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Desperate Times

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, October 31, 2006; 12:26 PM

With just a week left before mid-term elections that could effectively reduce him to a lame duck, President Bush is waging a fear-and-smear campaign against Democrats.

Bush's political rallies are carefully constructed artifacts. The White House meticulously controls access, manipulates imagery and selects locales where the Republican candidates are actually happy to see the deeply unpopular president.

But Bush and his aides know that his red-meat rhetoric will fire up his base. And they are appropriately confident that the press coverage will faithfully convey his message -- without too much context or fact-checking.

Here are the transcripts from Bush's rallies yesterday in Statesboro, Ga. , and Sugar Land, Tex .

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush said terrorists will win if Democrats win and impose their policies on Iraq, as he and Vice President Cheney escalated their rhetoric Monday in an effort to turn out Republican voters in next week's midterm elections. . . .

"Faced with potential GOP defeat in both chambers, Bush and Cheney aimed to avert that by convincing voters that they cannot risk giving the opposition party any power in Washington.

"'However they put it, the Democrat approach in Iraq comes down to this: The terrorists win and America loses,' Bush told a raucous crowd of about 5,000 GOP partisans packed in an arena at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, one of his stops Monday. 'That's what's at stake in this election. The Democrat goal is to get out of Iraq. The Republican goal is to win in Iraq.' . . .

"The increasingly combative tone from the White House signaled a coordinated GOP effort to use every channel to remind conservatives why they should turn out to vote, despite what many say is their disenchantment with the Mark Foley page scandal, anger over escalating federal spending and anxiety over the course of the Iraq war."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times that Bush is holding rallies in places where he is greeted "like a man whose public approval ratings are 73 percent, not 37 percent."

Yesterday's "back-to-back rallies created just the image White House strategists are seeking for the president in the waning days of the campaign: that of a confident leader, surrounded by adoring supporters.

"The intent is to fire up the party faithful and push them to the polls, but at times it seemed as if Mr. Bush was the one being fired up."

Todd J. Gillman writes in the Dallas Morning News: "If someone had bet a year ago that the president, eight days before Election Day, would devote half a day to rallying Republicans in a House district held for two decades by Tom DeLay, the best minds in both parties might have scoffed.

"But there was Mr. Bush on Monday afternoon at the Sugar Land Municipal Airport, prodding thousands of screaming partisans to vote for Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, the congressional candidate whose name the party couldn't even get on the ballot."

Gillman writes that "with his approval rating percentage in the mid-30s, options have dwindled for places he might make a positive difference. Sugar Land made the cut, and that suited Democrats just fine."

And who was allowed in? "Access to the rallies was tightly controlled. County GOP officials offered tickets to people who volunteered to make phone calls or do door-to-door campaigning this weekend."

As for the order of the day in Sugar Land, Gillman writes: "Mr. Bush offered a tutorial at Monday's rally -- and bungled it. 'If you want to send Shelley to the United States Congress,' he instructed, 'you're going to have to take a pencil into the ballot box.'

"In fact, pencils aren't an option. New electronic voting machines will be used throughout the district, and many Republicans fear she won't collect her full share of support because of the tedious and unfamiliar way voters would have to dial in her unwieldy name, letter by letter."

Martha Raddatz reports for ABC News: "In every one of these places, the president will deliver his new rallying cry: Just say no, to Democrats. . . .

"But there are plenty of Republican candidates who have said no to George Bush, feeling his presence, with the black cloud of Iraq hanging over him, can only hurt their chances."

Gay Marriage

Bush is also enthusiastically throwing a hot-button issue with social conservatives into the mix.

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush has for months cast the midterm elections as a choice about just two issues: taxes and terrorism. Now, with polls predicting bleak results for Republicans, he is trying to fire up his party by decrying gay marriage.

"'For decades, activist judges have tried to redefine America by court order,' Bush said Monday. 'Just this last week in New Jersey, another activist court issued a ruling that raises doubt about the institution of marriage. We believe marriage is a union between a man and a woman, and should be defended.'

