White House Press Zombies?

President Bush consented to another oral exam with his March 6 prime-time press conference in the East Room. He passed, and the press failed. More importantly, however, was how they failed. This time, they flunked themselves.

The press, you see, is being too easy on President Bush. Some really do believe that.

Remember how we spent most of the 2000 campaign with liberal reporters and pundits relishing the idea of George W. Bush trying to handle a White House news conference? He couldn't put two sentences together, the frat-boy, not-ready-for-prime-time lightweight. Now he goes long and deep into the White House press corps in prime time, and scores big. Why? It's not because he performed well. No, it's apparently because the malleable media are giving him a free ride.

ABC's Terry Moran made waves after last week's the press conference by insulting all the other reporters in the room. He told the Clinton-loving New York Observer newspaper that Bush left the press corps "looking like zombies." Moran ought to be getting dirty looks from his colleagues, who simply do not deserve the "zombie" tag for substance-free, Bush-enabling questions.

CNN's John King cited Ted Kennedy 's belief that "your fixation with Saddam Hussein is making the world a more dangerous place." Ed Chen of the Los Angeles Times demanded to know that if Bush "trusted the people" with their tax cuts, why not trust them enough to give them an estimate of the war costs? Bob Deans of Cox Newspapers even bizarrely suggested that the Vietnam War was somehow unjustified because "The regime is still there in Hanoi, and it hasn't harmed or threatened a single American in the 30 years since the war ended." Liberals cannot seriously claim these questions didn't echo their speeches.

The standard for the event's worth, then, was not whether Bush was held accountable to his audience, but whether the press pounded him sufficiently. The press failed if there was no Bush blood spilled.

The left-wing harangues about the White House zombies cited Moran as its entertaining exception. But Moran's question was channeling the nearby spirit of Helen Thomas. It wasn't a question meant to elicit news. It was a short campaign advertisement meant to portray Bush as an unpopular, globally isolated cowboy. He lectured the President that he had "generated opposition from the governments of France, Russia, China, Germany, Turkey, the Arab League, and many other countries, opened a rift at NATO and at the UN; and drawn millions of ordinary citizens around the world into the streets and anti-war protests." That, in a nutshell, was the last two months of ABC reporting: Bush vs. The Rest of the World.

But Moran wasn't done with his "question." He added: "May I ask what went wrong that so many governments and peoples around the world now not only disagree with you very strongly but see the U.S. under your leadership as an arrogant power?" Moran's been repeating this "arrogant power" line as if he received a check for $100 every time he used it on television. Afterward, Peter Jennings praised it as "straightforward." There's no doubt many Americans would have loved to see Bush turn the tables: "As if there's no arrogance of power coming from you and Peter Jennings."

But that's what Moran wanted: not news, but bile...pique...a spectacle.

Moran told the Observer that a questioner has to "create a moment a confrontation with the President," to make sure the president doesn't just "stand up there and use all the majesty of the Presidency to amplify his image." ABC doesn't want us to go to the videotape and remind people of ABC's servile questioning of Bill Clinton. Days after his second inauguration in 1997, Clinton held a news conference with some tough questions about his fundraising abuses. But not all the reporters were tough.

ABC's John Donvan asked if despite his "lofty goals" on education, for example, "many questions in the press and in Congress have focused on issues like campaign fundraising. My question is whether you are worried that the well is being poisoned even now for the realization of these goals before you can get out of the gate, particularly on the issue of bipartisanship?" That's odd. In the Bush presidency, poisoning the well for Bush's policy goals seems to be the primary mission, not the saddening side effect.

So don't buy it when anyone complains the press conference was too easy, and too scripted. That accusation is a little odd coming from pampered, scripted network TV stars like Moran. Wouldn't it be fun to put him at the podium and give him a dose of his own arrogant medicine? He'd be pleading for "zombies" in no time. And he wouldn't deserve them.