Let's Make One Thing Clear!

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If one were to play a drinking game along with today's Presidential press conference — and, really, what could be more fun? — I hope, for your liver's sake, you don't choose to drink every time Bush says "clear" or "clarity" or "clarifies." That'd be about 24 shots of something, and, undoubtedly, things would quickly become very unclear.

"Clarity," ironically, happens to be the verbal scrim the Administration has used to cover its agenda in pushing legislation on the treatment and judicial fate of terrorism suspects, which effectively rolls back key provisions of the Geneva Conventions. The President repeatedly insisted that the legislation is needed so that American officials interrogating suspected terrorists know what they can and cannot do, and, more darkly, that they know they won't be prosecuted for what they do. Of course, the competing measure sent forward by the Armed Services Committee Thursday night is also clear — maybe "don't torture" is a little too clear for the Administration's liking.

For a press conference that dealt with such weighty measures — a rare case where, as Carl Hulse wrote in today's New York Times, " the policy is as monumental as the politics," the meeting had more than the usual share of light-hearted moments. Bush always tries a little too hard to remind those watching at home that he's one of the boys; his penchant for broad one-liners and his reflexive "heh-heh-hehing" has earned him the nickname "Shecky-in-Chief" from some. Today, there was prop comedy from NBC's David Gregory, who had to extricate himself from his microphone cord only to be teased, "I must say, having gone through those gyrations, you're looking beautiful today, Dave." After a slightly rocky start, Bush even felt bold enough to mockingly chastise one journalist's query about "the eavesdropping program." "We call it the 'terrorist surveillance program,'" he interjected, eyebrows wriggling. Then there was a forcefully jocular exchange with Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times, who explained her rather informal greeting — "Hi, Mr. President" — by saying "We're a friendly newspaper." The gathered reporters started giggling even before Bush could deliver the pat punchline: "Let me just say, I'd hate to see unfriendly."

Bush's joshing with the press hardly indicates he's friendly with them. If anything, it's a reminder that he's the one with authority to snap towels. (Something about President Bush's fraternity-guy demeanor demands that particular colloquialism.) His back-and-forth with Stolberg, for instance, started because Bush clearly objected to a greeting with any number of syllables less than two. This, moments after flirting with David Gregory. Don't forget who's in charge, okay?

Bush's obsession with keeping the Washington hierarchy, well, clear, was on less subtle display with Gregory toward the end of the elegant anchor's question. He pressed his point that if the U.S. decided to revamp the Geneva Conventions for our own convenience, what would stop other countries — say, Iran or North Korea — from modifying them the same way? What if, Gregory asked, U.S. soldiers "were interrogated in accordance with our interpretation of the Geneva Conventions, and then they were put on trial and they were convicted based on secret evidence that they were not able to see, how would you react to that as Commander-in-Chief?"

Bush at first said he'd be fine with that — a point that seems destined to be challenged — then seemed to remember his famous impatience with hypothetical questions, and veered back onto talking points (something about "clarity"). When Gregory tried to get him back to the original question, Bush raised his voice like a retiree haggling over Bingo.

QUESTION: "This is an important point, and I think it..."
BUSH: "The point I just made is the most important point."

Bush's confidence in such settings may inspire some, though it's his very refusal to see shades of gray that makes the Administration's position on torture so frustrating for civil rights advocates. Bush and his allies seem to argue that it is the ideals we fight for — and not how we fight — that defines a democracy. If that's a civil society, I'd hate to see an uncivil one.