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Bush and the 'Third Awakening'

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, September 13, 2006; 1:22 PM

Peter Baker of The Washington Post spots a fascinating story amid the published excerpts from a closed-door session President Bush held with conservative journalists yesterday. The excerpts were published on the National Review's blog .

Baker writes: "President Bush said yesterday that he senses a 'Third Awakening' of religious devotion in the United States that has coincided with the nation's struggle with international terrorists, a war that he depicted as 'a confrontation between good and evil.'

"Bush told a group of conservative journalists that he notices more open expressions of faith among people he meets during his travels, and he suggested that might signal a broader revival similar to other religious movements in history. Bush noted that some of Abraham Lincoln's strongest supporters were religious people 'who saw life in terms of good and evil' and who believed that slavery was evil. Many of his own supporters, he said, see the current conflict in similar terms. . . .

"Bush has been careful discussing the battle with terrorists in religious terms since he had to apologize for using the word 'crusade' in 2001. He often stresses that the war is not against Islam but against those who corrupt it. In his comments yesterday, aides said Bush was not casting the war as a religious struggle but was describing American cultural changes in a time of war."

Bush also injected a religious perspective into his address to the nation on Monday, the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when he said: "The attacks were meant to bring us to our knees, and they did, but not in the way the terrorists intended. Americans united in prayer."

Bush often calls attention to all the people who he meets who say they are praying for him, and that's how the subject apparently came up yesterday. As Rich Lowry and Kate O'Beirne blogged for the National Review: "He jokingly noted, 'Now maybe the only people who pray in America come to my events.'"

But Bush's disquisition about a "Third Awakening" is highly suggestive, and potentially of no small political significance.

National Review senior editor Jeffrey Hart touched on the issue of revivalism in an op-ed for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last year. He wrote that Bush "has brought religion into politics in a way unknown to recent memory. And he has owed both of his electoral victories to his Evangelical Christian base. This indispensable base has profoundly affected his policies, foreign and domestic.

"The Bush presidency often is called conservative. That is a mistake. It is populist and radical, and its principal energies have roots in American history, and these roots are not conservative."

Hart wrote that the "Third Awakening of Evangelicalism believes all sorts of bizarre things, such as the imminent end of the world, the second coming of Christ, the sudden elevation of the just to heaven and the final struggle of Good versus Evil in Jerusalem: Armageddon. We thus have the immense popularity of the Left Behind series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins."

Concentrating mostly on the public health-related effects of Bush's Evangelicalism, Hart wrote that it "has real and often dangerous effects on the world in which the rest of us . . . live."

More recently, journalists struggling to understand Bush's nearly absolute deference to Israel in the Lebanese conflict wondered if Bush's religious beliefs were a factor. See my August 4 column, What's the Motivation? , which includes the strange tale of the visit to a White House Bible study meeting by a writer of Christian apocalpytic fiction.

More From the Interview

Lowry writes up his impressions of the meeting with Bush in his National Review column: "He exhibits a sincere, passionate, and uncompromising conviction in his principles. He is arguably losing a war in Iraq that could destroy his hopes for the Middle East and sink his party's hope in the midterm elections. But there's no wobble in Bush. If anything, the opposite.

"Basically right after 'hello,' the next words out of his mouth are: 'Let me just first tell you that I've never been more convinced that the decisions I made are the right decisions. I firmly believe -- I'm oftentimes asked about, well, you're stubborn and all this. If you believe in a strategy, in Washington, D.C. you've got to stick to that strategy, see. People want you to change. It's tactics that shift, but the strategic vision has not, and will not, shift.'"

Lowry, who as it happened had a Washington Post op-ed yesterday morning co-authored with William Kristol calling for more U.S. troops in Iraq, asked Bush to respond to that argument.

Bush: "The answer to that question is, if General Casey [Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq] feels like he needs more troops, we'll send them. . . .

"I'm constantly asking General Casey that question. I've got direct contact with him through secure video.

"Q: What if he's wrong?

"BUSH: Then I picked the wrong general.

"Q: You wouldn't override his decision in any instance?

"BUSH: Well, how -- I mean -- I query him thoroughly. I'm certainly not a military expert, nor am I in Baghdad. I talk to Zal [Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador] all the time. In other words, we get -- and I ask for data. So I know how to ask questions. I think I'm pretty good about filtering out which is real and which is not."

