When President Bush called a press conference last week, a few notable things happened.
The main development, of course, was that he finally took responsibility for those 16 words in his State of the Union address -- the ones claiming that Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Niger. It was about time. CIA Director George Tenet had already fallen on his sword for Bush. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's reputation also had come under fire.
But after White House aides kept shifting the blame around on Iraq -- much as they'd changed the rationale for why we went to war in the first place -- Bush made it sound like there was never any question as to who made the decision to include the Niger charge.
"I take personal responsibility for everything I say, of course," Bush said, six months after he made the original claim. "I also take responsibility for making decisions on war and peace. And I analyzed a thorough body of intelligence -- good, solid, sound intelligence -- that led me to come to the conclusion that it was necessary to remove Saddam Hussein from power."
I'm sure Tenet was relieved to know that even though his name was dragged through the mud, it really wasn't his fault. There used to be a time in American politics when a sign on the president's desk read, "The buck stops here." The sign never said, "Let me see who else I can assign blame to, and only accept it myself as a last resort." The reason for the sign on Harry Truman's desk was that he realized he was the person ultimately responsible for what his administration said; it was his name -- and no one else's -- on the ballot. Bush would be wise to heed Truman's words as the 2004 re-election campaign gets under way.
Another lesson that Bush will hopefully learn from this episode is that when he talks, people listen; when he speaks, his words matter. That's what made another statement he made last week so striking. "In order to placate the critics and cynics about intentions of the United States, we need to produce evidence," Bush said. "And I fully understand that. And I'm confident that our search will yield that which I strongly believe: that Saddam had a weapons program."
Give Bush credit for recognizing that we have to prove to the world that we were right to go to war with Iraq. It's partly a pride thing, seeing as most other nations opposed the war. But it's more a matter of U.S. credibility, and Bush continues to box himself in. Since the war officially ended three months ago, troops have spent hundreds of hours scouring Iraq for evidence of weapons. So far they've come up empty-handed.
There's only so long that Bush can keep talking about how we're likely to find weapons of mass destruction before U.S. trustworthiness disappears altogether. Remember, we were unwilling to grant United Nations inspectors more time when we were hot to go to war in March. And at some point other countries are going to judge the United States by its own standards. If we can't deliver the goods, other nations are not only going to question our motives for this war but for other military interventions as well. Bush has left himself little wiggle room on this issue by predicting the future with such certainty.
At a time when U.S. credibility is being questioned and our troops are stationed abroad, it's especially important for the president to keep the public informed about his decisions and what he knows. Photo-ops like that aircraft carrier stunt in May just aren't enough. We need to hear the president answer tough questions about what's really going on.
Before last week, Bush hadn't had to face the press for almost five months. Instead, he'd hid behind his handlers (just as he hid behind Tenet and Rice on the Niger question). Bush may be uncomfortable taking questions that aren't screened by his press office, but that doesn't mean reporters or voters should let him off the hook.
Unfortunately, Bush isn't likely to open himself up for scrutiny anytime soon. Despite troubling economic times, the commitment of U.S. troops in Liberia and questions about whether he will push Congress to ban gay marriage, the president is now off on a month-long working vacation. No doubt he'll use much of that time to raise money for his re-election campaign. But while he's out collecting checks , one can only hope that he thinks seriously about the job he's running for. Serving as president means being accountable to voters, answering their tough questions and taking responsibility in good times and bad. Bush has demonstrated time and again that he can't do any of those things.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is online editor of The Hill.