By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, November 9, 2006; 1:06 PM
What a difference this election has made. It was, in some ways, a whole new President Bush who appeared before the assembled press corps for a post-election news conference yesterday afternoon.
Meet the New Bush: Owning up to all sorts of unpleasant realities; Speaking well of Democrats; Vowing to act in a bipartisan fashion while acknowledging voter skepticism on that point and pledging to overcome it with deeds; Self-deprecating, rather than bullying.
And -- oh yes -- jettisoning Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the quintessential symbol of his administration's obstinate refusal to acknowledge that the current strategy in Iraq is failing.
So is this New Bush to be taken at his word?
It probably depends on whether you think the president's badly eroded credibility has been restored by his admission that he lied during the campaign -- or whether that just adds to the damage.
Because possibly the most startling aspect of a consequential press conference on a incredibly tumultuous day was Bush's repeated acknowledgment that things he said when he was campaigning were either no longer operative -- or were outright deceptions.
Most notably, it was just one week earlier that Bush had told wire-service reporters in an interview that he wanted Rumsfeld (and Vice President Cheney) to remain with him until the end of his presidency.
Here's how Bush tried to explain that yesterday:
"[Associated Press reporter Terence] Hunt asked me the question one week before the campaign, and basically it was, are you going to do something about Rumsfeld and the Vice President? And my answer was, they're going to stay on. And the reason why is I didn't want to inject a major decision about this war in the final days of a campaign. And so the only way to answer that question and to get you on to another question was to give you that answer."
It is quite telling that rather than duck the question -- which Bush is more than capable of doing -- Bush chose to lie instead.
But, amazingly enough, that wasn't the only example of Bush saying he didn't really mean what he was saying in the run-up to the election. Bush repeatedly -- and casually -- asserted that many of the major elements of his stump speech were, in fact, not to be taken seriously any longer.
Consider this passage in his introductory remarks:
"Amid this time of change, I have a message for those on the front lines. To our enemies: Do not be joyful. Do not confuse the workings of our democracy with a lack of will. Our nation is committed to bringing you to justice. Liberty and democracy are the source of America's strength, and liberty and democracy will lift up the hopes and desires of those you are trying to destroy.
"To the people of Iraq: Do not be fearful. As you take the difficult steps toward democracy and peace, America is going to stand with you. We know you want a better way of life, and now is the time to seize it.
"To our brave men and women in uniform: Don't be doubtful. America will always support you. Our nation is blessed to have men and women who volunteer to serve, and are willing to risk their own lives for the safety of our fellow citizens."
On the one hand, a noble and gracious and important assurance to the world of America's enduring values and determination. On other hand -- given the ferocious way that Campaigner Bush attacked Democrats as troop-hating terrorist-appeasing cowards -- an astonishing admission that he was just making that stuff up.
Said New Bush: "I truly believe that Congresswoman Pelosi and Harry Reid care just about as much -- they care about the security of this country, like I do. They see -- no leader in Washington is going to walk away from protecting the country. We have different views on how to do that, but their spirit is such that they want to protect America. That's what I believe."
Q. "Just a few days before this election, in Texas, you said that Democrats, no matter how they put it, their approach to Iraq comes down to terrorists win, America loses. What has changed today?"
Bush: "What's changed today is the election is over, and the Democrats won."
Here are some "before" and "after" Bush excerpts, from The Washington Post.
Another reporter noted that Bush had been equally reassuring about both Rumsfeld and Cheney in the pre-election interview. So, just checking:
Q. "Vice President Cheney, of course, has made -- takes many of the same positions that Secretary Rumsfeld did on the war. Does he still have your complete confidence?"
Bush's response: "Yes, he does."
Q. "Do you expect him to stay -- "
Bush: "The campaign is over. Yes, he does."
In other words: This time I'm telling you the truth. Honest.Deja Vu
Bush's comments yesterday -- and the aversion within the traditional media to actually calling what he did lying -- are reminiscent of an earlier incident that I chronicled in my June 1 column, Bush's Lie . As I wrote at the time: "[W]ith credibility a paramount issue for the White House these days, it's worth noting that when asked about Treasury Secretary John Snow's future last week, President Bush could easily have ducked the question, or told the truth -- but instead, he chose to lie about it."One Reporter's Take
James Carney writes in Time about Bush's press conference, and starts off with a positive spin on Bush's new candor:
"Give President Bush credit for being honest about his dishonesty."
