White House press secretaries don't usually get a round of applause in the briefing room, but Tony Snow's return today was different. He's back after learning five weeks ago that his colon cancer returned and that cancer cells are now attached to his liver. Five weeks ago, the outlook was grim from the White House and his friends. Today, after we sat for an interview that will air tonight on Nightly News, he said the day he made his condition public, he initially got it wrong, telling his own press office staff the cancer was inside his liver. As I said, the cancer is attached, which doctors have told him is an important difference. It's rare, I joked with him today, that a press secretary inadvertently makes something sound worse than it is!
Nevertheless, this is a serious time for Tony, his wife and three kids. He begins chemotherapy this Friday and faces an uncertain future. He's forced, he said, to look at life in small chunks of time rather than gazing out at a seemingly endless horizon.
Video: For the first time in five weeks, Tony Snow talks to reporters from a White House podium. This video is from the morning "gaggle" with reporters, which is usually off-camera.
On Nightly News Wednesday we reported how rare it was for the President to issue a body count -- the number of enemy killed. He said it at the Pentagon, and it struck me immediately that it may have been the first time I've heard him issue such a tally of enemy killed.
It's been reported that the President has always been keenly interested in learning what the numbers are. Thursday, during the White House briefing, Tony Snow was asked why he gave an enemy body count.
For those of us on Air Force One this morning, our curiosity with today’s stop was endless. We all peered out the window as the President’s aircraft made its final approach toward Hanoi, the capital of communist Vietnam.
I was just a toddler when America was getting out of the war, so it was hard to connect emotionally to the passions and the pain of America’s bloody chapter in Vietnam. Yet, descending the stairs of the plane, I took a deep breath in wondering how many young Americans reacted to the smell of Vietnam by questioning whether they would die there, never to smell home again.
On this hazy, humid day an American President was greeted as a friend, not an enemy. This war-torn capital has been transformed. Now it’s the host of a regional economic summit. A billboard opposite Air Force One displayed names like Microsoft, Samsung, and Citigroup, sponsors all, of Vietnam’s economic prosperity.
It's not often the President chooses to speak to a crowd that includes his friends and his enemies. But that's what he's doing in 30 minutes at the United Nations General Assembly.
Today all of us will spend equal time listening to Bush and watching the crowd to see the likes of Iran's volatile President Mahmound Ahmadinejad reacting.
For all the build up, White House sources say there won't be any direct provocation. But it's still high drama. The two have openly challenged each other, and while Ahmadinejad would love to debate the President, Mr. Bush has refused to meet with him until Iran agrees to end its pursuit of a nuclear program.
The General Assembly has never been a friendly place for this President. He made the case for war against Saddam here and has since done little to hide his distrust of the international body.
But things have changed now. Critics say the President can't afford to isolate the U.N. He needs U.N. action to confront Iran, North Korea and to help in Iraq.
And so Bush will keep it friendly today. I'm told the major theme will be supporting moderate governments in the Middle East to combat a wave of Islamic extremism.
We'll hear from Ahmadinejad later.
Editor's note: You can watch President Bush's 11:30 a.m. ET speech at the U.N. live by clicking here.
Don't get me wrong, working inside the White House -- the West Wing even -- is an incredible honor. There is nothing like coming through the Northwest visitor's entrance and beholding one this country's great buildings and institutions.
Having said that, the press room here sorely needs a face lift. In fact, it's a dump. Reality is, while I respect my colleagues, there is not much common effort to show respect for the space we occupy. Example? About a year ago Tom Hanks donated a fancy espresso machine to the room and these days I wouldn't dare drink from it.
Covering the White House, I talk a lot about issues like the war, or immigration, or the deficit impacting the president or his party. This week I had a chance to get outside Washington and talk to some voters for a piece I'm working on for Nightly News.
I've been studying our polls and wondering where and why Bush is losing Republican support. My producer Julie Holstein and I went to the Philadelphia suburbs where three Republican congressmen are trying to hold on to their seats in an area of upper income, socially moderate voters -- reliable Republican territory for years but a major battleground this fall. Pennsylvania is also the state with one of the most interesting Senate races in the country featuring Rick Santorum who trails badly in the polls in part because of his close association in voters minds with President Bush.
Just back from the White House press conference with Nouri Al-Maliki and I'm struck by a couple of things: It was the Iraqi prime minister's first ever visit to the White House and yet the White House allowed just two questions from the American and Iraqi press. So many issues remained unaddressed. It would seem to me that the president would want a fuller airing of his views on a subject severely undermining his political status at home and U.S. policy abroad.
Here's what I would have asked: "Mr. President, you argued before the war that invading Iraq would bring stability to a vital region of the world and would create a new stage of Arab-Israeli peace. Yet today, sectarian violence in Iraq is killing 100 civilians a day in Baghdad; Democratic reform has produced Hamas and Hezbollah; U.S. policy has also created a defiant, resurgent Iran. Do you acknowledge fundamental misjudgments about the war and what do you do about them now?"
Nothing motivates like a 36 percent approval rating in the polls. That appears to explain the president’s expansive mood of late. You saw it in the press briefing today at the White House. Billed as a statement about the economy (it surged forward in the first quarter), it became a 35-minute press conference. The president was so eager to take questions (on everything from gas prices to Iran to voting rights) he called on one reporter twice! Not me. No, I received special treatment from the ebullient leader: when pressed on what his staff turnover said about what HE thinks he needs to do to turn his presidency around, he joked “I’m not going to hire you, if that’s what you were suggesting.” I was not. But he continued, “You can’t pass the background check.”
But seriously folks... today represented a new turn for the president, I think. New Chief of Staff Josh Bolten has ushered in an urgent charm offensive. The idea is to engage the press corps more often and more assertively. But it’s not all style. Stay tuned for more turnover in the next couple of weeks and new policy direction, too. The president’s proposals on lowering gas prices this week marked a new embrace of government intervention and environmental activism by this administration. Bush hasn’t exactly gone green, but it’s something.
This White House team may become more organized and assertive, but the president is still looking for the one thing that eludes him: a break.
It may sound strange, but the only way the President thinks he can forge any kind of relationship with Chinese President Hu Jintao is over a meal. When Mr. Bush went to China last fall, he said he wanted to spend more time getting to know what this enigmatic figure running a country of 1.3 billion people really thinks. Hu's response: Let's talk at dinner.
Fast forward to today's rather awkward White House meeting -- again the two leaders had their most heart to heart moments at lunch. The formal meetings, you see, are attended by too many aides. Even the one-on-one meeting has 12 people I'm told.
Today, most of Mr. Bush's job was keeping smoke from coming out of Hu's ears.
There's more than meets the eye to this latest White House shakeup. Of course, any administration sees turnover in year six, but this is no average second term. These changes are course correction and as one republican told me recently the changes would be more significant than people expected.
The big change is a subtle one: Karl Rove, the President's political guru and since last year deputy chief of staff will be losing some of his day to day duties as deputy to new chief of staff, Josh Bolten. The proximate cause, officials said today, was Bolten himself. He wanted his guy, a former Budget office aide Joel Kaplan, as his right hand man.