Press Sings a New Tune

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Wednesday, March 9, 2005; 12:29 PM

Here and there, you can hear a new melody emerging in the press coverage of President Bush, and it goes something like this: Bush is a historic figure, the Ronald Reagan of the Middle East, whose heroic invasion of Iraq is a historic turning point for worldwide democracy tantamount to the fall of Berlin Wall.

But the counter-melody can be heard as well: Bush is falsely taking credit for the pro-democratic movement in the Middle East, some of those moves are insignificant and transitory, the long-term impact of the Iraq war will be disastrous, and Bush is engaging in unseemly saber rattling.

Will one tune triumph? Will the press be singing either in a week? You never know. But here is today's medley.

The New Melody

Brian Williams had this to say on the NBC Nightly News last night: "Lately even the harshest critics of President Bush have been forced to admit: Maybe he's right about freedom's march around the globe. What if we are watching an example of presidential leadership that will be taught in America's schools for generations to come? It's an idea gaining more currency."

He then turned it over to Andrea Mitchell, who asked: "Is this an historic turning point, like the fall of the Berlin Wall? And, if so, should President Bush get the credit?"

Todd S. Purdum writes in the New York Times: "He has gone out of his way not to crow, or even to take direct credit. But not quite two years after he began the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, and not quite two months after a second Inaugural Address in which he spoke of 'ending tyranny,' President Bush seems entitled to claim as he did on Tuesday that a 'thaw has begun' in the broader Middle East.

"At the very least, Mr. Bush is feeling the glow of the recent flurry of impulses toward democracy in Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and even Egypt and Saudi Arabia, where events have put him on a bit of a roll and some of his sharpest critics on the defensive. . . .

"The failure to find unconventional weapons in Iraq, his administration's shifting rationales for the war, the lingering insurgency and steady American casualties there were a drag on Mr. Bush's political fortunes for most of last year. But a wave of developments since the better-than-expected Iraqi elections in January -- some perhaps related and others probably not -- have brought Mr. Bush a measure of vindication, which may or may not be sustained by events and his own actions in the months to come."

Jon Boone and James Harding write in the Financial Times: "The coincidence of democratic developments in the broader Middle East in the first two months of this year . . . have emboldened neoconservative advocates of President George W. Bush's 'liberty doctrine' and muffled the naysayers. . . .

"To be sure, this is far from a wholesale reassessment of the Iraq war, the policy of pre-emption, the unilateralist approach and the transformational agenda. . . .

"And there is still a fierce debate in Washington over the extent to which the war precipitated change elsewhere in the region, over the depth of Egypt's commitment to reform and over the danger of another civil war in Lebanon. . . .

"Still, a New York Times editorial this month, while warning Washington against triumphalism and acknowledging the 'negative consequences' of the US-led invasion, said: 'This has so far been a year of heartening surprises -- each one remarkable in itself and taken together, truly astonishing. The Bush administration is entitled to claim a healthy share of the credit for many of these advances.' "

The Berlin Wall Variation

Where is the increasingly common Berlin Wall analogy coming from? Well, among other places, it's being promoted by the White House.

In an interview with conservative talk radio host Sean Hannity, replayed on Fox News last night, Vice President Cheney was asked if what's happening in the Mideast is "directly connected to the effort that we've had in Iraq?"

Cheney replied: "I think it clearly is, Sean. A good indication of that is this guy named Walid Jumblatt, who heads up the Druze in Lebanon, who's been extremely critical of the U.S. Mideast policy now for a number of years who the other day went on the record and said: I have to admit that all of this began with the U.S. invasion of Iraq and that it now looks like the equivalent of the Berlin Wall coming down in 1989 for the Middle East, it's having that kind of impact throughout the region. Now this is hard, tough, dirty work and a lot of Americans have sacrificed and paid the ultimate price in terms of Iraq. But the fact of the matter is, we are beginning to transform that part of the world, and it's extraordinarily important that we do so. But I think this president's vision and strategic design has been absolutely dead on and a lot of his critics are having to come around and say yeah, he was right after all."

Cheney was paraphrasing what Jumblatt told Washington Post columnist David Ignatius last month.

And the increasingly political first lady weighed in as well, in her speech yesterday at the State Department, ostensibly talking about International Women's Day. From the transcript: "People in the Middle East and commentators around the world are beginning to wonder whether recent elections may mark a turning point as significant as the fall of the Berlin Wall."

The Speech

Bush spoke at the National Defense University at Fort McNair yesterday. Here's the text.

"The chances of democratic progress in the broader Middle East have seemed frozen in place for decades. Yet at last, clearly and suddenly, the thaw has begun," he said, emphasizing the word suddenly.

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "Bush, for the first time, claimed some measure of credit for the democratic changes taking place in the Middle East and sought to explain how these developments will make the United States safer from terrorists. . . .

"Aides said the president considered this an important speech on terrorism at what he called a 'time of great consequence.' He enlisted adviser Michael J. Gerson, the author of Bush's most memorable first-term addresses who was recently promoted to a top policy position, to help craft the carefully worded speech, White House aides said. . . .

