By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, June 14, 2006; 2:10 PM
President Bush's message to the Iraqi people in his stealth trip to Baghdad yesterday was: "Seize the moment."
That's also what Bush himself is doing, capitalizing on a rare streak of good news to try to shift the political momentum that, at least up until now, had been going nowhere but down.
This morning, Bush took to the Rose Garden for an hour-long press conference where he danced around tough questions while continuing his campaign to persuade people that things in Iraq are looking up.
Bush's opening statement, in unusually blunt terms, laid out the massive challenges ahead in Iraq, including not only terrorism but sectarian strife and rival militias, an overall lack of security, serious economic problems, corruption and human rights violations.
But the jet-lagged president made it clear that nothing is going to get in the way of his optimism.
Many of his responses consisted largely of the familiar talking points. For instance, he repeated three separate times today, as if this was a new concept, that Iraq is "part of the war on terror."
But there was a renewed emphasis on success. "The American people have got to understand I believe we're going to succeed. That's why we're there. And my message to the Iraqis is, we're going to help you succeed. My message to the enemy is, don't count on us leaving before we succeed. My message to our troops is, we support you 100 percent. Keep doing what you're doing. And my message to the critics is, is that we listen very carefully and adjust when needed to adjust."
Bush used variations on the word "succeed" 31 times -- in that way answering what he said is the core question Americans have about Iraq: "I think the people want to know, can we win?"
Among the other highlights and lowlights of the press conference:
* Bush continued to stonewall on Karl Rove's involvement in the leaking of a CIA operative's identity, saying he was relieved by the special prosecutor's decision not to indict Rove and that he trusts Rove -- but using the specious excuse of the ongoing criminal case against Scooter Libby to dodge questions about whether Rove's conduct met his ethical standards.
* In spite of the White House spin that Bush is newly open to hearing from critics, he was unable to cite a single recent case in which he had let any external advice change his mind about anything.
* Asked about his not giving the Iraqi prime minister any advance notice of his trip, Bush argued that if more people had known, "perhaps it would have given somebody a chance to plan" an attack. He noted he wasn't afraid of the prime minister personally: "[W]hen he walked in, I didn't fear."
* He expressed regret for having previously used the tide-turning metaphor for Iraq. Today, Bush said "the progress will be steady," and he mocked "whoever said it's a tide turning." White House speechwriters, take note!
* In the context of the debate over troop withdrawal, he expressed a somewhat cynical view of free speech in this country: "That's what makes us interesting and great; people can say whatever they want to say, as they try to attract votes."
* It was a banner morning for straw men. "I fully understand how people might have made the decision that America is no longer under threat or the lessons of September the 11th were just momentary lessons," Bush said at one point. He also said: "I'd say that if people say, 'Well, there's got to be no violence in order for this to be a successful experience,' then it's not going to happen."
* In possibly his most ironic statement of the morning, the president -- who twice won office by a hair's breadth and refuses to acknowledge that his dismal poll numbers mean anything -- said, in the context of Iraqi democracy: "That's the great thing about being elected; you get a sense if people don't kind of like what you're doing, or not."The New Narrative
The only question in this morning's papers is whether Bush's sudden winning streak will last. There was no doubt that he is on a roll.
Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "In a White House that had virtually forgotten what good news looks like, the past few weeks have been refreshing. A Republican won a much-watched special congressional election. President Bush recruited a Wall Street heavy-hitter as Treasury secretary. U.S. forces killed the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. And now the architect of the Bush presidency has avoided criminal charges.
"The question is whether this latest updraft in Bush's fortunes will last much longer than the president's surprise trip yesterday to Iraq. Bush took full command of the political stage with his five-hour appearance in Baghdad just days after the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and used it to showcase a new Iraqi government he hopes to turn the war over to eventually. Yet in the end, some analysts noted, it will matter only if this new government can heal societal schisms and stand up effective security forces. . . .
