June 14, 2006 — -- The president was in a jovial mood during his Rose Garden press conference Wednesday, joshing with reporters, excited to aggressively defend the Iraq war in the midterm elections, optimistic about his recent trip to Baghdad.
Then he was told a reporter he playfully teased about wearing sunglasses during the press conference has a serious vision problem and is legally blind.
By the end of the day, the exchange had merited a presidential apology. The reporter, Peter Wallsten of the Los Angeles Times, said he bears no grudges and accepted the president's apology quickly.
"Clearly the president has more important things to worry about," Wallsten said.
The incident happened towards the end of the press conference, when the president called on the 34-year-old Wallsten.
"Are you going to ask that question with shades on?" Bush asked.
"I can take them off," Wallsten offered.
"I'm interested in the shade look," replied Bush. "Seriously."
Wallsten said, "All right, I'll keep it, then."
"For the viewers," the president said to the TV cameras, "there's no sun." Some in the press corps laughed.
"I guess it depends on your perspective," replied Wallsten, Zen-like.
"Touché," said the president, who then took Wallsten's question about Karl Rove.
Wallsten has Stargardt's Disease, a degeneration of the central area of the retina called the macula, where cells sensitive to light send visual signals to the brain.
It turns out Wallsten wasn't trying to be hip or cool or cop a 'tude -- he was wearing the pricey sunglasses because recent studies indicate that the progression of Stargardt's disease can be slowed by wearing sunglasses that protect the eyes from ultraviolet rays.
Wallsten suspects the president was informed of his gaffe by White House Communications Director Nicolle Wallace, who knows Wallsten and been aware of his vision problem for years, dating back to when both were in Tallahassee, where he worked for the Miami Herald and she for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
At approximately 4:30 p.m., the president called Wallsten on his cell phone.
"He said he wanted to apologize," Wallsten recounted. "I told him he didn't need to, he hadn't offended me; I'd been amused. But he insisted he shouldn't have said it and apologized again."
Wallsten told him he accepted his apology, though it wasn't necessary and he didn't want the president to treat him any differently. "He said he tends to needle reporters, and he does it out of affection. I told him, 'Feel free to needle away.' He said, 'I will. Though next time I'll use a different needle,'" Wallsten said.
In his White House work station, Wallsten sits close to his computer screen, which has large font, but other than that, one wouldn't necessarily notice his disability in a work environment.
"That's my hope," Wallsten said. "I don't advertise it and I don't enjoy talking about it, although today I had no choice. Though it's good to talk about it, I suppose, so people know about it." Wallsten says there's no way the president could have known why he was wearing the sunglasses.
Affecting about one out of every 10,000 children, Stargardt's disease is the most common form of inherited degeneration of the macula in children.
It's almost always diagnosed in patients under the age of 20. It might start with difficulty seeing in dim lighting, with sight deteriorating from there. Wallsten, who's from Chapel Hill, N.C., was diagnosed in 1994 at age 22. He quit driving and started using magnifiers six years later.
The president's call was "totally friendly," Wallsten said. As for the notice his vision problem has gotten in the media, he said, "I wish people would talk instead about my question. It was a worthwhile question."
For the record, Wallsten's question was about the announcement the day before that Karl Rove would not be investigated in the CIA leak investigation.
"You said that you were relieved with what happened yesterday," Wallsten asked the president. "But the American public, over the course of this investigation, has learned a lot about what was going on in your White House that they didn't know before, during that time, the way some people were trying to go after Joe Wilson, in some ways. I'm wondering if, over the course of this investigation, that you have learned anything that you didn't know before about what was going on in your administration. And do you have any work to do to rebuild credibility that might have been lost?"
And for the record, the president -- citing the ongoing prosecution against former White House official Lewis "Scooter" Libby -- wouldn't answer it.
Jon D. Garcia contributed to this report