News Breaks Against Bush

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Wednesday, September 8, 2004; 11:34 AM

The news has been kind to the White House for a few weeks, with media attention largely focused on the Republican convention and the attacks on John Kerry's war record.

But today is looking pretty tough.

Headlines blare the news that the death toll in Iraq has crossed the 1,000 milestone.

There are also big headlines about Bush's record $422 billion budget deficit and the multi-trillion-dollar deficit projections for the future.

Then there are all the stories about Vice President Cheney's jaw-dropping statement yesterday that a Kerry victory would result in more terrorist attacks. Even his own staff is qualifying it.

Bush's spotty National Guard record during the Vietnam War is turning into a full-fledged media conflagration, with more stories out today and "60 Minutes" weighing in tonight.

Plus, Sen.Bob Graham (D-Fla.) is all over the media charging Bush with covering up evidence that might have linked Saudi Arabia to the Sept. 11 hijackers.

And while the mainstream press is not putting stock in unauthorized biographer Kitty Kelley's hazily sourced allegations of past drug use by Bush, everybody -- at least everybody on the Internet -- seems to be talking about it.

It certainly isn't like the carefully scripted weeks of yore.

Live Online

I'm Live Online today at 1 p.m. ET, eager for your questions and comments, as always.

Milestone in Iraq, Millstone for Bush

Josh White and Bradley Graham write in The Washington Post: "The number of soldiers and Pentagon civilians who have died in Iraq topped the 1,000 mark yesterday, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declared that the insurgency is likely to turn even more violent in coming months as the fledgling nation heads toward democratic elections."

White and Graham note that Rumsfeld took the unusual step of issuing a body count for last month, estimating that troops had killed between 1,500 and 2,500 people in Iraq.

"Rumsfeld's decision yesterday to provide an estimate for a full month was interpreted by some military analysts as a Bush administration effort to try to offset recent bad news from Iraq."

William Neikirk and Jeff Zeleny write in the Chicago Tribune that analysts say the milestone "is likely to raise new questions about the U.S. involvement there during the presidential campaign."

Thomas M. DeFrank and Corky Siemaszko write in the New York Daily News's cover story today: "With two months to go before the election and U.S. support for the Iraq war waning, the sad statistics, which include noncombat deaths in Iraq, could be a blow to Bush.

"All but 138 of the deaths occurred after May 1, 2003, when Bush made a dramatic aircraft carrier landing beneath a banner that read 'Mission Accomplished.' And even with Saddam Hussein in shackles and a new Iraqi government in place, the pace of the casualties has increased."

The Associated Press reports that Bush said in a meeting with congressional leaders this morning that "we mourn every loss of life" and declared that the United States was making good progress in the war against terrorism.

Pool reporter Corbett Daly of CBS MarketWatch informed his colleagues that Bush was "determined not to take questions shouted by the pool. As questions were shouted, Bush sat silently, waiting for us to be escorted out of the room."

Conflation Watch

Here's how Scott McClellan handled the questions about the milestone yesterday:

" Q Senator Kerry is calling it a tragic milestone, reaching 1,000 deaths in Iraq.

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we remember, honor and mourn the loss of all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice defending freedom. And we also remember those who lost their lives on September 11th. The best way to honor all those who have lost their life in the war on terrorism is to continue to wage a broad war and spread freedom throughout a dangerous part of the world so that we can transform that region of the world and make the world a safer place, and make America more secure.

"Q And you're convinced each one of those lives is worth it, Scott?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Each one -- well, let me say, when I say we remember, honor, mourn the loss of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, we do so for those in Iraq and Afghanistan. We also remember those who lost their lives on September 11th, nearly three years ago today. And that's why I said it's important that we continue to wage a broad war on terrorism and that we work to spread freedom throughout the Middle East and transform that region so that we defeat the ideologies of hatred and tyranny.

"Q But the question is, for -- each of those families lost someone, a loved one, and each one of those is worth it -- that's the question.

"MR. McCLELLAN: Mark, I think -- I think of the cost we paid on September 11th, and September 11th changed the equation, as you've heard the President say."

A Surplus of Deficit

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "This year's federal budget deficit will reach a record $422 billion, and the government is now expected to accumulate $2.3 trillion in new debt over the next 10 years, the Congressional Budget Office reported yesterday. . . .

"The CBO's findings may refocus some political attention on the fiscal health of a federal government that, between recession, war and tax cuts, has swung from record surpluses to record deficits since Bush took office."

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "Even if the United States saved billions of dollars by withdrawing all troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, President Bush would still be unlikely to fulfill his promise to reduce the federal budget deficit by half within five years, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said Tuesday. . . .