But Carney then indicates that reporters soon had reason to believe it was a lie and that Rumsfeld's days were in fact numbered:
"After Bush declared his unbending support for Rumsfeld last week, it was telling how few aides and advisers to the President were willing to reaffirm what the President had said. When asked about Bush's Rumsfeld comments, one official didn't try to hide the pain the question caused him. He wouldn't talk about it. He and others made it clear that the President said 'what he had to say.' In other words, Bush's support for Rumsfeld would last only until the last polling station closed on Tuesday night."
Carney then attacks Bush for not having fired Rumsfeld earlier: "[T]he move that might actually have helped Bush and congressional Republicans when it mattered, before election day -- would have been to fire Rumsfeld last week, last month or last year. . . .
"[B]y waiting so long he let his pride get in the way of a much-needed change in Iraq policy. That mistake didn't just cost the Republicans seats in the Congress. It may have cost lives."
But here's my question: Don't those reporters who apparently knew it was a lie -- but didn't tell anybody -- bear some responsibility as well? What other lies do the reporters know about, but choose not to report?The 'Honest Lie'?
Walter Shapiro writes in Salon: "In the annals of presidential truth-telling (a thin volume), there is no obvious precedent for Bush's startling admission that he lied to reporters when he offered Don Rumsfeld a strong presidential vote of confidence just before the election.... Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution whose knowledge of the White House dates back to his days as a young Eisenhower speechwriter, called it 'the honesty of the honest lie. Bush was telling the truth when he said he lied.'Old Bush
There were still some sign of Old Bush yesterday, of course.
For instance, the president still seems to believe that he can send the press -- and the public -- into a state of collective amnesia, simply by changing his rhetoric.
Bush marveled that the voters hadn't endorsed his Iraq policies.
"Somehow it seeped in their conscious [sic] that my attitude was just simply 'stay the course,'" he complained.
See my October 27 column for video and excerpts from the more than 50 documented instances of Bush himself using that phrase to describe his approach -- back when he thought it made him look heroic.
Old Bush still thinks the voters just didn't get it: "I thought when it was all said and done, the American people would understand the importance of taxes and the importance of security."
It was New Bush who owned up to the public skepticism over his intention to act in a bipartisan manner -- New Bush who said action is more important than words.
"How do we convince Americans that we're able to do it?" he asked. "Do it. That's how you do it. You get something done. You actually sit down, work together, and I sign legislation that we all agree on. And my pledge today is I'll work hard to try to see if we can't get that done."
But it was Old Bush who insisted that his administration had already "made some progress on changing the tone" in Washington.
It was Old Bush who made it sound like Democrats are opposed to giving the government the tools it needs to protect the country. Democrats, of course, are in favor of the government having lots of tools -- just not certain ones they feel violate the Constitution, like torture and warrantless eavesdropping.
And it was Old Bush who diminished the clear message from the voters about Iraq. "I recognize that many Americans voted last night to register their displeasure with the lack of progress being made there," he said. "Yet I also believe most Americans and leaders here in Washington from both political parties understand we cannot accept defeat."
By contrast, most Americans and leaders seem to have concluded that there's no way to achieve victory in Iraq.The Coverage
Michael A. Fletcher and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post about the "apparently chastened and conciliatory Bush. . . .
"After six years of a presidency that has been about drawing lines against the Democrats and taunting them as weak, Bush presented a sharp about-face in an appearance in the White House East Room. . . .
"If anything, he seemed to greet defeat with an air of relief, as though the results had allowed him to abandon an all-is-well pretense that was increasingly at odds with his actual political circumstances.
"He said that he had begun to contemplate Rumsfeld's exit before the election -- even while he was publicly vowing that he would keep the defense secretary through the end of his term and insisting that polls forecasting Republican defeat were wrong. 'I thought we were going to do fine yesterday,' Bush insisted. 'Shows what I know.' But 'win or lose, Bob Gates was going to become the nominee.'"
And Fletcher and Baker expose yet another pre-election deception: "Although the White House had insisted repeatedly that it was not making contingency plans for a Democratic victory, an official said yesterday that Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten assigned deputies Karl Rove and Joel D. Kaplan, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, counselor Dan Bartlett, and other aides to begin 'quietly preparing in case this eventuality came,' the official said."
Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Jim Rutenberg write in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush, sounding alternately testy and conciliatory at a White House news conference, said he was 'obviously disappointed.' He portrayed the results as a cumulative 'thumping' of Republicans and conceded that as head of the party, he bore some responsibility. . . .
