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Bush Tackles Questions About War, Wiretaps

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Three years into the war in Iraq, the White House is trying to sell the mission to an increasingly pessimistic public. Yesterday President Bush took some tough questions from an audience in Ohio. Today the White House quickly arranged another Q&A, this time with the usually more combative audience of the White House press corps. NPR's Don Gonyea reports:

DON GONYEA reporting:

It's a new strategy for an administration that has a reputation for keeping reporters at a distance and for screening attendees at town hall meetings to ensure supportive, friendly questions. In an attempt to demonstrate confidence in his Iraq policy, suddenly the president is taking lots of direct questions. He did so yesterday at an event in Cleveland and this morning at a White House news conference. The first question today, is Iraq in a civil war? As former interim prime minister Ayad Allawi maintains. No, said the president, but he went on.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Don't get me wrong. I mean, you make it abundantly clear how tough it is. It's, I hear it from our troops. I read the reports every night. But I believe, I believe the Iraqis, this is a moment where the Iraqis had a chance to fall apart, and they didn't. And that's a positive development.

GONYEA: And, as if to demonstrate that there's no question he'll avoid as he defends his policies, the president did something unexpected at this news conference. Very early on he called on one of his strongest critics, veteran journalist and columnist Helen Thomas.

Ms. HELEN THOMAS (Journalist, White House Press Corps): I'd like to ask you, Mr. President, your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is, why did you really want to go to war?

GONYEA: The president responded by rejecting the premise of Thomas' question.

President BUSH: To assume I wanted war is just, is just flat wrong, Helen, in all due respect.

GONYEA: In answers to that, and to questions about growing public doubts about the war, even by people who voted for him, the president insisted that the plan in Iraq is working.

President BUSH: I'm going to say it again. If I didn't believe we could succeed, I wouldn't be there. I wouldn't put those kids there. It's, I meet with too many families who's lost a loved one to not be able to look them in the eye and say we're doing the right thing, and we are doing the right thing.

GONYEA: There has been an increasing chorus of those calling for the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Mr. Bush today dismissed that out of hand. At one point, he was asked about a call last week by Wisconsin Democratic Senator Russ Feingold to censure the president because of a controversial domestic spying program, which many contend is illegal. Carl Cameron of Fox News is the questioner here.

Mr. CARL CAMERON (Reporter, Fox News): The primary sponsor, Russ Feingold, has suggested that impeachment is not out of the question on Sunday. The number two Democrat in the Senate refuses to rule that out pending an investigation. What, sir, do you think the impact of a discussion of impeachment and censure does to you and this office, and to the nation during a time of war, and in the context of election?

GONYEA: The president, in language that will likely preview the tone of this year's midterm elections, was eager to address this point.

President BUSH: You know, if that's what they believe, if people in the party believe that, then they ought to stand up and say it. They ought to stand up and say the tools we're using to protect the American people shouldn't be used. They ought to take their message to the people and say vote for me. I promise we're not going to have a terrorist surveillance program.

GONYEA: Near the end, the president was asked if he foresees a day when there will be no more American forces in Iraq. Mr. Bush, who has always rejected setting any timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, did say that that will be decided by “future presidents and future governments of Iraq.” Not exactly a timeline, but certainly an indication that the U.S. military will be in Iraq beyond January of '09, when the president leaves office.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
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