret lapse. In the middle of my talk with the President, my mind flashed back for just a second to my childhood in Levittown, New York. The most powerful man on earth was answering my questions. Who woulda thunk it?