The President Will Now Answer Your Questions

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MEL EVANS / AP

Bush speaks to the World Affairs Council in Philadelphia

Maybe President Bush was feeling his oats with his polls on the rise. Maybe he wanted to tweak journalists for reports that he has been closed off. Maybe he was playing to Brian Williams, the anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, a former White House correspondent who was following him around for the day. Whatever the reason, the President acted as if it were the most normal thing in the world. "I've got a little extra time on my hands," Bush said mischievously as he wrapped a speech about Iraq to the Philadelphia World Affairs Council at lunchtime Monday, "so I thought I might answer some questions."

Whoa! Bush has concluded nearly every speech this year with a "Thank you" and "God bless," giving a Texas-sized smile and wave, then heading out the door and back in "the car," as his staff calls the Presidential limo. The simple fact he was taking questions from the audience—a staple for his carefully screened crowds during last year's campaign, but dropped after his reelection—was news in itself. And, as a reporter noted that night on a local newscast, some of the questions "were not marshmallows."

Two women in the audience at the historic Park Hyatt hotel, with cheeky, cleverly worded queries designed to produce newsworthy answers, seemed to be auditioning for the White House press corps. The President looked into the room holding 550 people around circular tables in the hotel's French Renaissance-style splendor, and called on Didi Goldmark, 63, a former libel defense lawyer from New Hope, Pa. "Since the inception of the Iraqi war," she said, "I'd like to know the approximate total of Iraqis who have been killed. And by Iraqis I include civilians, military, police, insurgents, translators." The topic is a favorite of liberal bloggers and the administration has usually brushed it off by saying that the Pentagon does not count Iraqi victims. The President showed a new confidence by answering the question head-on, with no filibusters. "How many Iraqi citizens have died in this war?" he said, beginning the answer that would create the headlines from the event. "I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis. We've lost about 2,140 of our own troops in Iraq." The White House later said the number was not a government estimate, but was based on news reports that the total was 27,000 to 30,000.

Squinting into the television lights, Bush later called on Faézé Woodville, 44, of Stratford, Pa., who cares for two sons at home. "Mr. President," she began, "I would like to know why it is that you and others in your administration keep linking 9/11 to the invasion of Iraq when no respected journalist or Middle Eastern expert confirmed that such a link existed." She got a burst of applause—this was no Bush-Cheney campaign audience. The President and other administration officials have often implied a link between Saddam Hussein and the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, and polls have shown that lots of Americans believe it. Bush was not so forthcoming with this answer. "I appreciate that," he began, which is the way he often begins the answers to questions he does not appreciate. He repeated some of his stock lines about how 9/11 had changed his view of foreign policy and then got even bigger applause by concluding: "Removing Saddam Hussein makes this world a better place and America a safer country." Chatting afterward with reporters from TIME and The Washington Post, Woodville said she was disappointed by the non-answer. "He must think we're morons," she said.

Demonstrators with signs like "Impeach" and "Fascist" were penned across Broad Street from Bush's hotel. They booed and shouted "Shame!" as he drove past. Williams asked Bush about the protesters. "They're frankly smaller than they used to be," he replied nonchalantly, after saying that he kind of gets used to them and that they're "part of living in a democracy." Another administration critic, Democratic Rep. Jack Murtha of Johnstown, Pa., was in town and shared Bush's time on the local news. Murtha staffers said it was a coincidence that the Democratic congressman, the most pro-military voice in Congress to call for a withdrawal from Iraq, was in Philadelphia, to visit the port and an obesity center. The burly, white-haired retired Marine officer, who received two Purple Hearts for volunteer service in Vietnam, held a news conference four blocks from the Park Hyatt, at the Ritz-Carlton. Murtha said he was getting huge response from the press and public because he has been articulating long-suppressed sentiments. And he seems to be reveling in the attention. As he walked to the black Denali that was ferrying him around, he told TIME: "When I go somewhere, the news media is totally all over me, because they know what the hell's going on."

The White House gave the royal treatment to Williams and his NBC crews, allowing such rare shots as the Air Force One stairs as seen from the spot where the President waves. The President could be seen before his speech next to a big diagram showing the event layout. And the President’s young trip director, Steven Atkiss, was shown pulling back the stage curtain as the President entered to cheers. Williams was given three separate interviews—in the Oval Office, on Air Force One and again in Philadelphia—with total time together, including non-camera time, of slightly over an hour. There was at least one Bushism, when Williams asked the President about one-time administration claims that Iraqis would welcome Americans as liberators. "I think we are welcomed. But it was not a peaceful welcome," the President replied.

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