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Bush Talks About the Bubble

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, December 12, 2005; 1:39 PM

In a rare, one-on-one interview with President Bush this morning, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams showed the president the latest Newsweek cover , which depicts Bush trapped inside a big soap bubble, and asked if it's true that he's out of touch.

Williams had promised on the Today Show earlier to ask about the Bush bubble and, amazingly enough, we didn't have to wait long to find out the president's answer. Not only is Williams blogging about his day -- which will actually include three different meetings with the president -- but he's already posted a two-minute video excerpt from the first interview, in which he and Bush are standing in the Oval Office. The president notes that he talks to a lot of people, but doesn't read newsweeklies.

Williams: "How do you wake up on a Monday morning -- I brought some visual aids, I have Newsweek and Time -- the cover of Newsweek, look what they've done to you. ' Bush's World; The Isolated President: Can He Change? '"

Bush chuckles.

Williams: "And inside Time, it says: ' Bush's Search for His New Groove .' Time Magazine says you're out there talking to people, and Newsweek says you're in here not talking to people. So what is the truth, Mr. President?"

Bush: "Well, I'm talking to you. You're a person."

Williams: "This says you're in a bubble, you have a very small circle of advisers now."

Bush: "Yeah."

Williams: "Is that true?"

Bush: "Uh."

Williams. "Do you feel in a bubble?"

Bush: "No, I don't feel in a bubble. I mean, you feel in a bubble in the sense that I can't go walking out the front gate and go shopping, like I'd love to do for my wife -- although I'm a man, I'm not going to tell you what I'm gonna buy her."

Williams: "I understand that."

Bush: "Look, I, I, uh, I feel like I'm getting really good advice from very capable people, and that people from all walks of life inform me and inform those who advise me. And I feel very comfortable that, that I'm very aware of what's going on.

"I just talked to the president-elect of Honduras. A lot of my job is foreign policy. And I spend an enormous amount of time with leaders from other countries, and they come right here in the Oval Office and tell me what's on their mind. And I tell them what's on my mind.

"And so -- you know, it's the first time I've seen those magazines, by the way."

Williams: "Do you read this kind of stuff?"

Bush: "No."

Williams: "You don't read the newsweeklies at all?"

Bush: "I really don't. I mean, I'm interested in the news, I'm not all that interested in the opinions."

In an earlier post on his blog, Williams described today's schedule. First comes a quick initial chat in the Oval Office. "From the White House we'll drive out to Andrews Air Force Base, where we will pre-position for the President's arrival and conduct an interview while en route to Philadelphia for his speech to the World Affairs Council on the topic of Iraq. Yet another interview will follow, then back on the plane for the flight home. We'll detail it all and air the President's comments on a broadcast that it's safe to promise will be far from an average Monday."

Those Magazine Stories

Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe write in their 'Bubble' cover story that recent events at the White House suggest "a level of indifference, if not denial, that is dangerous for a president who seeks to transform the world. . . .

"Occasional outsiders brought into the Bush Bubble have observed that faith, not evidence, is the basis for decision making. Psychobabblers have long had a field day with the fact that Bush quit drinking cold turkey and turned around his life by accepting God. His close friends agree that Bush likes comfort and serenity; he does not like dissonance. He has long been mothered by strong women, including his mother and wife. A foreign diplomat who declined to be identified was startled when Secretary of State Rice warned him not to lay bad news on the president. 'Don't upset him,' she said."

Thomas and Wolfe question how much Bush "actually hears and takes in" when briefed by aides. "And whether his advisers are quite as frank as they claim to be with the president is also questionable."

They also explain how, "[i]n subtle ways, Bush does not encourage truth-telling or at least a full exploration of all that could go wrong. A former senior member of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad occasionally observed Bush on videoconferences with his top advisers. 'The president would ask the generals, "Do you have what you need to complete the mission?" as opposed to saying, "Tell me, General, what do you need to win?" which would have opened up a whole new set of conversations,' says this official, who did not want to be identified discussing high-level meetings. The official says that the way Bush phrased his questions, as well as his obvious lack of interest in long, detailed discussions, had a chilling effect. . . .

