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Bush's Optimists Club

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, August 3, 2007; 12:14 PM

Facing a public that has lost confidence in him and his war in Iraq, President Bush has embarked on a personal quest to convey an important message. But it's a message that is remarkably free of substance -- and that may lead even more people to conclude that he's lost touch with reality.

Bush's message, in a nutshell: I'm a sunny guy.

The latest group ushered into the Oval Office to experience Bush's optimism first-hand -- and off the record -- consisted of 10 fawning right-wing talk-show hosts who visited the White House on Wednesday.

I mentioned this in yesterday's column, quoting two of the invitees: Hugh Hewitt and Glenn Beck. Beck told his CNN viewers: "Above all, I can tell you that the president has incredible passion and resolve. I have not seen this George W. Bush since he had a fire truck behind him and a bull horn in his hand. He was so clear-minded; he was focused. This is not the guy you see on television."

I've since found write-ups from a few more of the participants. Michael Medved writes: "I can officially reveal that he seemed energized, optimistic, focused, articulate, comfortable and totally in command. Anyone who doubts that this chief executive enjoys the Presidency and its demands has never seen him in the White House. As the President unequivocally declared (and as I think I'm permitted to quote): 'I like the atmosphere in the Oval Office.'"

Scott Hennen's detailed description of the visit was the most revealing.

How did Bush set the tone for his chat? By telling the story of the rug.

"He started with an explanation of why he wanted us in the Oval Office," Hennen writes. "He said the room was the place where he made the vast majority of his decisions as President. He gave us a sense of the magnitude of those decisions and what information he learns on a daily basis there. He shared a story of one of the first decisions he was asked to make in the Oval Office. What style of rug would he want? He chuckled and explained [that he asked] Laura -- as he didn't do rugs. He used that as a metaphor to explain how he manages the awesome responsibility he has. His role is to focus on the big decisions utilizing his core convictions that the United States is a force for good in the World. That we must lead and take on evil . . . wherever it is, so as to assure as many people as possible will enjoy the God given inalienable right to freedom. He spoke very eloquently about Good vs. Evil and even brought the story back to the rug, which was designed with only this Presidential input -- to let it reflect light so as to influence his decision making. Light as in good vs. darkness as in evil."

(As Peter Baker wrote in The Washington Post last March: "Bush seems fixated on his rug. . . . 'He loves his rug,' said Nicolle Wallace, the [then-]White House communications director. 'I've heard him describe it countless times. . . . When you're giving a tour of the Oval Office, you're trying to point to things that emphasize what you're trying to do' Wallace said. 'For him, the optimism is very symbolic of what he wants his presidency to be about.'" Here's Bush talking about the rug on the White House Web site.)

Hennen continues: "If every American could have the opportunity I did today -- to sit with the President of the United States and hear him firsthand describe his resolve to win in Iraq and around the world, we would have a very different situation with public opinion. . . .

"His descriptions of the enemy and their brutal, cold-blooded-killer tactics were enough to make a graying group of radio talk how hosts want to enlist and serve this country in uniform."

Hennen describes Bush sharing information he doesn't share with just ordinary people. "The President was passionate about our military successes -- he walked us through example after example of real stats and facts that are benchmarks. Many of us asked why he does not share those with the public. He explained the military's reluctance to be seen as taking out the enemy for the benefit of a statistic used to explain our success."

(In other words: Bush was talking about body counts, a notoriously suspect way of measuring success in an armed conflict -- particularly one where it can be hard to tell enemies from civilians.)

Writes Hennen: "The President was clearly enjoying the recent shift among some in the 'critic' category, like the piece in the NY Times this week by Michael O'Hanlon [and Kenneth Pollack]."

(See Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald on how O'Hanlon and Pollack were in fact longtime cheerleaders for the war and the surge.)

Hennen concludes: "I wish I could quote him exactly or play a recording of the conversation. Because the George W. Bush I met with in the Oval Office today is a very different person than the man you see in our media. He is a great President. We are very blessed that he is our Commander in Chief. History will judge him well."

Another attendee, Neal Boortz, writes: "Anybody who thinks that this president is, somehow, ignorant or stupid is either sadly misinformed or delusional. Let the left think this man is unintelligent at their peril."

