By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, September 5, 2006; 12:58 PM
The White House today is battling to control the journalistic narrative in the days before the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
There are so many ways that journalists could help the public assess the last five years.
We could, for instance, trace the dramatic expansion of executive power in the name of fighting the war on terror. (See my August 18 column .)
We could expose the failures that have plagued the administration's initiatives to coordinate homeland security and emergency response. (See some of these Washington Post articles .)
We could write about Iraq, the most conspicuous, costly, deadly, and arguably counterproductive byproduct of President Bush's post-September 11 mentality. (See my August 22 column .)
We could expound on America's dramatic loss of moral authority, prestige and influence on the world stage. (See this AP story from Tom Raum .)
We could reflect upon the administration's continued stoking of Americans' fears for political purposes. (See Arianna Huffington .)
But that's not what the White House wants, of course.
And while the White House can't exactly prevent journalists from writing whatever we want, the president does have a great way of forcing us to take notice of whatever it is that he wants. It's called a "series of major speeches" on the "Global War on Terrorism."
Bush embarked on his latest series last Thursday, at the American Legion convention in Salt Lake City.
The second in the series comes this afternoon in Washington to an audience of active duty and retired military officers, supplemented by hand-picked members of the diplomatic corps. This morning, to accompany that speech, the White House released an updated version of its counterterrorism strategy . Here's the AP story ; here's a White House " fact sheet ."About This Series
This is Bush's third public relations offensive in less than a year to try to rally support for the war.
Anne E. Kornblut and Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote in the New York Times: "President Bush said Thursday that withdrawing now from Iraq would leave Americans at risk of terrorist attacks 'in the streets of our own cities,' and he cast the struggle against Islamic extremists as the costly but necessary successor to the battles of the last century against Nazism and Communism. . . .
"The speech, the first of five addresses on national security Mr. Bush plans to deliver between now and Sept. 19, was part of an orchestrated White House offensive to buttress public support for the Iraq war and portray Democrats as less capable of protecting the country, a theme that has proved effective for Republicans in the past two elections. . . .
"Yet even some Republicans, granted anonymity to speak freely about their criticism of the White House strategy, were skeptical, saying the public was tired not only of the war but also of politically divisive speeches on national security.
"'The hard-core conservatives are already behind his Iraq policy,' said a senior Republican Senate aide. 'For him to move the numbers in a way that benefits Congressional Republicans, he needs to reach out to moderates, and it's difficult to do that when his surrogates are contradicting him and calling opponents of his policy appeasers.'"
Kornblut and Stolberg did a rare bit of fact checking: "In making the case that the war in Iraq is 'the central front in our fight against terrorism,' the president linked Iraq, the summer battles between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon and the growing nuclear threat in Iran under the general rubric of his freedom agenda.
"At the same time, he placed various factions of terrorists -- Sunnis who swear allegiance to Al Qaeda, Shiite radicals who join groups like Hezbollah and so-called homegrown terrorists -- under one umbrella.
"Experts said that might be overstating the facts."
Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei wrote in The Washington Post on Thursday: "President Bush and his surrogates are launching a new campaign intended to rebuild support for the war in Iraq by accusing the opposition of aiming to appease terrorists and cut off funding for troops on the battlefield. . . .
"Bush suggested last week that Democrats are promising voters to block additional money for continuing the war. Vice President Cheney this week said critics 'claim retreat from Iraq would satisfy the appetite of the terrorists and get them to leave us alone.' And Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, citing passivity toward Nazi Germany before World War II, said that 'many have still not learned history's lessons' and 'believe that somehow vicious extremists can be appeased.'
"Pressed to support these allegations, the White House yesterday could cite no major Democrat who has proposed cutting off funds or suggested that withdrawing from Iraq would persuade terrorists to leave Americans alone. But White House and Republican officials said those are logical interpretations of the most common Democratic position favoring a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq."
David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "President Bush's newest effort to rebuild eroding support for the war in Iraq features a distinct shift in approach: Rather than stressing the benefits of eventual victory, he and his top aides are beginning to lay out the grim consequences of failure.
"It is a striking change of tone for a president who prides himself on optimism and has usually maintained that demeanor, at least in public, while his aides cast critics as defeatists. . . .
