No Regrets From the President

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Monday, September 27, 2004; 12:49 PM

Even Karl Rove recognized that, in retrospect, the "Mission Accomplished" banner was a mistake.

But President Bush, not one to admit mistakes, is standing firm.

Lois Romano and Mike Allen write in The Washington Post that Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly, in a sit-down with the president taped last week, "asked Bush whether he would still do the carrier landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln beneath the 'Mission Accomplished' banner. At the time, 16 months ago, Bush referred to Iraq as a 'victory' and declared an end to major combat there.

" 'Absolutely,' the president replied in the interview, to air on Monday's 'O'Reilly Factor.' O'Reilly, apparently surprised, replied, 'You would?' 'Of course,' Bush continued. 'I'm saying to the troops, on this carrier and elsewhere, "Thanks for serving America." Absolutely. And by the way, those sailors and airmen loved seeing the commander in chief. . . . You bet I'd do it again.' "

At the time Bush spoke, there had been 138 U.S. military combat deaths in Iraq. Since then, there have been 908 more, as reported by the Pentagon. See, for instance,'s Faces of the Fallen: U.S. Fatalities in Iraq.

Adam Nagourney and Robin Toner write in the New York Times that "Mr. Bush never actually said 'mission accomplished,' but stood in front of a banner that contained those words."

In fact, in that May 1, 2003 speech, Bush did not use that term but did declare: "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed."

And visiting troops in Qatar a month later, he was explicit: "I am happy to see you, and so are the long-suffering people of Iraq. America sent you on a mission to remove a grave threat and to liberate an oppressed people, and that mission has been accomplished."

Here is the famous Reuters photo showing Bush beneath the banner. Here are video excerpts from his speech on the carrier.

Five months ago, Bush's chief political adviser met with the Columbus Dispatch and expressed regret.

" 'I wish the banner was not up there,' Rove said. 'I'll acknowledge the fact that it has become one of those convenient symbols.' . . .

The Dispatch also noted that the banner had a history of controversy: "In October, Bush declared that the White House had nothing to do with the banner. A spokesman later clarified that White House staff members had the banner made at the request of the ship's crew, then sent it to the carrier before his visit."

But Bush is averse to contrition.

At his last prime-time press conference, in April, Bush was famously flummoxed when asked to describe his biggest mistake, post-9/11. "You know, I just -- I'm sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hadn't yet," he said.

And last month, Bush told the New York Times that he made a "miscalculation of what the conditions would be" in postwar Iraq -- but he didn't say what he would have done differently.

So here's my question of the day: How far does this dislike of expressing regret extend?

What would Bush do if at Thursday's debate, moderator Jim Lehrer asked him about some of the more serious things that opponents have said went wrong during his presidency?

For instance, I wonder:

• Would he, in retrospect, have prepared differently for the occupation?

• Does he wish he had issued clearer directives against torture in Iraqi prisons?

• Would he, in hindsight, have been more skeptical of the WMD intelligence?

• Does he regret not having heeded that pre-9/11 briefing on the threat posed by Osama bin Laden?

More on FOX

Romano and Allen also report on some other tidbits from the O'Reilly interview.

"In the Fox interview, portions of which were released Sunday, Bush was asked whether he was willing to use military force if Iran continued to defy the United States and its allies by developing a nuclear weapon. 'Well, let me try to solve it diplomatically first,' the president said. 'All options are on the table, of course, in any situation.' . . .

"Bush said he was not aware in advance of the anti-Kerry ads by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which received legal advice from a lawyer who also advised the Bush-Cheney campaign. Asked whether White House senior adviser Karl Rove knew anything about it, Bush said, 'I don't think so.' Asked whether anyone from his campaign had received a heads-up that the ads were coming, the president replied, 'Not to my knowledge.' "

Debate Prep

The consensus among the prognosticators is that Bush has some really great, winning lines that he has perfected over months of stump speeches and "Ask President Bush" events -- and that you will hear a lot of them, maybe repeatedly, during Thursday night's debate.

David Von Drehle writes in The Washington Post: "Beating Bush in these debates -- the first on Thursday at the University of Miami -- will be no easy matter, judging from the extensive record Bush and Kerry have compiled in televised face-offs. The president is an unorthodox debater but an effective one, especially against candidates schooled in the traditional rules of debate, such as Kerry. . . .

"The first encounter will focus on foreign policy. Bush's debate history shows one thing above all: His themes in debate are the same ones he preaches on the trail. By that yardstick, Bush will defend the war as a tough decision with no acceptable alternative. 'Do I trust Saddam Hussein? Do I forget the lessons of September the 11th or take action to defend this country?' Bush repeats in speeches across the country. 'Given that choice, I will defend America every time.' "

Ken Herman writes for the Cox News Service: "It's debate season and this time -- for the first time in debates that matter -- George W. Bush is in the challenging position of defending the status quo. . . .

"In previous debates, Bush, now pitching a stay-the-course message, embraced the role of challenger. . . .

