That Was No Condemnation

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Tuesday, August 24, 2004; 12:21 PM

President Bush dumbfounded major swaths of the White House press corps yesterday.

Bush stuck to a script that called for him to decry all independently-funded political ads -- and in no way single out the one contentiously questioning Sen. John F. Kerry's military record. But some reporters at his mini press conference yesterday decided that he had condemned the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ad and called for it to be taken off the air.

He didn't.

Here's a mini-FAQ.

Did Bush specifically condemn the Swift Boat ad? No. Instead he said he was against all independent ads.

Did he call on it to be taken off the air? No.

Did he renounce any of the specific, inaccurate claims made in that ad? No. He said Kerry served "admirably," but then quickly turned to the topic of who would be best to lead the country in the war on terror.

And yet here's how it played on the Associated Press: Bush Criticizes Anti-Kerry Television Ad.

Here it is on Reuters: Bush Says Kerry Ad Should Stop.

They were not alone.

Even the White House was frustrated at the misconstruing of Bush's message.

Here's the text of Bush's remarks, made on his Crawford, Tex., ranch.

Here's the text of press secretary Scott McClellan's gaggle, in which he tries to clear things up, mostly with repetition.


The confusion seems to have come mostly over the parsing of the phrase "that ad."

Here's an excerpt from the questioning:

"Q Do you -- when you say that you want to stop all --

"THE PRESIDENT: All of them.

"Q Does that mean --

"THE PRESIDENT: That means that ad, every other ad."

Here, for instance, is CNN's Wolf Blitzer: "Until now, the president's White House and campaign aides had refused to specifically call an end to those swift boat veteran ads -- insisting only that all independent attack ads, including those blasting Kerry, should be withdrawn."

What He Said

Lois Romano and Dana Milbank write in The Washington Post that Bush, "pressed several times by reporters at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., about whether he would specifically condemn the ad, Bush would only say: 'That means that ad and every other ad. I'm denouncing all the stuff.' "

They point out that Bush's position wasn't even new.

"The president's comments yesterday were similar to those he made on CNN's 'Larry King Live' on Aug. 12, when King asked him if he would denounce the anti-Kerry ad. 'Well, I haven't seen the ad, but what I do condemn is these unregulated soft-money expenditures by very wealthy people,' Bush said."

And Romano and Milbank explain the why:

"Privately, Bush aides said they felt under no pressure to change their position on the Swift boat ads because the controversy seems to be hurting Kerry more than Bush. . . . The Bush aides are determined not to give Kerry an opening by criticizing Swift Boat Veterans for Truth directly."

Elisabeth Bumiller and Kate Zernike write in the New York Times: "President Bush said on Monday that political advertisements run by a broad swath of independent groups should be stopped, including a television advertisement attacking Senator John Kerry's war record. But the White House quickly moved to insist that Mr. Bush had not meant in any way to single out the advertisement run by veterans opposed to Mr. Kerry. . . .

"Only when pressed by reporters whether he specifically meant the commercial from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, did he say 'all of them.' . . .

"His press secretary, Scott McClellan, said Mr. Bush had not intended to single out the Swift boat advertisement as one that should be stopped."

Anne E. Kornblut writes in the Boston Globe: "President Bush, on the defensive over his supporters' attacks on John Kerry's war record, sidestepped a barrage of questions yesterday about the content of ads assailing his Democratic opponent and instead repeated his broader call for an end to all third-party advertising in the election. . . .

"Bush, speaking to reporters at his ranch near Crawford, Texas, did not respond to allegations by Kerry that he is running a 'smear campaign' and declined to address the allegations by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth -- the soft-money organization at the heart of the current controversy -- that Kerry lied about his combat service in Vietnam for political gain."

Ron Hutcheson writes in Knight Ridder Newspapers: "The closest the president came to a direct condemnation of the ads was when a reporter asked if 'ads of this nature are unpatriotic' and 'un-American.'

" 'Yes,' Bush replied, adding, 'I think we ought to be debating who (is) best to be leading this country in the war against terror.'

