In an extraordinary display of presidential pique, George Bush accosted reporters aboard Air Force One on Thursday to let them know he was mad about news reports on his penchant for secrecy and wasn't going to take it anymore. Bush slept aboard Air Force One on Wednesday night in preparation for a 4 a.m. departure to a conference on drug-trafficking in Cartagena, Colombia.
Perhaps he got up on the wrong side of the airplane, for in mid-flight, Bush wandered back and lashed out at the small pool of reporters in the rear cabin with some humor, but mostly with testiness.
"We've got a whole new relationship," announced Bush, who has often said that some of his friends are reporters but has had a tumultuous relationship with the press.
From now on, there will be fewer news conferences, said the president, who has set records for question-and-answer sessions. And do not expect him to comment on anything, even on why he is not commenting.
"It'll be pleasant," Bush said. "It'll be fun. But it's different."
What made the president of the United States so annoyed? Not Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, Congress or Democrats in general. Not even the unauthorized news disclosures that so irritate Bush.
What got under Bush's skin was a new round of news reports focusing on the way he and his top aides have made misleading, even inaccurate statements, to protect top-secret plans.
Last year, even as he was planning the hurried Malta summit, Bush's spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, said the president was in "no hurry" for an early meeting with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
There were also the two secret missions to China after the crackdown on democracy demonstrators there. The White House announced the second trip, in December, after it began. But it never mentioned the first one, in July, and Secretary of State James Baker flatly denied at one point that there had been more than one trip.
"Deception, in fact, has become a hallmark of the Bush presidency," the New Republic magazine said in its most recent issue.
In the latest incident, Bush was asked on Monday whether he thought it was time for a four-power conference on a unified Germany. "Not at this juncture," he said. The next day, plans for just such a process - dubbed the "two-plus-four" agreement - were announced.
While the agreement was not made final until Tuesday, negotiators were hard at work as Bush spoke, and Brit Hume, White House correspondent for ABC News, criticized Bush on Wednesday evening for giving a misleading answer.
"It is not the first time the president's words have seemed to point in one direction while his actions have gone in another," Hume said in his broadcast.
It was that broadcast that set off Bush's anger Thursday. "I think we've had too many press conferences," he began. "It's not good."
A reporter asked what Bush would discuss with the presidents of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia at the drug-trafficking meetings.
"I hate to be secretive, to say nothing of deceptive," he replied, "but I'm not going to tell you that."
Would the president talk about using Navy ships to monitor South American drug-trafficking flights?
"I'm not going to discuss what I'm going to bring up," he said. "It's the new thing, a new approach. Even if I don't discuss it, I'm not going to discuss it."
What about a news report that President Virgilio Barco Vargas of Colombia had reached a tacit agreement with cocaine producers to slow down extradition proceedings if they stopped their attacks on the Bogota government?
"I have no comment whatsoever on that."
Did Bush know about the report? "I have no comment on whether I know about it or not."
Was it true? "I can't comment on whether it's true or not."
Why was he behaving this way?
"Because when I told you there was two plus four - that I didn't think there would be a deal - and they shortly made a deal and then I'm hit for deceiving you. So from now on, it's going to be a little different."
The reporters tried changing the subject.
Did Bush have a good night's sleep? "I can't go into the details of that, because some will think it is too much sleep and others will think it's too little sleep."
Well, what about the new relationship with the press?
"I can't comment on this new relationship," Bush said, grinning by this time. "I brought it up but that's all I want to say about it."