"With Zarqawi dead, a new Baghdad government in place and Rove freed from prosecutor's cross hairs, the White House hopes it can pivot to a new stage in which it is no longer on the defensive."
Dana Milbank takes note in The Washington Post of one of Bush's nicknames for Rove, Turd Blossom, and writes that "the earthy image -- a Texas desert flower that flourishes in manure -- was a good metaphor for Rove and the GOP yesterday: Both were, at least momentarily, blooming from the political muck in which they have been mired. . . .
"A dozen days earlier, a reflective Bush expressed remorse about his "bring 'em on" tough talk. But yesterday, the doubts were gone and the bravado was back -- as much as it can be for a guy at 38 percent in the polls."
Thomas M. DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News: "Just last week, some of President Bush's closest political confidants privately despaired he might be finished, a failed lame duck reduced to playing out the string for another two years. . . .
"Now Bush is savoring the best week of his second term, and downcast Republicans are talking a far more bullish game. . . .
"At the very least, Bush has momentarily stabilized his presidency. As his father might say, Big Mo has returned to the Oval Office. How long it remains is anyone's guess."
John Whitesides writes for Reuters: "'This is a whole lot of good news in a hurry,' Republican consultant Rich Galen said. 'This is more good news in a week than we've had in a year.'"
John D. McKinnon and Yochi J. Dreazen write in the Wall Street Journal: "President Bush, caught for months in a losing battle for public approval, suddenly is scoring gains on several fronts, raising a far-reaching question: Is he setting the stage for a political recovery?"
Here's more of the same from Ron Hutcheson and William Douglas of Knight Ridder Newspapers, Janine Zacharia, Holly Rosenkrantz and Richard Keil of Bloomberg and John Dickerson of Slate
Liberal blogger Kevin Drum looks at just one example of this new narrative and writes: "Talk about the soft bigotry of low expectations. . . . Next up: FEMA fails to screw up after Hurricane Alberto is downgraded to a tropical storm. Another triumph for the White House!"Karl Rove Watch
Bush has now batted away three questions about Rove.
Here he was last night on Air Force One: "It's a chapter that has ended. [Special counsel Patrick J.] Fitzgerald is a very thorough person. I think he's conducted his investigation in a dignified way. And he's ended his investigation. I think it's going to important for you all to recognize there's still a trial to be had. And those of us involved in the White House are going to be very mindful of not commenting on this issue . . . because of the Libby trial. I know you'll try."
Two reporters named Peter did indeed try this morning, but to no avail.
The Washington Post's Peter Baker: "Mr. President, when you ran for office for the first time, you said you would hold the White House to a higher ethical standard. Even if Karl Rove did nothing illegal, I wonder whether you can say now whether you approve of his conduct in the CIA leak episode, and do you believe he owes Scott McClellan or anyone else an apology for misleading them?"
Bush: "I appreciate the job that the prosecutor did. I thought he conducted himself well in this investigation. He took a very thorough, long look at allegations and rumors. And I, obviously, along with others in the White House, took a sigh of relief when he made the decision he made. And now we're going to move forward. And I trust Karl Rove, and he's an integral part of my team.
"There's an ongoing trial, Peter, and I know the temptation is -- not the temptation, you'll keep asking questions during the course of the trial -- we're not going to comment beyond that."
Later, the Los Angeles Times's Peter Wallsten followed up: "[Y]ou said that you were relieved with what happened yesterday. But the American public, over the course of this investigation, has learned a lot about what was going on in your White House that they didn't know before, during that time, the way some people were trying to go after Joe Wilson, in some ways. I'm wondering if, over the course of this investigation, that you have learned anything that you didn't know before about what was going on in your administration. And do you have any work to do to rebuild credibility that might have been lost?"
Bush: "I think that -- first of all, the decision by the prosecutor speaks for itself. He had a full investigation. Karl Rove went in front of the grand jury like -- I don't -- a lot of times. More times than -- they took a hard look at his role.
