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President Who?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, October 4, 2006; 12:20 PM

Is this what it feels like to be a lame duck?

President Bush is careening around the country, feverishly campaigning for Republican congressional candidates and unleashing highly provocative accusations against his Democratic critics.

But nobody really cares.

The only thing anyone wants to hear from the president right now is his reaction to the Congressional page-sex scandal revolving around former representative Mark Foley and rapidly enveloping the GOP House leadership.

On top of that, the public doesn't trust him. A fresh round of polls shows that most Americans think Bush has been intentionally misleading about the progress in Iraq, they oppose his war there, and they don't think it's making them safer. His approval rating is back down to a dismal 39 percent.

And establishment Washington has finally and conclusively written him off as being in a state of denial.

The Scandal That Ate Washington

Here's the text of Bush's statement while visiting George W. Bush Elementary School in Stockton, California, in between fundraisers yesterday.

"I was dismayed and shocked to learn about Congressman Foley's unacceptable behavior. I was disgusted by the revelations and disappointed that he would violate the trust of the citizens who placed him in office."

As for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, quite possibly the next political casualty of the scandal for failing to act earlier to protect boys from Foley's overtures, Bush was generally supportive.

"Now, I know Denny Hastert, I meet with him a lot. He is a father, teacher, coach, who cares about the children of this country. I know that he wants all the facts to come out and he wants to ensure that these children up there on Capitol Hill are protected. I'm confident he will provide whatever leadership he can to law enforcement in this investigation."

But does that mean he thinks Hastert shouldn't resign?

Mark Silva blogs for the Chicago Tribune that Bush twice refused to answer shouting reporters asking that specific question.

"The president apparently is sending a dual message this evening," Silva wrote last night. "While confident in the House speaker's pursuit of a full-scale investigation of the Foley affair, he is keeping a certain distance from the speaker. He has not spoken with the speaker during the past few days, according to a White House spokeswoman , who also isn't addressing the question of resignation."

In Campaign Mode

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush ratcheted up his campaign offensive against Democrats on Tuesday with perhaps his bluntest rhetoric yet as he accused them of being 'softer' on terrorists and willing to allow attacks on Americans rather than interrogate or spy on the nation's enemies.

"With his party in serious trouble five weeks before Election Day, Bush shifted into full campaign mode this week, kicking off a month of frenetic barnstorming aimed at drawing disgruntled Republicans back into the fold. As part of the effort, he has escalated the intensity of his attacks with each passing day, culminating with what aides called a 'very aggressive' series of speeches Tuesday."

Here's the text of his morning speech: "If you don't think we should be listening in on the terrorist, then you ought to vote for the Democrats. If you want your government to continue listening in when al-Qaeda planners are making phone calls into the United States, then you vote Republican."

Here's Baker's overly gentle disquisition on the false choices Bush presented: "Bush's language . . . characterizes Democratic positions through his own prism. Critics of the surveillance program have not argued against listening to terrorist phone calls but say the government should get warrants from a secret intelligence court. Likewise, many critics of the tribunal measure did not oppose interrogating prisoners generally, as Bush said, but specific provisions of the bill, such as denying the right of habeas corpus or giving the president freedom to authorize what they consider torture."

And as Baker notes, Bush re-used -- and in fact expanded upon -- his "comma" metaphor for Iraq: "Bush again remarked that it seems 'like an eternity' since December elections in Iraq but predicted that 'when this chapter of history will be written . . . it's going to be a comma -- the Iraqis voted, comma, and the United States of America understood that Iraq was a central front in the war on terror and helped this young democracy flourish.' Democrats have complained that the comment dismisses thousands of American deaths as 'a comma.'"

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush is turning up the volume on his charge that Democrats are soft on terror, but his campaign message is competing against a noisy Capitol Hill scandal tailing Republicans as the election nears."

Dotty Lynch writes in her column for CBS News: "The Ace of Base, as White House advisor Karl Rove was tagged recently, cannot be having a good week.

"Rove has been overseeing a base strategy to rev up the troops on terrorism, taxes cuts and social issues that seemed to be working. There are amendments against same sex marriage on the ballot in eight states - including Tennessee and Arizona, where there are very tight Senate races - and last week it looked like the Republican base was doing what it usually does: 'coming home.' . . .