"Bush may be the most isolated president in modern history, at least since the late-stage Richard Nixon. It's not that he is a socially awkward loner or a paranoid. He can charm and joke like the frat president he was. Still, beneath a hail-fellow manner, Bush has a defensive edge, a don't-tread-on-me prickliness. It shows in Bush's humor. When Reagan told a joke, it almost never was about someone in the room. Reagan's jokes may have been scatological or politically incorrect, but they were inclusive, intended to make everyone join in the laughter. Often, Bush's joking is personal -- it is aimed at you. The teasing can be flattering (the president gave me a nickname!), but it is intended, however so subtly, to put the listener on the defensive. It is a towel-snap that invites a retort. How many people dare to snap back at a president?

"Not many, and not unless they have known the president a long, long time. (Even Karl Rove, or 'Turd Blossom,' as he is sometimes addressed by the president, knows when to hold his tongue.) In the Bush White House, disagreement is often equated with disloyalty."

Karen Tumulty and Mike Allen write in Time, by contrast: "Guests at the holiday parties are noticing a different tone to George Bush. . . .

"[A]t some of the smaller gatherings this year, Bush has freed himself from the photo line to circulate with an intensity his friends haven't seen before. An adviser who encountered Bush on one of these reconnaissance missions through the Red Room last week tells Time, 'He's listening a little more because he's looking for something new. He's looking for ideas. He wants to hear what people are saying, because something might strike him as worth following up on.'"

But Tumulty and Allen note that this may have its limits, as "recalibration and retrenchment do not come naturally to this President. Bush recently rejected a draft of an economic speech because it didn't mention his now dead proposal to restructure Social Security. He is still steamed because his nomination of White House counsel Harriet Miers for the Supreme Count imploded; he vented about it to African-American leaders who met with him last week to discuss racial issues and Katrina disaster relief -- prompting one of them to gently remind him that it was not African Americans but conservative Republicans who were her undoing. . . .

"Bush's team seems tired and short on inspiration. Advisers anticipate a high-profile departure or two from the White House staff before February. But the President dismisses the idea that any sort of housecleaning is in order. 'Who do you think is talking?' he asks when he hears of public speculation about firings and resignations in his White House. . . .

"However improbable the odds at this point or modest his short-term goals, aides say, Bush still subscribes to Rove's long-held dream that his will be the transformational presidency that lays the groundwork for a Republican majority that can endure, as Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal coalition did, for a half-century or more. Once he gets past the midterm elections, Bush plans to introduce a concept that, if anything, is even more ambitious than his failed Social Security plan: a grand overhaul that would include not only that program but Medicare and Medicaid as well."

Allen was also on NBC's Meet the Press with Tim Russert yesterday. "There's still great promise in this administration. But nobody sees a clear plan to achieving that promise," Allen said. "A lot of friends of the president thought he's going to be one of the greats. They thought it was a given that he was going to be a Roosevelt, a Lincoln. Now, they're not sure. They think he still has it in him. If you talk to his friends, the president has not changed. They talk about a sort of Zen-like quality that he has."

Allen also added this observation: "Tim, I'm going to tell you something that's going to amaze you because it amazed me when I looked it up yesterday and I lost a bet on this. The last time the president was in the hurricane region was October 11th, two months ago. The president stood in New Orleans and said it was going to be one of the largest reconstruction efforts in the history of the world. You go to the White House home page , there's Barney-Cam, there's Social Security, there's renewing Iraq. Where's renewing New Orleans? A presidential adviser told me that that issue has fallen so far off the radar screen, you can't even find it.

"Now, the White House told me that a lot of administration officials are going down there. . . . but the other thing that was in the president's speech that's not mentioned there is: Remember how we thought that we had learned a lesson about race and poverty from what happened in New Orleans? One of the most memorable oratorical passages of this presidency, the White House put out, you know, bound books of that speech, talking about what he was going to do in that area. I go to speeches every day, we don't hear that."