"No one has been more willing to set out the new domino theory than the administration's chief hawk, Mr. Cheney. In private meetings with foreign visitors and members of Congress, according to several participants in those sessions, he raises the prospect that if America fails in Iraq, Saudi Arabia will be the next target and then maybe Pakistan -- which, he notes, has a good-sized nuclear arsenal. No one would benefit more from an American withdrawal, he continues, than the Iranians.
"For Mr. Cheney, this is a major rhetorical reversal. In the prelude to the war, he argued that ousting Saddam Hussein would usher in a new era of stability in the Middle East."
(Cheney, incidentally, publicly revealed his new line of argument in a largely unnoticed CNN interview more than two months ago. See my June 23 column .)Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey wrote for Newsweek last week that Bush's goal is "to re-focus attention on 'the enemy,' to empathize with the American people about all the bad news on TV, and to set the entire debate in the wider context of a giant ideological struggle in the Middle East.
"That may sound like a familiar mantra, but President Bush has never worried about repeating himself. In fact, he and his aides see repetition as a virtue-a chance to work phrases into the broader public consciousness, and ultimately move the polls and the political debate."The Stakes
Thomas M. DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News: "President Bush and the Republicans expect a stinging defeat in November, but they're betting the terror card saves them from an electoral debacle.
"'The security issue trumps everything,' a senior Bush official said last week. 'That's why even though they're really mad at us, in the end they're going to give us another two years.'
"Nevertheless, many other senior Bush loyalists privately believe anti-Iraq and anti-Bush sentiment will cost the Republicans the House nine weeks from today, a doomsday scenario that would cripple Bush for his final two years in office.
"'We'll lose the House,' one of the party's most prominent officials flatly predicted, 'and the President will be dead in the water for two years.'"When Democrats Fight Back
The Associated Press reports: "Leading Democratic lawmakers on Monday urged President Bush to consider changing the civilian leadership at the Pentagon, one week after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld warned against fascism and appeasement as he defended U.S. policies in Iraq.
"Rumsfeld drew heavy criticism from Democrats after telling an American Legion convention in Salt Lake City that 'it is apparent that many have still not learned history's lessons.' In alluding to criticism aimed at Bush administration war policies, he used terms associated with the failure to stop Nazism in the 1930s. . . .
"The 850-word letter criticizes Bush's policies in Iraq, calling them part of a 'stay the course strategy' that has failed to make the U.S. more secure, and it suggests several changes long called for by Democratic leaders."
At this morning's gaggle, White House press secretary Tony Snow had this response: "[T]here is a reiteration of a call to replace or have Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stand down. The President strongly supports the Defense Secretary. It's not going to happen. Creating Don Rumsfeld as a bogeyman may make for good politics but would make for very lousy strategy at this time. And furthermore, if you listened to the speech that Secretary Rumsfeld gave last week, it was not only thoughtful, but comprehensive about trying to frame the ongoing war against terror and also the war going on in Iraq and Afghanistan."The Agenda
Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes in the Baltimore Sun: "The White House and Republicans in Congress are launching a pre-election push to highlight national security issues, pressing for action on President Bush's warrantless surveillance program and a new system for trying terrorism detainees.
"Debate over the measures is timed to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a series of speeches by Bush - including one today - designed to remind the public of lingering threats and portray the continued U.S. presence in Iraq as a vital mission. . . .
"Civil liberties groups worry that the result of this month's grudge-match will be new laws that Bush and future presidents will be able to use to justify a range of new counterterrorism powers, well beyond trying Guantanamo prisoners or eavesdropping on some phone calls into the United States. They see emerging legislation to govern the treatment of terrorism detainees as an opportunity for Bush to win sweeping latitude to redefine who is a so-called 'enemy combatant' and brush aside legal protections for a whole new class of suspects."
Blogger Glenn Greenwald notes that a major issue in the upcoming debate over Bush's warrantless wiretapping program is -- whaddaya know? -- the journalistic narrative: "[T]he Republicans will attempt to exploit this debate by advancing two factually false claims:
"Falsehood # 1: the debate is about whether the President can eavesdrop on Al Qaeda and other terrorists;
"Falsehood # 2: 'most Americans' support warrantless eavesdropping.
