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Mark Knoller: Shelf Life For Heated Rhetoric Usually Short

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CBS White House Correspondent Mark Knoller has been thinking about President Bush's last press conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, where the two leaders offered up some rare regret for a few of the things that have been said over the past several years when it comes to the war in Iraq and the war on terror. Knoller weighs in on PE with his take on how hot rhetoric usually has a short shelf life:

Did President Bush really mean it the other evening - when he expressed regret for some expressions of verbal bravado in recent years?

At his joint news conference Thursday with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the two leaders were asked "which missteps and mistakes" about Iraq do they most regret? Mr. Bush was quick to respond. "Saying 'bring it on,' kind of tough talk, you know, that sent the wrong signal to people."

He also cited the time he said he wanted Osama bin-Laden "dead or alive."

"I learned some lessons about expressing myself maybe in a little more sophisticated manner," said Mr. Bush.

But there's no question he meant those words when he first spoke them. Look at those comments in their original context. During a visit to the Pentagon six days after the attacks of 9/11, a reporter asked the President if he wanted bin-Laden dead?

The President: I want him held --I want justice. There's an old poster out West, as I recall, that said, ''Wanted: Dead or Alive."
The reporter tried to get Mr. Bush to elaborate – as recorded by the official White House transcript:
Q: Are you saying you want him dead or alive, sir? Can I interpret …

The President: I just remember -- all I'm doing is remembering -- when I was a kid, I remember that they used to put out there in the Old West, a wanted poster. It said, ''Wanted: Dead or Alive.'' All I want and America wants him brought to justice. That's what we want.

It was a great quote from Pres. Bush – though the reporter was clearly leading the witness. And it was a response to another reporter's question two years later that elicited the other remark Mr. Bush says he now regrets.

In July of 2003, at the end of a photo op in which he announced the nomination of Randall Tobias to be Global AIDS Coordinator, the President was asked how he could get France, Germany and Russia to join the U.S.-led coalition of troops that invaded Iraq 3½ months earlier.

Mr. Bush really didn't address the point of the question, but renewed his determination to stay the course in Iraq.

The President: There are some who feel like that if they attack us, that we may decide to leave prematurely. They don't understand what they're talking about, if that's the case.

Let me finish. There are some who feel like that the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is: Bring them on. We've got the force necessary to deal with the security situation.

There were some who found the remark to be an unseemly and un-presidential dare to which American and allied troops would have to respond. But to this day, Mr. Bush repeatedly insists that he will not let the ongoing violence and bloodshed drive US forces to a premature withdrawal from Iraq.

He may regret the way he said it three years ago – but definitely not its meaning. And can there be any doubt that he still wants bin-Laden taken "dead or alive?" But in his comment last Thursday, he said: "I learned some lessons about expressing myself maybe in a little more sophisticated manner."

Yet sometimes, American presidents and other top officials can't help themselves. Ronald Reagan had a "bring it on" moment during his presidency in 1985. In remarks to business executives, he wanted to make the point that he won't be bullied by Congress into approving any bill that raises taxes.

I have my veto pen drawn and ready for any tax increase that Congress might even think of sending up. And I have only one thing to say to the tax increasers: Go ahead, make my day. [Laughter]"
It was the line made famous by Clint Eastwood in one of his "Dirty Harry" movies, when he dared a gunmen to shoot a hostage, so that Clint could then open fire on the gunman.

One is also reminded of the crack once uttered by the first President Bush during his 1992 campaign for re-election against Bill Clinton and Al Gore, likening them to clowns.

My dog Millie knows more about foreign affairs than these two bozos.
It was, to be sure, an un-presidential remark, though it genuinely reflected the depth of Mr. Bush's frustration at waging a losing campaign for a second term. Ironically, former presidents Bush and Clinton are now buddies, having led joint campaigns for hurricane relief in the U.S. and tsunami relief abroad. But there's no question Mr. Bush meant what he said about his opponent in the closing days of a heated campaign.

And there's no question that one-time Secretary of State George Shultz meant what he said in 1986 when he spoke of the firm stand the leaders at the G-8 Summit in Tokyo were taking against Libyan leader Muamar Qaddafi – who was seen as a sponsor of terrorism:

The message is: You've had it, pal!
It was the best soundbite ever uttered by Shultz. Twenty years later, Qaddafi is still in power, and the US just recently announced it was restoring diplomatic relations with Libya, because it gave up its ambitions for weapons of mass destruction. But at the time, the crack by Shultz was every bit of the "dead or alive" variety though its shelf life proved longer than some of the other quotes cited here.
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