Monday, September 27, 2004

O'Reilly's Bush Interview, Pt. 1

The first part of Bill O'Reilly's interview with President Bush aired tonight on Fox News Channel. The interview is being shown in three parts, Monday through Wednesday, completely unedited. Before commenting on the details of the interview, some general thoughts.

I think that sitting down for this interview was an incredibly smart move for Bush to take, for several reasons. First, the interview gives Bush great exposure. O'Reilly has the number one prime time cable news show on the air, regularly attracting over 3 million viewers each night. Furthermore, many of these viewers are "independent" voters, who remain in the undecided category for the presidential election. Bush will essentially get three days of free publicity with a key voter demographic.

Second, the format of the interview plays to Bush's strengths. Say what you will about O'Reilly from the left or the right, but the man is an old-school journalist who makes his living asking tough questions. Bush's direct, determined personality is tailor-made for O'Reilly's "no-spin" questioning. Whether you agree with his answers is almost beside the point. When quick, confident answers are provided to pointed questions, it reinforces Bush's decisive nature with the viewers. Also, the unedited airing lends the whole interview an aura of credibility to swing voters.

Third, timing. The interviews lead directly into Thursday's first presidential debate. I don't know if the Bush team planned the interview this way, or if O'Reilly decided when to air the interview. What I do know is the timing of the interviews essentially allows Bush to define the terrain of his first battle with Kerry. Bush's responses in the interview will most likely sow seeds in the minds of voters which will be harvested during the first debate.

Fourth, campaign initiative. The O'Reilly interview is the most serious question/answer session that either candidate has had with any journalist so far in this campaign. By making the first move and interviewing with a hard-hitter like O'Reilly (as opposed to Jon Stewart of The Daily Show), Bush has upped the ante for Kerry. He is practically daring Kerry to follow suit and put his own record up for tough scrutiny. The assumption is that Kerry is so "nuanced" that he will fare poorly in a real no-holds-barred interview. And if Kerry declines to take the bait, Bush can crow about how he is confident enough in his positions to put them to the test. While O'Reilly claims he would be fair to Kerry, the fact is simply that with the number of different positions Kerry has taken on so many issues, an O'Reilly interview would likely make him come out looking worse for wear.

Now, for some specific thoughts on tonight's interview, in no particular order:

-- Bush appeared relaxed and confident, as expected.

-- He could have answered better on the WMD issue--he may have no idea where they are, but I'll bet he has suspicions. Why not say so, without getting into too many specifics? Plenty of people have commented on the Syria connection, couldn't that have been alluded to?

-- I think he gave a good explanation on the "Mission: Accomplished" carrier landing, essentially saying it was a morale-booster.

-- Started weakly on Iran, with emphasis on diplomacy, but then said the key words I was waiting for: "All options are on the table." Translation: military intervention is possible. I wish he had been a bit more forceful, but I suspect that we will see a harder line on Iran taken in a second Bush term, should he win.

-- Illegal immigration was I think the weakest part of this first chunk of interview. He tried to emphasize his temporary work permit plan (which I dislike), which avoided the real issue of how we can make our borders more secure. While I disagree with O'Reilly's stance that we should militarize the borders, I do think that we need both a drastic overhaul of INS rules and regulations for immigration, as well as major increases in Border Patrol funding and staffing. Temporary work permits, like restrictive gun laws, will be a problem only for those on the right side of the law, and not for any terrorist who tries to enter the country. O'Reilly rightly called Bush on the somewhat unresponsiveness of his answer.

Overall grade for Bush: B. I think he started the interview fairly well, and maintained his confidence and directness throughout. A more forceful response on Iran would have earned him a B+, while a better answer on the immigration issue would get him into the A range. I think overall a good first night. I think the cumulative effect of the three interviews will be very positive for Bush, even if answers to individual questions leave something to be desired.

Back tomorrow night with thoughts on the second interview.