"The line earned Bush by far his most sustained applause at a rally of 5,000 people aimed at boosting former GOP Rep. Max Burns' effort to unseat a Democratic incumbent. In this conservative rural corner of eastern Georgia, even children jumped to their feet alongside their parents to cheer and clap for nearly 30 seconds -- a near-eternity in political speechmaking."

Bush's New Trick

Rather than accurately describe the Democrats' positions on key issues, the president puts forth a ludicrous mockery of their position -- then gets his audience to participate in jeering at it. But the media doesn't call him on it.

For instance, Bush's now-stock call-and-response exercise intentionally obscures the actual debate over warrantless surveillance program -- which is that Democrats want the executive branch to get court permission for wiretaps, to make sure they are being conducted for legitimate reasons.

But here's Bush:

"When it comes to listening in on the terrorists, what's the Democrats' answer?

"AUDIENCE: Just say no!"

Bush and Hannity

Thomas M. DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News: "Sounding like a politician who fears the worst, President Bush declared yesterday he doesn't plan to be a lame duck no matter how next week's elections turn out.

"Bush said he understands that the day after the elections 'a lot of people [will be] trying to get me to become a political consultant.

"'What I want people to know in Congress, and more particularly at home and around the world, is that I'm going to be President up until the very last day, and I've got a lot to do,' he asserted.

"'I promise you I'm going to sprint to the finish,' he told Sean Hannity."

Bush's interview with Hannity is worth watching simply as a spectacle of sycophancy.

Here's a sample question:

"HANNITY: Let's talk about the nature of fighting the war here. We've got political disagreements. Nancy Pelosi, the woman who'd love to be speaker, she's against the NSA surveillance program.

"BUSH: Yes.

"HANNITY: She's been against the Patriot Act, voted against the creation of the Homeland Security Department, has cut intelligence, voted against the border fence. Is it then fair to say she is weak on national security issues?"

Here's a partial transcript ; and video parts one , two , and three .

Here's one good question Hannity asked:

"HANNITY: How important is getting Osama bin Laden in the war on terror?

"BUSH: Well, it's important, and that's why we're after him every single day. But so is getting Zawahiri important, and so is getting the number-three guy, whoever he is when they pop up. You know, we've got this guy, Zarqawi. . . .

"The American people would love to see Osama bin Laden brought to justice, and so would I. He's in some remote region of the world. He's hiding. And if we find him -- when we find him -- not if -- he'll be found -- when we find him, he'll be brought to justice."

Cheney Interviews

Fox News reports: "Terrorist groups in Iraq are stepping up their efforts to spark more deadly sectarian violence as a way of influencing how Americans will vote on Nov. 7, Vice President Dick Cheney alleged Monday in a Fox News interview in which he warned Americans not to fall for suggestions the War on Terror is losing ground in Iraq.

"'Whether it's Al Qaeda or the other elements that are active in Iraq, they are betting on the proposition they can break the will of the American people. They think we won't have the stomach for the fight long-term,' Cheney told Fox News' Neil Cavuto."

Here's the transcript and video of the Cavuto interview.

Cheney was asked about his wife's pugnacious appearance on CNN last week.

"I thought it was great. We refer to it around the house as the 'slapdown,'" he said.

Waterboarding Watch

I wrote at length about Cheney's apparent endorsement of waterboarding in yesterday's column .

Cheney has denied he was talking about waterboarding when he agreed with a radio interviewer that dunking a suspected terrorist in water is a "no-brainer" if it can save lives. But he has yet to say what, then, he meant by a "dunk in the water."

Cavuto delicately raised the issue yesterday, to no avail.

" Q I'd be remiss if I didn't mention a non-economic issue with you, sir, and it concerns torture. And some argue that your words were taken out of context when -- of whether you approved of water boarding, whether you approved of other various torture techniques. Could I get unequivocally from you, your view on water boarding, whether that's appropriate torture?

" THE VICE PRESIDENT: My view is I never talk about specific methods. That's all classified. We don't discuss it. We don't talk about it. We don't torture, though. It's very important to make that point. We are parties to international treaties, and any activity the U.S. government is involved in, in this area is consistent with those treaties and those obligations and with the law of the land."

So we don't torture -- but what we mean by torture is classified.

How can that possibly be acceptable to the American people?

