You're Feeling Safer . . . Safer . . . Safer

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Tuesday, July 13, 2004; 11:20 AM

It's not hard to tell when President Bush is really, really serious about getting a particular message out.

He repeats it, over and over again.

But it's unusual even for him to say the same thing seven times in one short speech.

That's what he did yesterday, in Oak Ridge, Tenn., asserting that because of his foreign policy initiatives and the war on terror, "the American people are safer." (Here's the text.)

Bush said it so many times that CBS and ABC both spliced a sort of dance mix and inserted it into their reports on the evening news: "The American people are safer. . . . The American people are safer. . . . The American people are safer."

Here's the problem for Bush, though: A lot of Americans don't feel safer -- more than 50 percent, in some polls.

And while Bush did undeniably remove Saddam Hussein from power, last week's Senate intelligence committee report thoroughly undermined the argument that Hussein posed an immediate threat.

But here's the good news for Bush: When you're the president, and you repeat something often enough, a lot of people do start to believe it -- unless of course the press is constantly, doggedly reminding people it isn't true.

Case in point: The August 2003 Washington Post poll that found that 69 percent of Americans thought it at least likely that Hussein had a role in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- at least partly the result of months of suggestions from the Bush administration.

A Reversal? An Admission?

While defending his decisions, Bush yesterday acknowledged that no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq and that the Senate committee "identified some shortcomings in our intelligence capabilities."

Is that a reversal? Is he admitting any mistake? This morning's news coverage is generally approaching that issue gingerly, if at all.

Anne E. Kornblut in the Boston Globe calls Bush's acknowledgement that no weapons have been found a "rare admission."

And she calls attention to these comments that Bush made almost exactly a year ago: "I think the intelligence I get is darn good intelligence. And the speeches I have given were backed by good intelligence. . . . And I believe, firmly believe, that when it's all said and done, the people of the United States and the world will realize that Saddam Hussein had a weapons program."

Trying to Regain His Footing

Amy Goldstein writes in The Washington Post that Bush's remarks "represented an attempt to regain political footing on an issue that his advisers had expected to be a strong selling point in his reelection campaign but that has stirred public skepticism.

"Confronted with unanimous findings by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that the administration had relied on unfounded intelligence in going to war, the president essentially sought to reframe the debate. Hussein's removal, he said, was part of a three-prong strategy for peace."

The three prongs (Press Secretary Scott McClellan also outlined them in his morning gaggle): Taking the fight to the enemy; working with friends and allies and international institutions to isolate and confront terrorists and outlaw regimes; extending the peace by supporting the rise of democracy, and the hope and progress that democracy brings, as the alternative to hatred and terror in the broader Middle East.

In his gaggle, McClellan said Bush had talked about the three prongs before. He also said that "the new part of the speech is really how he walks through the different areas where we are achieving these clear results."

That sounds to me like something of a a shift from talking about means to talking about ends.

Smorgasbord of Leads

But there was quite a spread of leads on top of this story today.

Richard W. Stevenson and Jodi Wilgoren write in the New York Times: "President Bush on Monday vigorously defended his decision to go to war against Iraq, saying the invasion was the right thing to do even though no banned weapons had been found there, and claiming progress against terrorism and the spread of unconventional arms."

William Douglas and Jonathan S. Landay write in Knight Ridder newspapers that by suggesting that invading Iraq was the right thing to do in a post-Sept. 11 world, "President Bush continued to insist Monday that there was an operational link between former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida despite reports by the Senate Intelligence Committee and the commission that's investigating the Sept. 11 attacks that there was no evidence that Saddam and Islamic terrorists collaborated to kill Americans. . . .

"White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Bush was speaking broadly about 'the nexus between terrorists and outlaw regimes.' Asked if the president was speaking about a Saddam-al-Qaida connection, McClellan said, 'We know there were ties between Iraq and terrorists, including al-Qaida.'"

Helen Kennedy writes in the New York Daily News: "As the key reasons he cited for going to war crumble around him, President Bush yesterday insisted he was right to invade Iraq. . . .

"Nearly 900 U.S. soldiers have come home in coffins so far, and polls show a majority of Americans now question whether it was all worth it."

Edward Alden writes in the Financial Times: "President George W. Bush said on Monday his administration would maintain its policy of pre-empting potential security threats despite growing doubts over the adequacy of US intelligence to assess such dangers."

On the Nets

Here's how Bush's speech played out on the major broadcast networks.

ABC's Terry Moran: "There is no question that the president is now launching a major effort . . . to shore up his credibility on national security issues."

CBS's Bill Plante: "President Bush offered a broad, new defense of his leadership since 9/11, declaring repeatedly that in nation after nation, across the Middle East, his strategy of engagement had actually increased America's security."

NBC's Brian Williams: "These have been tough days for the Bush White House, getting ready to roll out its campaign themes for another four years in office, right in the middle of a relentless run of bad news, including last Friday's scorching from a Senate report on the war on Iraq."