In one of their blog posts, Lowry and O'Beirne note that some of Bush's language got quite colorful. "Asked if generals might be inhibited in asking for more troops because it might be such a politically unwelcome request, Bush used a dismissive expletive for the notion. He expressed his conviction that his generals know he has what it takes -- briefly showing his fluidity in Spanish -- to get them the troops they need even if the politics isn't favorable."

On Iran

In his column, Lowry also writes that it appears Bush is gearing up to attack Iran next.

"[H]is language suggests that the Robert Kagan thesis that the seemingly interminable Iran diplomacy is the necessary run-up to a strike on Iran has something to it. Bush says, 'It is very important for the United States to try all diplomatic means.' That's what we did in Iraq: 'I'm often asked what's the difference between Iran and Iraq. We tried all diplomatic means in Iraq.' Iran, he seems to imply, might eventually prove impervious to diplomacy, but that's something we have to find out. He says, of members of the military, 'I owe it to their loved ones and I owe it to this country to see if we can't achieve [diplomatically] the objectives which, in Iran's case, the short-term objective is no nuclear weapon. So that's what you're seeing happen.'"

Behind the Smokescreen

Detainee policy is being hotly debated on Capitol Hill this week. But the press coverage of the White House arm-twisting is arguably missing the big story: The loss of habeas corpus.

As blogger Hilzoy writes, the ostensibly moderate Republican bill on detainee policy "would eliminate the right of any alien who is in US custody outside the US, or who 'has been determined by the United States to have been properly detained as an enemy combatant', to file for habeas corpus. . . .

"Denying the right to file for habeas corpus to all people detained outside the US, or who have been found to have been properly detained as an enemy combatant, means that virtually all detainees would have no legal recourse if they felt they had been unjustly imprisoned, or if their legal rights had been violated."

Combine that with a broad definition for "enemy combatant" and you've got a momentous shift in American law.

Legal blogger Marty Lederman adds: "With respect to the Administration's detention and interrogation practices, it would largely undermine the salutary effects of the landmark Supreme Court decisions in Rasul and Hamdan, and might well provide effective legal cover for many of the CIA's 'alternative' techniques.

Ann Woolner writes a timely Bloomberg opinion column about the reshaping of America's legal landscape since September 11, 2001.

"As a measure of how far things have gone in the law, consider a single amendment to an anti-torture bill passed last year.

"Congress curtailed one of the most elemental rights, that of habeas corpus, when it said the men held at Guantanamo Bay could no longer go to the U.S. Supreme Court to challenge any aspect of their imprisonment.

"That's 'just about the most stupendously significant act that the Congress of the United States can take,' Justice David Souter remarked at an oral argument this spring."

Yale Professor Bruce Ackerman , writes in a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed: "Consider the case of Jose Padilla. A few months after Sept. 11, the president declared him an 'enemy combatant,' and locked him up in a military brig for three and half years. During all this time, Padilla was denied the right to challenge his detention before a military or civilian tribunal. . . .

"This gives the presidency a terrible precedent for the next Sept. 11. We all hope that this attack won't come for a long time. But the day after the next tragedy, the Padilla case will be invoked to support the president if he sweeps hundreds or thousands into military detention. After a year or two the Supreme Court may intervene on the side of freedom. But perhaps the vote will go 5-4 the wrong way.

"It can't happen to me, we tell ourselves. Very few Americans have done anything to support the Islamo-fascists, whatever President Bush may mean by this dark term. But the next attack may be by home-grown terrorists. All of us are potential Jose Padillas, not a select few."

Arm Twisting

Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush is trying to break an election-season deadlock with congressional Republicans over bills that would give the White House broad authority to monitor, interrogate and prosecute terrorism suspects.

"Senators and House leaders want to impose new restrictions on the administration, saying they won't give the president a blank check over the war on terror.

"A parade of White House officials seeking support for legal tools against terrorists is expected to culminate Thursday with an appearance by Bush himself before House Republicans anxious to maintain their majority in the November elections."

Charles Babington writes in The Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney urged Republican senators yesterday not to be too restrictive in setting legal limits on CIA interrogations of enemy combatants, the largest remaining barrier to an agreement between Congress and the White House on legislation that would also set new rules for special military trials for terrorist suspects.

"Cheney and White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten met for an hour with GOP senators in hopes of narrowing their differences over proposed legislation governing the treatment, questioning and prosecution of suspected terrorists and enemy combatants, such as those held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

"Afterward, key senators said they had made progress on several fronts, including the use of secret information against defendants and guidelines for handling allegedly coerced statements. The biggest sticking point, they said, was how narrowly to define practices that might subject CIA interrogators or others to charges of committing war crimes."