"Lebanon, a nation rarely mentioned by Bush until the popular uprising, dominated yesterday's speech, while Iraq, the central focus of U.S. foreign policy, received only passing mention at the end of the address."

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "Seeking to encourage the shift toward democracy that has been on display to varying degrees in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt and the Palestinian territories, and implicitly to claim a share of credit for it, Mr. Bush said the United States would stand by the Lebanese people and all those who work to end tyranny. . . .

"Mr. Bush, who spoke hours after hundreds of thousands of people turned out in Beirut for a pro-Syria rally organized by Hezbollah, which the United States considers a terrorist organization, did not address the divisions within Lebanon or mention Hezbollah by name."

The Other Melody

Mark Silva notes in his Chicago Tribune story: "While Bush has long insisted that removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq would set off a chain reaction of democracy in the region, Bush's critics warn that some of the positive developments there are simply the latest maneuvers of autocrats intent on maintaining power. This includes the situation in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which Bush called upon Tuesday to give women the right to vote.

"Indeed, several elements of Bush's litany of progress in the region face possible derailment.

"Hundreds of thousands supported Syria in a rally organized by the militant organization Hezbollah in the streets of Beirut on the same day that Bush hailed the advance of freedom there. The president didn't mention the rally."

Kenneth R. Bazinet writes in the New York Daily News: "President Bush issued an open-ended threat yesterday, demanding that Syria leave Lebanon before parliamentary elections scheduled for May 1, but didn't say whether he'd back that deadline with force."

And AFP reports this morning: "Oil prices soared to record highs as jitters hit the market after comments by US President George W. Bush on the Middle East that were deemed aggressive."

Live Online

I'm Live Online today at 1 p.m. today. Send me your comments and questions.

News From the WMD Commission

The White House's ultra-secret WMD Commission (otherwise known as the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction) is suddenly in the news today.

You may recall that the commission was formed mostly to look back at what happened in the run-up to war in Iraq and report on how the intelligence went bad, wasn't challenged and led us to war based on false facts.

One point of the exercise, of course, was to suggest ways to prevent that from happening again.

Well, apparently, the commission isn't just looking backward, it's looking very much ahead to potential trouble spots like Iran and North Korea, and concluding that intelligence about those places isn't adequate to support much of anything.

That's my read on a fascinating New York Times story today by Douglas Jehl and Eric Schmitt.

They write: "A commission due to report to President Bush this month will describe American intelligence on Iran as inadequate to allow firm judgments about Iran's weapons programs, according to people who have been briefed on the panel's work. . . .

"The nine-member bipartisan presidential panel, led by Laurence Silberman, a retired federal judge, and Charles S. Robb, a former governor and senator from Virginia, had unrestricted access to the most senior people and the most sensitive documents of the intelligence agencies.

"In its report, the panel is also expected to be sharply critical of American intelligence on North Korea. But in interviews, people who have been briefed on the commission's deliberations and conclusions said they regarded the record on Iran as particularly worrisome. . . .

"The panel is to send a classified report to Mr. Bush by March 31. The panel is expected to issue an unclassified version at about the same time, but it is not clear whether the criticism of intelligence on Iran will be included in that public document, the people familiar with the panel's deliberations said."

Social Security Watch

The Bush push for private accounts keeps getting hit with bad news -- but it's getting some extra artillery of its own.

The Associated Press reports: "The heart of President Bush's plan for Social Security, allowing younger workers to create personal accounts in exchange for a lower guaranteed government benefit, is among the least popular elements with the public, Republican pollsters told House GOP leaders Tuesday."

But Bloomberg's Richard Keil writes: "Vice President Dick Cheney has been President George W. Bush's go-to guy on national security. Now Bush is counting on Cheney to do the same on Social Security. . . .

"Starting as early as next week, Cheney will hold town hall-style meetings, including one with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas in Bakersfield, California, and do interviews with local media via satellite."

And indeed, it's begun already.

Craig Gilbert writes in the Milwaukee Journal and Sentinel: "In an interview Tuesday, Vice President Dick Cheney said the Bush re-election victory provided a mandate 'for the notion of personal retirement accounts' and that Democrats would pay a political price among younger voters if they blocked them."

Cheney also spoke with the aforementioned Sean Hannity and talk radio host Neal Boortz.

Bubble Watch

Bush will spend Thursday and Friday on the road in Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee and Louisiana holding more of his campaign-style "conversations" on Social Security.

In Montgomery, Ala., the White House is forcing the closure of a local university -- but not inviting the students.

Erica Pippins writes in the Montgomery Advertiser: "Students at Auburn University Montgomery won't take midterm exams on Thursday. They can thank the president.

"Classes at AUM have been canceled Thursday because the university gym has been designated as the venue for President George W. Bush's town hall meeting on Social Security reform. With the exception of the gym complex and a couple of parking lots, university officials have not been told if other areas will be off limits to students."