Then Williams threw it over to Andrea Mitchell: "The White House staged a coordinated foreign policy counteroffensive: The president at the Tennessee weapons labs where nuclear components retrieved from Libya are stored. Condoleezza Rice on the cable networks. . . and in the battleground state of Pennsylvania . . . the vice president, reminding the Democratic contenders that they both voted for the war.

"But Democrats feel that they, for the first time in a generation, now have more credibility than Republicans on foreign policy."

Cheney Attack

Indeed, another part of the Bush counteroffensive was a ferocious attack by Cheney.

Michael Rubinkam writes for the Associated Press: "Vice President Dick Cheney on Monday accused his Democratic opponents of 'trying to rewrite history for their own political purposes' when they criticize the Bush administration for going to war based on flawed prewar intelligence.

"Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards, the presumed Democratic presidential ticket, reviewed the same reports on Iraq that were given to President Bush and supported the decision to go to war, Cheney said.

"'Now it seems they've both developed a convenient case of campaign amnesia,' he said during a fundraiser. 'If the president was right -- and he was -- then they are simply trying to rewrite history for their own political purposes.'"

Here's the text of Cheney's afternoon comments.

Backdrop Watch

Bush spoke in front of a stirring backdrop, emblazoned with the words "Protecting America." There was even an eagle on it.

The greater backdrop, of course, was the Oak Ridge National Laboratory itself, and the shipments of components for manufacturing nuclear weapons sent by Libya.

But The Post's Goldstein notes: "There are substantial differences of opinion over what motivated Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi to decide eight months ago to stop trying to develop nuclear weapons, allowing Western inspectors to verify its actions and agreeing to destroy some materials and ship others here to Oak Ridge. Inspectors have discovered that Libya's weapons program was disorganized, short of critical components and years away from producing weapons."

White House Salary List

Dana Milbank's White House Notebook teams up with Dan Froomkin's White House Briefing today to bring you full coverage of the latest White House staff and salary list.

Milbank writes: "Overall, working in the White House is quite a good living. The average salary, $67,075, is well above the latest available metropolitan Washington average of $48,420, and nearly double the national average of $36,764. But don't fret about the overpaid presidential adviser: most of them could be earning far more -- and sooner or later will be -- as lawyers, lobbyists and corporate executives."

Milbank also takes a look at the White House gender gap and finds that women earn about 78 percent what men earn.

"At the White House, the gap has nothing to do with wage discrimination: Women and men with similar titles receive similar pay. Rather, it comes from the dominance of men in high-end jobs."

Like I did with last year's staff list, I've Web-published the 2004 list ordered alphabetically by last name, by salary, and by title.

National Guard Correction

In Friday's column, I linked to a Ralph Blumenthal story in the New York Times about how the Pentagon was saying that some of Bush's payroll records had been "inadvertently destroyed."

I added my own comment: That I found this surprising, given that Associated Press Assistant General Counsel Dave Tomlin had told me two weeks earlier that the AP, which has filed a lawsuit demanding Bush's Vietnam-era records, has been informed that the microfilm in question did indeed exist.

Several alert readers e-mailed me to suggest that I had conflated two sets of microfilm. And in fact, I did just that. (Thank you, readers.)

I reached Tomlin yesterday and he set me straight, so now I can set the record straight myself.

The microfilm that the Pentagon reported destroyed was housed at the Defense Finance and Accounting Service in Denver and consisted only of a few months of payroll records -- albeit some of them from during the hotly contested third quarter of 1972.

The Associated Press lawsuit that Tomlin filed is for the microfilm of Bush's entire personnel file from the Texas Air National Guard. Those records are in Austin.

The Denver microfilm was the subject of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request -- and the Austin lawsuit was filed in response to the denial of a FOIA request.

But they were different FOIA requests.

"There have been numerous FOIAs," Tomlin told me yesterday. "The lawsuit in particular is focused on microfilm that we believe to be in the possession of the State of Texas. . . . Not just payroll records, but the entire personnel file."

In fact, Tomlin said, "There could be payroll records in there that might duplicate the lost records. . . . But we're not sure."

Here's a copy of the AP lawsuit.

Did Bush Do a (Silent) Cheney?

A blogging East Lampeter, Penn., resident who goes by Jiveturkey insists that he was flipped the bird by the president of the United States on Friday.

He and a friend were standing along the road as the Bush bus motorcade passed by. Here's what he says happened.

"At the front of this second bus was The W himself, waving cheerily at his supporters on the other side of the highway. Adam, Brendan, and I rose our banner (the More Trees, Less Bush one) and he turned to wave to our side of the road. His smile faded, and he raised his left arm in our direction. And then, George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the United States of America, extended his middle finger.

"Read that last sentence again.

"I got flipped off by George W. Bush.

"A ponytailed man standing next to us confirmed the event, saying, 'I do believe the President of the U.S. just gave you boys the finger.' We laughed probably for the next half hour, and promptly told everyone we knew."

In the photo he supplies, the glare and the tint of the bus windows makes it impossible to verify. He posted more pictures of the bus tour here as well.

