Prez's media handlers complain to embassy about RTE interview
By Susan Falvella-Garraty
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The White House has officially registered its concerns with the Irish embassy over a television interview conducted by RTE's Washington correspondent, Carole Coleman.
President Bush is well known for giving nicknames to staff and members of the press. Following his trip to Ireland last week, he might have a new one for Ireland's state broadcaster: Radio-Television-Evil. The interview, conducted in an aggressive style, was distressing enough to the White House, but it was followed 24 hours later by an unexpected peek, courtesy of an RTE cameraman, of the president in his underwear while leaning toward a window at Dromoland Castle,
Besides registering their displeasure at the diplomatic level, White House officials then withdrew their agreement to an interview originally scheduled for Saturday morning with First Lady Laura Bush, which was also due to be conducted by Coleman. No explanation was offered as to why the interview with Mrs. Bush was canceled.
The row started on the eve of the president's departure from Washington to Shannon. Coleman was allowed an exclusive interview in the Map Room of the White House.
Although over the years there have been several presidential interviews by journalists for Irish newspapers, this was the first Irish television interview since Ronald Reagan was in the White House.
Coleman proceeded with consistently definitive questioning of President Bush, who was clearly rattled at the intensity.
"Please, please, for a minute, OK?" Bush said in response to a question about the Middle East. "It'd be better if you'd let me finish my answers and then you can follow up, if you don't mind."
The director of the newly formed White House office of Global Communications, Mary Catherine Andrews, rang the Irish embassy's press secretary immediately after the interview was broadcast on the RTE Prime Time news show to express concern.
"The White House rang Thursday evening," said Irish embassy spokeswoman Síghle Dougherty. "They were concerned over the number of interruptions and that they thought the president was not given an opportunity to respond to the questions."
The White House registered its concerns with the embassy because embassy staff had helped vet the request for the interview.
"The White House came to us weeks before the summit and asked what we thought of the request" by RTE for an interview, Dougherty said.
"The White House made it clear they only wanted to do television, and we explained that RTE was certainly a credible news organization.
"They were mostly troubled by what they said was the way the president was 'talked over.' "
During the interview, President Bush disputed the assertion by Coleman that the world had become a more dangerous place since the invasion by U.S. and British troops into Iraq, and that the focus had shifted from going after Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11 attacks to going after Saddam Hussein.
"On Sept. 11, 2001, we were attacked in an unprovoked fashion -- everybody thought the world was calm," the president said. "There've been bombings since then, not because of my response to Iraq. There were bombings in Madrid. There were bombings in Istanbul. There were bombings in Bali. There were killings in Pakistan."
At one point the president referred to Saddam Hussein's use of weapons of mass destruction against his own people.
"Indeed, Mr. President, but you didn't find the weapons of mass destruction," Coleman retorted.
"Let me finish," Bush said. "Let me finish, please. Please. You ask the questions and I'll answer them, if you don't mind."
As the interview continued, President Bush admonished Coleman three more time in similar terms as the two wrestled over control of the direction of the interview.
The tenor of the interview was established early when Coleman pointed out that the president should not expect a "céad a míle fáilte" the next day by the majority of Irish people when Air Force One touched down in Shannon. Many Irish people, Coleman added, were deeply disappointed over the U.S. military's treatment of prisoners in Iraq and detainees in Guantanamo, Cuba.
"I hope the Irish people understand the great values of our country, and if they think that a few soldiers represent the entirety of America, they really don't understand America then," the president said.
The Bush White House has made huge, and largely successful, efforts to control the media's coverage of the president.
Even Coleman had to agree to not use her own cameramen and technicians in order to get the interview. The interview was taped by White House staff television technicians.
The massive security efforts had gone along as planned, with 6,000 officers providing security for the President and Mrs. Bush during their short stay in Dromoland Castle in Newmarket-on-Fergus in County Clare. Demonstrators never got anywhere close to the president during the 18 hours he was on the ground.
But if the demonstrators had to try to make the case that Bush was like an emperor with no clothes, it was RTE who gave them the pictures to prove their point.
The president appeared at the window of his hotel room and could be seen from the waist up wearing an undershirt. The video was distributed to all worldwide media outlets and were previewed by journalists at the press-pool center at the castle.
Moments after the distribution, a memo was sent to all major media outlets from the Irish government prohibiting the broadcasting of Bush in his underwear.
But it was too late. Sky News had already broadcast the image.
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern later told Sky's "Sunday With Adam Boulton" program: "The cameras were meant to have been off five minutes earlier."
He added: "Certainly a camera crew that was working for us should not have been filming George Bush's bedroom. I mean, that isn't what we're meant to be doing."
Showing why he's earned the moniker "the Teflon Taoiseach," Ahern concluded: "In actual fact he looks a very fit man, probably far fitter than me. He goes out jogging and cycling every day and he's a very healthy-looking fellow."