Then, he adds: "Democrats are showing us with their every word and grimace that what is good news for our country, what is good news for the war against Islamic terror, what is god news for our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what is good news for the cause of peace -- real peace -- and stability in the Middle East is bad news, really bad news, for Democrats. Many of these people with that "D" after their names would gladly sacrifice any semblance of victory in Iraq and against the scourge of Islamic fascism if it would mean maintaining and strengthening their hold on power in Washington."

Talkers.com has a group photo of the 10 hosts who met with Bush on Wednesday. Bush was joined by White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, political guru Karl Rove, Counselor Ed Gillispie and Press Secretary Tony Snow -- among others.

And Hennen notes: "We learned that Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity would follow us in a separate meeting with the President. They have earned that privilege with their incredible support for our military efforts in the global war on terror."

Some of the participants complained of getting criticized for participating in the interview.

Writes Boortz: "Now -- just so you know. When a reporter for the Washington Post, CNN or any of the big three broadcast networks is invited to spend some time in an off-the-record conversation with the president, that's all hunky dory. But when a conservative (I'm now sure they know I'm a libertarian) talk show host is invited to discuss issues with the president, we're simply there to get our talking points and marching orders."

Medved writes: "Meanwhile, some callers to my radio show sharply questioned the propriety of the White House meeting -- suggesting that it represented some illegitimate effort to manipulate the press. In less than a year, I've received three Presidential invitations and flown to Washington each time for the chance to see Mr. Bush. Can I claim to maintain my objectivity when the chief executive himself has worked to build this sort of comfortable and friendly relationship?

"And when, precisely, did I ever claim objectivity? . . .

"Since the purpose of this morning's meeting involved the President's desire to put out a clear, strong message about the War on Terror, it makes all the sense in the world that he would count on broadcasters who support the message he means to send.

"As it happens, I'm proud -- not embarrassed in any way -- to try (in any small way) to help our embattled chief executive in this essential endeavor, which will help to determine the sort of security and prosperity that we pass on to our children."

The Previous Pitch

It was only a few weeks ago that Bush held a similar meeting with a group of conservative columnists.

William Kristol, David Brooks, Fred Barnes, Michael Barone and Kate O'Beirne and Rich Lowry were among those writing mash notes after that meeting.

Brooks, for instance, wrote in his New York Times column (subscription required): "I left the 110-minute session thinking that far from being worn down by the past few years, Bush seems empowered. His self-confidence is the most remarkable feature of his presidency."

But is Bush's ostensible optimism going to win over any converts?

Liberal columnist Eugene Robinson wrote in The Washington Post last week: "One hopes the leader of the free world hasn't really, truly lost touch with objective reality. But one does have to wonder. . . .

"Bush was 'not at all weary or anguished' and in fact was 'very energized,' wrote Michael Barone of U.S. News and World Report. He was 'as confident and upbeat as ever,' observed Rich Lowry of National Review. 'Far from being beleaguered, Bush was assertive and good-humored,' according to David Brooks of the New York Times. . . .

"It's almost as if Bush were trying to apply the principles of cognitive therapy, the system psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck developed in the 1960s. Beck found that getting patients to banish negative thoughts and develop patterns of positive thinking was helpful in pulling them out of depression. However, Beck was trying to get the patients to see themselves and the world realistically, whereas Bush has left realism far behind."

And even conservative columnist Peggy Noonan wrote in her Wall Street Journal column, right after Bush's July 12 news conference: "As I watched the news conference, it occurred to me that one of the things that might leave people feeling somewhat disoriented is the president's seemingly effortless high spirits. He's in a good mood. There was the usual teasing, the partly aggressive, partly joshing humor, the certitude. He doesn't seem to be suffering, which is jarring. Presidents in great enterprises that are going badly suffer: Lincoln, LBJ with his head in his hands. Why doesn't Mr. Bush? Every major domestic initiative of his second term has been ill thought through and ended in failure. His Iraq leadership has failed. His standing is lower than any previous president's since polling began. . . .

"Is it defiance? Denial? Is it that he's right and you're wrong, which is your problem? Is he faking a certain steely good cheer to show his foes from Washington to Baghdad that the American president is neither beaten nor bowed? Fair enough: Presidents can't sit around and moan. But it doesn't look like an act. People would feel better to know his lack of success sometimes gets to him. It gets to them."

Reality Check: Iraq

See anything here to be optimistic about?

Sudarsan Raghavan writes in The Washington Post: "As the U.S. military attempts to pacify Iraq so its leaders can pursue political reconciliation, Iraqi and Western observers say Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his inner circle appear increasingly unable to pull the government out of its paralysis.