Roadless No More

Juliet Eilperin writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration said yesterday it plans to overturn a Clinton-era rule that made nearly 60 million acres of national forest off-limits to road-building and logging, setting aside one of the most sweeping land preservation measures in decades. . . .

"James L. Connaughton, who chairs the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the administration is trying 'to settle this once and for all on a state-by-state basis' so 'we will be able to implement a very full and effective roadless conservation policy.' He said the administration is more focused on issues such as fire prevention and public safety than economic development in the national forests, which have a lower level of federal protection than wilderness lands."

CIA Watch

Everyone's wondering who Bush will appoint as the next CIA director, and when.

Adam Entous of Reuters writes: "It may be the most difficult and important job search of Bush's tenure, and people close to the process say Vice President Dick Cheney is playing a key role."

The Power of Patronage Politics

Greg Hitt writes in the Wall Street Journal about how "since mid-March, when the race for the presidency began to gain momentum, Bush officials have routinely fanned out across the country in a public-relations offensive hard to miss. In many cases, they are doling out cash grants, typically for the sort of projects that draw fire from administration deficit-hawks when they show up as earmarks in congressional spending bills."

Air Force One Troubles

The Associated Press reports: "A left-wing conspiracy? On Monday, a flap on the wing of Air Force One left its track, forcing President Bush to return from Oak Ridge, Tenn., in a smaller presidential plane, a Boeing 757 rather than the 747 he arrived in."

Here's an AP photo of the two planes.

Kenny Boy the Pariah

From Larry King Live, with guest Ken Lay.

"KING: OK. I want to cover some political things first. Have you heard or spoken to President Bush since all of this?

"LAY: President Bush. . . .

"KING: Current President Bush.

"LAY: Current President Bush. Not since sometime back in 2001, and that would have been before all of this occurred.

"KING: He didn't call you to offer any condolences, feel bad, or anything? I mean, you two were very close, weren't you?

"LAY: I considered us reasonably close and, certainly, I shared his business council and did some other things. But again, Larry, I'm realistic about that. I mean, it's not good -- it wasn't good for him and maybe not good for me, for us to talk after this all started happening."

Poll Watch

CNN reports: "Americans are more optimistic about the nation's economy and less dissatisfied about the overall direction of the country, but their improved mood has not affected President Bush's approval ratings, according to a Gallup poll released Tuesday."

Will Lester writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush is viewed by more American voters as decisive and arrogant than Democratic rival John Kerry, according to an Associated Press poll. Voters are more likely to see Kerry as intelligent.

"Asked who makes them feel more optimistic about the future, slightly more voters choose Bush than Kerry, the poll conducted for the AP by Ipsos-Public Affairs found."

Here's a fascinating graphic: A scatter chart showing the results of all the various different presidential approval polls since inauguration. It's from the Professor Poolkatz Pool of Polls, a Web site that I just discovered thanks to blogger Brad DeLong, who marvels at the spread between different polls.

But directionally, they're pretty consistent. As this graphic based on the Washington Post/ABC News poll shows, with the exception of a big bump for the start of the war and a little bump for the capture of Saddam Hussein, it's been downhill ever since the colossal spike of 9/11.

Ken Herman writes in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution: "President Bush's approval rating has declined three percentage points for every 100 U.S. military personnel who have died in Iraq, a report issued Monday by political scientists in Texas and Massachusetts shows.

"'The obvious conclusion from these results is that the casualty rate has indeed had a consistent, inexorable downward impact on assessments of Iraq policy,' said Richard Stoll, of Rice University, who did the study with Richard Eichenberg, of Tufts University."

Here's the full text of that study.

Today's Calendar

Scott Lindlaw writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush is courting rural voters in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, closely shadowing rival John Kerry's recent Midwestern tour and trying to outflank the Democrat on his claim that he is the champion of 'conservative values.' . . .

"Bush carries that message on Tuesday to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a sparsely populated region no sitting president has visited in more than 90 years. . . .

"Bush then heads west to Minnesota. . . . On Wednesday, he is making a second bus trip through Wisconsin, a state he lost in 2000 by fewer than 6,000 votes."

Fooled Ya! Ha! Fooled Ya Again!

That Scott McClellan. What a cut-up. From yesterday's gaggle:

"Q Is the President doing any work today on naming a CIA Director? Is he talking to anybody? Is he meeting with anyone?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Let me give you a readout of the progress on the CIA Director.

"Q Oh, okay.

"MR. McCLELLAN: Just kidding. (Laughter.) Everybody was looking. Put your pens down. (Laughter.)

"Q Who all -- who's been interviewed for that job?

"Q Is that going to take up any of his time today?

"MR. McCLELLAN: The candidates are as follows. No, no -- (laughter.)

"Q Is he going to be doing it?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry, we have a problem with the recording here. Sorry. (Laughter.)

"Q Is he going to be doing any work on this today when he gets back?

"MR. McCLELLAN: The President will name a permanent CIA director in due course. We have a very strong and capable leader in the acting Director. And beyond that, I'm just not going to speculate about it."

© 2004