"Secondly, as I told the other Peter, I'm going to tell you, that there's an ongoing trial, it's a serious business. And I've made the comments I'm going to make about this incident, and I'm going to put this part of the situation behind us and move forward."
Somebody's going to have to ask him straight out how the criminal investigation in any way precludes him from answering such distantly related questions so obviously in the public interest.
Bush, incidentally, tweaked Wallsten for wearing sunglasses. "You gonna ask your question with shades on?" Bush asked combatively. Wallsten is suffering from a degenerative eye disorder.
In a particularly thought-provoking Associated Press news analysis, Pete Yost writes: "The decision not to charge Karl Rove shows there often are no consequences for misleading the public.
"In 2003, while Rove allowed the White House to tell the news media that he had no role in leaking Valerie Plame's CIA identity, the presidential aide was secretly telling the FBI the truth."
Now, mind you, Rove only told the FBI at that point about being syndicated columnist Robert Novak's source. His role as Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper's source had allegedly slipped his mind.
Nevertheless, Yost writes: "Rove's truth-telling to the FBI saved him from indictment.
"And by misleading reporters, the White House saved itself from a political liability during the 2004 presidential campaign."
Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "With Rove's situation resolved, the broader leak investigation is probably over, according to a source briefed on the status of the case. Fitzgerald does not appear to be pursuing criminal charges against former State Department official Richard L. Armitage, who is believed to have discussed the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame with at least one reporter, according to the source. . . .
"A source briefed on the case said that the activities of Vice President Cheney and his aides were a key focus of the investigation, and that Cheney was not considered a target or primary subject of the investigation and is not likely to become one."
David Johnston and Jim Rutenberg write in the New York Times: "The decision by a special prosecutor not to bring charges against Karl Rove in the C.I.A. leak case followed months of intense behind-the-scenes maneuvering between the prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, and Mr. Rove's lawyer, lawyers in the case said. . . .
"Mr. Rove was said by associates to be ebullient on Tuesday. He declined to comment, but the White House tipped photographers that he would be walking from the White House to the Old Executive Office Building, providing imagery of Mr. Rove, all smiles."
Anne Marie Squeo writes in the Wall Street Journal that "even some who wanted to see Karl Rove indicted credit the skillful lawyering by attorney Robert Luskin and his open-door strategy with the prosecution and the press alike with convincing the grand jury of his innocence."
Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Conservative activist Grover Norquist, who had lunch with Rove on Tuesday, predicted Rove would be energized. Paraphrasing Winston Churchill, Norquist said: 'Nothing is quite so invigorating as to be shot at without effect. That's what happened to Karl. It is reasonable to assume that Karl Rove will be a more focused, aggressive and serious combatant having gone through this hazing.' . . .
"Luskin said in an interview Tuesday that he received a call and a letter from Fitzgerald on Monday. Luskin declined to make the correspondence public.
"At the time, Rove was traveling in New Hampshire with his cellphone turned off, but Luskin said he sent Rove a message on his Blackberry: 'Fitzgerald called. Case over.' Luskin said Rove called him back."What's Next?
Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger write in the Los Angeles Times that "even without an indictment of President Bush's chief political advisor, the 3-year-old CIA leak investigation has dealt serious political damage to the president and some of his most trusted associates and friends. The White House still must try to overcome that damage as Republicans strive to retain control of Congress in the November elections."
And they note that "Rep. Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles, said that Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald's decision not to indict Rove should trigger a congressional investigation into whether the top White House aide mishandled classified information when he discussed CIA officer Valerie Plame with a reporter."
In a letter to the Republican Chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, Waxman writes: "A good first step would be to schedule a meeting with Mr. Fitzgerald in which he can brief us about his findings regarding Mr. Rove and we can discuss with him the best way to proceed."The Iraq Trip
Bush made two public appearances on his trip. Here's the transcript of his comments during a videoconference with the folks back in Camp David. Here's the text of his speech to civilian and military personnel.
