Finally, Some Answers in the Offing

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Thursday, May 20, 2004; 10:46 AM

The press corps has been asking the White House for months: Who exactly will the United States be handing over power to in Iraq on June 30? And how much power?

At long last, administration officials promise that answers will be forthcoming in the next several days and weeks.

As a prelude, President Bush high-tails it up to the Hill this morning to brief -- and reassure -- Republican lawmakers.

Then, starting on Monday, the president takes his plan to the public.

Robin Wright and Mike Allen write in The Washington Post: "President Bush will lay out details of the U.S. plan for the Iraq transition at a major speech Monday in a bid to counter mounting public anxiety over the escalating violence and uncertainty less than six weeks before the handover of political power in Baghdad, according to U.S. officials.

"Beginning with Monday's address at the Army War College, Bush will give a major speech on Iraq every week through June 30, when the U.S.-led coalition is due to turn over limited authority to a new interim Iraqi government. 'We're entering a critical phase, and the president will be speaking out each week to discuss with the American people, and the world, the way forward in Iraq,' said a White House official. . . .

"In his first speech, Bush will discuss the transfer of sovereignty -- and what it means -- plus the new U.N. resolution that the United States and Britain will seek next month before the transfer of power, U.S. officials say."

Adam Entous of Reuters writes: "An interim Iraqi president, prime minister and other top ministers should be selected in the next two weeks, U.S. President George W. Bush said on Wednesday as he prepared to lay out for the American public his strategy for handing sovereignty to Iraqis.

"Rushing to stem eroding support at home and abroad for his Iraq policies, Bush discussed with his Cabinet and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi plans for what he called a 'full transfer of sovereignty' to an Iraqi interim government on June 30 backed by a new U.N. Security Council resolution."

AFP reports: "After months of insisting that the June 30 deadline is firm, without saying who will take over, Bush promised that the world will soon know the name of an interim president and other top interim Iraqi officials."

Here's the text of Bush's remarks after his Cabinet meeting, and the text of his remarks after meeting with Berlusconi.

Up to the Hill

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "If there is one sentiment that sums up the mood among Republicans in the capital this week about the president's slumping job-approval rating, the prison abuse scandal and the insurgency in Iraq, it is this: Thank God it's not October.

"Despite the sunny public pronouncements from White House and Bush campaign officials about staying the course, Republicans in Congress and outside presidential advisers describe a gloom in the Republican Party -- and serious concern in the White House political operation -- about continuing crises that have helped drag the president's approval ratings ever closer to those of his father, who drove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait but then lost the election. . . .

"In an effort to shore up wobbly Republicans, Mr. Bush is to make a hastily scheduled visit to Capitol Hill on Thursday to push for passage of next year's budget and to hold what the White House hopes to be a bicameral pep rally on his policies in Iraq."

The Associated Press reports that Bush's one-hour session with Republican lawmakers, which will be closed to the press, will include some time for questions.

Laura on Leno

Robin Abcarian writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Making what has become a compulsory stop on the campaign trail of the 21st century, First Lady Laura Bush appeared on 'The Tonight Show with Jay Leno' in Burbank on Wednesday, and surprised the comedian when she told him that reading newspapers was a daily ritual in the White House.

"In response to a question about what her typical day was like, Bush said, 'We get up really early . . . about 5:30. He goes in and gets the coffee and we drink coffee and read the newspapers. That's been our ritual our whole married life.'

"When pressed, she said they read the papers in bed.

"Leno, looking dubious, told her he'd made a lot of jokes about the fact that the president once said he didn't read newspapers.

" 'He really does read the newspaper,' the first lady said. 'Just not the reporters that follow him. He says he doesn't want to be mad at them the next day. Also, because he was there at the event -- so he doesn't need to really read their coverage of it.' "

Steve Holland of Reuters led with this story:

"U.S. First lady Laura Bush was warned by her mother-in-law never to criticize George W. Bush's speeches, and the one time she did, he drove the car into the garage wall, she said on Wednesday."

There's lots more funny stuff in the full text of her appearance with Leno.

But Seriously, Folks

The first lady also had a serious, substantive interview yesterday, with Mary Leonard of the Boston Globe.

"Laura Bush yesterday called gay marriage 'an issue that a lot of people have a lot of trouble with,' but she stopped short of endorsing a federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex unions," Leonard writes.

