Veteran Bush-watchers know that the current inhabitant of the White House has been influenced by his negative polls and by public opinion when he not only holds a relatively no-holds-barred press conference but goes so far as to recognize Helen Thomas, the venerable former Associated Press reporter, now a free-lancer, who continues as a fixture at such affairs. In recent years, Bush has relentlessly ignored Thomas, who in previous administrations had been the designated reporter to close out press conferences with a sweet "Thank you, Mr. President."
There has been nothing so pleasant in Thomas' published remarks on the subject of Bush, however, especially since the advent of the ill-fated Iraq incursion three years ago and even more especially when the veteran reporter went on to pronounce Bush the "worst" American president in her memory. She was equally unstinting when she posed her question to Bush at Tuesday's press conference. "Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime," Thomas said. "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?" There was more to the question, but that was the kernel of it.
And what did Bush say? He started out with this: "I think your premise, in all due respect to your question and to you as a lifelong journalist -- that I didn't want war. To assume I wanted war is just flat wrong, Helen, in all due respect." And when Thomas attempted to interrupt, the president responded, "No president wants war. Everything you may have heard is that, but it's just simply not true." Continued efforts by Thomas to get Bush back on track to answer the question were met with imperious repetitions of the brush-aside phrase, "Excuse me!" followed by more bloviation.
As Thomas and other informed journalists well knew, the record is clear: Bush and his chief advisers -- including Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and several now discredited and unlamented neocons -- had made plans to invade Iraq and topple dictator Saddam Hussein within weeks of taking office and months before the dread events (unrelated to Iraq or Saddam) of September 11, 2001.
As Thomas had said in the run-up to her question: "From the moment you stepped into the White House, your cabinet officers, former cabinet officers, intelligence people, and so forth -- but what's your real reason? You have said it wasn't oil, the quest for oil. It hasn't been Israel or anything else. What was it?"
The fact that Bush was able to avoid giving a direct answer to the question was a tribute to his often overlooked foxiness. The fact that the question was posed in such unequivocal terms was a testament to what seems to be a new mood among both press and population. The essence of it: Cut the crap, Mr. President, and tell us the truth about Iraq. Inquiring minds -- and that's all of us now, not just Helen Thomas -- want to know.