"Whether Republicans get away with these two factually false claims depends on whether journalists do their jobs by pointing out that these claims are false (not unpersuasive, but false)."Rove Watch
Political guru Karl Rove may not have the sway he once had outside the White House.
Adam Nagourney and Jim Rutenberg write in the New York Times: ""[A]s Mr. Bush's popularity has waned, and as questions have arisen among Republicans about the White House's political acumen, the party's candidates are going their own way in this difficult election season far more than they have in any other campaign Mr. Rove has overseen. . . .
"This midterm election presents Mr. Rove with a particularly difficult challenge. Beyond testing his reputation for always finding a way to win, the outcome could determine the extent of Mr. Bush's influence for the rest of his presidency and shape the way he is perceived by history. Mr. Rove has warned associates that a Democratic takeover in Congress would mean an end to Mr. Bush's legislative hopes and invite two years of potentially crippling investigations into the administration."
But inside the White House, Rove is still -- or again -- very much in control.
"Mr. Rove enters the campaign season after a year of personal tumult. Until mid-June he faced the threat of indictment in the investigation into the leak of a C.I.A. officer's identity, and in April, he was stripped of some of his duties in the White House. Mr. Rove was moved from a West Wing corner suite to a smaller windowless office across the hall, a shift one friend said he found demoralizing."
And yet, Nagourney and Rutenberg write, Rove "remains a dominant adviser to President Bush, administration officials say. . . .
"Mr. Rove determines the bulk of the president's schedule and is a crucial figure in determining what Mr. Bush should say this fall."
Rove is also not interested in talking to reporters on the record.
"The White House said that Mr. Rove would consider an interview for this article if it were conducted off the record, with the provision that quotations could be put on the record with White House approval, a condition it said was set for other interviews with Mr. Rove. The New York Times declined."
[Note to readers: Seen any Rove quotes lately that you think might have been granted under those circumstances? E-mail me at email@example.com .]
Nedra Pickler of the Associated Press was also unable to get an interview with Rove for her profile of him. She oes, however, write about a quick exchange as he left a Toledo fundraiser, where the campaign of Ohio gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell was charging donors at least $10,000 each for the privilege of meeting Rove privately.
"Asked about his recent weight loss, Rove, without mentioning the liquid-based diet supervised by Dr. Arthur Frank at George Washington University, smiled and told reporters he'd lost 22 pounds through 'clean living.'
"The mischievous Rove stuck his head out of the car before it sped off to add gleefully: 'And avoiding you guys.'"Avoiding the President
David Hammer writes for the Associated Press: "Republicans who were once cozy with President Bush are distancing themselves from both the president and their party in campaign ads. . . .
"With the election in about two months and Bush's approval ratings still low -- 33 percent in the most recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll -- Republicans involved in tight races are avoiding party labels and playing down their ties to the president. On issues from the Iraq war to Amtrak spending, GOP candidates are trying to argue that they don't follow in lockstep."
Edward Epstein writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "George W. Who?
"President Bush has become the invisible man of the Republican Party's effort to keep control of the House and Senate in November's midterm elections.
"The Web sites of the party's candidates in the most competitive races across the country either give only a passing nod to the president or don't even mention Bush, whose popularity has been weighed down by the war in Iraq, high gas prices, economic anxieties and lingering memories of last August's Hurricane Katrina."
Larry Eichel writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "Mike Fitzpatrick has labeled President Bush's stay-the-course policy in Iraq 'extreme' in a campaign mailing.
"Jim Gerlach ran a television commercial calling Bush 'wrong' on immigration.
"Curt Weldon describes himself on his campaign posters as an 'independent fighter for us.'
"These are Republican congressmen running for reelection in three hotly contested races in the Pennsylvania suburbs - key contests in the battle for control of the House."
David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times from Southern Maryland: "In the nearly six years of his presidency, President Bush has used Labor Day for maximum political effect, showing up at picnics to address carpenters in Pennsylvania and highway construction workers in Ohio, often with local Republican leaders in tow.
"But two months ahead of a midterm election in which Mr. Bush's party is in danger of losing control of the House, in part because of his low approval ratings, there were no candidates with him on Monday. . . .