"Asked whether she would invite a married, gay couple to a state dinner at the White House, she said, 'Sure, of course.'

"Gordon Johndroe, her press secretary, said he could not imagine such a situation arising. He said the question was 'trivializing an issue that people are seriously trying to debate in this country.' "

Leonard also asked the first lady about the twins.

"Mrs. Bush said she was sad that she and the president would not attend the ceremonies, a decision made because the White House feared their presence could disrupt the graduations at the University of Texas [Jenna's] and Yale [Barbara's]."

About Those Twins

Is the relative media blackout on the twins finally starting to lift? After all, they're both past drinking age now.

Diane Scarponi writes for the Associated Press: "College ends in days for both of President Bush's daughters, for Jenna on Saturday with a degree in English and for Barbara on Monday with a degree in humanities.

"Their commencement exercises should be as low key as their four years of study. . . .

"Except for a highly publicized incident at a Texas bar and a few gossip-column appearances, the 22-year-old sisters have stayed out of the limelight that follows a president's children. All the time, their schools, friends, classmates and professors have kept tightlipped about their private lives."

Here's an update on the past four years, academically speaking: "As an English major at UT, Jenna studied creative writing, the poetry of Milton, and ethnic and Third World literature. . . .

"Barbara studied the medieval, Renaissance and modern periods and their literature, history, religion, arts and philosophy."

And Scarponi writes: "Like their mother, the twins joined the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority. Barbara has been said to be a member of Skull and Bones, the secret society for Yale seniors that tapped her great-grandfather, grandfather and father for membership."

It should be noted, however, that the Skull and Bones story is really just a rumor. Back in January, for instance, the New York Daily News alternately reported that she was snubbed by the secret society -- or may have been "tapped" but declined to join. Who knows?

Cheney: Not Chatty

David Lightman writes in the Hartford Courant about his astonishing interview with Vice President Cheney.

"Hours after telling graduates at the Coast Guard Academy that 'the president of the United States has made a commitment' in Iraq and 'that commitment will be kept,' Vice President Dick Cheney, now settled back into the cocoon of Air Force Two, was asked how the war was going.

" 'You ought to ask Rumsfeld,' he said. 'I don't do military briefings.'

"And that was that. His press secretary quickly cut off the questioning. The answer was about as far as Cheney goes -- actually, it was further than he usually goes -- in talking about the increasingly troubled war effort, an effort he championed, planned and continues to insist is a just cause."

Lightman then goes on to write that at the Coast Guard, Cheney "displayed the self-effacing charm and skill that make him popular among Republicans.

"What he didn't show was a harder edge, that of a tough policy-maker and political polarizer who is barely accountable to Congress, reporters or the American public, a vice president who has become that rarest of political commodities: someone who matters."

Here's the text of Cheney's commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy.

While forcefully vowing that terrorists will not "shake the will" of the American people, he was remarkably restrained in his comments about the reasons for war.

"In Iraq, where a dictator cultivated ties to terror and sought to develop the world's most deadly weapons, America led a mission to make the world safer, and to liberate the Iraqi people," Cheney said. "Saddam Hussein defied the demands of the civilized world and he has experienced the consequences."

He's come a long way from an August 2002 speech, where he said: "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us."

What a Difference a Day Makes

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "In rare public criticism of Israel, the White House rebuked the Jewish state yesterday for its deadly incursion into Gaza, saying it did not 'serve the purposes of peace and security' and had 'worsened the humanitarian situation.'

"The statement came one day after President Bush equated the United States' struggle against terrorism with Israel's in a speech before a pro-Israel lobbying group that was interrupted by applause 67 times. . . . "

Barry Schweid writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's unflagging support for Israel is in a sudden downward spiral after the White House sharply criticized Israel's military operations in Gaza and the United States allowed the U.N. Security Council to condemn the Jewish state."

Wow. It's almost worth going back and rereading Kessler and Dana Milbank's story from yesterday's Post about the rapturous response to Bush by the pro-Israel lobby.

Propaganda Watch

Amy Goldstein writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration violated two federal laws through part of its publicity campaign to promote changes in Medicare intended to help older Americans afford prescription drugs, the investigative arm of Congress said yesterday."

And Goldstein reports that "Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said he is preparing a bill that would require Bush's presidential campaign to reimburse the money."

Here's the GAO report. It calls the videos about the Medicare changes that were made to look like news reports "covert propaganda."

