TCS Daily


Why Bush Held His Own with Russert

By Fraser Seitel - February 9, 2004 12:00 AM

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.

Nonsense.

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.

Interrupt.

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.

The author is a frequent TCS contributor. He last wrote for TCS about "Jamie Dimon, the Un-Enron."


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