Fool Me Once

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, September 22, 2005; 11:27 AM

With another monster hurricane bearing down on the Gulf Coast, the White House is focused on not making the same mistakes again, either procedurally or politically.

That means being fully prepared to deploy a massive federal response -- and the president himself -- at a moment's notice.

As Adam Entous writes for Reuters: "Still under a cloud over the slow response to Hurricane Katrina, President George W. Bush and top aides rushed to assure the public on Wednesday that they would get it right the second time around with Hurricane Rita. . . .

"Administration officials are counting on a more aggressive, hands-on approach to Hurricane Rita to help counter criticism of their slow and confused response to Katrina. Since that storm hit on August 29, Bush has seen his overall approval ratings drop to new lows.

"A smoother response to Rita might help Bush politically, but is unlikely to pull him out of his post-Katrina slump, analysts said."

And it's not just the federal response, but the president's personal role, that the White House is committed to getting right this time.

"White House officials were already laying the groundwork for Bush to visit or get close to the disaster zone soon after Rita passes, leaving his schedule open for Saturday and Sunday."

Ron Fournier writes for the Associated Press: "Politically, the biggest mistake Bush made was refusing to acknowledge the sluggish pace of relief. He seemed out of step with the crisis, a perception that his public relations team will try to avoid if Rita hits hard. . . .

"If nothing else, the White House will be less inclined to bicker with local officials if Rita hits Texas. Bush and Perry are both Republicans, and Bush is a former Texas governor. In Louisiana, relations were destructively sour between the White House and Democrats [Gov. Kathleen] Blanco and [New Orleans Mayor Ray] Nagin."

Ceci Connolly and Sylvia Moreno write in The Washington Post about some of the preparations at the federal level, a far cry from the last time around: "The Department of Defense, taking lessons from Katrina, intends to send surveillance aircraft soon after Rita strikes land to 'determine the magnitude of the relief required and, secondly, where it would be required,' said Paul McHale, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense. 'We want to ensure as a matter of policy we have better eyes on target.'

"Already, about 5,000 Texas National Guard troops have been mobilized and another 1,300 who had been assisting in New Orleans are returning from Louisiana. The Pentagon is drawing up plans to assist local law enforcement 'in the event that the first responders become the first victims,' as happened in Katrina, he said. . . .

" 'The most important thing that we're doing is work with the Department of Defense to use their assets up front before the storm instead of waiting until after the storm lands,' said acting FEMA Director R. David Paulison."

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write on Newsweek.com: "Bush is prepositioning himself in the Texas area on Saturday, after traveling first to Birmingham, Ala., on Friday. The excuse is a two-day 'thank you' tour of states that have taken in large numbers of Katrina evacuees. But it could easily turn into a Rita disaster tour, if the worst projections come true.

"The critical question remains where he'll spend Saturday night. Given his druthers, Bush would much prefer to spend the night at his ranch in Crawford. The downside: it reminds the world how he spent so long on vacation before Katrina struck. The upside: he'll be close to Houston after Rita passes through. One thing seems sure: as Cindy Sheehan and antiwar protestors take to the streets in Washington this weekend, Bush won't be at the White House."

Word of the Day: Focus

Press Secretary Scott McClellan was repeatedly asked yesterday how the White House preparations for Rita differ from those for Katrina.

And McClellan's word of the day was: "Focus."

Here's the transcript of yesterday's briefing.

"One, the President is focused on making sure we have the strongest possible coordination with state and local governments in the path of Hurricane Rita," McClellan said.

"I just told you that the President is focused on making sure that we have the strongest possible coordination with state and local officials. . . .

"[I]n addition to coordination, communications is an area that we're very focused on in the preparation and response for Hurricane Rita. . . .

"[H]is focus is on making sure that we're doing the right thing for the American people."

McClellan also referred to the "lessons" of Katrina seven times.

The Sept. 11 Angle

David E. Sanger , writing in the New York Times, calls attention to Bush's somewhat perplexing conflation yesterday of Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Though whether this was part of an orchestrated White House strategy, or just an unfortunate ad lib remains to be seen.

Sanger writes: "President Bush on Wednesday for the first time linked the American response to terrorism and its response to Hurricane Katrina, declaring that the United States is emerging a stronger nation from both challenges, and saying that terrorists look at the storm's devastation 'and wish they had caused it.'

"Mr. Bush's speech, at a luncheon for the Republican Jewish Coalition, appeared to be part of a White House strategy to restore the luster of strong leadership that Mr. Bush enjoyed after the Sept. 11 attacks, and that administration officials fear he has lost in the faltering response to the hurricane. . . .

"Until the speech on Wednesday, Mr. Bush had kept the issues of terrorism, Iraq and the hurricane separate. But the public has not: polls show declining approval of Mr. Bush's handling of both Iraq and Hurricane Katrina. By suggesting for the first time that America's enemies were pleased to see the devastation caused by the hurricane, he appeared to be linking the country's natural and human challengers."

