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Open-Mike Night for the President

It doesn't happen often, but once in a while, the president doesn't realize he's in front of a live microphone -- and he says a few interesting things.
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It doesn't happen often, but once in a while, the president doesn't realize he's in front of a live microphone -- and he says a few interesting things.

In September 2000, for example, then-Gov. Bush didn't know he speaking in front of a live microphone when he told Dick Cheney, "There's Adam Clymer, major league asshole from the New York Times." (Cheney's famous response, "Big time.")

Several months later, shortly after he was inaugurated, the president met with a group of Roman Catholic bishops in the White House to tout his support for the "the Mexico City" policy, which bans federal aid to family planning groups that offer abortion counseling. (It got its name because Ronald Reagan launched the ban in Mexico City in 1984.) Bush, anxious to show his support for issues of direct concern to the church, didn't know that a live microphone was piping his remarks directly into the White House press room.

The president had just signed an executive order on the policy, literally just days prior to speaking to the bishops, but he struggled to explain his position. Bush ended up bragging about "the money from Mexico, you know, that thing, the executive order I signed about Mexico City." The nonsensical comments were a subtle hint, early on his presidency, about Bush's not-quite-towering intellect.

Yesterday, the open-mike problem happened to Bush again, though the consequences weren't nearly as entertaining. The president appeared at a House Republicans' retreat in Maryland to share his thoughts on the political landscape. Before he began speaking, however, the president said, "I support the free press -- let's just get them out of the room." In specific, Bush wanted to tell GOP lawmakers about his reasoning for the controversial warrantless-search program that is slowly dividing the Republican caucus.

What Bush didn't realize was that an open mike relayed his comments to reporters anyway.

Ironically, Bush told his GOP friends, "First of all, I expect this conversation we're about to have to stay in the room. I know that it's impossible in Washington." So, what interesting insights did reporters learn? There were none -- as the Washington Post noted, "Bush defended his warrantless eavesdropping program exactly as he has in numerous public appearances."

There may not have been any startling revelations yesterday, but I think this might be more interesting than it seems.

There's a classic Saturday Night Live skit from the 1980s featuring Ronald Reagan as a simple, quiet man in public, masking an adept technocrat with a vast policy expertise and an eye for remarkable detail. The "amiable dunce" facade was just an act.

Similarly, political observers sometimes wonder if Bush is sharper and more adroit than he seems in public. The president manages expectations by appearing to be simple, the theory goes, but behind closed doors, a skillful and adept leader emerges.

Incidents like the one yesterday suggest this is clearly not the case. Bush has had trouble explaining why he has the authority to circumvent the law and conduct domestic warrantless searches, so when reporters were ushered out of the room yesterday, only to discover that they could still hear Bush give Republican lawmakers his personal take on the controversy, reporters' hearts probably skipped a beat. Finally, they thought, an unvarnished, no-spin take on what the president says behind closed doors when he thinks he's only among like-minded friends.

But guess what -- that Bush is the same Bush we see all the time. He has his talking points, which he'll repeat no matter who's in the audience, and precious little else to say.

The amiable-dunce act, unfortunately, is genuine.

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