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Bush Unplugged But Unrevealing

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, January 24, 2006; 12:30 PM

How can a president of the United States talk for almost two hours, unscripted, and be so fundamentally unrevealing?

Promising his Midwestern audience insights into his worldview and decision-making process, Bush yesterday made a little news here and there, but mostly killed time with stale sound bites and folksy banter.

Just by virtue of his speaking so long, the meandering talk at Kansas State University generated zillions of column inches this morning in which reporters dutifully recorded the one genuinely new development -- his rechristening of "domestic spying" as "terrorist surveillance" -- as well as his playful digs at his wife, his hemming and hawing when asked about that gay cowboy movie, and so on.

And simply by taking a baby step outside his protective bubble and fielding unscreened questions (most, but not all of them, softballs) from a starry-eyed, solidly red-state audience, he garnered buzz about being forthcoming.

But he wasn't.

Ultimately Bush unplugged gave a performance of remarkably little substance. There was no new thinking on display. There were no real insights shared. Instead, we heard mostly restatements of policy, familiar phrases and even whole stories recycled from the 2004 campaign.

"I'm here to tell you how I see the world and how I've made some of the decisions I've made and why I made them," Bush promised at the start of his speech. But he did so in only the most simplistic terms.

"My most important job is to protect the security of the American people," he said. On the topic of sending troops into harm's way: "And so when I'm telling you I made the decision, you all have got to understand, I did not take that decision lightly." On his job: "If I had to give you a job description, it would be a decision-maker. I make a lot of decisions."

Yes, Bush spoke at his greatest length yet about the National Security Agency's domestic spying program. But it was still only a few minutes, and he focused mostly on the now-familiar White House arguments for why he thinks he has the right to do what he did. He did not really explain what the program is, how it works, why it was necessary -- or why he chose not to go through existing legal channels or ask Congress for permission.

He frowned on the term "domestic spying" -- "I would call it a terrorist surveillance program," he said.

This will inevitably launch a new war of words between conservative and mainstream press organs. But was Bush willing to say definitively that only terrorists were surveilled? Or was he prepared to at least discuss what standard of evidence was required? No. Not a word.

Here's how Suzanne Malveaux summed things up on CNN: "Working without a script before 9,000 people, most of them students, the Kansas State University event, aides say, was designed to shake up the traditional lecture series by giving the president a format where he could be himself to plainly explain to Americans why they should support his Iraq policy, and his controversial domestic spying program, which he referred to as his terrorist surveillance program. . . .

"And while the president was not on script, he certainly stayed on message."

Here is the transcript of his talk.

The Rechristening

Dan Eggen and Walter Pincus write in The Washington Post that Bush "repeated his argument that Congress effectively endorsed the program of eavesdropping without warrants under its authorization of military action against al Qaeda, dubbing the effort 'a terrorist surveillance program.'

"The president also focused on classified briefings that the White House gave for some senior leaders in Congress. 'It's amazing that people say to me, 'Well, he's just breaking the law.' If I wanted to break the law, why was I briefing Congress?' he said, eliciting laughter from the crowd at Kansas State University.

"The remarks opened a three-day blitz by the administration aimed in part at making the controversial eavesdropping program a political winner for the White House in a midterm election year. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales will discuss the legal underpinnings for the program today, and Bush will pay a rare visit to NSA headquarters tomorrow to highlight its work.

"The strategy was signaled by White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove in a speech last week that framed the issue as a contest between Republicans who want to protect Americans from terrorists and Democrats who are trying to sabotage the administration's efforts."

David E. Sanger and Eric Lichtblau write in the New York Times: "Democrats and some Republicans have attacked the program as illegal and unconstitutional, and an analysis from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service has strongly questioned its legal underpinnings and the limited briefings that Congressional leaders were given about it. Leading Democrats said Monday that they found the White House's latest line of defense to be unpersuasive, with Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate Democratic leader, saying Mr. Bush's speech reflected a refusal to 'come clean' with the public.

Ron Hutcheson of Knight Ridder Newspapers takes a look at the legal underpinnings of the controversy.

