Caught on Tape: Bush's Blunt Diplomacy

President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair

President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair chat during a lunch for G-8 leaders in St. Petersburg. Some of Bush's unguarded comments to Blair were caught by a microphone that was still on -- and later heard around the world. DMITRI ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption DMITRI ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images

President Bush was asked back in May whether he had any regrets about the way he's conducted the war on terrorism. "I learned some lessons about expressing myself," he said. And he said he should begin expressing himself "maybe in a more sophisticated manner."

Fast forward now to the G-8 summit that just concluded in St. Petersburg, and the now-famous exchange the president had with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the closing luncheon. The Russians were making a videotape while the leaders ate, and one of the microphones was left on. President Bush clearly had no notion that this had occurred.

"Yah, Blair! What are you doin'?" the tape caught him as he got the prime minister's attention.

They began chatting, and their conversation moved to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and his views on the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.

"Seems all right," the president said of Annan. "I don't like his cease-fire plan. His attitude is basically, cease-fire and everything else happens."

Mr. Bush, audibly noshing on food as he spoke, went on:

"You see, the irony is, what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it's all over."

The Cowboy Way

When the president was conversing with other leaders, he was heard at one point saying he didn't plan to speak much in his final summit remarks.

"I'm just gonna make it up," he said. "I'm not gonna talk too damn long like the rest of 'em. Some of these guys talk too long."

Mr. Bush asked Chinese President Hu Jintao if he had a long flight back to Beijing. "Doesn't take too long to get home?"

You could hear President Hu tell Mr. Bush that, in fact, he had about eight hours of flying ahead of him.

"Me, too," the president said. "Russia's a big country, and you're a big country."

The taped conversations were a window into a lot — including the president's beverage of choice.

"Not Coke," he told a server. "Diet Coke."

Mr. Bush's comments went global — fast — spreading on cable television, online news reports and blogs.

Not Much of a Mea Culpa

According to spokesman Tony Snow, aides informed the president on his trip home aboard Air Force One that a transcript of his comments was being widely publicized.

"His reaction first was, 'What did it say?'" Snow said. "So we showed him the transcript, then he rolled his eyes and laughed."

For the record, it was Blair who finally noticed the nearby mic was on and switched it off.

Blair had been on hand back in May, too, when President Bush told that questioning reporter he would restrain his rhetoric. At that time, in the midst of a news conference in the East Room of the White House, Bush had said he regretted saying "Bring 'em on!" in reference to Iraqi insurgents. Calling for Osama bin Laden to be caught "dead or alive" was likewise not the best choice of words, the president said.

Some at the time thought it noteworthy that Mr. Bush, who is not known for reflection, should offer even that much of a mea culpa. Perhaps a leader famously confident in his policies had to think of something to say when asked if he regretted anything — and saying he talked too tough once or twice was an easy out. (Blair, for his part, spoke of broader regrets, saying Iraq has been more "difficult" than he expected, and that he mistakenly thought the fall of Saddam would lead more quickly to democracy.)

Impatient as Ever

But George W. Bush has remained basically the same. The guy who said "Bring 'em on!" in 2003 is the same guy who said recently that Hezbollah should "stop doing this shit."

The world has changed since Mr. Bush took office. Confronting North Korea and dealing with a combustible Middle East are more complicated than rallying the nation after Sept. 11 and ousting the Taliban.

Some pundits have said the president is coming around to the idea of giving diplomacy a better chance.

But don't expect a different style or a vastly different way of thinking from the president.

If the lunch performance in Russia taught us anything, it's that Mr. Bush remains impatient with diplomatic nuance and fond of cutting to the chase.

He's never really adjusted his own style as a leader to changing times — and only history will say whether he should have.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from