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Hiding in the White House

AMERICAN CITIZENS were left to listen at the keyhole yesterday as President Bush and Vice President Cheney closed the Oval Office door for a privileged private session before the commission investigating the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

There was no press coverage allowed, no recording, no transcript to be made available later, no testimony given under oath -- and no good reason for any of it.

If top officials in the Bush and Clinton administrations -- including the former president -- can walk into the people's house that is the US Capitol and make sworn statements for public consumption over the past two months, then Bush and Cheney certainly could have done so also.

Demanding special treatment and hiding from the public on a matter of such vital national concern and grief is to play the imperial president and put politics ahead of statesmanship.

"I'm glad I took the time, " Bush told reporters in a brief Rose Garden press conference after the meeting. "I enjoyed it."

He sounded as though he'd just come from a charity golf tournament, not a meeting with people laboring to dissect the horror of Sept. 11, 2001.

Bush, who has freely used images from that day in his campaign commercials, declined to say what the commissioners asked him and waved aside theories that he and the vice president appeared together to make sure that their testimonies would match.

"If we had something to hide, we wouldn't have met with them in the first place," said Bush, who had initially opposed the very creation of the commission, had not wanted to meet with the commission, had insisted on the rigorous ground rules, and had kept his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, out of the hearing room for weeks.

Bush, who pulled the nation together in 2001, might have done so again yesterday by displaying a willingness to be open -- at least in transcript form -- about what may have gone wrong on his watch. If there were national security concerns about some of his statements, he could have made those off the record.

Pinpointing mistakes leading to 9/11 should be a bipartisan exercise that transcends election year gotchas and focuses on the security of the United States and the world. Going public before the commission with that attitude might have won Bush international respect.

In a statement released after the three-hour meeting, the commission described the session as "extraordinary" and called the testimony "forthcoming and candid."

In a phone interview with the Associated Press, commissioner Jim Thompson -- former Republican governor of Illinois -- said Bush gave "a five-star performance," adding, "I wish the American people could have seen it."

They should have. 

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