"At times consumed by conspiracy theories, Maliki and his Dawa party elite operate much as they did when they plotted to overthrow Saddam Hussein -- covertly and concerned more about their community's survival than with building consensus among Iraq's warring groups, say Iraqi politicians and analysts and Western diplomats.

"In recent weeks, those suspicions have deepened as U.S. military commanders have begun to work with Sunni insurgents, longtime foes of the Shiite-led government, who have agreed to battle the group al-Qaeda in Iraq. . . .

"In the fifth year of war, Iraq's politicians remain more loyal to their sect, clan, tribe and region than they are to the nation. A culture of fear, inherited from Hussein's reign, remains entrenched."

David S. Cloud writes in the New York Times: "Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday that he was discouraged by the resignation of the Sunnis from Iraq's cabinet and that the Bush administration might have misjudged the difficulty of achieving reconciliation between Iraq's sectarian factions.

"In one of his bluntest assessments of the progress of the administration's Iraq strategy, Mr. Gates said, 'I think the developments on the political side are somewhat discouraging at the national level.' . . .

"Mr. Gates gave little indication whether he was leaning toward recommending a shift in the administration's strategy next month, when officials are planning to review whether progress has been achieved by sending nearly 30,000 additional American troops to Iraq.

"He acknowledged that when the Bush administration decided to send the additional troops, 'We probably all underestimated the depth of the mistrust and how difficult it would be for these guys to come together on legislation, which, let's face it, is not some kind of secondary issue.'"

Blogger Ioz writes: "Can it be true that the United States is engaged in a clandestine effort, using its own special operations troops, to support Turkish incursions into Iraqi territory to combat the PKK and other 'Kurdish guerillas'? Sure!"

After all, he writes: "The United States is supporting: the Shia government, which funnels money and arms to Shia militias, death squads, and insurgent/terrorist groups; the Sunni opposition, which funnels money and arms to the Sunni insurgency; the Sunni insurgency directly, so that they will combat the Shia militias as well as al-Qaeda in Iraq, a group of Sunni terrorists supposedly supported by Shia Iran; the Saudis, who fund Sunni insurgents as well--almost surely--as Sunni terrorist groups; the Iraqi Kurds, who have their sights set on an independent nation that includes a de-Arabized Kirkuk; and the Turks, who have their sights set on never, ever seeing an independent Kurdish entity anywhere, anyhow, anyway, ever, amen."

Meanwhile, on the Hill

Paul Kane writes in The Washington Post: "A young White House political aide was grilled inconclusively by the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday about the firings of U.S. attorneys after Karl Rove, the president's senior political adviser, failed to show up at the committee's hearing in response to a subpoena.

"J. Scott Jennings, 29, the deputy political director for the White House, refused to address the firings but tried to explain how thousands -- or possibly millions -- of White House e-mails to and from the political office were transmitted only through communications accounts controlled by the Republican National Committee. . . .

"Jennings offered a stripped-down explanation: He wanted a White House-supplied BlackBerry and was told no, and so he got one from the RNC, as many other political affairs aides had done."

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "'Senator, I'm doing the best I can,' said Jennings. He said he was on orders from President Bush to invoke executive privilege and answer no questions about the dismissals. 'Believe me, this is likely as frustrating for me as it is for you.'

"'No, trust me, it is not,' said Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.)."

Here's how Jennings explained how his RNC e-mail address became his default address for both official and political business -- in stark contrast to explicit White House policy that doing so is a violation of the Presidential Records Act.

"I came to the White House, as you said, in 2005. And when I came I was given two e-mail accounts, as you know, and devices such as a BlackBerry and a laptop that were connected to my RNC e-mail account and only one device -- a computer desktop -- connected to my official account.

"So over the course of time, it became efficient and crucial for me to be able to respond to communications in a 24/7 manner.

"LEAHY: But here we're talking about official business that's regarding Tim Griffin, later installed by the attorney general as interim U.S. attorney, replacing another U.S. attorney.

"Why would you use a Republican National Committee account rather than your official account? Wouldn't this be official business?

"JENNINGS: Senator, I understand your question.

"I would also like to say that it's my understanding that out of an abundance of caution and to avoid possible Hatch Act violations, that's why we were issued these accounts. And over the course of time...

"LEAHY: Do you feel this was a Hatch Act violation, setting up this kind of a meeting?