"If Mr. Bush persuades Congress to make his tax cuts permanent, the federal deficit will increase to about $500 billion in 2009. The new estimate is the first time the Congressional agency has projected that Mr. Bush will probably fail to achieve his goal of reducing the deficit by half in five years."

Cheney Warns of Peril if Kerry Wins

Dana Milbank and Spencer Hsu write in The Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney warned on Tuesday that if John F. Kerry is elected, 'the danger is that we'll get hit again' by terrorists, as the Bush campaign escalated a furious assault on the Democratic presidential nominee that has kept Kerry from gaining control of the election debate."

Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards called Cheney's comment "way over the top and I think un-American."

Milbank and Hsu write: "Cheney spokeswoman Anne Womack labeled that comment an 'overreaction' and said Cheney 'wasn't trying to connect the dots' between a Kerry victory and a terrorist attack. 'Whoever is elected in November faces the prospect of another terrorist attack,' she said."

Jill Lawrence and Richard Benedetto write in USA Today: "The presidential campaign spiked to a new level of rhetorical heat Tuesday when Vice President Cheney warned that a vote for Democrat John Kerry could bring terrorist attacks on the USA."

Here's the full text of Cheney's comments in Des Moines.

Bush and the Guard

Walter V. Robinson writes in the Boston Globe that "Bush fell well short of meeting his military obligation, a Globe reexamination of the records shows: Twice during his Guard service -- first when he joined in May 1968, and again before he transferred out of his unit in mid-1973 to attend Harvard Business School -- Bush signed documents pledging to meet training commitments or face a punitive call-up to active duty.

"He didn't meet the commitments, or face the punishment, the records show. The 1973 document has been overlooked in news media accounts. The 1968 document has received scant notice. . . .

"In 1999, Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett told the Washington Post that Bush finished his six-year commitment at a Boston area Air Force Reserve unit after he left Houston. Not so, Bartlett now concedes. 'I must have misspoke,' Bartlett, who is now the White House communications director, said in a recent interview."

And Matt Kelley writes for the Associated Press: "Months after insisting it could find no more records of President Bush's Air National Guard service, the Defense Department has released more than two dozen pages of files, including Bush's report card for flight training and dates of his flights. . . .

"The records show his last flight was in April 1972, which is consistent with pay records indicating Bush had a lapse of duty between April and October of that year. . . .

"A six-month historical record of his 147th Fighter Interceptor Group, also turned over to the AP on Tuesday, shows . . . the unit joined a '24-hour active alert mission to safeguard against surprise attack' in the southern United States beginning on Oct. 6, 1972, a mission for which Bush was not present, according to his pay records."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "On Tuesday night, the White House put the blame on the Pentagon for the belated release of the newly unearthed documents. 'Unfortunately, it has become clear that they didn't undertake as comprehensive a search as was directed by the president,' said Claire Buchan, a White House spokeswoman."

More to Come

CBS's 60 Minutes is trumpeting a Dan Rather interview to be broadcast tonight with "former Texas House Speaker and Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes, a Democrat, about the role Barnes says he played in getting President George W. Bush into the Texas Air National Guard -- and why he now regrets it."

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Escalating the campaign warfare over the Vietnam era, a new group founded by a veteran Texas Democratic operative will announce today a television ad campaign reprising charges that President Bush failed to perform his service in the Texas Air National Guard while on temporary assignment in Alabama."

Mark Memmott writes in USA Today: "The ad could renew questions about Bush's Vietnam-era service in the National Guard, just as ads by a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth renewed debate over Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's service in Vietnam and his anti-war efforts."

And New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas D. Kristof interviewed the star of the ad, Robert Mintz, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Alabama Air National Guard.

"In his first interview with a national news organization, Mr. Mintz recalled why he remembered Mr. Bush as a no-show: 'Young bachelors were kind of sparse. For that reason, I was looking for someone to haul around with.' Why speak out now? He said, 'After a lot of soul-searching, I just feel it's my duty to stand up and do the right thing.' "

Kristof also Web-publishes a 32-page analysis by Gerald Lechliter, a retired Army colonel who Kristof says "has made the most meticulous examination I've seen of Mr. Bush's records."

Bob Graham Watch

Ken Guggenheim writes for the Associated Press: "Former Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Bob Graham accused the White House on Tuesday of covering up evidence that might have linked Saudi Arabia to the Sept. 11 hijackers."

Frank Davies writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers that "Graham said Vice President Dick Cheney 'intimidated' the CIA into overestimating the threat from Saddam Hussein while downplaying the fact that 'the intelligence was fundamentally weak, and we were totally reliant on foreign sources and exiles.' "

The Kitty Kelley Book

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "Kitty Kelley's volume on the Bush family won't be published until next week, but the White House communications director yesterday dismissed the book as 'garbage' and a Republican National Committee spokeswoman said journalists should treat it as 'fiction.' With the author booked for numerous television interviews -- including three straight mornings on NBC's 'Today,' starting Monday -- 'The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty' is certain to generate media attention in the heat of a presidential campaign. . . .