"Mr. Bush gathered his senior aides -- Mr. Rove; Joshua B. Bolten, the White House chief of staff; and Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president -- in the Oval Office before 7 a.m. Wednesday to assess the new power structure on Capitol Hill. . . .
"'We got thumped, it's time, let's go,' Mr. Bush said, according to one person who was present at the early morning meeting. 'Let's get them on the phone. Is it too early?'
"Aides to Mr. Bush said they wanted to make some fast moves to show they were nimble in the face of the new challenge and to seize at least some of the stage on a day that belonged to Democrats. At the same time, they said, they wanted to show they had heard the voters' message that it was time for a new direction in Iraq."
Here's the transcript of Bush's introduction of Robert M. Gates as his nominee to replace Rumsfeld.
Stolberg and Rutenberg offer up this tidbit: "Mr. Gates and the president met secretly on Sunday at Mr. Bush's ranch in Crawford, Tex.; to avoid the prying eyes of reporters and low-level White House officials who were camped out in nearby Waco, Mr. Gates met senior aides to Mr. Bush in the little town of McGregor and was then spirited into the ranch, aides said."
Rick Klein writes in the Boston Globe: "President Bush strode into the East Room of the White House yesterday a humbled man. The nation, he acknowledged, had serious concerns about his war and his leadership. The trademark Bush cockiness was gone as he offered Democrats a trophy for their congressional victories: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. . . .
"Some Democrats and outside observers saw the move as a sign that Bush was prepared to shift strategies from the rally-the-base approach of his first six years in office, to something closer to what he referenced when he described himself on the campaign trail in 2000 as a 'uniter, not a divider.'"
Adam Nagourney writes in the New York Times about yet another intentional deception, this one from Karl Rove: "Until the end, keeping in character and hewing to longstanding political strategy, Mr. Rove presented an optimistic front, telling anyone who would listen that the party would hold control of the House and the Senate. Now, his aides say they knew a month ago how much trouble they were in, at least in the House. Three weeks before the election, various efforts to crunch polling data and find a path toward success kept coming to the same best case result: the Democrats would take 17 seats."About Iraq
Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post that "a politically humbled President Bush now agrees with a resurgent Democratic Party on the need for a change of course in Iraq. What was not clear was whether the two sides are genuinely prepared to work together to produce one."
Thomas M. DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News: "By swiftly throwing his secretary of defense under the bus, President Bush did far more than change the subject from Tuesday's stinging electoral repudiation. He saved his weakened presidency from its greatest peril: irrelevancy. . . .
"In Richard Nixon's immortal phrase, Bush risked turning himself into a pitiful, helpless giant in the twilight of his tenure by digging in his cowboy boots. He would have vaporized his credibility at the outset of what promises to be a difficult two-year struggle against emboldened Democrats and the lame-duck calendar.
"Having waged - and lost - his last election, Bush was liberated to render inoperative three years of fervently defending his lightning-rod defense secretary. . . .
"In moments of quiet candor, Bush has vented to family members and other confidants that much of the advice he got from Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney about how Iraq would play out after the successful 2003 invasion was wrong. . . .
"Bush has been contemplating Rumsfeld's departure scenario since last summer, sources told The News. But pulling the trigger before the election would have infuriated his conservative base, costing him more seats. It also would have acknowledged his Iraq policy was deeply flawed, something Bush couldn't risk admitting until after the midterms."
Howard Fineman writes for Newsweek: "President George W. Bush's Iraq policy is now in the political equivalent of receivership -- a bankrupt project that is about to be placed in the hands of the worldly-wise pragmatists who surrounded the president's own father. Think of them as receivers in bankruptcy, looking for ways to salvage America's military and moral assets after a post-September 11 adventure that voters (and most of the rest of the world) concluded was a waste of blood and treasure. . . .
"The man who is about to be isolated in the White House is not the president, but Vice President Dick Cheney -- the last neocon left. Elbowing him aside now, as Donald Rumsfeld departs the scene, are people such as former secretary of State James A. Baker III and now -- as Rumsfeld's replacement at the Department of Defense -- former CIA director Robert M. Gates. They are loyal liegemen of Bush 41, and they bring to an analysis of Iraq decades worth of diplomatic and intelligence-community experience. . . .
"[T]he pragmatists have won the battle for the president's attention. Now let's see how the president responds, and what, together with the Democrats, they can do about Iraq."
John Dickerson writes in Slate: "Listening to Bush's press conference, it seemed like the administration's Iraq policy is up for grabs. Last week the president said he was standing by Secretary Rumsfeld, and now Rumsfeld is gone. Bush had said he was satisfied with the progress, and now he's not. All previous statements had been rendered inoperative by the election result. They were no more meaningful than election-year slogans.
