For Bush, High Drama and Mixed Reviews

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Monday, March 21, 2005; 12:50 PM

It's unanimous here in Washington: We've just witnessed some great political theater. It doesn't get much better than the president rushing home from his beloved ranch to sign emergency, life-or-death legislation passed by Congress in the middle of the night.

But there is no such unanimity when it comes to speculation over what President Bush's primary motivation was for making such a dramatic move. And the long-term impact of his decision on voters -- and the country -- is still anyone's guess.

David Gregory reported on the NBC Nightly News that Bush's surprise return to the White House is "being seen as either an attempt to defend innocent life or a crass act of political theater. . . .

"To be sure, the Schiavo case has become a core right-to-life issue for political conservatives, Bush's political base," Gregory said, but "aides deny a political motive on the president's part, saying as long as there is a dispute about Terry Schiavo's intent -- whether she wants to live or die -- every effort must be made to protect her."

And while the issue has indeed inflamed the social conservative leadership, there are early signs that Bush's endorsement of federal intervention in the case could prove deeply unpopular with the general public -- and might even backfire.

Gary Langer reports for ABC News on a new ABC News poll which shows: "Americans broadly and strongly disapprove of federal intervention in the Terri Schiavo case, with sizable majorities saying Congress is overstepping its bounds for political gain. . . .

"That legislative action is distinctly unpopular: Not only do 60 percent oppose it, more -- 70 percent -- call it inappropriate for Congress to get involved in this way. And by a lopsided 67 percent-19 percent, most think the elected officials trying to keep Schiavo alive are doing so more for political advantage than out of concern for her or for the principles involved.

"This ABC News poll also finds that the Schiavo case has prompted an enormous level of personal discussion: Half of Americans say that as a direct result of hearing about this case, they've spoken with friends or family members about what they'd want done if they were in a similar condition. Nearly eight in 10 would not want to be kept alive."

Here are the poll results.

Here is the text of Bush's statement upon signing the Schiavo bill shortly after 1 a.m.

"I will continue to stand on the side of those defending life for all Americans, including those with disabilities," he said.

William Neikirk writes in the Chicago Tribune that in signing the bill, Bush was "elevating a celebrated Florida case into a larger political and legal controversy about American values regarding life and death."

Steven Thomma writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "The extraordinary response by the federal government to try to save the life of Terri Schiavo is a testament to the political passion and influence of social conservatives.

"Once the feeding tube was removed from Schiavo on Friday, outraged conservatives rose up to demand action from a government they helped put in power.

"The response was immediate."

William R. Levesque of the St. Petersburg Times spoke with an angry Michael Schiavo, Terri's husband, over the weekend.

" 'Come down, President Bush,' Schiavo said in a telephone interview. 'Come talk to me. Meet my wife. Talk to my wife and see if you get an answer. Ask her to lift her arm to shake your hand. She won't do it.'

"She won't, Schiavo said, because she can't."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "Although Mr. Bush was described as personally moved by the issue, his dramatic return was seen as a powerful embrace of the 'culture of life' issues of religious conservatives who helped him win the White House in 2004. Those groups will be crucial to the political fortunes of the Republican Party in 2006 and 2008."

Was the political theater intentional? Well consider this, from Bumiller: "White House officials acknowledged that the final bill could have been flown to Mr. Bush in Texas, a round trip of six or seven hours that probably would have made no difference in whether Ms. Schiavo lives."

And this: "It was the first time this president had interrupted a vacation to return to Washington, although it was not the first time an emergency had intruded on Mr. Bush's stay at his ranch, as happened when violence between the Israelis and Palestinians escalated over Easter week in 2002."

Bush has disappointed social conservatives by not spending more of his political capital to push for their key issues, such as constitutional amendments to outlaw gay marriage and abortion.

But here was a chance for Bush to give them something of value without too much political sacrifice -- although the personal sacrifice should not be underestimated.

Bumiller reports that when Bush boarded Air Force One in Texas yesterday, "His manner was crisp and businesslike, and he did not smile as he usually does at onlookers and the small group of reporters who accompany him."

Well, I don't think I've ever seen Bush look as sour as he does here or here. Those are Associated Press photos taken as Bush stepped off Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base yesterday afternoon.

My proposed caption: "Karl, did I really have to go back to Washington for this?"

Bush's Past on Life and Death

So how will Bush's past actions hold up as the press inevitably looks back to see how he's reacted in previous life-or-death matters?

Bush has been a fervent supporter of the death penalty. And as Alan Berlow wrote in the Atlantic in 2003, an examination of clemency memos written by then-Gov. Bush's then-legal counsel Alberto Gonzales "suggests that Governor Bush frequently approved executions based on only the most cursory briefings on the issues in dispute."

McClellan was asked about the death penalty parallel during yesterday's gaggle on Air Force One.