"JENNINGS: No, sir.

"LEAHY: Then why'd you use it?

"JENNINGS: As I said, Senator . . . [o]ver the course of time, the use of the Republican National Committee e-mail account became a matter of convenience and efficiency because I had access to it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, unlike my other e-mail account. . . . People knew they could reach me at any time, not just when I happened to be sitting at my desk, which some days is infrequent."

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) had this to say to Jennings: "What I struggle with every time Karl Rove feeds another one of these young staffers into the Judiciary Committee is the obvious question: Where is Karl Rove? Why is he hiding? Why does he throw a young staffer like you into the line of fire while he hides behind the White House curtains?"

And Leahy, fed up with Jennings's constant assertion of "executive privilege" even when being asked to acknowledge facts already in the public domain, retorted: "It's interesting. Even if we do get documents, we're told you can't talk about the documents. This is -- did you ever read 'Catch-22' when you were younger?


"JENNINGS: I'm familiar with the phrase.

"LEAHY: Did you read the book?

"JENNINGS: I did not. I have not.

"LEAHY: You might want to go back and read it. It's very interesting.


"It seems to be part of your training manual."

FISA Watch

Charlie Savage writes in the Boston Globe: "Congress is rushing to expand the military's authority to wiretap phone calls and e-mails on US soil. The Bush administration, warning that terrorists may soon attack again, is pressuring lawmakers to approve the legislation before they leave town this weekend for their annual August vacations.

"The proposal, the details of which remain murky, had received little public discussion before this week and has not undergone the normal committee review process. It would apparently give the National Security Agency legal approval to resume one type of the warrantless wiretapping that President Bush authorized after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. . . .

"One proposed change would make clear that the NSA does not need a warrant to intercept foreign soil-to-foreign soil communications, even if it does so by tapping into a device on US soil." But that change is nevertheless controversial because there is a debate over "whether the agency needs a warrant to spy on an overseas target who communicates with people whose location is unknown -- and sometimes turn out to be Americans. . . .

"Analysts said the Bush administration apparently wants Congress to change the law to allow the NSA to eavesdrop on such communications without warrants, as long as its primary target is overseas. One part of the negotiations between the White House and Congress concerns who should audit the NSA to make sure it does not abuse that authority. The Bush administration has proposed that Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales oversee the program, but Democrats want to give such authority to the national security court."

Director of national intelligence Mike McConnell released a statement late yesterday, saying: "The bill must not require court approval before urgently needed intelligence collection can begin against a foreign target located overseas. The delays of a court process that requires judicial determinations in advance to gather vital intelligence from foreign targets overseas can in some cases prevent the rapid gathering of intelligence necessary to provide warning of threats to the country. . . .

"However, to acknowledge the interests of all, I could agree to a procedure that provides for court review -- after needed collection has begun -- of our procedures for gathering foreign intelligence through classified methods directed at foreigners located overseas. While I would strongly prefer not to engage in such a process, I am prepared to take these additional steps to keep the confidence of Members of Congress and the American people that our processes have been subject to court review and approval."

FISA Editorial Watch

The government should not have to get individualized warrants for purely foreign communications that move through American data networks, the New York Times writes.

But: "Instead of asking Congress to address this anachronism, as it should, the White House sought to use it to destroy the 1978 spying law. It proposed giving the attorney general carte blanche to order eavesdropping on any international telephone calls or e-mail messages if he decided on his own that there was a 'reasonable belief' that the target of the surveillance was outside the United States. The attorney general's decision would not be subject to court approval or any supervision.

"The White House, of course, insisted that Congress must do this right away, before the August recess that begins on Monday -- the same false urgency it used to manipulate Congress into passing the Patriot Act without reading it and approving the appalling Military Commissions Act of 2006. . . .

"The administration and its Republican supporters in Congress argue that American intelligence is blinded by FISA and have seized on neatly timed warnings of heightened terrorist activity to scare everyone. It is vital for Americans, especially lawmakers, to resist that argument. It is pure propaganda.

"This is not, and has never been, a debate over whether the United States should conduct effective surveillance of terrorists and their supporters. It is over whether we are a nation ruled by law, or the whims of men in power. Mr. Bush faced that choice and made the wrong one. Congress must not follow him off the cliff."

USA Today writes that "at a time when even skeptical Democrats acknowledge that the eavesdropping law needs to be updated to reflect changing technology, the administration has all the credibility of a teenager who has squandered his allowance and is demanding more money.

