Covering the White House, my colleagues and I listen carefully to every speech the President gives. We can often anticipate the stories and anecdotes he likes to share, but today we heard a few surprises.
The President has been taking questions from audiences at a few events recently. His advisers say they are not screened or scripted in advance as they often were during the campaign season. The best proof of that may well be in this exchange between the President and a man in the audience at Kansas State University.
"You're a rancher. A lot of us here in Kansas are ranchers. I was just wanting to get your opinion on "Brokeback Mountain" if you've seen it yet."
"You would love it. You should check it out."
PRESIDENT BUSH: "I hadn't seen it. I'd be glad to talk about ranching, but I haven't seen the movie."
"I've heard about it."
"I hope you go, you know..."
"I hope you go back to the ranch and the farms is what I was about to say."
"I hadn't seen it."
Not what the president was expecting at a "War on Terror" event. It seemed as if Mr. Bush wanted to say more but used the cover of laughter to calculate his options and he remained cautious. The Golden Globe honored film (if you haven't heard about it) is the unconventional love story between two male ranchers. Not an easy subject for the President (and his conservative base) who oppose gay marriage.
More nuggets from the presidential Q&A session between KSU students, soldiers from nearby Fort Riley, Kansas and members of the public:
BARNEY, THE FIRST SON?
When asked how he deals with the criticism of the job, Mr. Bush cited family and faith but also drew special attention to one of his two dogs. "There's my man Barney, the little Scottish Terrier," he said. "I say this, and Laura will be furious at me, but he's the son I never had, you know."
EXERCISER IN CHIEF
In answer to that same question, the President offered up an unusual criticism aimed at the general public apathy. The President talked about his dedication to exercise. Mr. Bush said, "I work out. I try to work out five or six days a week. It's really important, if you feel that's important for your life, to schedule your life. In other words, I have trouble with people saying, 'I'm so busy I can't exercise.' I don't think you're too busy for things that are important in your life, and you can figure out ways to make time in your life."
BUSH AND BLAIR
The president was asked by a Briton in the audience about the perception of some in the UK that Prime Minister Tony Blair is a "lapdog" to Mr. Bush. In his warm defense of his friend and U.S. ally, the President indicated that he speaks to Blair once a week. The White House often does a "read out" of the President's calls but has not made public how frequently the two men speak.
"DON'T GET TOO WINDY"
President Bush must have been in a talking mood today. Despite his retelling of the First Lady's admonition, "don't get too windy," the President spoke for one hour and 40 minutes, much longer than usual. He did not even get to the anticipated headline of his message for 40 minutes, at which time he finally explained his authorization of the controversial NSA eavesdropping program. His view can be summed up with this comment: "It's amazing that people say to me, 'Well, he was just breaking the law.' If I wanted to break the law, why was I briefing Congress?"
Generally, the unscripted nature of questions apparently carries only limited political risk. It seems most who attend these functions and feel compelled to go to the microphone support him strongly. He received a dozen questions and only two had a challenging tone. One asked about education cuts and the other wanted to know when the U.S. would do something about its own weapons of mass destruction.
Several of the others openly gushed praise. The president even gently reminded the gathering that this was a "question and answer period." Still, no one asked about the NSA eavesdropping, the White House's topic of the week. Instead, the president was queried about beef imports, the crisis in Sudan, relations with China and Iran, the political troubles of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, challenges of leadership, Judge Alito's confirmation prospects, social security reform, education spending and immigration -- plus that awkward movie review moment.
"DEAD OR ALIVE"
The President also provided a little insight about the counsel and criticism he takes from the first lady. The President recalled the famous or infamous blunt reference he once made to the hunt for Osama Bin Laden: "I said some things -- "Wanted dead or alive" -- and she said, "Well, you might be able to express yourself a little better than that."
Mr. Bush also achieved an unusual crowd reaction, the kind of spontaneous "awwwww" you'd otherwise hear at a bridal shower as the gifts are being opened. What got him such a response? The President was speaking about the first lady and said, "I love her a lot."