Back in Newsweek, columnist Fareed Zakaria piles on, writing: "Bush's travel schedule seems calculated to involve as little contact as possible with the country he is in. Perhaps the White House should look into the new teleconferencing technologies. If set up right, the president could soon conduct foreign policy without ever having to actually meet foreigners."

Even with the foreigners Bush likes, "he doesn't really have a genuine give-and-take. Most conversations are brief, scripted and perfunctory. The president rarely talks to any foreign leader to get his opinions or assessment of events."

The Ombudsman and Me

In Sunday's Washington Post, the paper's new ombudsman, Deborah Howell , writes about criticism of this column. My response is posted on post.blog, washingtonpost.com's blog about the web site's features and news decisions. Please feel free to read my response and comment on it.

Fitzgerald Watch

Viveca Novak writes her own first-person story in Time, divulging all sorts of new details about her role in special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald's CIA investigation.

Novak writes that she had three informal meetings with Robert Luskin, Rove's attorney, in January, March and May of 2004. She doesn't recall at which one she told Luskin that she'd heard Rove was one of fellow reporters Matt Cooper's secret sources for his story about Valerie Plame.

The headline for media watchers is that even after learning that she was being drawn into the investigation -- and even after being interviewed by Fitzgerald for the first time in early November -- Novak didn't tell her editors anything and kept writing about the case as if nothing was going on. It was only after Fitzgerald summoned her for a second interview, this one under oath, that Novak enlightened her superiors. She's now on leave.

"Unrealistically, I hoped this would turn out to be an insignificant twist in the investigation and also figured that if people at Time knew about it, it would be difficult to contain the information, and reporters would pounce on it--as I would have," Novak writes.

Now, she explains: "Luskin is unhappy that I decided to write about our conversation, but I feel that he violated any understanding to keep our talk confidential by unilaterally going to Fitzgerald and telling him what was said."

Too bad she didn't feel that way six weeks ago.

Luskin is now arguing that it was her revelation that ultimately led to Rove's remembering that he did in fact talk to Cooper, and recanting his earlier testimony that he hadn't.

Carol D. Leonnig and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "Sources close to the case said one of the biggest pieces of unfinished business is whether to indict Rove -- and that a decision could come as early as this month.

"The sources, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are under order from Fitzgerald not to discuss the case, said Luskin told the prosecutor about the Novak conversation a few days before Libby was indicted on Oct. 28.

"It was only part of what the sources described as a furious, last-minute effort by Luskin to convince the prosecutor that Rove was guilty of nothing more than a bad memory -- and certainly not of trying to cover up his role in the Plame case. Of the information presented by Luskin that day, the Novak conversation is the only piece known to require additional investigation. Now that Fitzgerald has deposed Luskin and Novak, some close to the case think Rove's fate could soon be known."

Greg Mitchell writes in his column in Editor and Publisher: "Where will it end, and when will reporters pay with their jobs? First we learn that Bob Woodward failed to tell his editor for years about his role in the Plame/CIA leak case. Today, we find out that Time reporter Viveca Novak not only kept her editors in the dark about her own involvement, but even had a chat with the special prosecutor before telling her superiors."

Bush and the War

Tyler Marshall writes in the Los Angeles Times: "More than a year after a majority of Americans turned against his handling of the Iraq war, President Bush has launched a counteroffensive that ultimately could affect the fate of both that mission and his vision for the Middle East.

"As the must-win fight of his administration, Bush's chances for success on the public opinion front appear to hinge on one central question: Is the power of the presidential bully pulpit enough to win a fight many consider as important as any military campaign in Iraq itself?

"Public opinion specialists -- among whom a debate is raging -- say the outcome is far from certain."

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press that Bush "is using a visit to Philadelphia, birthplace of the U.S. Constitution, as a reminder before the Iraqi elections that the path to American democracy was not always easy either. . . .

"Monday's Iraq speech is Bush's third, part of a campaign to win support for the mission, with most Americans saying in polls that they disapprove of his handling of the war. The final address in the series is planned for Wednesday in Washington."

Peter Baker and Robin Wright write in Sunday's Washington Post: "When U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer transferred sovereignty to Iraqi authorities in June 2004, he left behind a script with hard-and-fast deadlines for drafting a constitution and forming a government, a script that culminates Thursday with another election for a permanent parliament. . . .