"Further weakening its case, the White House had the poor judgment to propose that broad authority for surveillance and gathering communication records be given to, yes, the attorney general. . . .

"Congressional Democrats have countered the latest White House demands with more modest changes that would expire in six months. They should not let fear of being demonized as soft on terrorism scare them into granting an unwise expansion of executive power."

The Wall Street Journal writes: "Democrats so loathe the Bush Administration that they are willing to throw away one of our best weapons in the war against al Qaeda. It's long past time the President stopped pleading with Congress, and started explaining this outrage to the American people."

Torture Watch

Spencer Ackerman of TPM Muckraker has the text of a letter from Sen. Richard Durbin to Gonzales, in which Durbin asks he attorney general to clear up whether he thinks certain interrogation techniques used by U.S. officials in the past would be tolerated if used by foreign governments on American prisoners.

During a July 24 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Durbin writes: "I identified five interrogation techniques: 1) painful stress positions, 2) threatening detainees with dogs, 3) forced nudity, 4) waterboarding (i.e., simulated drowning) and 5) mock execution. I explained that the Judge Advocates General, the highest-ranking attorneys in each of the four military services, have stated that each of these techniques is illegal and violates Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. I then asked you, 'Would it be legal for a foreign government to subject a United States citizen to these so-called enhanced interrogation techniques which I just read?' You responded, 'Senator, you're asking me to answer a question which, I think, may provide insight into activities that the CIA may be involved with in the future. . . . [I]t would depend on circumstances, quite frankly' (emphasis added).

"It is deeply troubling that you refuse to state unequivocally that it would be illegal for enemy forces to subject American citizens to these inhumane techniques. Your failure to make this clear may embolden our enemies to abuse American prisoners. I want to give you an opportunity to clarify your views on this vitally important question."

Tillman Watch

Erica Werner writes for the Associated Press: "The White House has agreed to let congressional investigators interview three former officials in an inquiry into what the administration knew about the friendly-fire death of Army Ranger Pat Tillman.

"The aides are Dan Bartlett, former White House counselor; Scott McClellan, former press secretary, and Michael Gerson, former speechwriter. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee agreed to White House demands that initial interviews be conducted without a transcript and with White House attorneys present.

"If investigators determine the aides have relevant information, they will be asked to return for transcribed interviews. The White House has reserved the right to oppose that by claiming executive privilege, according to a letter Thursday from the committee's chairman and top Republican to White House counsel Fred Fielding."

Mike Allen's View

Via Greenwald, I see Politico's Mike Allen visited with conservative talk-show Hugh Hewitt on Wednesday:

"HH: Now the Tony Snow question, and it's really the future of how they do this. Tony Snow's very good at what he does, and better than Ari, better than anyone I've seen doing it, maybe McCurry.

"MA: And he came in at a time when the President so desperately needed. And it was somebody in addition to what he does on camera, people in the West Wing say that his presence there has really helped. He's someone who knows the family, knows the issues, knows the press, is not afraid to push back --

"HH: Yeah.

"MA: He doesn't take it from reporters. He treats reporters like they're a crazy caller to his talk show.

"HH: Yup, and he pushes back with friendlies as well as hostiles. Let me ask you, though, can you follow that act up again? Is that now the model, that they have to bring a superstar communicator and put him behind the podium?

"MA: I think different presidents have different needs at different times, and I think that Ari Fleischer and Scott McClellan did a great job at the time that they were there. Obviously, this is a time of testing for the President. You were with him today. You know that he is as resilient as you can imagine. You wouldn't -- he does read the papers, as you well know. But you might think that he didn't, because it's amazing that he's able to keep up his spirits the way he is. We were out at Camp David the other day, you maybe saw the video of when he picked up Prime Minister Gordon Brown in his golf cart, which had a Golf Cart One and presidential seal on the front. He drove by the press, waived, sped up a little bit, and then did a 360. It wasn't quite a donut, because he didn't spin out, but he did a little circle right in front of us, just because he could, gave us a little mischievous smile, and a wave, just to remind us that he's there. So that's his mood, and I think Tony Snow reflects that. He is a happy warrior."

Froomkin Watch

I'm taking a long weekend. The column will resume on Tuesday.

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich on Bush's optimism; Tom Toles on surveillance; Ann Telnaes on the Bush legacy.

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