Goldstein also notes: "Two weeks ago, the Congressional Research Service concluded that the administration potentially violated the law in a related matter, in which the Medicare program's chief actuary has said he was threatened with firing a year ago if he shared with Congress cost estimates that the Medicare legislation would be a third more expensive than the $400 billion Bush said it would cost."

Gas Watch

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush on Wednesday rejected Democrats' calls to ease high gasoline prices by tapping the nation's petroleum reserve, saying such action would leave America vulnerable to terrorism in a time of war. . . .

" 'I anticipated this three years ago,' Bush told reporters following a meeting with his Cabinet. 'I asked my team to put together a strategy to make us less dependent upon foreign sources of energy. I submitted that plan to the United States Congress.' "

More Iraq News

Peter Slevin writes in The Washington Post: "Poor coordination of U.S. operations in Iraq and persistent divisions among Bush administration policymakers contributed to the failure of President Bush and his national security team to address an array of serious detention issues, U.S. officials and analysts said. . . .

"As early as August, [U.S. civilian coordinator L. Paul] Bremer raised the detention issue with superiors in Washington. Aides said he and Powell began pushing for a stronger Pentagon effort in meetings with Bush's senior foreign policy team, including [Defense Secretary Donald H.] Rumsfeld, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Cheney."

Reuters reports: "President Bush was quoted on Thursday as telling one of Iraq's main newspapers that he did not foresee Iraq becoming a Shi'ite theocracy controlled by neighboring Iran.

" 'I don't think there will be a Shi'ite religious government in Iraq which Iran will dominate,' Bush was quoted as telling Azzaman newspaper in an interview."

Reuters also reports: "It remains unclear whether the CIA was wrong about Iraq's purported prewar mobile biological weapons laboratories, the White House said on Wednesday, disputing a comment by Secretary of State Colin Powell."

Here's the text of press secretary Scott McClellan's briefing yesterday.

Serious Sons of Italy

Roxanne Roberts writes in The Washington Post: "At a different time, the joint appearance of President Bush and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi might have been a lighthearted night of friendship and playful banter. But this is a year of elections, of war, of trials. The two leaders, both battling growing criticism over the military occupation in Iraq, were in no mood for jokes. So last night's Sons of Italy Foundation dinner was less a party than a bilingual campaign stop."

Here's the text of Bush's speech to the Sons of Italy.

Today's Calendar

After his jaunt up to the Hill, Bush meets with the prime minister of Greece in the Oval Office. The first lady is in Albuquerque, for a school visit and a Republican fundraising lunch.

Mars Watch

Traci Watson of USA Today reports: "Astronauts could go to the moon for as long as 90 days in the first step toward reaching President Bush's goal of sending a man to Mars, NASA says."

But Watson notes: "NASA's planning for another moon mission is in a very early stage, and it's possible that the mission will never take place. Polls show that the public has not embraced Bush's space plan, and legislators from both parties have been hesitant to allocate money for it."

Worst in History?' s War Room alerted me to a Web site calling itself the History News Network, which conducted an informal poll of historians and found that 81 percent rate the Bush presidency a failure.

"Of 415 historians who expressed a view of President Bush's administration to this point as a success or failure, 338 classified it as a failure and 77 as a success. (Moreover, it seems likely that at least eight of those who said it is a success were being sarcastic, since seven said Bush's presidency is only the best since Clinton's and one named Millard Fillmore.) Twelve percent of all the historians who responded rate the current presidency the worst in all of American history, not too far behind the 19 percent who see it at this point as an overall success."

The historians were also to choose an ending to the sentence: "Bush's presidency is the worst failure since. . . . "

"The second most common response from historians, trailing only Nixon, was that the current presidency is the worst in American history."

The poll obviously has only anecdotal value at best. It's spectacularly unscientific.

As one respondent wrote: "I suspect that this poll will tell us nothing about President Bush's performance vis-à-vis his peer group, but may confirm what we already know about the current crop of history professors."

And another turned the central question on its head. "His presidency has been remarkably successful," one historian declared, "in its pursuit of disastrous policies."

Late Night Humor

From CBS's "Late Show" with David Letterman, via Reuters:

"How 'bout that George Bush. You know that George Bush. Oh man, I'm telling you, I wouldn't give his troubles to a monkey on a rock. And the White House is now saying that they still do not have a timetable for when the U.S. will be out of Iraq although they hinted that it might be early in the Kerry administration."

© 2004