Back to Earth

"It's an ill wind that doesn't blow somebody some good," goes the old proverb. And the ill winds that have beset the "Coalition of the Willing" (that's us) in Iraq have produced at least one useful byproduct -- greater accessibility to public and press on the part of this highly secretive administration, which has up until now held its cards awfully close to the chest.

Not only are figures like Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice increasingly available (it's hardly possible to turn on a Sunday talk show without finding one or the other), even Vice President Dick Cheney is under pressure to leave his Undisclosed Locations more often. Even more remarkable, the prez himself, George W. Bush, has shown a willingness to confront an increasingly inquisitive media.

Bush's press conference this week, held in the wake of serial calamities on the ground in Iraq, yielded noticeably sharper questioning than did the one he held in February, just before the president committed American troops to a ground war for which there was not then, and is not now, sufficient public justification.

The president was pushed hard on the absence of the ever-elusive WMDs and, for that matter, on the issue of Israeli intransigence on the matter of a Palestinian state. To give Bush credit, he issued a rare denunciation of the fence now being erected in occupied West Bank territory. "There's a difference between security and land acquisition," the president said, looking and sounding serious. The president also declined being baited by a Fox News operative into threatening PLO chieftain Yasser Arafat. "Not every [situation] requires military action," Bush responded.

On other issues, the president was less forthcoming, hewing to many of the same-old same-old justifications for action in Iraq and official optimism about that nation's future -- though he did concede, meaningfully, "Iraq is a dangerous place." And his defense of the famous aircraft-carrier boast, "Mission Accomplished," seemed notably subdued.

The president seemed at times to have an edge on, as when he observed that a broadcast journalist had "a face for radio" and peevishly refused a follow-up to another questioner "particularly since you interrupted me."

All in all, though, Bush actually seemed to be trying to deal with reality. What's happening in Iraq and in the Middle East is an ill wind, but if it's brought the president of the United States back to earth, it has blown some good.

Going Local

In a well-received appearance before the Memphis Rotary Club this week, interim University of Tennessee president Joe Johnson reminded his listeners that "a president isn't a university."

Then, after briefly characterizing his two immediate predecessors as "morally challenged" and "ethically challenged," respectively, Johnson underscored his point by citing some of the accomplishments of UT in recent years, like seven new research centers, four of them in Memphis in conjunction with the UT Center for Health Sciences. These centers, established at a cost of $7 million, have already attracted $221 million in federal support funds.

In other words, UT will survive the twin disgraces of middle-aged Casanova J. Wade Gilley and the self-aggrandizing John Shumaker, ex-of the University of Louisville and Connecticut. Johnson, who preceded Gilley, was persuaded to return to the helm to restore a measure of dignity while the university trustees seek a new permanent leader.

"I'd advise them to find somebody they already know something about. Maybe somebody fairly local," said Johnson.

Good advice.

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