Charlie Savage writes in the Boston Globe: "Bush's aides have argued in recent weeks that he can boost his approval ratings by emphasizing his willingness to use any means necessary to fight terrorism. He is also trying to use popular will to blunt upcoming Senate hearings on whether the surveillance program is legal.

"On a legal level, however, Bush's initiative has deeper implications, analysts said. If the public and the Congress accept Bush's assertion of power, they would clear the way for an increase in presidential power that could last long after Bush leaves office, the analysts said.

John Diamond and David Jackson write in USA Today: "A new USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll shows public sentiment is against the program. Fifty-one percent of Americans said the administration was wrong to intercept conversations involving a party inside the USA without a warrant. In response to another question, 58% of Americans said they support the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the program. Both questions were asked of about 500 adults Friday through Sunday and have a margin of error of +/-5 percentage points."

Here are the poll results.

A Tiptoe Outside the Bubble

Christopher Lee writes in The Washington Post: "As if to rebut charges that he lives in a White House bubble that leaves him exposed only to handpicked audiences, Bush spent most of an hour-and-40-minute session here chatting with questioners pulled from the seats of the Kansas State University arena. . . .

"A student in the Air Force ROTC asked him to talk about how he handles assaults on his character. A former beef industry official praised his efforts to get beef exports into Japan after mad cow scares in the United States. One person asked him to talk about his wife.

"By the end of the event, White House transcribers recorded 61 instances of audience laughter."

Kelly O'Donnell writes in an NBC blog about the lighter sides of Bush's speech.

A Breaking Ball

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "[A]fter talking about terrorism and wiretapping and Iraq, Iran and China, Mr. Bush called on a questioner who said: 'You're a rancher. A lot of us here in Kansas are ranchers. I was just wanting to get your opinion on 'Brokeback Mountain,' if you've seen it yet.'

"The movie, of course, is the adaptation of a story about two male ranch hands who fall in love with each other in the 1960's. After some nervous laughter settled down, the questioner added: 'You would love it. You should check it out.'

"Mr. Bush paused. 'I haven't seen it,' he said. 'I'd be glad to talk about ranching, but I haven't seen the movie.'

"There was more nervous laughter as the president added: 'I've heard about it.'

"Then Mr. Bush, somewhere between flummoxed and amused, added, 'I hope you go back to the ranch and the farms is what I was about to say.'"

Peter Wallsten explains in the Los Angeles Times: Although the story line is full of Republican touchstones -- small-town Fourth of July celebrations, a father's devotion to his children, even the wide-open landscape of Wyoming, Vice President Dick Cheney's home state -- the depiction of homosexuality makes the film untouchable for a politician."

On Student Loans

Joel Havemann writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush, caught off guard Monday by a question about cuts in higher-education student-loan programs, said the reduction in costs would come at the expense of lending institutions, not students.

"Representatives of higher-education associations disagreed moderately. Leaders of student groups took vehement exception."

A Bit . . . Boring?

Rick Dean, a columnist with the Topeka Capital-Journal, writes: "After joking at the start that he never cared much for lectures during his college days, the president lectured for nearly two hours, a full hour too long. Especially when the overly long Q-and-A session featured more softballs than a weekend slow-pitch tournament."

Dean compared Bush's visit unfavorably with the last time a president came to lecture at Kansas State University -- "in 1970 when Richard Nixon, another president trapped in a war many Americans saw as unwinnable, came to K-State, one of the few campuses in America where he could be received warmly just four months after the shooting death of four students during a war protest at Kent State."

Dean writes that Nixon was heckled during his lecture -- then the crowd rose en masse to shout down the hecklers and gave Nixon several standing ovations. High drama.

But yesterday?

Dean writes: "When it finally ended, there was none of the buzz associated with the Nixon visit. Lecture halls empty with more fanfare. More people were making lunch plans than discussing Bush's explanation for terrorist surveillance. A crowd ready to spend most of the day on its feet had given the president two standing ovations. One when he entered, one when he left."

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET. I've missed your questions and comments.