Bush touched on the issue in that Oval Office interview yesterday. From Lowry and O'Beirne : "Asked about the interrogation controversy, he said legislation should outline 'clearly what is acceptable and provide liability protection so interrogators will feel protected going forward.' He was emphatic that people should understand that 'as long as the War Crimes Act hangs over their heads, they [interrogators] will not take the steps necessary to protect' Americans."

Massimo Calabresi writes for Time that "some Senators and legal experts see another reason for the heightened concern at the White House. On paper, at least, White House officials and CIA officers could be vulnerable to prosecution for past or future use of illegal methods of interrogation -- unless Congress changes the law. . . .

"It's hard to see how the methods the administration authorized for use against some of their detainees could not have violated the Geneva conventions. Common article 3 of the conventions prevents any 'outrages on the personal dignity' of detainees. Among the highlights of the administration's approved techniques -- waterboarding, wherein a prisoner is made to believe he is drowning; intimidation using dogs; stripping of prisoners; and so on."

Warrantless Wiretapping

Also on the Hill, a handful of House Republicans have been supporting a few modest checks and balances on the administration's ability to eavesdrop without a warrant. But now the Republican House leadership has dropped the axe.

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "House leaders moved yesterday to temper many of the controls that a bill headed toward rapid passage would have imposed on the Bush administration's program for wiretapping terrorism suspects without court approval. . . .

"Republican leaders, in the midst of an increasingly angry attack on Democrats over defense matters, made it clear that they will not challenge President Bush's authority in matters of national security as they challenge their opponents' commitment to fighting terrorism."

Politics Watch

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "As White House officials sought approval from television executives for a coveted prime-time broadcast of President Bush's Oval Office address commemorating the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, they said publicly that the speech would steer clear of politics. . . .

"But Bush's inclusion in his remarks Monday night of a stout defense of his policies in Iraq -- as well as his suggestion that a united front was needed on the subject -- sent Democrats scrambling to issue late-night responses and prompted at least one network to adjust its programming to make time for political analysis. And the controversy continued Tuesday, as debate flared over whether Bush inappropriately politicized a day set aside for memorials and solemn reflection."

Dana Milbank , writing in The Washington Post, notes the "arrival of Treason Season, heralded by the charged address President Bush gave on Monday's 9/11 anniversary."

Jim Rutenberg and Carl Hulse write in the New York Times: "At the White House, Tony Snow, Mr. Bush's spokesman, could hardly disguise his eagerness to go before the cameras to engage the Democrats on turf that Republicans have come to consider their own. He invited reporters who posed questions to him in the morning about Democratic complaints about the speech to ask again at his regular televised briefing, where he said Democrats were politicizing the anniversary and reasserted the White House line that a withdrawal from Iraq would turn it into a terrorist base."

But Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek that Bush's speech "carried all the hallmarks of politics as honed and polished by President Bush in the 12 years he has held public office.

"The most important hallmark is a passive-aggressive strategy -- to land a punch without looking like you're in a fight. So Bush took the high road of patriotism, as he called for Democrats to stop opposing his policies in Iraq and elsewhere."

Bush himself entered the debate in his Oval Office interview: "Imagine what they would have said if I hadn't talked about Iraq -- 'failed policy, won't talk about it.' If did talk about Iraq -- then, 'It's politics.'" (Via Lowry and O'Beirne .)

Snow's press briefing featured some appropriately outraged reporters.

"Q Was the President's speech last night political?

"MR. SNOW: No.

"Q How can you say that? . . .

"MR. SNOW: What was the political statement? Tell me what the political sentence was. Give me the sentence.

"Q I'll tell you exactly what it was. It was a crystallized greatest hits of the eight-day period in which he made four speeches where he laid out his philosophical underpinnings about the war on terror heading into the election. And he boiled it down, crystallized it and laid it out last night on network TV for 17 minutes. And it was in direct contrast to what you came in here and told us Friday. . . .

"SNOW: . . . [W]hat the President was making reference to after September 11th -- the war on terror didn't end on September 11th, it began. It lifted the veil to us on a world that we didn't know existed, that we have to respond to. And it is also a real fact that the war in Iraq is clearly part of that war on terror, and where we proceed with it.