"Although the president undercut the central premise of the televised attacks -- that Kerry had lied about his war record -- he didn't condemn any specific ad. Instead, he put the anti-Kerry ads in the same category as all other ads funded by organizations independent of the official presidential campaigns or the national political parties."

Deja Vu?

Zachary Coile and Marc Sandalow write in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Four years ago, as George Bush struggled in the polls, supporters of his bid for the Republican presidential nomination unleashed a ferocious attack on rival John McCain, questioning his commitment to veterans and his fitness to serve.

"After the charges took root, Bush distanced himself from the veterans group that made the attacks, called the Arizona senator's service 'noble' and cruised to a nomination-saving victory in the South Carolina primary.

"Monday, in a series of events that some observers say are eerily familiar, Bush distanced himself from a veterans group running fierce attacks on John Kerry's military record and called his rival's service in Vietnam 'admirable.' "

National Guard Watch

Dave Moniz and Jim Drinkard write in USA Today: "At a time when Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry has come under fire from a group of retired naval officers who say he lied about his combat record in Vietnam, questions about President Bush's 1968-73 stint in the Texas Air National Guard remain unresolved:

• "Why did Bush, described by some of his fellow officers as a talented and enthusiastic pilot, stop flying fighter jets in the spring of 1972 and fail to take an annual physical exam required of all pilots?

• "What explains the apparent gap in the president's Guard service in 1972-73, a period when commanders in Texas and Alabama say they never saw him report for duty and records show no pay to Bush when he was supposed to be on duty in Alabama?

• "Did Bush receive preferential treatment in getting into the Guard and securing a coveted pilot slot despite poor qualifying scores and arrests, but no convictions, for stealing a Christmas wreath and rowdiness at a football game during his college years? . . .

"In an e-mail to USA TODAY last week, presidential spokesman Dan Bartlett said, 'The president has authorized the release of his records, and we are complying with all requests. Some are taking longer than others, but all will be addressed.' "

Misunderstanding McCain-Feingold

Several times now, Bush has said that he thought the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill that he signed in March 2002 would stop the kind of soft-money funded advertising in question.

"I, frankly, thought we'd gotten rid of that when I signed the McCain-Feingold bill," he said yesterday. "I thought we were going to, once and for all, get rid of a system where people could just pour tons of money in and not be held to account for the advertising."

Frederic J. Frommer writes for the Associated Press that one of the bill's co-authors, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) fired back yesterday.

"The President's remarks concerning his signing of the McCain-Feingold bill lack candor at best," Feingold says in a statement.

"The McCain-Feingold bill dealt only with political party soft money and phony issue ads run within 60 days of the general election, not with the so-called 527 groups. The President knew that."

Here's the text of Feingold's statement.

And here's the text of Bush's statement upon the signing of the bill, in which he actually expressed concerns that it had gone too far in its restrictions on "issue advertising, which restrains the speech of a wide variety of groups on issues of public import in the months closest to an election."

Attack of the Attack Ad Attack

See how confusing this gets?

Chicago Tribune headline: Bush Calls for End to Attack Ads.

Los Angeles Times headline: New Bush Ads Target Kerry's Senate Record.

Some More Misunderstandings

In his White House Notebook column in The Washington Post, Dana Milbank looks at five authentic Kerry quotes and how they've been reinvented by Bush and Cheney.

For instance:

"Every performer tonight in their own way, either verbally or through their music, through their lyrics, have conveyed to you the heart and soul of our country." -- Kerry, July 8

"The other day, my opponent said he thought you could find the heart and soul of America in Hollywood." -- Bush, Aug. 18

Milbank also provides "an update on the White House's ongoing effort to kill the press corps." It has to do with the press plane.

Where Does the Buck Stop?

As we hear more new revelations about sadistic abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison and prepare to read two new reports about the mistreatment of Iraqis there, it is worth noting that questions about whether the White House might bear some ultimate responsibility for what happened there seem to have abated.