"With a nation sharply divided on Iraq and other issues, and an economy that is still suffering in some regions, there is much turf for Bush to defend."

In Time magazine, Karen Tumulty and John F. Dickerson describe how Bush has been getting ready.

"Bush started prepping this summer and has had occasional full-length dress rehearsals, but the pace picked up last weekend at his Crawford, Texas, ranch. New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg, who played Al Gore in the 2000 drill, stood in for Kerry, and admaker Mark McKinnon assumed the role of the first debate moderator. It all took place in a one-story building known as the Conference Center, where Bush practiced behind a lectern and aides flashed cue cards that told him how much time he had left, just as officials will at the debate. Sessions were scheduled for 9 p.m. E.T. so that the early-to-bed Bush could set his body clock to the precise time of the real thing.

"Aides have given Bush audiocassettes of Kerry's favorite attack lines, which the President listens to as he flies between campaign events on Air Force One and sometimes as he works out. . . . "

The possibly master stroke: " 'He's a sweater,' chortles a G.O.P. official, 'and women don't like sweaters.' That's why Bush's team was happy to have the Kerry campaign climb down from its demand that the debate hall be chilled to below 70 degrees. The Jordan-Baker agreement stipulates that the debate commission use 'best efforts to maintain an appropriate temperature according to industry standards.' Whatever those are."

Peter Wallsten and Edwin Chen write in the Los Angeles Times that White House communications director Dan Bartlett said Bush was relaxed at this weekend's two practice sessions. "At several points, he delivered joking answers that initially brought senior staffers up short," Wallsten and Chen report. But Bartlett "would not divulge the president's facetious answers."

Norah O'Donnell reports for NBC News that while there is some concern that the 32 pages of debate rules will eliminate spontaneity, Bartlett thinks otherwise. "When you have the type of structure we do here, you don't get the political grandstanding and speechifying that you get on the stump," Bartlett said.

Deb Riechmann of the Associated Press also quotes Bartlett: " 'Obviously, President Bush has had to practice twice as hard to learn all the different positions that John Kerry has taken on the big issues of the day,' Bartlett said in a shot at the Massachusetts senator. 'But he's ready to hold his own.' "

Added Bartlett: "Will President Bush step on his own line and maybe not pronounce a word right? I bet he will. But, I think after the 90 minutes, there won't be any ambiguity on his positions."

Martin Kasindorf and Richard Benedetto write in USA Today: "Bush campaign media consultant Stuart Stevens, when asked on ABC's This Week about a new Time magazine poll that shows 44% of the nation believes Bush will win the debates as opposed to 32% who pick Kerry, said: 'Oh, I think we can still lower that.' "

But Newsweek's Conventional Wisdom is: "Going into debates, Bush for the first time ever has lost the low-expectations game, as Kerry is expected to be verbose and unappealing."

Here are "guides" to the debate from the Associated Press and Newsweek.

Newsweek columnist Fareed Zakaria writes: "The candidates should face three tests that help reveal their strengths and weaknesses as leaders in war. First, how do they define this conflict? Second, how do they define success? Finally, how do they think victory can be achieved? As we watch the debate this week, we should bear these questions in mind, listen for answers and judge the candidates accordingly."

And John Tierney in the New York Times offers a debate quiz.

Iraqi Election Watch

Timothy J. Burger and Douglas Waller write in Time magazine that "U.S. officials tell Time that the Bush team ran into trouble with . . . a secret 'finding' written several months ago proposing a covert CIA operation to aid candidates favored by Washington. A source says the idea was to help such candidates -- whose opponents might be receiving covert backing from other countries, like Iran -- but not necessarily to go so far as to rig the elections. . . .

"A senior U.S. official hinted that, under pressure from the Hill, the Administration scaled back its original plans. 'This was a tough call. We went back and forth on it in the U.S. government. We consulted the Hill on this question. . . . Our embassy in Baghdad will run a number of overt programs to support the democratic electoral process,' as the U.S. does elsewhere in the world."

Afghanistan Election Watch

David Rohde and Carlotta Gail write in the New York Times: "Taliban attacks aside, a huge question looms over Afghanistan's first-ever presidential election on Oct. 9. Will the country's hopeful electorate see it as an exercise in democracy, or an exercise in American political theater?

"Members of its elite, some military commanders and Mr. Karzai's challengers are warning that American officials are imperiling the election's credibility by trying too hard to get a show of broad support for Mr. Karzai and doing too little to assure Afghans that the electoral playing field is level."

They also note: "Mr. Karzai and Mr. Bush have hailed a surge of voter registration in August as a sign of eagerness among Afghans to vote. While 1.8 million Afghans registered over the winter months, the number ballooned over the summer to more than 10 million.

"But in some provinces this brought registration numbers that were so high -- up to 140 per cent of the estimated number of eligible voters -- that it raised fears that there may be massive vote rigging on polling day."

Cheney Watch

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Some days, Vice President Dick Cheney says Saddam Hussein had 'long-established' ties to Al Qaeda. Other days, he says the onetime Iraqi dictator 'had a relationship' with the terrorist group.

