In a historic blogosphere first, President Bush sat down with a small group of military bloggers, including yours truly representing Military.com and Defense Tech. I’ve got to tell you, all politics aside, it was a very cool experience.
First, a disclaimer to hardcore traditional media zealots. This meeting didn’t happen in the Press Room because it wasn’t designed to be a press conference. It was a conversation and an opportunity for the president to demonstrate that he was aware of what the milbloggisphere is capable of. And certainly the meeting came about because the staffers were convinced the assembled had shown themselves in writing to be pro-mission (or in my case pro-military), if not pro-administration.
We met with the president in the West Wing’s Roosevelt Room, which is adjacent to the Oval Office. The president walked in without any fanfare and worked his way around the table, shaking hands and thanking folks for coming. He sat down at the head of the table and spoke for a time before opening up the floor for discussion. Here are some of the highlights from my notes. (Remember it’s hard to write and maintain eye contact with the Commander-in-Chief):
“The question is will we do what it takes to defend ourselves?”
“We should be optimistic that freedom can take root in parts of the world where it’s been written off.”
“We need to change the conditions that cause 19 kids to get on planes to kill Americans.”
“This strategy is my strategy.”
“I’m defining a horizon of peace.”
“I don’t mind people attacking me . . . that’s politics . . . but I do mind people impugning the integrity of our generals.”
The questions started with Bill Roggio and Bill Ardolino, who were beaming into the room via VTC from Baghdad – a nice touch in support of milblog cred. John from Castle Argghhh! mentioned that his local lawmaker (a Democrat) in Kansas has awakened to the power of the blogoshere. Matt from Blackfive.net allowed that he had an embed headed for the Phillipines to join a special forces unit there, which caused the president to chuckle and opine to General Lute (the recently-appointed war czar), “Milbloggers in the Phillipines.”
I was next. I started by telling President Bush that I had spent Tuesday morning watching the original 9-11 “Today Show” broadcast in real time and that the experience had left me, among other thoughts and emotions, wondering whether his petition to the nation had been strong enough in terms of calling citizens to duty. (You all remember the snippet made famous in “Farenheit 911” where he tells the nation to “go to Disneyworld.”)
The president paused for a moment and then replied that he believed the nation had responded. “Volunteerism is up nationwide,” he said. “I’m headed to Quantico after this meeting to speak to a group of Marine second lieutenants, men and women who are joining the fight in spite of what they hear in the polls.”
About that time Chief-of-staff Josh Bolten poked his head in, a signal that told the president that Marine One was ready to go. “I want to show you all the Oval Office before I go, though,” he said as he rose from his chair.
I queued up behind him as he opened the big door to the Oval Office, and I was reminded of when Dorothy entered Oz. The colors, the lighting, the history (good and bad) . . . it was a rush. The president gave me one of his signature “it’s good to be king” expressions and quipped, “Pretty nice, huh?”
“Yessir, Mr. President. Pretty nice.”
So we each had our photo taken in front of his desk (I had a vision of the classic Nixon/Elvis shot), and I moved across the room to talk to Tony Snow (it was his last day on the job) and Dana Perino (who’s about five feet tall, max).
We finished our time with the Commander-in-Chief by ambling out to the Rose Garden and watching him get on Marine One for his flight to Quantico. As the helo flew out of sight somebody in the group spotted Barney, the First Dog. Bonus!
I will say, in general, at this meeting President Bush came off as more comfortable with the message than I’ve seen him appear on TV or in speeches. No deer-in-the-headlights stuff here. Truly unwaivering and passionate. He also grew very emotional as he made a linkage between his father’s service in World War II and the fact that Japan is now an ally and then said, “I’ve had meetings with the prime minister of the country he fought.” He actually teared up as he said that.
But my favorite quote came when he told us that he’d just finished reading three books about George Washington and his legacy. Again he gave that wry smile and said, “If they’re still writing about the first guy then the forty-third guy doesn’t have anything to worry about.”
All in all, it was an amazing day and one I’ll never forget. In fact, I’d rank the event a close second to the time I sat in with Cheap Trick. It was that good.
(Photo: Bill Roggio’s view of the meeting through his VTC screen in Iraq. I’m on the far right. That’s President Bush in the middle. Looks comfortable, don’t he?)
(Cross-posted at Defense Tech.)