"Q You've got to stop right there, because that --

"MR. SNOW: Why do I have to stop right there?

"Q Because that is the central point that will be debated in the next eight weeks between Democrats and Republicans. That will be in large part what the midterm elections are decided on.

"MR. SNOW: I agree.

"Q Okay, So if the President takes time in a speech that was advertised by you at this podium on Friday as being non-political and no drawing of distinctions --

"MR. SNOW: I said it was no drawing of partisan lines.

"Q -- and he gets up last night and lays out his case, and essentially it is an advertisement for the next eight weeks --

"MR. SNOW: What you're saying is he shouldn't have talked about Iraq. Is that what you're saying?

"Q I'm saying that it wasn't consistent with what it was billed."

And later, the nut of Snow's weak argument: "We took great pains not to say 'Democrat versus Republican.'"


Snow was also confronted about Bush's statement Monday that "the worst mistake would be to think that if we pulled out, the terrorists would leave us alone."

Q "Has someone suggested that they feel the terrorists would leave us alone if we left Iraq?"

Snow: "No, what he's trying to do is to repeat to you exactly what the terrorists think. That sentence is not an attempt -- look, I have a feeling that some people may feel pain because they think it's pointing to them. It's not pointing to them, it's pointing at the terrorists. It's pointing at the terrorists who, again, want to engage in the fantasy -- they've learned the hard way once, and let's pray they don't learn the hard way twice -- they don't realize that we love our liberty and we love our country. And if they strike, we're going to strike back. That's what that's all about. That's as much a warning to terrorists as anything else. It's not a desire to start pointing fingers at members of Congress."

Caught With His Quotes Down

"Q Well, one more, Tony, just one more. Do you believe -- does the President still believe that Saddam Hussein was connected to Zarqawi or al Qaeda before the invasion?

"MR. SNOW: The President has never said that there was a direct, operational relationship between the two, and this is important. Zarqawi was in Iraq.

"Q There was a link --

"MR. SNOW: Well, and there was a relationship -- there was a relationship in this sense: Zarqawi was in Iraq; al Qaeda members were in Iraq; they were operating, and in some cases, operating freely from Iraq. Zarqawi, for instance, directed the assassination of an American diplomat in Amman, Jordan. But they did they have a corner office at the Mukhabarat? No. Were they getting a line item in Saddam's budget? No. There was no direct operational relationship, but there was a relationship. They were in the country, and I think you understand that the Iraqis knew they were there. That's the relationship.

"Q Saddam Hussein knew they were there; that's it for the relationship?

"MR. SNOW: That's pretty much it."

Senate Democrats swiftly sent out some culpatory quotes from the archives. Among them:

Bush's 2003 State of the Union message : "Evidence from intelligence sources, secret communications, and statements by people now in custody reveal the Saddam Hussein aids and protects terrorists, including members of Al Qaeda. Secretly, and without fingerprints, he could provide one of his hidden weapons to terrorists, or help them develop their own."

And his Feb. 8, 2003 Radio Address : "Saddam Hussein has longstanding, direct and continuing ties to terrorist networks. Senior members of Iraqi intelligence and Al Qaeda have met at least eight times since the early 1990s. Iraq has sent bomb-making document forgery experts to work with Al Qaeda. Iraq has also provided Al Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons training."

Meanwhile, in Ohio

Mike Wilkinson and Steve Eder write in the Toledo Blade: "Tom Noe, the GOP fund-raiser at the heart of Ohio's biggest political scandal in a generation, claimed that pressure from the Bush-Cheney campaign led him to commit the campaign-finance crimes for which he was sentenced yesterday to federal prison."

On-Camera Gaggle?

Jessica Yellin wrote for ABC News yetserday that "a bevy of White House correspondents got bent out of shape in this morning's White House briefing, known as the gaggle, when they discovered the White House had a camera trained on the reporters during what has always been a no-cameras-allowed event. . . .

"Deputy Press Secretary Dana Perino explains that the cameras are operated by the White House TV/ White House Communications Agency and provide an internal feed that lets White House staff watch on-the-record briefings on an in-house channel. . . . [But] the gaggle (the morning briefing) is supposed to be an off-camera event. It's a strictly enforced policy: Reporters are not allowed to roll video because the gathering is a casual question-and-answer session.

"Now some reporters are asking if the White House has the red light on, why can't the press? . . . And another says, 'It makes you wonder why the staff would need to see the questioner.'"

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