"The Ace of Base better have a few more cards up his sleeve if he is to repeat his 2002 and 2004 successes this time around and motivate the Republican base. Will one of them be to support the chorus of conservatives calling on Hastert to quit?"

Quote Unquote

Here's a soundbite from Bush's breakfast fundraiser that could come back to haunt him: "The Democrats are good people; they've just got a different view of the world than I have. They don't see it the way I see it."

Here's the transcript of his afternoon fundraiser.

Said Bush: "We just have a fundamental difference, and it's a key difference for all Americans to look at and listen to. During the debate on the Senate floor, one senior Democrat, their ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, compared the brave Americans who question the terrorists to the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. I believe this exposes a dangerous mind-set on the part of Democrats in the United States Congress. You can't defend America if you can't tell the difference between brave CIA officers who protect their fellow citizens and brutal dictators who kill their citizens. (Applause.)

"I'm not making any of this up. (Laughter.)"

Ah, but of course, Bush was making it up. Here is what Senator Patrick Leahy actually said on September 28, and it's not really that funny.

"Imagine you are a law-abiding, lawful, permanent resident, and in your spare time you do charitable fundraising for international relief agencies to lend a helping hand in disasters. You send money abroad to those in need. You are selective in the charities you support, but you do not discriminate on the grounds of religion. Then one day there is a knock on your door. The Government thinks that the Muslim charity you sent money to may be funneling money to terrorists and thinks you may be involved. And perhaps an overzealous neighbor who saw a group of Muslims come to your House has reported 'suspicious behavior.' You are brought in for questioning.

"Initially, you are not very worried. After all, this is America. You are innocent, and you have faith in American justice. You know your rights, and you say: I would like to talk to a lawyer. But no lawyer comes. Once again, since you know your rights, you refuse to answer any further questions. Then the interrogators get angry. Then comes solitary confinement, then fierce dogs, then freezing cold that induces hypothermia, then waterboarding, then threats of being sent to a country where you know you will be tortured, then Guantanamo. And then nothing, for years, for decades, for the rest of your life.

"That may sound like an experience from some oppressive and authoritarian regime, something that may have happened under the Taliban, something that Saddam Hussein might have ordered or something out of Kafka. There is a reason why that does not and cannot happen in America. It is because we have a protection called habeas corpus, or if you do not like the Latin phrase by which it has been known throughout our history, call it access to the independent Federal courts to review the authority and the legality by which the Government has taken and is holding someone in custody. It is a fundamental protection. It is woven into the fabric of our Nation."

But not any more, of course.

Poll Watch

Roger Runnigen writes for Bloomberg: "A majority of U.S. adults say President George W. Bush has deliberately misled the public about progress in Iraq and opposition to the war matches an all- time high, according to a poll conducted for CNN. . . .

"In the Sept. 29-Oct. 2 poll, 58 percent said the administration misled the public about how the war is going. In addition, 57 percent said the conflict has made the U.S. less safe from terrorism, indicating that Bush's central argument in defense of his policy isn't gaining traction with voters. . . .

"Sixty-one percent said they oppose the war, up from 58 percent at the beginning of September. It matches the high mark for opposition hit in mid-August, following a spike of insurgent and sectarian violence in Iraq. Sixty-six percent said they disapprove of the way Bush is handling the situation in Iraq, up from 62 percent at the beginning of August. . . .

"The survey showed that Bush's job-approval rating declined to 39 percent from 42 percent a week earlier. Fifty-nine percent of those surveyed said they disapprove of Bush's handling his job as president."

John Harwood writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "In a hailstorm of unfavorable publicity over a House sex scandal and the war in Iraq, President Bush and his party have lost the political initiative at a critical point in the midterm election campaign, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. . . .

"The results show the signs of momentum from the president's early September political offensive calling voters' attention to the broader war on terrorism have halted."

Mark Murray writes for NBC News: "According to the NBC/Journal poll, 46 percent of registered voters believe the war in Iraq has hurt the United States in its ability to win the war on terrorism, compared with 32 percent who think it has helped. That's a significant change from September, when respondents were evenly split on whether Iraq is hurting or helping the war on terrorism. . . .

