From White House: Media discipline worthy of a drill sergeant

Bush has been solemn, and largely off-limits to the press, in early days of war. 'No questions' is the rule.

The small throng of reporters and cameramen hovers expectantly in the West Wing, waiting for President Bush to finish meeting with his cabinet and allow the press "pool" in for a photo op.

The journalists kibitz about what to ask: What will you do if Saddam Hussein just plain vanishes? Or, how confident are you that the war will prevent more terrorism than it provokes? Or perhaps a baseball question to soften him up: Should Pete Rose be allowed in the Hall of Fame, and by the way, how much will the war cost?

"No questions," an aide says just as the doors swing open and the reporters rush in. Bush talks for two minutes, praising the war effort and noting the importance of the economy, Medicare, and education. At his final word, the journalists burst forth with questions. Bush sits stone still, expressionless. The press is ushered out.

It's the first full day of the war against Iraq, and the White House's much-vaunted discipline is in full flower. "The president isn't taking any risks with his message," says Martha Joynt Kumar, an expert on presidential communication at Towson University in Maryland, who attends most White House briefings. "So, no questions."

Thus far, the only breach has taken place in the Oval Office itself, right before Wednesday night's announcement that war had started. The president's preaddress primping was broadcast live by the BBC, much to the chagrin of the White House, which promises from now on it will control the switches for the pool feed.

EVER since, the wartime message management has been a paragon of discipline. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer deflects many questions, and answers others by reinforcing key themes ad infinitum: The war could be tougher than expected; the president is engaged in events and making decisions when called for; the coalition fighting Iraq is growing.

On the front lines, the "embedding" of journalists with troops is providing unprecedented media access. At the White House, the best access that's been offered so far was an extensive briefing Thursday evening with a senior administration official, who walked reporters through the decision process, starting a week ago Sunday, that led to the war's launch.

Some of the details are destined for the history books: that the president gave the final approval for the initial attack of the war, on what was believed to be the Iraqi leadership, at 7:12 p.m. Wednesday. Gen. Tommy Franks, head of the US Central Command, had in fact already dispatched the bombers to Baghdad, and told the president that he had until 7:15 p.m. to decide whether to let them keep going. Bush's "war council" was unanimous: The mission should proceed.

Earlier that morning, the president had already given the go-ahead to start the war, before fresh intelligence suggested an opportunity to hit the Iraqi leadership. At the end of the meeting, the mood was solemn, the official said. Bush concluded with this statement: "For the peace of the world and the benefit and the freedom of the Iraqi people, I hereby give the order to execute Operation Iraqi Freedom. May God bless the troops." General Franks, who was communicating remotely from Prince Sultan air base in Saudi Arabia, responded: "May God bless America." Then they saluted one another.

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