Cheerleading Is Not an Economic Plan

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "High oil prices, a stagnant labor market -- and the lack of a more forceful response from the Bush campaign -- have sparked worry among White House allies that the administration's economic team has been too content cheerleading in defense of past policies instead of setting more detailed plans for a second term.

"While the economic recovery hummed along, there were few complaints about the low-key styles of Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans, National Economic Council director Stephen Friedman and Council of Economic Advisers Chairman N. Gregory Mankiw -- especially after the internal bickering that marred the tenure of Bush's first economic team. But recent news, from slowing economic growth to wilting job creation, has changed the landscape. With the Republican convention a week away, allies and opponents are clamoring for more specifics."

Intel Watch

Dan Eggen and Charles Babington write in The Washington Post that Bush "responded coolly to the proposal by Sen. Pat Roberts (Kan.) and seven other GOP members of the Senate intelligence committee. Bush said that 'we're looking at all options' but cautioned he would oppose any proposal that would create a new layer of bureaucracy in the president's national security team."

Cuba Watch

Peter Slevin writes in The Washington Post about how policy and politics met in a decision about restrictions on Cuban travel. Bush made the call, and it backfired, bigtime.

Defense Summit

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press that Bush emerged from a meeting yesterday on his ranch with senior defense advisers and "said U.S.-led forces were 'making progress' in Iraq where Marines were engaged in fierce battles with followers of a radical cleric holed up in the holy city of Najaf."

Bush told reporters that he and his advisers also discussed how to position troops around the world and intelligence reform.

Photo of the Day

Here's an Associated Press story of Bush arriving to meet the press with all his terriers in tow.

Anne Schroeder reports that one of them -- Barney -- "left his own mark on President Bush's news conference yesterday in Crawford, Tex., when he appeared about 15 feet behind his master, squatted on the lawn and did his business."

Who Is Dick Cheney?

In anticipation of next week's Republican National Convention, it looks like a lot of media outlets are publishing anew profiles of our president and vice president.

Today, G. Robert Hillman writes in the Dallas Morning News: "Hailed by Mr. Bush early on as an 'experienced statesman,' Mr. Cheney has emerged as a hard-nosed, behind-the-scenes consigliere who wields his considerable influence quietly but unmistakably.

"At the same time, he's become a red-hot target for critics, who have zeroed in relentlessly on his ties to Halliburton Co., the giant Texas-based company that he once headed and that is mired in controversy over its work in Iraq."

Hillman points out this interesting fact about Cheney: "He campaigns throughout the country with increasing intensity. Still, he has yet to show up in any of the Bush television spots."

And is Hillman trying to start rumors again? He writes that Cheney's "standing, once high in the polls, has dropped so low that he's dogged by speculation that the president might dump him -- even before the Republican National Convention, which starts a week from today in New York."

Today's Calendar

Bush remains down on the ranch until Thursday.

Cheney speaks at a breakfast fundraiser in for a congressional candidate in Overland Park, Kan., has a lunchtime town hall meeting with his wife in Davenport, Iowa, then speaks at a campaign rally in Waterford, Mich.

North Korea Watch

AFP reports that the North Korean government, which compared Bush to Hitler on Monday, let loose again on Tuesday.

"Bush is, in fact, a thrice-cursed fascist tyrant and man-killer as he revived the fascist war doctrine which had been judged by humankind long ago and is now bringing dark clouds of a new Cold War to hang over our planet and indiscriminately massacring innocent civilians after igniting the Afghan and Iraqi wars," said the statement on the official Korean Central News Agency.

Twins Watch

Laurie Hibberd reports on CBS's Early Show this morning that first daughters Barbara and Jenna Bush are getting glam as they step into big public life.

And the twins this morning e-mailed me (and a zillion other people on the Bush/Cheney e-mail list).

"We're sure that you have no doubt who we'll be voting for in November," they wrote. "But you should also know that we would be voting for our Dad in this election even if he had not raised us, loved us, tutored us, coached us, and even listened to a few excuses from us for late curfews."

© 2004