Here are some questions that should be asked of every White House official, until they answer:

* How do you define torture?

* Name some interrogation techniques that are clearly illegal. Name some that you consider legal.

* Do you think it's acceptable, for either domestic or international consumption, not to define what you mean by torture?

* What sorts of interrogation techniques are and are not acceptable for use on our troops or intelligence agents?

Cheney also spoke with CNBC's Larry Kudlow .

Shredding With Dick

The Wonkette blog snags a great photo: "Spotted on 10/19, by an eagle-eyed Wonkette reader: The Mid-Atlantic Shredding Services truck making its way up to the Cheney compound at the Naval Observatory."

Blogger Atrios thinks it's evidence that Cheney is "planning for a Dem takeover."

Poll Watch

CNN reports: "President Bush's popularity has not been buoyed by a series of public events in recent days, a new CNN poll has found. . . .

"The poll, conducted by Opinion Research Corp., found that 37 percent of Americans approve of how Bush is handling his job as president; 58 percent disapprove.

"The president's approval dropped slightly from the poll taken a week earlier, from 39 percent down to 37 percent, but the change was within the poll's sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points."

Marcus Mabry wrote for Newsweek over the weekend: "President Bush's approval rating continues a slow but steady climb -- from an all-time Newsweek-poll low of 33 percent three weeks ago to 37 percent today."

The poll also suggests that Bush's optimistic rhetoric about Iraq is having an effect -- on Republicans: "A solid majority still believes the United States is losing ground, but their ranks have decreased from 65 percent to 60 percent. The biggest change is among Republicans. Last week, 50 percent of Republicans said America was making progress in Iraq (35 percent said we were losing ground). This week 65 percent of Republicans say we're making progress and only 22 percent say we're losing ground."

Smaller Markets

Bush is doing lots of short interviews with smaller media players these days. He did three on Friday, and is doing several more today.

Here's a video report from Belo's Jim Fry on his Bush interview.

Fry asked Bush about several recent controversial campaign commercials, including the Republican National Committee ad against Tennessee Senate candidate Harold Ford.

"It's been cited as having racial overtones," Fry said, prompting a massive facial tic from Bush. (See the raw footage .) "Should the party be running this sort of ad?"

Bush: "Haven't seen the ad, Jim. You know, I'm sure there's a lot of ads -- you could pull out any ad you wanted to and ask me about it. "

Bush seemed more familiar with the controversy over right-wing talk-show host Rush Limbaugh's mocking of actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's Disease. But the president didn't seem terribly pleased to be asked about it.

"Well, I, I, I, I, I recognize that Rush apologized," Bush said, before launching into a discussion of stem cell research.

"He apologized, and I think we all ought to accept his apology."

Fry: "When you came to this town, you said you wanted to change its tone. Yet your own party is spending about 90 percent of its money on negative ads. Do you fear you'll leave not having accomplished that goal?"

Bush: "I have been disappointed by the tone in Washington since just about the first minute I got here. As you know, in Austin I was able to work with Democrats and Republicans to get a lot done. . . .

"We started off pretty good. We got the No Child Left Behind act passed. And then partisanship took over -- from both parties. Both parties have -- are equally guilty of creating a, you know, a divided city. And I wish it wasn't that way, but it is."

That may quite possibly have been the first time that Bush has laid any of the blame for Washington's polarization on Republicans. A new tack, or a slip of the tongue? Who knows?

Here's Hearst television reporter Laurie Kinney 's report on her interview. Here's the raw footage .

Like Fry, she had tough questions for Bush -- but mostly got stale talking points in return.

Kinney asked what measures Bush could point to that would support his conclusion that we're winning in Iraq. He didn't respond directly.

Kinney quoted General George Casey describing the situation in Iraq as primarily a struggle for political and economic power among Iraqis. "What's the different between what the general is describing and civil war?" Kinney asked.

"First of all, we don't believe there is a civil war," Bush said. "Secondly, we want to work to make sure there isn't a civil war. There's no question there's sectarian violence, but there is a unity government -- in other words there's no competing government."