Here is the transcript of yesterday's speech.

Bush said: "You know, something we -- I've been thinking a lot about how America has responded, and it's clear to me that Americans value human life, and value every person as important. And that stands in stark contrast, by the way, to the terrorists we have to deal with. You see, we look at the destruction caused by Katrina, and our hearts break. They're the kind of people who look at Katrina and wish they had caused it. We're in a war against these people. It's a war on terror. These are evil men who target the suffering. They killed 3,000 people on September the 11th, 2001. And they've continued to kill. See, sometimes we forget about the evil deeds of these people."

We may not have to wait long to see if this is indeed an emerging strategy. Bush makes a short speech about terrorism today at the Pentagon at noon ET.

Katrina Fallout

Finlay Lewis writes for the Copley News Service: "Under attack from both the left and the right, President Bush's plan for rebuilding the Hurricane Katrina-stricken Gulf Coast may soon become a political football instead of a broadly accepted disaster relief program. . . .

"Contributing to Bush's challenge is that he has devised a relief package that has distasteful elements to those on both ends of the political spectrum."

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "National gambling companies -- already rushing to rebuild casinos on the Gulf Coast -- would be granted access to millions of dollars in tax breaks under President Bush's plan to entice businesses into the Katrina disaster zone.

"In a break from previous Gulf Coast economic development practices, White House officials said they do not plan to exclude the gambling industry from huge tax write-offs for investment in equipment and structures in the president's proposed Gulf Opportunity Zone."

Weisman also reports one other developments on the Hill: "Democrats moved yesterday to repeal Bush's suspension of federal wage supports, which require federal contractors to pay workers prevailing local wages, on federally financed construction projects not just in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama but also in lightly affected South Florida. Dozens of House Republicans yesterday proposed significant spending cuts -- many of them on signature Bush programs -- to finance hurricane relief."

How to Make David Broder Angry

David S. Broder writes in a Washington Post op-ed that "even now, when the president is saying all the right things about the problems of poverty highlighted by the plight of Hurricane Katrina victims, his administration is dragging its feet on practical steps to help meet their needs."

Rather than immediately making evacuees eligible for Medicaid for the next few months, the Bush administration is insisting on a slower, more cumbersome approach, requiring state by state waivers.

"Officials at the National Governors Association . . . said they are not clear why the administration is balking at this simple solution. McClellan told me in an interview that 'we're meeting all the needs' with the waiver approach. But with evacuees spread among all the states, it's hard to believe that's true."

Cindy Sheehan Watch

Petula Dvorak and Fredrick Kunkle write in The Washington Post: "Three weeks after leaving their dusty outpost in Crawford, Tex., and touring the country, several dozen families brought their antiwar message to the U.S. Capitol and the White House. They plan to join thousands of protesters Saturday at a march and rally on the Mall. . . .

"The 'Bring Them Home Now' bus tour was born at Camp Casey, the makeshift encampment that blossomed around Cindy Sheehan when she decided to plant herself outside President Bush's ranch and demand that he talk with her about why her son, Army Spec. Casey Sheehan, 24, was killed. He died April 4, 2004, in Baghdad."

Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza write in The Washington Post that Sheehan arrived "just in time for the launch of a $1 million advertising campaign sponsored by Gold Star Families For Peace, an antiwar group that she co-founded.

"In the television spot, three women recount their loss before asking a handful of pointed questions of Bush. 'How many more soldiers have to die for your mistake?' asks one."

Bush, for his part, yesterday proclaimed Sunday, the day after the antiwar rally, as "Gold Star Mother's Day."

"On Gold Star Mother's Day, we recognize and pray for the devoted and patriotic mothers of these men and women in uniform who have made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our liberty. . . .

"I call upon all Government officials to display the flag of the United States over Government buildings on this solemn day. I also encourage the American people to display the flag and hold appropriate ceremonies as a public expression of our Nation's sympathy and respect for our Gold Star Mothers."

The Vietnam Parallel

Douglass K. Daniel writes for the Associated Press: "Bush officials bristle at the suggestion the war in Iraq might look anything like Vietnam. Yet just as today's anti-war protests recall memories of yesteryear, President Bush's own words echo those of President Johnson in 1967, a pivotal year for the U.S. in Vietnam."

An example:

" 'Be assured that the death of your son will have meaning,' Johnson told the parents of a posthumous recipient of the Medal of Honor during a Rose Garden ceremony on April 6, 1967. 'For I give you also my solemn pledge that our country will persist -- and will prevail -- in the cause for which your boy died.'

"Speaking to military families in Idaho on Aug. 24, Bush said: 'These brave men and women gave their lives for a cause that is just and necessary for the security of our country, and now we will honor their sacrifice by completing their mission.' "

Supreme Court Watch

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "President Bush is focused on Hispanics, African-Americans and women to succeed Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and he may announce his choice for her seat on the Supreme Court as early as the court's opening days in October, Republican strategists said on Wednesday. . . .