Kurtz notes that "the book contains, among other things, allegations of past drug use by President Bush. One of the sources quoted on that subject is Bush's former sister-in-law, Sharon Bush, who had a bitter divorce from the president's brother Neil. . . .

"During the 2000 campaign, Bush repeatedly declined to address questions about possible past drug use, saying only that he had made 'mistakes' when he was 'young and irresponsible.' He said he had not used illegal drugs since 1974 but refused to say whether he had tried them earlier."

The American press is largely shying away from the story -- unable to confirm any of its more salacious allegations. But our British colleagues are not being so reticent.

An early story about the book in the British tabloid, the Daily Mirror, remains one of the hottest blog links on the Internet today.

Suzanne Goldenberg writes in the Guardian that "George Bush has good reason to feel queasy about the latest work of Kitty Kelley, the muckraking celebrity biographer, who has turned her poisoned pen on America's pre-eminent political family."

Rupert Cornwell writes in the Independent: "President George Bush now faces a double blast of scrutiny over his own past, raising new questions over his avoidance of the Vietnam draft and his alleged use of drugs."

Bowing Out of a Debate

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush may skip one of the three debates that have been proposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates and accepted by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), Republican officials said yesterday.

"The officials said Bush's negotiating team plans to resist the middle debate, which was to be Oct. 8 in a town meeting format in the crucial state of Missouri. . . .

"The commission said participants should be undecided voters from the St. Louis area.

"A presidential adviser said campaign officials were concerned that people could pose as undecided when they actually are partisans."

Yesterday in Missouri

Steve Kraske of the Kansas City Star writes: "Rolling through a clutch of Missouri towns Tuesday, President Bush took practiced shots at terrorists, trial lawyers and taxes."

David L. Greene writes in the Baltimore Sun about Bush on the campaign trail.

"He can be punchy, looking for a laugh and so relaxed that his antics can enter the realm of the inexplicable. He has champed on raw corn, described which parts of a broccoli leaf taste best, played peek-a-boo with photographers and told mayors to fill potholes.

"On the road, Bush lets any malapropisms or gaffes just flow out. This is Dubya unplugged, Dubya unworried. "

Here are transcripts of Bush's remarks yesterday in Lee's Summit, Sedalia and Columbia.

A Refuge From the Bad News

Here are a few of the tough "questions" Bush faced in his invitation-only "Ask President Bush" event in Sedalia yesterday.

"This is a comment to encourage you. We here in the heartland, I think, are responsible for being the anchor, and we know that there is a lot of trends on both coasts, but we try to stay steady, and we try to do what we feel is the right thing. And I want to tell you that I believe I can be a Christian representative and say there's a whole bunch of people praying for you. . . .

"There are those here that will know what I mean what I say that. In my prayers over the last three years, I am definitely impressed that you've been chosen for this time.

"And finally, I don't want you to worry about those weapons of mass destruction. They're going to find them. They're there."


"I appreciate so much the choice of your running mate. A lot was made over John Edwards' great head of hair when he decided to accept the nomination, but I would take Dick Cheney's cute little smirk over that great head of hair any day of the year."

Today's Calendar

Scott Lindlaw writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush is returning to storm-battered Florida for the third time in 3 1/2 weeks, this time to survey damage from Hurricane Frances and to personally assure residents that billions more dollars in federal aid is coming.

"Bush was expected to sign a bill Wednesday morning allocating $2 billion in emergency money to deliver disaster relief to areas reeling from two hurricanes. The Republican-controlled Congress rushed the bill through Tuesday night, just ahead of Bush's trip to the politically crucial state."

Bush visits Port St. Lucie and Miami.

Twins Watch

Deborah Orin writes in the New York Post: "The Bush twins' widely panned Republican convention speech -- spiced with hipster talk and risqué jokes -- didn't do anything to hurt their popularity, according to a new poll.

"Asked to rate the 22-year-old twins, 49 percent of Americans said they're 'a breath of fresh air' while just 19 percent thought the duo is an embarrassment for their dad, a Gallup/CNN poll found.

"The Sept. 3-5 poll didn't specifically ask about their convention speech -- which won less than rave reviews. But it was the twins' most visible moment, using lines written by longtime Bush ally Karen Hughes, who took a lot of flak for the jokes and now looks to be vindicated."

And New York Daily News gossip columnist Lloyd Grove writes: "Us Weekly reports that at Club 17 in the wee hours one night last week, vodka-swilling Jenna Bush was trapped in an elevator. After obtaining her freedom by prying open the doors with a chopstick, she allegedly celebrated with tequila."

© 2004