"But is that right? Is the president now being as candid about Iraq as he is about Tuesday's election? We'll see if the president shows the same kind of post-election flexibility on the more complex questions related to Iraq. Is he willing to rethink his approach, or is he shedding Rumsfeld the way he dropped the 'stay the course language,' only to stay fixed on all other points of debate."On Bipartisanship
Bush and his aides often cite his history in Texas as an example of how Bush is capable of acting in a bipartisan manner.
But Ken Herman of Cox News Service, who also covered Bush while he was governor, writes that there's a big difference between Austin and Washington.
"At the Texas Capitol, Bush had little choice but to go bipartisan in working with a legislature controlled by Democrats. Many, however, were conservative Democrats not far from Bush on many issues.
"And it also helped that the Texas Legislature played by a far different set of traditions than Congress does."
Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush was left weakened and more isolated than at any time in his presidency by Tuesday's Democratic thumping of Republicans. He offered Democrats gestures of reconciliation -- and capitulated to demands for Donald H. Rumsfeld's removal -- but history suggests his last two years will be filled with more confrontation and challenges. . . .
"Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University who has studied Bush's political career, said he doubts the president has the patience and accommodation to work with Democrats. He predicted Americans would see gridlock, finger-pointing and a focus on the 2008 presidential race.
"'He has governed with what in the military they call a forward lean,' Jillson said. 'He'll have to cure himself of that. He'll actually have to sit down at the table and listen to people who he doesn't agree with.'"The Blame Game
Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post about all the different things Bush blamed for having lost Republicans the election: Karl Rove, corruption, Mark Foley, ballot rules, the Democratic organization, bad luck, Donald Rumsfeld, and the uncomprehending voter.Karl Rove: Former Genius
Wayne Slater writes in the Dallas Morning News: "For more than a decade, Karl Rove has sought to build an enduring Republican majority that would dominate politics for a generation.
"On Tuesday, the Texan's grand plan hit a wall. A Democratic tidal wave swept the House and the Senate and spoiled the hopes of the political wizard dubbed 'Bush's Brain' for his strategic brilliance and hardball style. . . .
"Mr. Bush took a good-natured jab at his political guru on Wednesday at a White House news conference while Mr. Rove looked on. Asked by a reporter who was ahead in a competition between the president and Mr. Rove over who could read more books, Mr. Bush said: 'I'm losing. I obviously was working harder on the campaign than he was.'"
Julian Borger writes in the Guardian: "Karl Rove, it appears, is mortal after all. . . .
"'Just because you lose one ballgame, you don't lose your genius,' the former House majority leader, Tom DeLay argued today. But it is clear Mr Rove has lost more than just an election. His plan to build a permanent majority by solidifying the Republican base and wooing social conservatives among Hispanics and black people, lies in ruins. Hispanics voted Democrat by a margin of almost three to one. And stirring up the culture war with contests over abortion, stem cell research and gay marriage, may still have helped win a few seats, but the constant polarising of American politics ultimately alienated centrists, whose importance Mr Rove had scorned in his focus on mobilising hardliners."
John Dickerson writes in Slate: "Today Republican strategists were not talking about the GOP realignment that Rove once predicted but, as one put it, 'a six to 10 year climb out from' Rove's tactics, which have emphasized the base over the political middle."Making Nice
Bill Lambrecht writes in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "The new White House approach was displayed in the experiences of Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., on Wednesday.
"At 6:40 a.m., Bush phoned Durbin in Illinois to congratulate him on Democratic Party successes. When the phone rang later in the morning, it was White House spokesman Tony Snow giving Durbin a heads-up on the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
"Soon, Durbin received still another call, this one from Robert Gates, Bush's choice to replace Rumsfeld.
"'This is a little different world than I'm used to,' Durbin said. 'Usually when the White House calls, it's Karl Rove beating up on me on some political matter.'"
Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "He mocked her as 'a secret admirer' of tax cuts and an opponent of measures crucial to keeping Americans safe, warning that 'terrorists win and America loses' if her Democrats prevailed on Election Day. She called him dangerous and in denial, an 'emperor with no clothes' who has misled the country about Iraq and presided over an economy that still fails many. Now, President Bush and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi are making nice. . . .
"It started with what both described as a gracious phone call early Wednesday and, at Bush's invitation, continues over lunch on Thursday.
