Grim, Defensive, Bush Meets Press, Shoring Up War

On Tuesday evening, April 13, President George W. Bush, furrowed and wound tight, shrouded in determination, moved down a red carpet in the East Room of the White House to engage the press on prime time television. His evening appearance was meant to re-establish his leadership for the American television viewer during a week when violence in Iraq had stolen the news cycle from the Administration’s policy of unshakable resolve.

Prepped and rough-edged, Mr. Bush, was at first grim, stern, alternately energized and halting, emphatic and inarticulate, mixing his confident smirk with stumped silences as he batted out his message with in terse slogans: “We must not waver …. We serve the cause of liberty …. We’re changing the world,” he told the television audience.

Certainly, before Mr. Bush had arrived, the press had a different sense of the history about to unfold. But Mr. Bush’s staff framed the evening, stating the message of the broadcast: It was a “historic moment” and “historic opportunity.” Fox News assisted him with a helpful ticker: “BUSH: Freedom is the deepest need of every human soul.”

Mr. Bush delivered an unusually long and fervent opening statement, breaking the news that more troops might be called up and sent over if requested, and reasserting the June 30 hand-off date to an Iraqi authority. He then opened himself to questions, some of which he answered, others of which he simply responded to with his own unrelated statements.

When harder questions came, Mr. Bush gamely stepped around them. He stuck with the company line that he may have been misinformed, but the attack on Iraq served the world well. Whether that line washes in the next few months remains to be seen. But Mr. Bush appealed directly to the TV viewer by acknowledging what they were seeing there every day. “Look,” he said, “nobody wants to see dead people on their television screens. I don’t like that. It’s gut wrenching.”

Fox News gave this interpretation to the statement: “BUSH: I WILL NEVER LET OUR YOUNGSTERS DIE IN VAIN.”

In a coup de grace, the President bestowed the final question to an NPR reporter, who asked if Mr. Bush had failed to properly communicate the gravity of the current situation. “Pretty somber assessment today, Don.”

It was. And that was the tone of the press conference. Mr. Bush had to remind viewers that he understood the responsibilities of a wartime President. And he had to provide an estimate of some sense of his own fallibility, which he did, ever so slightly.

Before the speech, MSNBC host Chris Matthews had wondered aloud, “Will any of them have the cajones to bring up the W.M.D.?” But when Terry Moran, ABC News White House correspondent, asked how the administration could have gotten it so wrong, Mr. Bush simply said, “Let me step back and let me review my thinking prior to going into Iraq,” before launching into a stream-of-consciousness filibuster on freedom for the Iraqi people.

And when Washington Post reporter Mike Allen asked why Mr. Bush had to appear before the 9/11 commission with Vice President Dick Cheney alongside him, the President said he felt a responsibility to answer their questions, and “I’m looking forward to answering them.” When Mr. Allen reminded the President of what his question had actually been, Mr. Bush simply repeated his response and quickly got back to his list of reporters to call on. “I’ve got some must-calls-I’m sorry,” he said.

It was an alternately successful and difficult appearance for Mr. Bush. The President had three essential expressions that he flipped among: stern; mocking; reflective. When he was asked to name the most significant mistake of his time as President, he went through the entire repertoire before coming up cold.

Even before Mr. Bush appeared, his administration was keeping a firm grasp on White House information flow, seeking to control the story even in the final moments before he stepped before the flashbulbs. “This 12-minute opening statement?” said Terry Moran, ABC News White House correspondent. “We’re not going to get an advance-they’d rather have him make the news, rather than Peter Jennings.”

In recent weeks, the Bush administration has had its force field seriously fractured: the revelations from former terror czar Richard Clarke’s book, the 9/11 commission (including the much-disputed intelligence memo from the summer of 2001), and Bill Clinton’s secret testimony-all of it framed by news of casualties and violence pouring out of Iraq and hitting the TV airwaves. Now, no less than 82 U.S. soldiers have been killed in April alone,

with more than 560 wounded.

As Newsweek and MSNBC analyst Howard Fineman told The Observer , quoting Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo: “‘He’s got a whole lot of ‘splainin’ to do.'”

Since the Presidential campaign began, the administration has sought to keep a tight rein on the news cycle. Almost none of President Bush’s media appearances have been effective. His State of the Union was seen as a failure to communicate. His Meet the Press interview with NBC’s Tim Russert was un-Presidential. Meanwhile, the Democratic primaries usurped the headlines for months, as the conflict in Iraq rose like a flood around the White House’s feet. Now, in April alone, television has begun to do what it can during a war, and what the President acknowledged: “No one likes to see dead bodies,” he said during the press conference. And as reporters at the press conference reminded Mr. Bush, polls are showing that the public believes less and less that the war in Iraq is making them safer from terrorism.

These were facts that could no longer be controlled by the same P.R. professionals who rolled acquiescent reporters one year ago, before American troops stormed the sands of Iraq. This time in 2003, President Bush was leading the public where he wanted them to go, from his role as the wartime commander-in-chief. The press, with little traction from an opposition party, were cowed.