"Q Can you talk to me -- again, this comes up. Can you explain the difference between this case and the President's support of the death penalty? I mean, I know this comes up in other culture of life issues, but can you explain the difference here?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I can tell you why the President supports the death penalty, he's made that clear before. That the President believes it's a deterrent that helps save lives, and that's why he supports the death penalty.

"Q But isn't that inconsistent with what he's doing today?

"MR. McCLELLAN: The reason he supports the death penalty is because it helps -- he believes that it helps save lives, and he's stated that view clearly and consistently over a number of years."

Bush's Texas Life-Support Law

And in what many liberal bloggers are calling an example of outright hypocrisy, Bush signed a Texas law in 1999 that created a legal mechanism to allow attending physicians and hospital ethics boards to pull the plug on patients -- even if that specifically contradicts patient or family wishes.

As it happens, a major test case for that law was resolved just last week -- with a baby's death.

Leigh Hopper writes in the Houston Chronicle: "The baby wore a cute blue outfit with a teddy bear covering his bottom. The 17-pound, 6-month-old boy wiggled with eyes open and smacked his lips, according to his mother.

"Then at 2 p.m. today, a medical staffer at Texas Children's Hospital gently removed the breathing tube that had kept Sun Hudson alive since his Sept. 25 birth. Cradled by his mother, he took a few breaths, and died.

"Sun's death marks the first time a hospital has been allowed by a U.S. judge to discontinue an infant's life-sustaining care against a parent's wishes, according to bioethical experts. A similar case involving a 68-year-old man in a chronic vegetative state at another Houston hospital is before a court now. . . .

"Texas law allows hospitals [to] discontinue life sustaining care, even if patient family members disagree."

"Where, I would ask, is the outrage?" blogger Mark A.R. Kleiman wrote in a post that went careening around the blogosphere yesterday.

Later, blogger Digby wrote: "By now most people who read liberal blogs are aware that George W. Bush signed a law in Texas that expressly gave hospitals the right to remove life support if the patient could not pay and there was no hope of revival, regardless of the patient's family's wishes. . . .

"Those of us who read liberal blogs are also aware that Republicans have voted en masse to pull the plug (no pun intended) on Medicaid funding that pays for the kind of care that someone like Terry Schiavo and many others who are not so severely brain damaged need all across this country. . . .

"Those who don't read liberal blogs, on the other hand, are seeing a spectacle on television in which the news anchors repeatedly say that the congress is 'stepping in to save Terry Schiavo' mimicking the unctuous words of Tom Delay as they grovel and leer at the family and nod sympathetically at the sanctimonious phonies who are using this issue for their political gain."

Today's Calendar

Bush flies to Tucson and Denver to hold two of his "conversations" on Social Security.

Susan Carroll writes in the Arizona Republic: "President Bush will take his case for Social Security change directly to Arizonans today in a carefully orchestrated, invitation-only event in Tucson."

But Carroll also has a news flash: "Dana Kennedy, communications director for the AFL-CIO in Phoenix, started calling the White House on Thursday hoping to get at least a dozen tickets, including one for the president of the AARP's Arizona chapter. . . .

"When the White House didn't get back to her, Kennedy said, she called Republican Sen. Jon Kyl's office but couldn't snag a ticket. She finally got two through a contact at the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce.

" 'If you try really hard, and you have connections, you, too, can get into the Bush town hall meeting,' Kennedy said."

Meanwhile, Vice President Cheney holds a "town hall" meeting on Social Security in Bakersfield, Calif. We'll see if he gets any hard questions.

Social Security Watch

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "Nearly three-quarters of workers who opt for Social Security personal accounts under President Bush's 'default' investment option are likely to earn less in benefits than those who stay with the traditional Social Security system, a prominent finance economist has concluded."

Daniel Gross writes in the New York Times: "As we learn more about income volatility in the information age, some scholars say, Social Security -- an insurance program designed for the industrial age -- may be even more essential."

Larry Lipman writes for Cox News Service that "the details of how those investments could be used, plus a raft of unanswered questions, could have a big impact on people's retirement income if the accounts ever become a reality."

Lipman's particular contribution is an exploration of annuities, and how some can bring surprisingly low monthly payouts.

Holly Bailey, Richard Wolffe and Tamara Lipper write for Newsweek: "Behind the highly public campaign of presidential roadshows and TV ads, the administration is staging a private sales pitch to a much more exclusive audience. Bush himself has invited small groups of GOP lawmakers to the family sitting room in the White House residence -- a quiet chance to impress on them how personally committed he is to fixing Social Security this year. For a White House better known for treating Congress like ground troops, not generals, it's a striking charm offensive. Bush's aides declare their burning desire to listen to all opinions (no matter how disagreeable), and note down advice on how to speak about Social Security. . . .