The Abramoff Pictures

Jim VandeHei and Susan Schmidt write in The Washington Post: "Several White House officials have been briefed about pictures of President Bush and Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff taken since 2001 but will not release them on grounds that they are not relevant to the ongoing money-for-favors investigation, aides said yesterday.

"'Trying to say there's more to it than the president taking a picture in a photo line is just absurd,' White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters. Bush, he said, does not recall meeting Abramoff and did not do any favors for the disgraced lobbyist.

"Abramoff, who recently pleaded guilty in the growing bribery and corruption scandal, was with Bush about a dozen times when pictures were taken by the official White House photographer or other participants over the past five years, according to a source familiar with Abramoff's legal situation. Abramoff, this source said, displayed at least five of them on his office desk and has told people the president talked about his children's names as well as personal details about their schooling during one encounter."

The existence of the Bush-Abramoff photos was first reported by Washingtonian magazine, and then Time magazine.

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "These pictures may be worth more than a thousand words."

William Douglas and Maria Recio of Knight Ridder Newspapers quote Democratic political consultant Paul Begala: "I would love to have those pictures. I would use the pictures (in advertisements) and write `Why is this man smiling?' in the cutlines under the pictures. . . . This is a visual age. The story becomes bigger when there are pictures. It puts the scandal in the White House."

John Dickerson writes in Slate: "The pictures of Abramoff and Bush are politically damaging because they show that the disgraced lobbyist was closer to the White House than officials there have suggested. But just how damaging is hard to tell: Are the photos the meaningless trinkets given out to big contributors? Or are they the meaningful trinkets that are a crucial part of the dance of influence between the White House and the lobbyists it uses to promote its agenda?"

Here's McClellan trying to duck -- and change -- the topic in yesterday's gaggle aboard Air Force One en route to Topeka.

"Q [W]hy not just say, and just get it over with -- say, here are the issues that he talked about -- he came to the White House to talk about, here's who he met with, and then move on. Why not --

"MR. McCLELLAN: I'm not aware of anything that has anything to do with the investigation. I know that there's some Democrats that want to try to make this -- try to engage in partisan attacks. But what we do know from media reports is that Mr. Abramoff gave directly or indirectly to Democrats and Republicans. Trying to say there's more to it than the President taking a picture in a photo line is just absurd."

But McClellan's continued attempt to portray the Abramoff scandal as bipartisan doesn't exactly help his credibility on the question of White House meetings. His assertion flies in the face of the facts and is a Republican talking point espoused only by the most partisan or most credulous.

Katrina Revisited

Joby Warrick writes in The Washington Post: "In the 48 hours before Hurricane Katrina hit, the White House received detailed warnings about the storm's likely impact, including eerily prescient predictions of breached levees, massive flooding, and major losses of life and property, documents show.

"A 41-page assessment by the Department of Homeland Security's National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center (NISAC), was delivered by e-mail to the White House's 'situation room,' the nerve center where crises are handled, at 1:47 a.m. on Aug. 29, the day the storm hit, according to an e-mail cover sheet accompanying the document. . . .

"The documents shed new light on the extent on the administration's foreknowledge about Katrina's potential for unleashing epic destruction on New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities and towns. President Bush, in a televised interview three days after Katrina hit, suggested that the scale of the flooding in New Orleans was unexpected. 'I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees. They did anticipate a serious storm,' Bush said in a Sept. 1 interview on ABC's 'Good Morning America.' "

Eric Lipton writes in the New York Times: "A White House spokesman, asked about the seeming contradiction between Mr. Bush's statement on Sept. 1 and the warning as the storm approached, said the president meant to say that once the storm passed and it initially looked as if New Orleans had gotten through the hurricane without catastrophic damage, no one anticipated at that point that the levees would be breached."

Karl Rove Opinion Watch

E.J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Well in advance of Election Day, Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser, has a habit of laying out his party's main themes, talking points and strategies. . . .

"[S]ince Sept. 11, 2001, the plan has focused on one variation or another of the same theme: Republicans are tough on our enemies, Democrats are not. If you don't want to get blown up, vote Republican."