"Bush's job approval rating is at 39 percent among registered voters, a drop of three points since September, when his rating had increased to its highest level in months after he gave a series of speeches on national security leading into the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks."

Here are the poll results .

A few other results:

"Do you think that America's safety from terrorism depends upon our success in the war in Iraq, or does it NOT depend upon our success in the war in Iraq?": 57 percent say it does not depend on success in Iraq.

"Do you think Iraq is in a civil war, or do you think Iraq is NOT in a civil war?": 61 percent think it is in a civil war.

Worst Question Ever?

And here, from that same NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, is one of the most poorly phrased poll questions I have ever seen, and that's saying something.

"This week, Congress approved a new law to deal with how terrorism suspects are treated. This law prevents the United States from using torture to get information from terrorist suspects, allows these suspects to be held indefinitely without being charged of a crime, and prevents them from challenging their imprisonment in U.S. courts.

"Supporters say this is a good law because it protects suspects from being harmed and makes it more likely that U.S. troops will not be harmed if they are captured.

"Opponents of the law say that it is NOT a good law because it denies suspects the constitutional protections that other criminals receive, and compromises some of our most strongly held democratic ideals and our image around the world.

"In general, do you approve of this new law or do you disapprove of it?"

Even with that incredibly slanted question, more people disapproved (47 percent) than approved (43 percent).

But saying the law bans torture is really taking one side of the argument. The question also doesn't do justice to either side's publicly stated positions, equates terror suspects to 'other criminals' . . . . I could go on and on.

It's Official

Here's the ultimate proof that Bob Woodward's new book, "State of Denial," has definitively established, to the full satisfaction of Washington's cocktail-party circles, that Bush is not to be taken seriously on Iraq.

From this morning's Washington Post editorial : "[T]he reconstruction of Iraq could not have been simple, short or entirely peaceful.

"It nevertheless seems clear that U.S. chances for success would have been far better than they are today were it not for the overwhelming and shocking incompetence with which the administration has managed the war. From the failure to produce a coherent postwar plan to the disastrous performance by the occupation authority that was belatedly installed, the Bush team turned a difficult mission into a near-impossible one. President Bush and his most senior aides meanwhile stubbornly refused to listen to advisers who warned of the consequences of their policies. . . .

"Mistakes are inevitable in any war. But the common theme of these accounts is the triumph of ideology and arrogance over the pragmatism that is needed to recover from errors or adjust to changing conditions."

Woodward, the editorial says, draws "the portrait of a president who, with two years left in his term, seems unable to come to terms with the damaging and dangerous situation he has helped to create -- much less imagine a way out of it.

"We continue to agree with Mr. Bush that it would be wrong and dangerous for U.S. troops simply to withdraw. But it is also dangerous when leaders such as Mr. Bush, Vice President Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld continue to resist reality."

Denying Denial

At Monday's briefing , White House press secretary Tony Snow vehemently denied that Bush was in denial.

One reporter asked when the president would come out and deny it as well.

Snow's response: "Why does the President -- he's not going to come out and say, oh, by the way, I'm not in denial. How stupid is that, to have a President coming out and say, I'm sorry, I'm not beating my wife anymore?"

Indeed. It's up to loyal aides to do that.

Here's national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley in an USA Today op-ed this morning: "The president is fully engaged in leading this long war. He is well aware of both the good news and the bad. He reviews intelligence reports. He reads stories in the news media. He meets with families of the fallen."

Cheney Watch

Kirk Johnson writes in the New York Times: "A Colorado man who was arrested in June on harassment charges after he approached Vice President Dick Cheney to denounce the war in Iraq filed a federal lawsuit on Tuesday accusing a Secret Service agent of civil rights violations.

"In his suit, filed in Federal District Court in Denver, the man, Steven Howards, an environmental consultant who lives in Golden, Colo., says he stepped up to the vice president to speak his mind in a public place and found himself in handcuffs -- in violation, the suit says, of the Constitution's language about free speech and illegal search and seizure. . . .

"The suit joins two others -- in West Virginia and another in Denver -- charging that Secret Service agents or White House staff members violated the law in keeping people with opposing political views away from President Bush or Mr. Cheney."