Garry Wills on Bush and Faith

Historian and critic Garry Wills writes in the New York Review of Books: "Bush promised his evangelical followers faith-based social services, which he called 'compassionate conservatism.' He went beyond that to give them a faith-based war, faith-based law enforcement, faith-based education, faith-based medicine, and faith-based science. He could deliver on his promises because he stocked the agencies handling all these problems, in large degree, with born-again Christians of his own variety."

And, Wills writes: "There is a particular danger with a war that God commands. What if God should lose? That is unthinkable to the evangelicals. They cannot accept the idea of second-guessing God, and he was the one who led them into war. Thus, in 2006, when two thirds of the American people told pollsters that the war in Iraq was a mistake, the third of those still standing behind it were mainly evangelicals (who make up about one third of the population). It was a faith-based certitude."

Exit Strategies

Julian E. Barnes and Doyle McManus write in the Los Angeles Times: "Growing numbers of American military officers have begun to privately question a key tenet of U.S. strategy in Iraq -- that setting a hard deadline for troop reductions would strengthen the insurgency and undermine efforts to create a stable state.

"The Iraqi government's refusal to take certain measures to reduce sectarian tensions between Sunni Arabs and the nation's Shiite Muslim majority has led these officers to conclude that Iraqis will not make difficult decisions unless they are pushed."

General William E. Odom writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "The United States upset the regional balance in the Middle East when it invaded Iraq. Restoring it requires bold initiatives, but 'cutting and running' must precede them all. Only a complete withdrawal of all U.S. troops -- within six months and with no preconditions -- can break the paralysis that now enfeebles our diplomacy. And the greatest obstacles to cutting and running are the psychological inhibitions of our leaders and the public.

"Our leaders do not act because their reputations are at stake. The public does not force them to act because it is blinded by the president's conjured set of illusions: that we are reducing terrorism by fighting in Iraq; creating democracy there; preventing the spread of nuclear weapons; making Israel more secure; not allowing our fallen soldiers to have died in vain; and others.

"But reality can no longer be avoided."

Scooter Libby Watch

Matt Apuzzo writes for the Associated Press: "Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald told a federal judge Monday that he shouldn't have to explain during the upcoming trial of a former White House aide why nobody was charged with leaking the identity of a CIA operative.

"Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, faces trial for obstruction and perjury in January and is the only person charged in the case. His supporters have accused Fitzgerald of singling out Libby while not charging the source of the leak, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

"In court documents, Fitzgerald said he shouldn't have to address that issue at Libby's trial. While never addressing Armitage by name, Fitzgerald said it would be irrelevant to discuss other officials.

"'If Mr. X was investigated for leaking classified information, the government's decision not to charge Mr. X should have nothing to do with the jury's role as the finder of fact in Libby's case,' Fitzgerald wrote."

Denver Three Watch

Ann Imse writes in the Rocky Mountain News: "Two people ejected from a speech by President Bush in Denver in 2005, allegedly because of an anti-war bumper sticker on a car they drove to the event, won a court order Monday they hope will uncover who gave the order to kick them out.

"Leslie Weise and Alex Young, two of the three people removed from the taxpayer-funded event, are suing two Denver men for actually ousting them. But they believe a White House official gave the order. . . .

"On Monday, U.S. District Judge Wiley Daniel rejected a motion to dismiss the case by defendants Michael Casper and Jay Klinkerman, who worked as volunteers at the event.

"That decision allows attorneys for Weise and Young to question the two Denver men under oath."

Here's the court order .

Pool Follies

Julie Mason of the Houston Chronicle writes in her pool report from Air Force One, on the way back from Texas back to Washington yesterday: "En route, Karl Rove appeared in the press cabin, brandishing a round tin filled with chocolate-covered pecans. Those who daintily took just one were admonished by the bearer to 'take more, take more.' He made a quick round of the cabin and paused on his way back out to declare, 'Sweets for my sweets.'"

A Former Speechwriter Writes

Paul Burgess , a former White House speechwriter, writes an opinion piece in the Fredericksburg (Va.) Free Lance-Star headlined: "Friends, neighbors, and countrymen of the Left: I hate your lying guts."

Cartoon Watch

Jeff Danziger on Cheney's logic and Bush's Iraq strategy .

Mike Luckovich on a Cheney Halloween .

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