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Jewish World Review April 21, 2004 / 30 Nissan, 5764

Roger Simon

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Performance anxiety | To be an effective president or an effective presidential candidate you have to be able to perform well in public.

As Lewis L. Gold, author of "The Modern American Presidency" writes, "Over the past 50 years, the institution of the presidency has evolved into a mixture of celebrity and continuous campaigning."

So it is fair to evaluate the performance abilities of our presidents and presidential candidates (yes, even down to what kind of ties they wear on TV.)

In the last week, the public has been treated to two major performances: George W. Bush held a formal press conference in the East Room of the White House last Tuesday and John Kerry was interviewed on "Meet the Press" for the full hour on Sunday.

Both events were fraught with peril for the performers. Both events required preparation, which is to say rehearsal. The campaigns can guess at what their performers will be asked, but they cannot know with certainty.

President Bush has had 12 formal press conferences since taking office and until last week I thought he did very well at them.

He clearly knows how to handle the press: He knows how to disarm reporters with humor or intimidate them with a sharp word. He knows how to deflect. He knows how to answer the question he wishes he were asked rather than the question he actually was asked.

These are not easy skills to acquire — they demand a reasonably nimble performer — but they are skills Bush has mastered.

Or so I thought until last week when Bush gave his third poorly-reviewed performance in a row. (The first one was his State of the Union speech in January and the second was his interview on "Meet the Press" in February.)

Since the Bush press conference has been much written about, however, let me leave that for a future column in order to evaluate Kerry's interview by Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" Sunday.

While I thought Kerry performed well when he was attacking Bush, I thought he did less well when he was defending his own past words and positions.

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The worst moment came when Russert played a videotape of Kerry's first appearance on "Meet the Press" on April 18, 1971 in which a 27-year-old, bushy-haired Kerry admits that he committed (sort of) atrocities in Vietnam:

"There are all kinds of atrocities," Kerry says on the tape, "and I would have to say that, yes, yes, I committed the same kind of atrocities as thousands of other soldiers have committed in that I took part in shootings in free-fire zones. I conducted harassment and interdiction fire. I used 50-caliber machine guns which we were granted and ordered to use, which were our only weapon against people. I took part in search-and-destroy missions, in the burning of villages. All of this is contrary to the laws of warfare."

The clip ends and Russert says to Kerry: "You committed atrocities."

To which Kerry replies lightheartedly: "Where did all that dark hair go, Tim? That's a big question for me."

I think that when humor is used well it can be a powerful tool. Humor is a good way to divert a tough question to safer ground. But after you have just admitted to blowing people apart with 50-caliber machine gun rounds, humor is not going to get you anything except winces and groans. Kerry went on to a serious reply, but the damage was done.

It was a bad moment. (Inexplicably, since Kerry had a transcript of his 1971 performance and should have been prepared for questions about it.) And it had been preceded by a missed moment: Russert asked Kerry about his now-famous assertion in March that "I have met more (foreign) leaders who can't go out and say it publicly but, boy, they look at you and say, 'You gotta win this, you gotta beat this guy, we need a new policy.' "

Russert asked Kerry to name the leaders and quoted a Washington Times story stating that Kerry "has made no official trips abroad in the past two years. Within the United States, he has had the chance to meet with only one foreign leader since the beginning of last year, according to a review of his travel schedule."

Kerry replied to Russert that "you can go to New York City and you can be in a restaurant and you can meet a foreign leader." This is no doubt true, but it was a missed opportunity.

What Kerry should have said is: "I'll tell you one foreign leader I did not meet with, Tim. I did not meet with Saudi Prince Bandar and collude to fix oil prices like President Bush did!"

Am I using 20-20 hindsight on all these points? You bet.

It always has been easier to be a critic than to be a performer.

Which is why we have so many critics.

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