"Two months into its drive to overhaul Social Security, the White House is casting about for help and fresh ideas. Cheney and Rove sat down recently with a newly formed group of congressional Republicans who are calling themselves the House retirement-message committee. But at the strategy session inside the veep's ornate reception room, overlooking the West Wing, there was no agreement on how to talk to voters about investment accounts, or when to start debating a detailed solution."

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Bush's top goal in the debate is to divert part of the payroll tax into private investment accounts. But with that idea facing enormous resistance, more people in both parties are considering 'add-on' investment accounts that could be established outside of Social Security. Yet that possible compromise increasingly looks like a dead end too."

Ron Hutcheson and James Kuhnehenn write for Knight-Ridder Newspapers: "President Bush is clinging fast to his plan for Social Security investment accounts as members of Congress head home to gauge support for the idea. . . .

"In a clear sign that Bush's plan is in trouble, Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the third-ranking House Republican, said most GOP lawmakers are more interested in listening to voters than promoting Bush's plan during their spring break."

Bush on Friday held two Social Security events in Florida on Friday, where Barbara Bush said she was concerned about Social Security on behalf of her 17 grandchildren -- although I'm betting none of them will be depending on their checks.

Elisabeth Bumiller writes: "Mrs. Bush and the president, who often jokes that his mother is not shy about giving him advice, did not sound as rehearsed as they might have, given the usual scripting by the White House.

"Mrs. Bush first told the crowd that 'I'm here because when can I see my two oldest boys?' The president, slipping on his mother's adjective, came up with one of his own, replying, 'Wait, it's not "how can I see my two better boys," it's "how can I tell my two better boys in person what to do," is what you're really trying to say.'

"The president and the governor have two younger brothers, Marvin and Neil."

Here are the transcripts from Pensacola and Orlando.

Linguistics Watch

John D. McKinnon writes in the Wall Street Journal that "linguists and longtime watchers of Mr. Bush" see "evidence of a subtle but unmistakable change the 43rd president has undergone in speaking style. He is enunciating more clearly and dotting his remarks with more literary references. Gone is much of the verbal swagger. . . . Some linguists even say they detect a dialing-down of Mr. Bush's Texas accent, at least in his formal speeches.

"The more careful speaking style also has meant fewer verbal slip-ups. Jacob Weisberg, who filled four books, numerous Web entries and a calendar series with Bush malapropisms, says his supply of new material has slowed to a trickle. . . .

"In addition to linguistic tweaks, some presidential scholars claim to detect a dash of what Mr. Bush himself might once have dismissed as highfalutin talk."

Legacy Watch

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush frequently says he wants to solve big problems like Social Security's finances, not pass them on to future generations. It appears unavoidable, however, that Bush will leave a painful legacy of staggering government debt."

Marilyn Geewax writes for Cox News Service: "As President Bush and lawmakers continue a months-long debate over Social Security's problems, the nation's top budget experts are trying to call attention to other fiscal crises they say are just as bad -- or worse."

Thos include Medicare, Bush's tax cuts and the alternative minimum tax.

Cheney Watch

Michael Isikoff writes in Newsweek about a memo to Cheney warning of growing terror threats -- 29 years ago. Here's the memo.

Twins Watch

U.S. News reports: "Sorry, madam first lady, but the relationship between your daughter Jenna Bush and former White House aide Henry Hager is starting to look a lot more serious than you think."

Press Watch

Mark Sauer writes in the San Diego Union-Tribune: "Bush's critics within the mainstream media and academia cite a growing list of incidents which they say are undermining the public's right to know and democracy itself."

Former White House correspondent Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "Partisans on the left and right have formed cottage industries devoted to discrediting what they dismissively call the 'mainstream media' -- the networks, daily newspapers and newsmagazines. Their goal: to steer readers and viewers toward ideologically driven outlets that will confirm their own views and protect them from disagreeable facts."

Guckert/Gannon Watch

The denizen of the White House briefing room formerly known as Jeff Gannon would appear to be laying the groundwork for a second act. But it's not all smooth sailing.

Deborah Solomon interviewed him for the New York Times Magazine:

Q. "Scott McClellan, the press secretary to President Bush, called on you and allowed you to ask questions on a nearly daily basis. What, exactly, is your relationship with him?"

A. "I was just another guy in the press room. Did I try to curry favor with him? Sure. When he got married, I left a wedding card for him in the press office. People are saying this proves there is some link. But as Einstein said, 'Sometimes a wedding card is just a wedding card.' "

Q. "You mean like 'sometimes a cigar is just a cigar'? That wasn't Einstein. That was Freud."

A. "Oh, Freud. O.K. I got my old Jewish men confused."

Q. "You should learn the difference between them if you want to work in journalism."

A. "I'd like to get back into journalism. I'm hoping someone will offer me a job as a commentator or one of those political analysts that you see on the news shows all the time."

Guckert/Gannon was also on with Tucker Carlson on PBS. Said Gannon of Bush: "He did a briefing without me yesterday and I think he did just fine."

© 2005