Mike McPhee writes in the Denver Post: "While walking his 11-year-old son to a piano lesson, Howards saw Cheney shaking hands and posing for photos. He walked over and told Cheney, 'I think your policies in Iraq are reprehensible.' . . .

About 10 minutes later, Howards and his 8-year-old son were walking back through the square when [Secret Service Agent Virgil Reichle Jr.] allegedly walked up to Howards and asked him whether he had assaulted the vice president.

"'He came out of the shadows,' Howards said. 'He didn't accuse me but asked me if I had assaulted Cheney. I said no, he grabbed me and handcuffed me behind my back in front of my son. As he led me away, I told him I can't abandon my son. He said he'd call social services.'"

Scooter Libby Watch

There is an argument inexplicably afflicting many journalists in Washington regarding the outing of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent.

Part one of the argument is that because former Cheney chief of staff Scooter Libby turns out not to have been the very first person to divulge Plame's identity to a journalist, that somehow makes it less likely that he lied to cover up his role.

And part two is that because former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage was the first person to out Plame, that somehow disproves the amply-documented existence of a White House campaign to discredit administration critic Joe Wilson, in part by alleging falsely that his trip was a CIA junket set up by his wife.

John D. McKinnon of the Wall Street Journal is the latest to succumb.

He writes (subscription required): "Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has taken a public-relations hit from the news that the White House aide he indicted in the CIA-leak investigation wasn't the original source. In coming months, his court case against Lewis 'Scooter' Libby could suffer as well."

The Armitage revelation "could undercut the prosecutor's allegation of Mr. Libby's motive: That he lied to investigators to conceal a White House effort to leak Central Intelligence Agency operative Valerie Plame's identity. The notion of such a White House campaign is now easier to attack, since it turns out that the initial information came from then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who wasn't viewed as a close White House political ally."

To McKinnon's credit, he notes that he could also be wrong: "Still, Mr. Libby's lawyers may face an uphill fight in getting the new revelations before a jury, and in making them seem relevant to the case. Part of the defense team's challenge lies in the narrowness of the case against Mr. Libby. While it started as a leak investigation, the charges against Mr. Libby focus on his alleged false statements to investigators -- not the leaks."

And -- here's what could be the real story -- he writes: "Another possible result of the Armitage revelations might be to pave the way for a presidential pardon of Mr. Libby, if he is convicted, some lawyers said."

David Corn writes in the Nation about Bob Woodward's curious aversion to writing about the Plame case -- in which he himself ended up as a witness.

Corn relates a scene in Woodward's book where, in the summer of 2004, Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card. Jr. asks Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage if he wants to be CIA director, and Armitage declines.

Writes Corn: "What's missing from Woodward's account?" Well, that Armitage "knew he had leaked classified information that had led to the outing of a CIA officer."

And it's not like Woodward didn't know that.

"While writing the book, Woodward knew that Armitage had disclosed information to him about Valerie Wilson's CIA connection and . . . Woodward had suspected his source had been Novak's source."

Help My Mommy

The Associated Press reports: "The young son of a woman who has taken refuge in a Chicago church delivered a letter to the White House on Tuesday, hoping to enlist President Bush's help in keeping his mother from being deported to Mexico."

Here's the text of the handwritten letter, which 7-year-old Saul Arellano gave to a White House staffer outside the gates. It starts: "I, Saul Arellano, age 7, an American Citizen, do now formally request a meeting with you." Here's a picture of him at the White House gates.

Dowd Watch

Maureen Dowd writes in her New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "It's been clear for years that Dick Cheney and Rummy have been using the Bush presidency like an elaborate vanity production to replay Watergate and Vietnam, and to try to reverse things that bothered them during prior stints in the Nixon and Ford administrations. . . .

"The vice president has been diabolically successful in exploiting 9/11 to restore the Imperial Presidency to where it was before Congress and the public became such Nosy Parkers after Watergate. Mr. Cheney and Rummy have been less successful in their attempt to exorcise the post-Vietnam American skittishness about using force; their abysmal misadventure in Iraq has only reinforced it."

Cartoon Watch

Pat Oliphant on Woodward.

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