The crowd greeted Bush warmly -- and roared passionately when he mentioned the recently killed Zarqawi.
Bush also spoke at length to reporters on Air Force One as he headed home last night, although the White House did not provide a transcript. "I fully recognize there's people who are concerned about the really short-term history. I'm concerned about the long-term history of what we're doing. I believe what we're doing is necessary and right," he said.The Coverage
Jonathan Finer and Michael Abramowitz write in The Washington Post: "During an unannounced visit to Baghdad aimed at buttressing the newly formed government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Bush pledged his support for the country's new leader and declared that 'the fate of the Iraqi people is in their hands, and our job is to help them succeed.'"
John F. Burns and Dexter Filkins write in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush seemed intent on pressing home a message that American military commanders and embassy officials have been urging on the new government since it took office three weeks ago: after two previous Iraqi governments since Saddam Hussein became mired in incompetence and corruption, time is running out for Iraq's politicians to develop an effective government and a common front against the insurgents. . . .
"Security for the visit on Tuesday was extraordinarily tight, exceeding anything previously experienced in a city that has become a byword for suicide bombings, ambushes and kidnappings. . . .
"Mr. Maliki, at 56 a newcomer to government office, appeared uneasy at times during the visit, smiling when he greeted Mr. Bush on his arrival in the palace rotunda, but otherwise looking mostly somber. One Iraqi official said the visit was a double-edged sword for Mr. Maliki -- allowing Iraq's 25 million people to see that he enjoyed the personal backing of the American leader, but also inviting criticism from Iraqis who regard most of the politicians who have run for office under the American-sponsored elections as American stooges."
Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times that "the fledgling Baghdad government is both fragile and untested. So the administration is putting all of its diplomatic and bureaucratic muscle behind Mr. Maliki, with the goals of turning things around in Iraq, putting a floor under the president's plummeting job approval ratings and keeping the war from leading to a Republican defeat in Congressional elections in November. . . .
"In a sense, Mr. Bush went to Iraq with few options. There is little evidence that security is improving, and the president has long said American soldiers will not leave until the Iraqis assume that responsibility. So instead, the White House is turning to a strategy that proved successful in the elections of 2004, insisting Mr. Bush will stay the course while at the same time making Iraq a proxy for the broader national security debate."
Terence Hunt writes about the Air Force One interview for the Associated Press: "Bush said he made the surprise trip to Baghdad to size up al-Maliki and members of his cabinet. The president came away with a good impression of al-Maliki and his team, which combines Sunni, Shiite and Kurd officials into a unity government.
"'I wanted to hear him talk about his way forward in Iraq,' Bush said. 'I wanted to hear whether or not he was stuck in the past or willing to think about the future. I wanted to get a sense of his capacity to prioritize and rally people to achieve objectives. I came away with a very positive impression. He was a serious-minded fellow who recognized there had to be progress in order for the Iraqi people to believe the unity government could make a difference in their lives. He specifically talked about electricity in Baghdad and we talked about the security situation.'
"Bush listened to individual cabinet members describe the challenges they face. He referred to them by their jobs -- 'oil guy,' 'reconciliation person,' 'defense minister,' 'the electricity man,' a 'lady member of the cabinet' who talked about human rights concerns about coalition forces."
Patrick Quinn writes for the Associated Press: "Many Sunnis and even some Shiite political parties dismissed President Bush's visit to Baghdad on Tuesday as merely an attempt to associate himself with positive developments in Iraq -- formation of the new government and last week's killing of the country's most feared terrorist.
"Bush's trip comes at a pivotal time for new Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as he tries to convince Iraqis the country can stand on its own and end violence if they unite behind him. But instead of bolstering that effort, the visit could push away the very Sunni Arabs whom al-Maliki is trying to court.
