When I say we're in Australia, I mean the bulk of the press corps. Only a smaller pool of reporters was permitted to travel with the president for this three-hour visit in Bali, Indonesia. So many people travel with the president that most reporters follow him in an accompanying charter plane. And given the security situation in Bali, they didn't want to take the charter and Air Force One to the island. But, technology being what it is these days, the White House was able to pipe the president's press conference into our headsets on the press charter flight. In fact the cocoon of technology, while common, is breathtaking. Cell phone service has been great all over Asia. I'm writing this note while dialing up a local AOL number in Canberra. (AOL is a Time-Warner company. Tee hee.) And I'm watching another Time-Warner property, CNN.
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Now that Bush is en route to Australia, it's a good time to think about what his Asian trip meant. First, whatever you think of the man, he does know how to leave his stamp. The APEC group of 21 countries had never really tackled terrorism before. Bush put it on the agenda. It may not add up to much in the end, but he did a good job of making it front and center and putting the region's leaders on record. He was able to buck up buddies in the region. Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi is a Bush favorite; the president likes his kicked-back attitude and reformist impulses. He admires Philippine President Gloria Arroyo and Indonesia's Megwati. He see them as allies in the war on terror and he likes that both have tough roads ahead of them. Bush, say aides, is particularly admiring of leaders who have to struggle. He got to bond with his buddy Vladimir Putin.
On the question of nuclear proliferation, Bush isn't doing bad. Despite North Korea test-firing a missile this week, the multiparty talks in Beijing are proceeding a step forward from the stalemate of just a few weeks ago. And word that Iran is going to comply with international nuclear inspections and standards came as good news. In both cases, there's a trust-but-verify attitude in the White House.
Personally, Bush is very Bush on these trips. He works out as often as he can, using the hotel gyms where he's been staying, walking in the pool. (He's still suffering from a knee injury.) He's lifting weights.
Today, he came back on Air Force One to chat with reporters. This is a rarity for Bush, something he's only done couple of times during his presidency. By contrast his father came back very often and Bill Clinton would occasionally. It's only been a couple of hours, but I suspect the decision was hardly spontaneous but a decision to avoid the media filter by speaking directly to reporters. There's a lot of bitterness at the media in the White House, and Bush caused a bit of a stir when he criticized what he referred to as the national media "filter" last week.
The irony though is that Bush's poor standing in Iraq was exacerbated by the speech he gave directly to the country earlier this fall. That speech was about as filter-free as you can get and it backfired.
Got a few hours before I get up to go see the president's speech before the Australian parliament. Looking for a restaurant in Canberra that serves kangaroo. I'm serious. Had it last time I was here with Clinton. Tastes like venison. Will report back in the morning.