“What a symbol that was for their media strategy and their success at it,” said Mr. Fineman. “A year later, no reporter feels ‘embedded’ in the White House. Just the opposite. There’s a lot of built-up animosity and resentment and even some self-loathing involved here in the press room, and indeed in all the media. Were we taken for a ride? Literally-taken for a ride?”

Now, he said, the President is “not going to catch a break. Politics and the press are a lot like physics. Every reaction invites an equal and opposite reaction, eventually.”

If that’s so, the action and the reaction in the East Room last night was mild on the surface, roiling underneath. The President had never looked more resolved nor less sure-footed. As a prime-time press conference, it may not have been the evening that the White House had wanted.

Thursday, April 15

“Go ahead, rip the show apart!” cried Steve Carell, the 41-year-old actor set to play the boss in an American version of the BBC hit The Office . Remember how NBC’s last British import, Coupling , went over? So did Mr. Carell.

“You’re going to kill us,” he said.

Mr. Carell, a longtime Daily Show correspondent, was just joshing: No one has actually seen the pilot that he and the new cast completed a few weeks ago. Its future now awaits the judgment of NBC president Jeff Zucker. But Mr. Carell knows what people are saying: Until now, The Office has been defined exclusively by the comic brilliance of British wit Ricky Gervais, whose curl-up-in-your-seat-and-wince smugness drills as deeply into social humiliation as Larry David does playing Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm . It’s an acquired taste. It’s a hit on cable. Why reinvent success?

But Mr. Carell says he won’t play Mr. Gervais’ bop-and-wink David Brent. He’ll be called “Michael Scot.” “So it’s really different even there,” said Mr. Carell. “So there’s no way you can compare the two. I’m sure there will be no comparisons drawn.”

In May, NBC will announce whether the American version has made the fall schedule. If it does, it will be a radical departure for the network: True to the original, NBC’s The Office was shot like a documentary about office life, a mix of script and improvisation, with no laugh track or studio audience. Mr. Gervais and his co-creator, Stephen Merchant, advised the actors and the producers on how to pull it off. Among critics and Hollywood player-haters, this smells like another colossal failure in the works, Couples II , Ab Fab on NBC. It’s been years since British imports were seen as easy Hollywood transfers-not since the early 1970’s, when Norman Lear went to the BBC to borrow All in the Family and Sanford and Son . Networks love The Apprentice and Everyone Loves Raymond ; discomfort, anxiety, fourth-wall-breakers belong on HBO.

Still, The Office could also be a counterintuitive hit for NBC, the start of a tectonic, post- Friends shift in the game plan for a company about to merge with a raft of new cable properties from Vivendi Universal. And the advance buzz among NBC brass is that the pilot is good .

Ultimately, it’s all about Steve Carell, whose dark, furrowed eyes and pencil-line mouth would define the show. So far, his stars appear to be aligning quickly: This summer, he will appear alongside Will Ferrell in two big movies, the local-news comedy Anchorman and the new Woody Allen picture Melinda and Melinda .

“He’s a great undiscovered talent,” said Jon Bines, a former writer for The Daily Show who now works for Jimmy Kimmel Live . “If the show fails, it won’t be Steve Carell’s fault.” Mr. Carell’s friends and admirers universally said that Mr. Carell’s hire had changed their minds about an otherwise gruesome idea.

“He’s going to do what they weren’t able to do with Coupling , which is satisfying the people who loved the show,” said Mo Rocca, the horn-rimmed Daily Show star and VH1 talking head. On the other hand, he also believed the dangers of upsetting a frothing fan base were overrated.

“This is a small group of Americans,” he said. “It’s important not to think that everyone has seen it, because they haven’t.”

Mr. Carell said a number of other actors tried out for The Office , including Bob Odenkirk, of Mr. Show , and standup comic and Philip Seymour Hoffman look-alike Jim Gaffigan. Mr. Carell did a screen test and was called back in two days. “It’s one of those shows I think a lot of people wanted to get in on,” he said. “I think some people were afraid of it, too. I talked to one director who passed on it, or didn’t enter into discussions about directing, just because he was afraid of ruining the original. There was certainly that risk.”

Mr. Carell realized from the start that he had to reinvent the character and avoid impersonating Mr. Gervais. “I watched parts of it,” said Mr. Carell. “I didn’t want to lock it in too hard, because Ricky Gervais was so good and definitive in that role …. There’s no way you can improve on what he did, so I thought the most advisable way to go about it would be to just try something different. A similar character, but a different guy.”

Mr. Carell’s own comic building block is the unblinking stare, with a layer of bitterness behind the eyes. “There’s always an underlying sense of resentment in his performances,” said Kahane Corn, a supervising producer for The Daily Show , “which really helps determine the direction of every single line that comes out of his mouth.”

Both his face and his comic persona very clearly summon Peter Sellers. Like him, Mr. Carell plays absurdity so straight that he becomes the comic foil to everything and everyone around him. “It’s that bumbling innocence, but also thinking it’s competence,” said Mr. Bines. “Innocence masquerading as confidence.”