Jannell McGrew writes in the Montgomery Advertiser: "The White House has indicated that it would be distributing blocks of tickets to local organizations and community groups. Some residents, as well as members of the state Legislature, have received tickets from Alabama congressmen. It was not clear Tuesday whether there is any other avenue for residents to obtain tickets."

WLKY TV in Louisville reports: "The White House will distribute the tickets to local community groups, civic organizations and others that have an interest in Bush's remarks. Tickets also will be available to the offices of Congress members upon request."

Oliver Staley writes in the Memphis Commercial Appeal that several hundred tickets there were distributed by the offices of Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bill Frist.

"White House spokesman Taylor Gross also said a number of tickets were distributed by community organizations such as Senior Services, although he would not say how many tickets they had or what other groups had them."

Interestingly, Staley writes that a Democrat is supposed to be getting tickets: "Some additional tickets will be handed out by Rep. Harold Ford Jr.'s Downtown office today, according to a Ford spokesman, but it's not known how many or when."

So who's getting the bulk of these tickets? Well it looks like some Bush supporters are not just getting in, they're getting VIP delivery.

Don Walker writes in the Shreveport (La.) Times: "President George Bush's entourage on his visit to Shreveport on Friday will include a caravan of SporTran buses carrying nearly 3,000 Bush supporters to Centenary College's Gold Dome. . . .

"Randy Doss, owner of A-1 Charter Service, also was on standby Tuesday. 'We don't know the times yet for the shuttle, but we've been told we'll pick them up at a mall. I don't know if they decided what mall yet, but it will be a remote parking lot with security there.'

" 'They've been real quiet, hush-hush, about it,' he said."

George Bush as Talk Show Host

Jay Nordlinger writes in the National Review about his experience watching Bush's performance last week at a "conversation" -- this one on job training.

"Bush was 100 percent himself: folksy, engaging, quick, informed, confident, brusque, sympathetic, sort of wise-ass. I had never heard him so Texan (in speech). He might have been on the ranch, talkin' to his hands. If you like the president, you loved this performance. If you don't like him -- you would have ground your teeth to a fine dust. It is said that George W. is a polarizing figure. I concede that."

Today's Calendar

After meeting with the president of Romania, the president flies to Columbus, Ohio, to talk about energy policy.

Doug Cameron and Stephanie Kirchgaessner write in the Financial Times: "Energy and consumer groups will watch today's speech by President George W. Bush in Ohio for signs of a renewed commitment to put the weight of his office behind the comprehensive energy policy that the US has lacked for 20 years.

"Two failed attempts to push an energy bill through Congress are viewed as a disappointment of Mr Bush's first term. Energy policy still lacks the momentum it was afforded following his first election, which included 110 recommendations from a taskforce headed by Vice-President Dick Cheney."

The Three Amigos

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush said yesterday that the U.S. response to the deadly tsunami has led to a dramatic change in the perception of Americans in many Muslim nations and suggested that this new image could help in the fight against terrorism.

"With former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton by his side, Bush said the $950 million pledged by the United States for victims of the Indian Ocean disaster has paid dividends beyond providing much-needed financial assistance to the region."

Here's the text of their Oval Office photo op. Afterward, the two former presidents took some questions.

Personnel Move

Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post: "Another former aide to former independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr goes to the White House staff. The new deputy general counsel is William K. Kelley, a Notre Dame law professor, clerk when Starr was on the appeals court and then clerk to Justice Antonin Scalia. Kelley wrote the Monica S. Lewinsky report along with, among others, current White House staff secretary Brett M. Kavanaugh, but reportedly not the nasty parts."

Plame Watch

Law professor Randall D. Eliason writes in an op-ed in The Washington Post that the prosecution in the Valerie Plame case is just doing its job: "It's hard to imagine how such a case could be investigated without talking to the reporters."

Washington Post letter-writer David J. Steinberg notes "the apparent absence of any effort by President Bush to find the culprit."

Deregulation Ahead

John D. McKinnon writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The Bush administration is expected to launch a push for business-friendly regulation, possibly including streamlined and more flexible pollution standards, chemical-handling rules, and workers' medical-leave protections. . . .

"The project is being coordinated by former Harvard professor John Graham, who has turned [the White House Office of Management and Budget]'s regulatory arm into a voice for the administration's pro-business views on regulation, after years of relative inaction under the Clinton administration."

Chef Watch

Judith Weinraub writes in The Washington Post: "Women Chefs & Restaurateurs, an organization that represents more than 2,000 culinary professionals around the United States, has asked first lady Laura Bush to consider selecting a woman as White House chef."

Here's their letter.

After Bolton

The New York Times editorial board writes that John Bolton's nomination as U.N. ambassador "leaves us wondering what Mr. Bush's next nomination will be. Donald Rumsfeld to negotiate a new set of Geneva Conventions? Martha Stewart to run the Securities and Exchange Commission? Kenneth Lay for energy secretary?"

© 2005