"The strategists said that staff members like Harriet Miers, the White House counsel, had been in contact with several contenders, but that Mr. Bush was not thought to have begun formal interviews."

Safavian Watch

Philip Shenon and Anne E. Kornblut write in the New York Times: "A lawyer for David H. Safavian, the former White House budget official arrested this week, accused the Justice Department on Wednesday of trying to coerce Mr. Safavian into cooperating with a criminal investigation of Jack Abramoff, the once-powerful Washington lobbyist. . . .

"The Justice Department has refused to say why it decided to arrest Mr. Safavian early Monday at his home in Alexandria, Va., rather than allow him to surrender, which is typical for most white-collar defendants, and why prosecutors brought the charges directly instead of seeking a grand jury indictment. Former department officials say the methods are often used in cases in which prosecutors hope to frighten a person into cooperating against other targets of an investigation."

So who might prosecutors be trying to turn Safavian against?

Jonathan D. Salant writes for Bloomberg: "The widening investigation of lobbyist Jack Abramoff is moving beyond the confines of tawdry influence-peddling to threaten leading figures in the Republican hierarchy that dominates Washington."

Something Works

Damon Hack writes in the New York Times with evidence that the radiation detectors at the White House work.

"David Toms tried to walk into the White House with his Presidents Cup teammates and competitors for a dinner Tuesday night, an alarm sounded.

"A security detail quickly whisked him away, Hickey Freeman suit and all, before he had a chance to explain what had happened.

"Sensors had detected radiation in his body from his stay in the hospital after he developed a rapid heartbeat last week while playing in the 84 Lumber Classic in Farmington, Pa."

Bette Booed

George Rush and Joanna Molloy write in the New York Daily News: "President Bush and his administration got major breaks from most performers around New York Tuesday night."

They describe this scene from the Madison Square Garden benefit concert "From the Big Apple to the Big Easy":

"Bette Midler was booed when she said, 'George Bush likes my music. He came to see me in the '70s. A coke dealer of mine got him some tickets.' "

Bush-Bashing Among the Rich and Famous

Robert Novak writes in his syndicated column that the rich, mainly Republican crowd at a swanky, off-the-record conference in Aspen last weekend indulged in almost non-stop Bush-bashing.

" U.S. News & World Report disclosed this week, with apparent disdain, that presidential adviser Karl Rove took time off from the Katrina relief effort to be at Aspen. He was needed as a counterweight."

But, Novak concludes: "It would be a shame if Rove returned to Washington without informing George W. Bush how erstwhile friends have turned against him."

Prick the Bubble?

In my Live Online discussion yesterday, a reader asked if Bush has any plans to meet or visit with evacuees. Specifically: "Would it be a real open forum, or another invitation-only, no dissenters allowed-type photo op?"

Bush is currently set to travel to Alabama on Friday, then Arkansas and Texas on Saturday. Unless Hurricane Rita becomes the sole focus of the trip, I expect he'll come face to face with some evacuees from New Orleans. Standard White House operating procedure, however, would be for them to be screened in some way beforehand.

But what if the White House actually let some angry evacuees come face to face with the president? Wouldn't it be therapeutic for everyone to see Bush get yelled at?

Bush haters would enjoy it vicariously. But Bush supporters would be reassured that he can take it. Enough with the bubble!

Bush and Booze

Will any member of the White House press corps risk scorn from McClellan -- and maybe even mockery from colleagues -- by asking the press secretary to set the record straight about what appears to be an utterly scurrilous report in the National Enquirer that Bush is hitting the booze again? Some brave soul should.

Tina Brown's View

After attending Bill Clinton's Global Initiative conference, Washington Post columnist and New York socialite Tina Brown concludes: "A weird reputational exchange has taken place between Clinton and President Bush. After so much dishonest reasoning it's the vaunted 'CEO president' who begins to look like the callow, fumbling adolescent. And it's the sexually incontinent, burger-guzzling, late-night-gabbing Bubba who is emerging as a great CEO of America."

Late Night Humor

On Comedy Central's Daily Show last night, satirical correspondent Robb Cordrry insisted to host Jon Stewart that "Everything the president is doing is perfectly in keeping with the conservative ideal of limited government."

Stewart, who had just divulged the possible $200 billion pricetag for Bush's proposals for Gulf Coast reconstruction, expressed puzzlement.

So Cordrry explained: "This president believes government should be limited not in size, Jon, but in effectiveness. In terms of effectiveness, this is the most limited administration we've ever had."

Stewart also last night examined the workings of the White House briefing room in some detail.

There's the White House press secretary -- "whose job it is to put a semihuman face on the lack of information we receive from the White House."

There's the media -- "Think of them as America's three-year-olds. And taken together, their questions give an illusion of tenacity."

And there are the "variety of techniques" the press secretary uses to "prevent actual democracy from breaking out." For instance: "Call on the foreign press." Or: "You can also run out the clock with one of the briefing room eccentrics."

And why is the average tenure of a White House press secretary only two years? Stewart explains: "Lying is hard."

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