Hurtling 30,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean early Thursday morning, the pool of reporters accompanying President Bush to his drug-trafficking summit in Colombia became a captive audience for a presidential temper tantrum. Since the one-day summit was most newsworthy for what didn't happen - terrorists didn't attack, the United States didn't promise to subsidize farmers' conversions to crops other than coca, the South American presidents didn't buy the idea of an expanded U.S. military presence along their countries' coasts - it was overshadowed by Mr. Bush's bizarre confrontation with the White House press corps.
To the extent that his idiosyncratic brand of Bushspeak could be
interpreted, the president was expressing his displeasure with the media's accurate reporting of his administration's intentionally inaccurate public statements.
Mr. Bush wasn't happy in December when the press discovered that he and Secretary of State James Baker had lied about the administration's high-level contacts with China. Earlier, he wasn't happy when reporters pointed out that the Malta summit was hastily arranged only days after White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater had insisted that the president was in "no hurry" to meet with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. And he was especially unhappy this week when reporters noted the four-power talks on German reunification were
announced less than a day after he had said such negotiations weren't
appropriate "at this juncture."
Therefore, the president told the startled reporters clustered in the back of Air Force One, it's time for "a whole new relationship": fewer news conferences, less contact and less candor.
For an example of that "new relationship," consider the president's response to a reporter's pre-summit question about a proposal to use Navy ships to monitor suspicious flights from South America: "I'm not going to discuss what I'm going to bring up," Mr. Bush said. "It's the new thing, a new approach. Even if I don't discuss it, I'm not going to discuss it."
Let's hope that Mr. Bush had gotten his snit out of his system by the time Air Force One returned to Washington. Although he and other members of his administration have been caught telling two or three inexcusable whoppers, the president has established a relatively positive pattern of accessibility. His schedule of formal news conferences and informal question-and-answer sessions has been busy, and some of his record popularity is attributable to the easy
knowledgeability that he has displayed during most of those encounters.
A long weekend of rest and reflection at Kennebunkport may help the president remember that the media are only a channel through which he and his administration communicate with the American people. When White House officials lie to the press, they lie to all of us. And when they isolate themselves from the press, they isolate themselves from the public they are supposedly serving. If Mr. Bush really wants to start a new relationship with the press and public, he might consider more plain speaking and less plane speaking.