Bush shows humor at conference


WASHINGTON When President George W. Bush calls a news conference, the world listens — and laughs.

Those who would poke fun at Bush’s idiosyncrasies first must beat him to the punch lines as he demonstrated on Thursday in the second solo news conference of his presidency and later at a black-tie media dinner.

With just 45 minutes notice, the media scrambled to pack into the less-than-elegant environs of the White House briefing room — instead of the formal, gilt-and-chandelier filled East Room — to hear Bush hold forth on taxes, global warming, nuclear proliferation, violence in the Middle East and relations with Russia as well as his former presidential rival John McCain.

Interspersed were moments of levity with Bush as jokester and the media as his unwitting straight men and women.

A press conference would not be complete without at least one of Bush’s thoroughly documented excellent adventures with the English language and he quickly provided a sample.

“Those who think that they can say ‘We’re only going to have a stimulus package, but let’s forget tax relief’ misunderestimate our — excuse me — underestimate,” Bush said, catching himself too late.

“Just making sure you’re paying attention,” he quipped.

Urging reporters to stay tuned for more, he delivered later at the annual White House Radio and Television Correspondents’ dinner, reprising some of his most famous bloopers.

“In my sentences I go where no man has gone before,” he said. “I’ve coined new words like Hispanically. I’ve expanded the definition of words themselves using vulcanize when I meant polarize, Grecians when I meant Greeks, inebriating when I meant exhilarating and instead of barriers and tariffs, I said terriers and bariffs and you know what, life goes on.”

At his news conference, in the middle of a long answer about his $1.6 trillion tax cut proposal and his budget plan, Bush barely missed a beat when the chirp of a pager intruded.

“One-point-six is the size that I think is right,” he said. “And we’ve had a lot of discussion here in Washington about whether it’s too big or too small. Nothing has changed my opinion about the size of the package I sent. It’s the right size. Don’t worry about the beeper violation.”

Pagers and cellular telephones are Bush’s pet peeves. Reporters are instructed to turn them off in advance and Bush recently chastised an aide for failing to enforce the policy.

“There’s gas in our hemisphere,” Bush declared in response to a question about possible oil drilling in an Arctic wildlife preserve. After a pause, he drew laughter when he added: “I’d like it to be American gas.”

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush preferred talking to reporters informally rather than in the elaborate prime-time television events in the East Room favored by many of his predecessors.

His father, former President George Bush, also opted for more informal settings.

“He always reserves the right to come down here on short notice,” Fleischer said, referring to the briefing room.

“The president continues to be accessible, and that will be his approach.”