Move over, Oprah. President George W. Bush is making himself into television's newest talk show host by making audience participation a feature of his appearances. Bush has been taking questions from audience members in recent speeches, and the White House says none has been prescreened. It's a throwback to the folksy style on the campaign trail that helped him win re-election and a departure from the heavily scripted speeches that were the norm last year.
And his answers have resulted in some revelations, both personal and political. The White House has grown so comfortable with the format that most of his appearance Monday at Kansas State University was reserved for Q-and-A with the audience.
And unlike the more intimate settings where the president has taken questions before, this appearance was set in front of a coliseum full of several thousands, including students, soldiers from nearby Fort Riley and invited guests.
Bush has taken a wide variety of questions in three appearances during the last six weeks. Many of the people he has called on have fawned over him, thanking him for his wartime leadership, saying they pray for him and bringing best wishes from other fans in their family who couldn't be there.
"It's always good to have a plant in every audience," Bush joked last week in Sterling, Virginia, after a woman rose and said she was proud of him.
But he has gotten some tough questions, too, such as the one from a woman in Philadelphia last month who challenged the administration's linkage of the Iraq war to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Bush said Saddam Hussein was a threat and at the time was widely believed to have weapons of mass destruction, which later proved false.
In response to another question in Philadelphia, he estimated 30,000 Iraqis had died in the war, the first time he publicly put a number on Iraqi deaths. In Louisville, Kentucky, he signaled that after initial reservations, he was resigned to congressional hearings into his domestic spying program as long as they don't aid terrorists.
He has spoken about one of the worst things about being president exposing his daughters to public scrutiny, and one of the best impressing his childhood friends with dinner at the White House. "It's a great honor, pretty awe-inspiring deal," Bush said in Virginia. "They walk in there and, kind of (say), `What are you doing here, Bush?"'
He also ruled out any future run for office by his wife, Laura, in response to a plea from a fan who called her "one of the best first ladies we've ever had." And he disclosed that Mrs. Bush designed the rug in the Oval Office. "I said, I want it to say `optimistic person comes here to work every day,"' the president said. "It was the strategic thought for the rug. She figured out the colors. And it looks like a sun, with nice, open colors."
Bush was opening Monday's event in Manhattan, Kansas, by talking about the war on terror and making a point of defending his secret domestic eavesdropping program. It's part of a new administration effort to convince Americans that the National Security Agency's communications spying program is necessary to fight terrorism. The public relations campaign comes two weeks before congressional hearings to examine the top-secret program, disclosed last month by The New York Times, are set to begin. Critics have said the president broke the law by authorizing the eavesdropping without a judge's approval and by failing to fully consult with Congress.
"Such irresponsible accusations will not keep us from acting to stay a step ahead of a deadly enemy that is determined to strike America again," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in a statement Sunday.
While the president was heading for Kansas, anti-abortion activists were gathering in Washington and elsewhere to protest the 33rd anniversary of the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. As he has in past years, Bush planned to call in his support rather than attend in person, reports the AP. N.U.