"In fact, there was not even a picnic -- just a small invited audience, which Mr. Bush addressed for 11 minutes."
Philip Rucker writes in The Washington Post: "Maryland's top two Republicans -- Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich and Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele -- did not appear with the president in the St. Mary's County town. Their absence quickly became political fodder for Democrats, who accused the Republican officeholders of dodging the unpopular president even as they allow him to raise money for Ehrlich's bid for reelection and Steele's campaign for the U.S. Senate. . . .
"Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff, traveled with the president to Piney Point and said Ehrlich and Steele could not attend because 'they had existing events of their own.' The governor and lieutenant governor marched yesterday in a parade in Gaithersburg."Don't Hit the Wall
Here's the text of Bush's brief remarks yesterday: "Now, I just happened to be over here at the training building, and they put me behind the wheel of a Coast Guard cutter in Baltimore Harbor, and they made the boat rock a little bit. (Laughter.) And I got slightly discombobulated. (Laughter.)"
According to pool reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis of the Baltimore Sun, Bush visited a Coast Guard "navigation simulator" -- "a small, darkened room illuminated with dim red lights, whose center was outfitted to look like the bridge of a large ship, complete with dials, digital displays, instrument panels, keyboards and a telephone receiver and a modern-looking ship's wheel. The walls were plexiglass screens with a simulated panoramic view of the Baltimore Harbor. . . .
"Bush was told he would be navigating the ship out of the Inner Harbor and toward Ft. McHenry, and as he took the wheel, the images on the plexiglass screens started moving, as if we were out on the water. Asked whether he wanted some more speed, POTUS said, 'I guess so, just make sure I don't run into the wall.'"Bush 'Assassination' Causes Uproar
Kevin Sullivan writes in The Washington Post: "Nearly every British newspaper on Friday carried photos of the 'assassination' of President Bush -- or, rather, the eerily realistic depiction of it from a new documentary-style television film that is causing an uproar in Britain."
Sarah Lyall writes in the New York Times: "The time is October 2007, and America is in anguish, rent by the war in Iraq and by a combustive restiveness at home. Leaving a hotel in Chicago after making a speech while a huge antiwar protest rages nearby, President Bush is suddenly struck down, killed by a sniper's bullet.
"That is the arresting beginning of 'Death of a President,' a 90-minute film to be broadcast here in October on More4, a British digital television station. And while depicting the assassination of a sitting president is provocative in itself, this film is doubly so because it has been made to look like a documentary."Daydreaming
Lloyd Grove writes in the New York Daily News: "President Bush once daydreamed about blasting Bill Clinton's presidential library to smithereens, according to a new book.
"In 'How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime,' former Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal recounts a November 2004 visit by Bush and his political guru Karl Rove to the William J. Clinton Library in Little Rock, Ark., on the banks of the Arkansas River.
"'Bush appeared distracted and glanced repeatedly at his watch,' Blumenthal writes about a presidential tour during the library's dedication. 'When he stopped to gaze at the river, where Secret Service agents were stationed in boats, the guide said: "Usually, you might see some bass fishermen out there." Bush replied: "A submarine could take this place out."'"Bush and the Bard
Here's Bush's interview last week with Brian Williams :
"WILLIAMS: We always talk about what you're reading. As you know, there was a report that you just read the works of a French philosopher. (Bush laughs)
"BUSH: The Stranger.
"WILLIAMS: Tell us the back story of Camus.
"BUSH: The back story of the, the book?
"WILLIAMS: What led you to. . . .
"BUSH: I was in Crawford and I said I was looking for a book to read and Laura said you oughtta try Camus, I also read three Shakespeare's.
"WILLIAMS: This is a change. . . .
"BUSH: Not really. Wait a minute. . . .
"WILLIAMS: A few months ago you were reading the life story of Joe DiMaggio by Richard Ben Cramer.
"BUSH: Which was a good book.
"WILLIAMS: You've been on a Teddy Roosevelt reading kick.
"BUSH: Well, I'm reading about the battle of New Orleans right now. I've got an eclectic reading list.
"WILLIAMS: And now Camus?
"BUSH: Well, that was a couple of books ago. Let me look. The key for me is to keep expectations low."