On the Plane

Sit-down With Bush on Air Force One

By Michael Abramowitz
ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE--In two years of covering the White House and traveling on the presidential plane, I had never ventured beyond the small press cabin in the back, where the traveling pool of reporters is confined on most trips.

Until Monday, when I was invited forward for an interview with President Bush in his tiny office near the front of the specially designed 747 Air Force plane.

I am embarrassed to say that I was so focused on trying to figure out how to cram dozens of potential questions into 20 minutes with the leader of the free world that I was not paying particular attention to the interesting scenery around me. But here's a little of what I did notice:

Approaching the presidential cabin, I passed through two large rooms, where top aides were scattered about. There was a smaller room equipped with two large computers (with slow internet access, apparently) that the staff can use.

Inside his office, Bush was waiting for me, his Air Force One flight jacket draped over the back of his chair. I took the seat opposite (the one with the first lady's flight jacket on the back of it). Sitting to the side were press secretary Dana Perino and communications chief Kevin Sullivan.

Up close, the vigorous and highly fit president seemed more aged than he appears on television. But Bush was in a feisty mood, eager to challenge me over some of my questions: "Are you giving me the summary of the story or were....you trying to actually talk to the guy who formulated the policy?" Bush said at one point, when I interrupted him to ask a question.

At a certain point he questioned whether I had done research on a certain element of U.S. policy towards Taiwan: Thankfully, I had, prompting him to joke later in the interview that he had "offended" me by questioning how much I knew about foreign policy.

There is an inherent tension in trying to let Bush have an opportunity to complete his thoughts on any given issue and still getting in a good number of pointed questions within the limited time that I knew I had.

I pitched the interview request to Perino as an opportunity to flesh out the president's thinking about China, an interesting subject that--compared to Iraq, Afghanistan and terrorism--has received relatively little attention over the years.

But I still hoped to pose a few questions about Iraq and the allegations of political favoritism in hiring at the Justice Department--a subject Bush had not been directly questioned about since the release of a critical report last week.

I was able to get it all in by pushing the interview beyond the allotted time--prompting a bit of sarcasm on the part of the president. Glancing at the papers where I had typed two dozen or so possible queries, Bush joked to Perino: "The guy wrote 1,800 questions, and you only let him have 12."

I came away from the interview with a sense of a guarded president, skeptical of the press and anxious not to make "news" except on his own terms. He resisted, for instance, my efforts to get him to talk more expansively about the recent IG report on hiring at Justice and refused to acknowledge any daylight between him and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki about the future pace of US troop withdrawals in Iraq.

On the other hand, Bush seemed interested, even willing, to share some insights into his personal interactions with the senior Chinese leadership, especially President Hu Jintao; he evinced sympathy for Hu's challenges as a leader.

When I ventured to suggest that Bush had given the Chinese a mixed grade on their cooperation on world affairs, he replied: "They may give us a mixed grade."

NOTE TO READERS: From noon on Tuesday until around 3 p.m. on Wednesday, On the Plane -- as well as other Washington Post blogs -- will be migrating to a new hosting facility, updating its software and generally straightening the technological drapes. And that means there won't be new posts or fresh comments posted here for the duration of the upgrade. News from Bush's Asia trip will continue, of course, and can be found on the homepage. The blog will go live again as soon as the update is done.

By Washington Post Editor |  August 5, 2008; 10:21 AM ET  | Trip:  Bush in Asia, August 2008
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