"But the underlying message remains unchanged -- Cheney plants the idea that Hussein was allied with the group responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Although the extent of the Al Qaeda-Hussein relationship -- if it existed -- has been widely disputed, Cheney proceeds with nary a nod toward such questions."

Joel Brinkley writes in the New York Times about a week on the trail with Cheney and concludes that "his dark message" is "out of sync with what many in his ardently supportive audience wanted to hear: his stand on domestic social issues.

"Mr. Cheney, in unscripted remarks that began several of the events, was bleak, the harbinger of a future dominated by terrorist threats."

Progress in Iraq?

Rajiv Chandrasekaran wrote in the Sunday Washington Post: "In number and scope, the attacks compiled [by a private security firm working for the U.S. government] suggest a broad and intensifying campaign of insurgent violence that contrasts sharply with assessments by Bush administration officials and Iraq's interim prime minister that the instability is contained to small pockets of the country."

Edward Alden, Thomas Catán and Mark Huband write in the Financial Times: "Colin Powell, US secretary of state, said on Sunday that the revolt in Iraq was intensifying, in a departure from the Bush administration's recent assessments of security in the country."

Adam Entous writes for Reuters: "Many of President George W. Bush's assertions about progress in Iraq -- from police training and reconstruction to preparations for January elections -- are in dispute, according to internal Pentagon documents, lawmakers and key congressional aides on Sunday."

Zarqawi Watch

Craig Whitlock writes in The Washington Post about Abu Musab Zarqawi: "Skeptics say that the U.S. government has transformed Zarqawi into a larger-than-life figure by exaggerating his capabilities and using him to personify the Iraqi resistance, which has many factions and appears to rely mainly on Iraqi fighters, not foreigners. But Zarqawi has also helped to enhance his own legend by embracing tactics that have generated enormous publicity."

Speaking of Zarqawi, bloggers, like elephants, never forget. They keep calling attention to Jim Miklaszewski's story for NBC in March, which asserted that "long before the war the Bush administration had several chances to wipe out his terrorist operation and perhaps kill Zarqawi himself -- but never pulled the trigger."

Deregulation Watch

Stephen Labaton writes in the New York Times: "In recent weeks, federal agencies across the vast Washington bureaucracy have delayed completion of a range of proposed regulations from food safety and the environment to corporate governance and telecommunications policy until after Election Day, when regulatory action may be more politically palatable.

"The delays come after heavy lobbying by industry organizations, including the United States Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, the cattle and feed industries, the four regional Bell operating telephone companies, big health care providers and timber and mining interests."

Out West

Joby Warrick and Juliet Eilperin write in The Washington Post about a large effort underway "to rewrite the rules governing millions of acres of undeveloped federal lands in the West. With few exceptions, the changes decisively favor energy development at a cost of reduced protections for some of the country's last wild spaces, a Washington Post analysis shows."

National Guard Watch

James Rainey, Stephen Braun and Ralph Vartabedian write in the Los Angeles Times: "Questions about Bush's military service are not new. They have shadowed him since his father first ran for president in 1988. Yet the issues have not been fully resolved today, as many records that typically would be in his military file have not been found, and others have continued to trickle out from the Pentagon and the White House."

They focus in on the missing physical.

"In 1972, he failed to take an annual flight physical that was standard among his fellow pilots. As a result, his commanders grounded him. By 1973, his superiors were forced to file a near-blank evaluation, conceding they had neither seen him in a year nor received any reports from his new overseers in Alabama. . . .

"An array of Guard officials -- including a Houston physician who spent 10 years as the flight surgeon for Bush's air wing -- said they could not recall another pilot who skipped his mandatory medical exam."

My guard question of the day is this: Payroll records show Bush being paid for drills in October and November 1972 and January and April of 1973. But the records don't say where the drills were performed. And there is no evidence that they were performed, and no eyewitnesses have come forth. So what did he get paid for?

Campaign Referee

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush opened several new scathing lines of attack against Democrat John Kerry, charges that twisted his rival's words on Iraq and made Kerry seem supportive of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein."

Prescott Bush and the Nazis

Ben Aris and Duncan Campbell write in the Guardian: "George Bush's grandfather, the late US senator Prescott Bush, was a director and shareholder of companies that profited from their involvement with the financial backers of Nazi Germany."

They write that "even after America had entered the war and when there was already significant information about the Nazis' plans and policies, he worked for and profited from companies closely involved with the very German businesses that financed Hitler's rise to power. It has also been suggested that the money he made from these dealings helped to establish the Bush family fortune and set up its political dynasty."

Today's Calendar

Bush flies to Ohio for a "Focus on Education" event and a campaign rally, before returning to Crawford for more debate prep.

He's Nice

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune about Bush's not-so-secret weapon: "One of his strengths, even adversaries understand, is his affability.

"The man is playing Richard Simmons one moment, Mister Rogers the next. . . . "

© 2004