"While Bush refuses to set a timetable for military withdrawal, he has stuck doggedly to the Bremer political timetable despite qualms of his staff, relentless violence on the ground and disaffection of Iraq's minority Sunni Arabs."

Ron Hutcheson writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Although the president is still upbeat about Iraq's future, he's showing new candor about past mistakes and current difficulties. The shift in tone is part of a White House effort to shore up Bush's credibility on an issue that threatens to sink his presidency. . . .

But, Hutcheson notes: "The new openness goes only so far. After Wednesday's speech, White House spokesman Scott McClellan hemmed and hawed when he was asked whether Bush was willing to admit mistakes in Iraq.

"'Well, I mean, the president talked about how we'd learned from experience. . . . And so, yes, I mean, but in terms of making judgments about what those are, I don't think you can judge at this time,' he said."

Good for Fundraising

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service: "President Bush, warming up for a 2006 campaign to maintain GOP congressional majorities, is not shying from portraying the war in Iraq as a success and a reason to vote Republican."

Poll Watch

Tumulty and Allen write: "White House strategists believe they have ended the slide in Bush's approval ratings, which lately have been topping 40% again. 'It's time for the Bush comeback story!' one coached Time for this article."

And indeed, the polls do seem to be moving in the right direction, as far as the White House is concerned.

Will Lester writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush shifted into campaign mode in recent weeks to tout the economy's strength and explain the high stakes in Iraq -- possibly helping to boost his job approval rate to 42 percent in the December AP-Ipsos poll. . . .

"Bush has improved standing with whites, men, Catholics and other core supporters -- a key factor in pushing his job approval rating up to 42 percent. While still relatively low, that's the highest level of job approval for Bush since summer."

And a new Gallup Poll just out shows Bush's approval rating up five points to 43 -- and his disapproval rating down five points to 52 -- compared to two weeks ago.

Info War

Jeff Gerth writes in the New York Times: "Hoping to counter anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world, the Bush administration has been conducting an information war that is extensive, costly and often hidden, according to documents and interviews with contractors, government officials and military personnel.

"The campaign was begun by the White House, which set up a secret panel soon after the Sept. 11 attacks to coordinate information operations by the Pentagon, other government agencies and private contractors. . . .

"[T]he White House recruited Jeffrey B. Jones, a former Army colonel who ran the Fort Bragg psychological operations group, to coordinate the new information war. He led a secret committee, the existence of which has not been previously reported, that dealt with everything from public diplomacy, which includes education, aid and exchange programs, to covert information operations."

Bird Flu Drill

Adam Entous writes for Reuters: "Warning an outbreak may be inevitable, the White House on Saturday conducted a test of its readiness for a feared bird flu pandemic and said federal agencies fared 'quite well' without offering any details."

Christmas Wishes

Juan-Carlos Rodriguez writes for the Associated Press about the "Christmas in Washington" concert Sunday night at the National Building Museum, to benefit for the National Children's Hospital.

"'At this time of year we are especially grateful to those whose work brings hope and health to children,' Bush said in a short speech at the conclusion of the event. . . .

"The president also thanked the men and women of the military for their service and wished the country a 'peaceful holiday season.'"

Fo and Foe Alike

Charlotte Higgins writes in the Guardian from London about "the world premiere of Peace Mom, a new play by Dario Fo, the 79-year-old Nobel laureate, based on the writings of Cindy Sheehan. Her touching and personal protest after the death of her son Casey, a US soldier in Iraq, has galvanised anti-war sentiment, and last week she brought her campaign to Britain."

Why was Fo attracted to the Sheehan story? "'One of the things that grabbed me is that that there is an epic quality to the letters that Sheehan wrote to George Bush, and especially Barbara Bush,' he said. 'There is a rhythm and tempo in her prose which recalls the great epic writers of Greece. When she writes: 'I am the mother of a son killed in Iraq; you are the mother of the man who killed him,' it is almost hendecasyllabic [the classical poetic metre]."

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