In a nutshell, that’s the comic Zeitgeist now, as defined by Mr. Ferrell’s idiot savants. As a Daily Show vet-he started just as Jon Stewart took over as host-Mr. Carell defined the unflappable mock-newsman that is the staple of show. Among Daily Show staffers, Mr. Carell’s trademark moment came after a round of Republican debates in New Hampshire in late 1999, when he interviewed Arizona Senator John McCain. After asking Mr. McCain about his favorite poem and his favorite movie-a little light banter from this amusing fellow from Comedy Central!-he suddenly went straight and asked Mr. McCain about his record-breaking spending in a Congressional subcommittee, contradicting his claim to be a fiscal conservative.

“McCain was completely like a deer in headlights,” recalled Mr. Rocca. “The silence was just horrible and deafening.”

Mr. McCain’s aides were slack-jawed. “Then he breaks the silence with, ‘Just kidding. I don’t even know what I’m saying.’ It was totally in character,” said Mr. Rocca.

He can do smarmy, too. In May 2001, he did a Daily Show special with Stephen Colbert called “Steve Carell Salutes Steve Carell, Hosted by Steve Carell.” The two tuxedoed Steves sang a finger-snapping Broadway duet. Sang Mr. Carell: “How do I do it? / I suppose I’ll never know / Just give into it / And our love for me will grow!”

Last year, Mr. Carell gave a scene-nabbing performance in the otherwise atrocious Jim Carrey comedy Bruce Almighty . As a despicable local anchorman, Evan Baxter, he was divinely induced to speak in tongues while on the air, his mouth and eyes running wildly in opposite directions. And you could also feel him subtly channeling the old Steve Martin routine in which Mr. Martin mocked, “If there is a God, give me a sign!,” followed by a smug, “See … ” and then loud, panicked, quasi-Mesopotamian babbling. Mr. Carell said he saw Mr. Martin perform in 1978 at the Heinz Auditorium in his hometown of Boston. “I listened to his records over and over and over,” he said. “I think it would take someone very smart to be that stupid.”

Mr. Carell graduated from Denison University in Ohio (“Michael Eisner went there, and the girl from Alias “), and then spent 10 years in Chicago, six of those performing with Second City. He moved to New York to work as a correspondent on The Daily Show in 1998, while his wife, Nancy Walls, was a cast member on Saturday Night Live . They lived on West 63rd Street. Last year, Mr. Carell, Ms. Walls and their 2-year-old daughter moved to Los Angeles to seek their fortune. It seemed to be paying off.

Was Mr. Carell apprehensive? “I think there would be more anxiety if I didn’t like it,” he said, “if I didn’t want people to see it or I didn’t think it was a good TV show. I think it’s good. For a pilot, I think it’s really good. Pilots are really hard to do. I’m confident in the product.”

He caught himself. “Did that sound Hollywood?” he said. “‘I’m confident in the product!’ Oh, shut up.”

Tonight, on NBC, Donald Trump runs another kind of office. Please, NBC, don’t make Mr. Carell work with him on The Office ! We’re begging you! [WNBC, 4, 9 p.m.]

Sunday, April 18

T Cryptic NYTV prediction: Steve Buscemi’s character, Tony Blundetto, will snuff Tony Soprano in the season finale. You heard it here first! [HBO, 32, 9 p.m.]

Tuesday, April 20

Every Wednesday, Court TV shows another installment of Psychic Detectives , in which the police solve crimes with the help of those with extraordinary mental powers. In the April 14 episode, Laurie McQuary, a fiftysomething from Portland, Ore., aids the police in finding the body of a missing woman, purely through intuition and without a single clue. Ms. McQuary has her own business, called Management by Intuition, and ….

Wait just a second …. Could she help Donald Rumsfeld find the W.M.D.?

“I would if I was approached,” she told NYTV by phone last week. “But I think they already know where they’re at. You don’t have to be a psychic to know that. I think they know a lot of things.”

But Ms. McQuary, could Mr. Rumsfeld just call you up and get the answers he needed? “Indeed. Yes,” she said. “I am happy to do those things.”

But Ms. McQuary also said the government already had psychics working for them, “remote viewers” who can wander around in secret locations … in their minds. “This field, like many fields, has areas of expertise,” she added. “I’m not interested in working with the government.”

Ms. McQuary said she began getting her visions after she was thrown from a horse as a girl. After she came out of a coma, she had powers.

But here’s a tough one: Pat Robertson said God told him President Bush was going to win the election in the fall. Is Mr. Robertson right?

“I think John Kerry is going to win,” she said. “And I don’t think you need a psychic to figure that one out, either.”

How accurate is this?

“According to people over the last 30 years, I’m 87 percent correct in my readings. And I’m comfortable with that.”

One last one: Is the NYTV staff going to get a raise this year?

“Maybe,” she said, “but it’s going to be a slap in the face. It’s not what you really want. You want to go freelance. There’s changes coming. What’s in Florida?”

Tonight, speaking of Florida, don’t miss The Golden Girls . Bea Arthur will be taking over the column next week. [LIFE, 12, 8 p.m.]