But Dionne says some "core questions must be asked: Are we really safer now than we were five years ago? Has the Iraq war, as organized and prosecuted by the administration, made us stronger or weaker? Do we feel more secure knowing the heck of a job our government did during Hurricane Katrina? Do we have any confidence that the Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies will clean up their act if Washington remains under the sway of one-party government?"

A Louisville Courier-Journal editorial says: "There may be depths to which Karl Rove wouldn't sink, but it's difficult to imagine what they might be.

"Mr. Rove, President Bush's chief political adviser, defended the administration's domestic eavesdropping program last week by saying that 'President Bush believes if al-Qaida is calling somebody in America, it is in our national security interest to know who they're calling and why. Some important Democrats clearly disagree.'

"What rubbish. Once again, when this administration is challenged, it lashes out at the patriotism of its critics."

Today's Calendar

Don't expect Bush to get a tongue-lashing during his visit from a Pakistani leader this morning, even though many in the Islamic nation are blasting the United States for a Jan. 13 airstrike in a remote area of northern Pakistan that killed at least 13 civilians, including women and children.

Foster Klug writes for the Associated Press: "Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz brushed aside tensions with the United States as he prepared for a meeting Tuesday with President Bush."

In the afternoon, Bush holds a photo op with 2005 NASCAR Nextel Cup Champion Tony Stewart.

Poll Watch

Susan Page writes in USA Today that "Bush, the 43rd president, has had a job approval rating of 43% in the past four USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Polls. . . .

"Bush's rating has reached an 'equilibrium point' with support from his 'hard-core base,' says political scientist Richard Eichenberg of Tufts University in Massachusetts. (A year earlier, Bush's equilibrium point was about 10 percentage points higher, in the low 50s.) Only significant outside events are likely to appreciably change it, Eichenberg says."

Where Is Osama?

Bush in Kansas yesterday, describing the evolution of his thinking after September 11: "The decision I made right off the bat is we will find them, and we will hunt them down, and we will bring them to justice before they hurt America again."

But earlier in the day, Agence France Presse reported: "Osama bin Laden, even in hiding, may still be able to mastermind a major terrorist attack inside the United States, a senior aide to US President George W. Bush said.

"Asked whether the Al-Qaeda chief could engineer such a strike, Bush adviser Dan Bartlett told CBS television: 'We have to assume that he can. We have to be very vigilant in what we do to protect our country.' "

Scooter Libby Watch

Toni Locy writes for the Associated Press: "Lawyers for a former top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney on Monday made their first request to use classified evidence at his trial, launching a highly secretive court process that could bog down the case.

"In the filings made under seal in federal court, lawyers for I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby put the judge and prosecutors on notice that they want a jury to hear evidence the government now says is classified.

"Their action puts the Libby case on a dual track -- one public, the other secret -- that often can delay criminal cases from going to trial."

Last Friday, Carol D. Leonnig wrote in The Washington Post that Libby's attorneys had told a federal court "that they plan to subpoena several journalists and news organizations to obtain their notes and other information they consider useful in defending their client from perjury charges."

Bush and Abortion

Reuters reports: "President George W. Bush on Monday told opponents of abortion their views would eventually prevail and urged them to work to convince more Americans of 'the rightness of our cause.' "

Michelle Boorstein writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush addressed the [March for Life] event by telephone from Kansas, where he traveled yesterday for a speech on terrorism. In four minutes of remarks that largely followed the language he has used in past calls to the march, Bush vowed to continue fighting for what he calls a 'culture of life' and the principle that every life has value."

Here's the text of his remarks.

"By changing laws we can change our culture," Bush said. He added: "We, of course, seek common ground where possible."

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post from amid the marchers that "when Bush allowed that 'we're making good progress,' everybody knew that he was, ultimately, talking about Roe's end."

And Milbank writes: "On the Mall at Seventh Street, tens of thousands of antiabortion activists were listening to the Rev. James Nesbit, whose invocation was so passionate that his voice cracked and warbled as he delivered the jeremiad.

"'It has been told by the prophets in the land that there is a president coming out of Texas, a Burning Bush,' Nesbit prayed. 'He will deal with abortion in the land. We ask you to give him an executive order and mantle him and give him a mandate with the fear of the Lord.'"

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