"What's on the menu? 'For the president, it's probably a little bit of crow,' presidential counselor Dan Bartlett told CBS' 'Early Show' Thursday."Meet Robert Gates
Ann Scott Tyson and Walter Pincus write in The Washington Post: "Gates, 63, is a close associate of former president George H.W. Bush and was deputy national security adviser during the Persian Gulf War. He rose rapidly through CIA ranks as a Soviet expert with extensive White House experience to become director of central intelligence from 1991 to 1993. The only setback in his career came in 1987 when he withdrew as President Ronald Reagan's nominee to be CIA director because of his involvement in the Iran-contra affair."
Scott Shane writes in the New York Times: "In choosing Robert M. Gates as his next defense secretary, President Bush reached back to an earlier era in Republican foreign policy, one marked more by caution and pragmatism than that of the neoconservatives who have shaped the Bush administration's war in Iraq and confrontations with Iran and North Korea.
"Soft-spoken but tough-minded, Mr. Gates, 63, is in many ways the antithesis of Donald H. Rumsfeld, the brash leader he would replace. He has been privately critical of the administration's failure to execute its military and political plans for Iraq, and he has spent the last six months quietly debating new approaches to the war, as a member of the Iraq Study Group run by James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton."
Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball write for Newsweek: "By choosing Robert Gates as his new Defense secretary, President George W. Bush is once again turning to a trusted warhorse from his father's administration. But the Gates nomination also could remind the new Democratic Congress about controversies from the George H.W. Bush era as well.
"Gates was investigated during the late 1980s and 1990s by independent counsel Lawrence Walsh over whether Gates had told the truth about the Iran-contra affair, which occurred during his tenure as deputy to Ronald Reagan's CIA director, William Casey. . . .
"Gates was again nominated by President George H.W. Bush to be CIA chief in 1991, setting off an intense and spirited confirmation hearing. . . . Gates also was publicly accused by former CIA subordinates of slanting intelligence about the Soviet threat -- a criticism that evokes an eerie parallel to accusations hurled against the current Bush administration over its handling of pre-war intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and alleged ties to Al Qaeda."Opinion Watch
Maureen Dowd writes in her New York Times opinion column: "Poppy Bush and James Baker gave Sonny the presidency to play with and he broke it. So now they're taking it back."
E. J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "No longer will the national tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, be used to undermine the opposition party. It was only after he was forced to do so by an electoral defeat that President Bush called for genuine bipartisanship yesterday. Imagine what the world would look like if he had done that a year or two ago."
David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post opinion column with this fascinating if unsourced assertion:
"The White House had decided in the spring that it was time to make a change at the Pentagon, and officials were steeling themselves to break the news to Rumsfeld when the 'generals' revolt' erupted on newspaper op-ed pages, with former officers lining up to denounce their ex-boss. The White House decided it couldn't appear to bow to pressure and retreated."
Could Bush really be this petty about matters of life and death?The View From Abroad
Simon Jenkins writes in the Guardian: "Overnight six years of glib European identification of 'American' with rightwing fanaticism is over. The gun-toting, pre-Darwinian Bushite, the tomahawk-wielding, Halliburton-loving, Beltway neocon calling abortion murder and torturing Arabs as 'Islamofascists' has been laid to rest, and by a decision of the American people. Another McCarthy raised its head over the western horizon and has been slapped down. It is a good day for level-headed Americans."Rangel v. Cheney
Austin Fenner writes in the New York Daily News: "Harlem's newly powerful Rep. Charles Rangel wants to stick it to his White House nemesis Vice President Cheney - by taking over his spacious House office."Cartoon Humor
White House Briefing Reader Brent Zenobia of Portland, Ore., writes: "I found his most telling admission to be that all those nasty comments he made about the Democrats during the campaign were suddenly inoperable -- not that he regretted them, of course, but that he thought it was ridiculous anyone would take them seriously and of course he would say anything he had to to obtain the outcome he wanted. So much for Mr. Straightforward-Plain-Speaker, the public personality that was once the foundation of his approval rating ('someone we trust'). My religion teaches that lying is a particularly insidious sin, because the more you do it the more difficult it becomes to tell what's real and what's not. Bush evidently has lied so often that he no longer is able to see any ethical problem with it, and probably thinks everyone does it. Thus, if we're dumb enough to take him at his word, then that's our problem for being so gullible.
"How can people expect him to be a good faith partner for bipartisan cooperation when he himself admits that he will say anything to get his way, and never expects to be held accountable even if he's caught in the act of lying as he was yesterday with the pre-election Rumsfeld comment?"