Press reaction to Chimpy’s little chat with the TV this morning.
On the screen today could be seen 10 soldiers of the army’s 42d Infantry Division, based in Tikrit. They sat stiffly in three tight rows, joined by an Iraqi officer, apparently atop a building, under a blue-gray sky.
While the president asked the troops a half-dozen questions, appearing to do so extemporaneously, the troops evidently had prepared their answers. The format did not lend itself to more frank exchanges.
Overall, the presentation was less than smooth. The soldiers sat rigidly, and initially with fixed expressions, though they loosened up after Mr. Bush cracked a few jokes.
The president seemed slightly uncomfortable himself, fiddling constantly with his earpiece, perhaps put off by an echo that could be clearly heard over the video hookup.
The White House apparently intended the event to be a question-and-answer session with the soldiers, as Bush, adopting a folksy, informal manner, sought both to assure them of popular support and draw them out about their activities in Iraq.
But the troops, who sat in three tiered rows at their base in Tikrit, the hometown of deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, took turns giving what appeared to be prepared statements that were not necessarily related to the questions Bush was asking.
Before the teleconference, Allison Barber, deputy assistant to the secretary of defense, went through a rehearsal of the scripted question-and-answer session, telling the troops that any nonscripted questions from the president should be handled by Kennedy.
When asked about the rehearsed event, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the coordination was done because of the “technological challenges” of a satellite feed, denying responses had been screened.
The president engaged in a carefully choreographed question-and-answer session with 10 American servicemen and women and one Iraqi soldier, whom he saw on a large video screen set up in a room of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House.
Before it began, a Pentagon official coached the troops, telling them the president planned to ask questions on three topics: The overall security in Iraq, how they were preparing for the vote on Saturday and how much progress had been made in the training of Iraqi troops.
Allison Barber, a Pentagon official, said Bush would ask them specifically, “In the last 10 months, what kind of progress have we seen?”
She asked who was prepared to answer the question. “Master Sgt. Lombardo,” one said.
After Bush asked just that question, Master Sgt. Corine Lombardo responded: “Over the past 10 months, the capabilities of the Iraqi security forces are improving … They continue to develop and grow into a sustainable force.”