"Some Sunnis think the success of the Bush visit can be gauged only on al-Maliki's ability to persuade the U.S. president to start pulling some of the 130,000 American troops from the country.
"'We hope that al-Maliki persuades Bush to announce a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, otherwise the visit is of no relevance to Iraqis,' said Zafer al-Ani, spokesman for the Iraqi Accordance Front, the main Sunni Arab partner in al-Maliki's government."
What's fascinating here is that Bush, in his Air Force One interview, apparently heard no such thing. Said Bush: "There are concerns about our commitment in keeping our troops there. They're worried almost to a person that we will leave before they're capable of defending themselves and I assured them they didn't need to worry and I also made it clear that we want to work with their government on a way forward on all fronts including the security front."
So, did Bush not talk to any disaffected Sunnis? Or did they just clam up in his presence? Or did he not hear what they were saying? It's a mystery that needs clearing up.
William Neikirk blogs for the Chicago Tribune: "The five-minute notice, while understandable given the perilous security problem in Baghdad, could in the eyes of some suspicious Iraqis indicate a lack of respect for their leader."The Secrecy and the Ruse
Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek: "More than three years after the rapid collapse of Saddam's regime, security in Baghdad is so poor that the president could not risk his life by telling his own cabinet of his travel plans. The new Iraqi government would not find out until moments before the president stepped into the room. . . .
"The preparations were more Cold War than War on Terror. Bush's senior aides called a handful of reporters to meet them in person at a restaurant or café in the Washington area. The information was too secret to tell on the phone. The aides urged reporters to share the plans with nobody, and to tell their families a cover story about traveling elsewhere.
"Instead of meeting directly at Andrews, reporters joined White House staff outside a hotel in Arlington, Va. Secret service agents asked reporters to turn in their cell phones and Blackberries--a wrenching experience for most of the press corps--to avoid detection before taking off from Andrews and landing in Baghdad."
Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "The president's surprise visit to Iraq on Tuesday, a sequel to an earlier one on Thanksgiving 2003, capped about a month of secretive planning.
"Like the 2003 visit, this trip brought in 'a very, very close circle of people' that included only a half-dozen of Bush's closest aides, White House counselor Dan Bartlett said. It also had the White House duping many others along the way, from some of the U.S. government's most senior officials, to reporters, the American public and even the Iraqi prime minister...
"The secrecy was aided by the fact that Bolten and Hadley bunked in the same cabin with Cheney at Camp David. No one was about to question Cheney about Bolten's and Hadley's whereabouts or press him on whether anything was amiss when they failed to show up for a scheduled staff breakfast Tuesday morning."
Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes in the Baltimore Sun about the plight of the reporters left behind: "Disbelief gave way to frustration as journalists who had been preparing to question Bush about the Camp David summit realized that the session - and their presence there - was part of a carefully orchestrated decoy."Flashback
Alec Russell writes in the Daily Telegraph: "Mr Bush's daring piece of presidential theatre yesterday appeared to be more successful than the stunt he pulled in 2003. The images of the president serving Thanksgiving dinner to the troops were undercut when it emerged that he was holding a fake display turkey."Editorial Watch
Washington Post : "President Bush delivered an important demonstration of American support for Iraq's new democratic government in his visit to Baghdad yesterday."
New York Times : "By now, Americans surely know the difference between a presidential publicity stunt and a true turning point in this ever-lengthening war."
Wall Street Journal : "President Bush's surprise trip to Baghdad yesterday was long overdue and, at five hours duration, too short. But it was still a trip worth making..."Going to Graceland
Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in The Washington Post: "George W. Bush will become the first sitting president to visit the King's Memphis home when he and Laura escort Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi there June 30. The White House yesterday announced the plans for the awesomest road trip ever (except that they'll probably fly), slated for a day after the two heads of state and close pals meet in Washington.....
"The 64-year-old PM is well known as the most serious Elvis disciple of today's world leaders."