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David Jackson: President Bush's prime-time press conference

As a reporter for the Dallas Morning News, David Jackson covered George W. Bush throughout Bush's presidential campaign. He now covers the White House for the Dallas Morning News, and was previously their Justice Department correspondent.

CNN: Good morning, David Jackson. Welcome to Newsroom.

DAVID JACKSON: Hello, everybody!

CNN: What prompted George W. Bush to hold his first ever prime-time press conference as president?

JACKSON: I'm told a variety of factors, starting with the fact that it was the one-month anniversary of the attack. Aides said the president felt like that was a good time to offer a status report on the war on terrorism, and they felt they wanted to reach the widest audience possible, so they requested prime time. The White House got a big kick out of the fact that New York Yankees and the Oakland A's delayed the start of their baseball game to accommodate him. Aides felt like Mr. Bush was ready to go on prime time, that he was ready for his first prime time news conference.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How is President Bush keeping his composure it looked like that when he was at the Pentagon he was about ready to cry. The president was biting his lip.

Transcript: President Bush's Press Conference  

JACKSON: First, the president often bites his lip, it's one of his habits. If you look at the replay of last night, when he was walking to the lectern, he was biting his lip. He's an emotional guy, and that was an emotional scene at the Pentagon yesterday. Several members of the media who were there were also getting very choked up. It was an unusual scene, in that people at the back of the crowd started standing up and waving their flags, and that movement surged forward. The closer to the stage, more and more people stood to wave flags. Usually that kind of thing works from front to back. So it was quite a moving scene, and the president was caught up in it as were some members of the press.

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CHAT PARTICIPANT: Why didn't the press corps push the president when he talked about the missile shield?

JACKSON: Well, sometimes it's hard to press a president in that setting, because the subject of the conference keeps talking, and it's hard for a reporter to interrupt and ask those kind of follow-ups. I also think most reporters were more interested in the Afghanistan military action, so the missile shield argument has been pushed down the agenda. The reporter who brought up the missile shield, who I believe was CNN's own John King, was more interested in the impact that the missile shield would have on the ABM treaty with Russia, rather than the missile system itself. But I'm sure this topic will be revived, particularly next week when the president meets in Shanghai with Russia's president Vladimir Putin.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Please explain President Bush's remark about if the Taliban turn over bin Laden that the attacks will stop. Isn't this a war against terrorism?

JACKSON: I believe he would say that not only would the Taliban have to turn over bin Laden, but they would have to renounce any sponsorship of terrorism. Presumably, if the Taliban did renounce terrorism, they could presumably stay in power under the president's formulation last night, but no one really expects that to happen.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: Did the reporters get together ahead of time to coordinate the questions they asked the president?

JACKSON: Not to my knowledge. Certainly not the newspaper reporters. The strategy is that you usually have three or four questions ready, and you drop them from your list if other reporters ask them. Other reporters develop the questions on the spot in reaction to something the president says during the conference.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: In what way, if any, did last night move the president's ratings?

JACKSON: I haven't heard yet. That's one of the things we'll be looking for today, the poll ratings. Obviously the White House aides believe it will help him with the public, but we should be hearing from independent pollsters today or tomorrow.

CNN: What kind of president was George W. Bush on Sept. 10, and how has he changed since then? JACKSON: For one thing, you'll notice that his hair has gotten much grayer in the last month. I think he's probably a harder-working president now than he was before September 11. He certainly is more somber and serious-minded than he was before September 11. It's hard to imagine a presidency that's changed more. Before September 11, the president was celebrating his tax cut and pushing for an education package. And then he planned to assess the political landscape. He was much more aligned with the conservative Republicans in Congress.

Now the president is almost single-mindedly focused on a nearly incomprehensible terrorist attack. He's much more willing to deal with Congressional Democrats on the emergency legislation he's been proposing, such as the airline bailout, the airline security bill, the counter-terrorism law enforcement bill, and the economic stimulus package. The bottom line is that it's a totally different presidency. You can say that about many areas of American life, though.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: How has President Bush responded to Mayor Giuliani's return of the Prince of Saudi Arabia's gift? Does anyone see this as an insult to the prince that could possibly cause tension between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia?

JACKSON: That happened right before the press conference, so it took a while for the White House to focus on it. I think privately the White House supports the mayor's decision, but they don't want to say too much about it publicly, because Saudi Arabia remains a key ally in this war. CHAT PARTICIPANT: Is the president ready to accept alternative energy as a tool to peace in the Middle East? JACKSON: That's hard to say. The only alternative to the Middle East that I hear is oil from the Alaskan wilderness, and the administration is really trying to push that aspect of its energy bill. While they do support research on alternative energy sources, most of their actions have been focused on oil exploration in other areas of the world, beyond the Middle East.

CHAT PARTICIPANT: President Bush appeared to me to be keenly aware of the children watching during prime time? Was he? JACKSON: Absolutely. That was the White House's message from last night. The announcement of a new fund to help Afghan children. The president proposed that each American child send one dollar to this fund, that would be coordinated by the Red Cross. That was the one proposal that Mr. Bush wanted to make in this news conference. I suspect that he'll expand upon it at a lunchtime speech today at the March of Dimes. CHAT PARTICIPANT: Any reaction to the president's comments on another "certain" attack against the United States? JACKSON: [He handled it] very carefully, in my view. The president says that he wants people to get back to normal, or as normal as possible, but also wants people to be wary that there are risks out there. I think some White House aides were dismayed that the FBI issued that particular warning yesterday, fearing that it might induce panic. They say that they've been warning people about possible threats every day since September 11.

CNN: Do you have any final thoughts today? JACKSON: It's an interesting time, and I think the White House is like every where else. They hope things work out, but they're skittish. It's a different world than it was a month and a day ago. CNN: Thanks for joining us today, David Jackson.

David Jackson joined via telephone from the White House. CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview, which took place on Friday, October 12, 2001.


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