By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, September 20, 2007; 2:20 PM
President Bush reserved his most outraged tone at a White House press conference this morning for Democratic leaders whose misplaced allegiances, he said, prevented them from sufficiently denouncing a MoveOn.org ad that criticized Gen. David Petraeus.
Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq who spent much of last week touting rosy scenarios in Iraq and hawking the administration's stay-the-course plan, has become the most political of figures. And Bush has acknowledged that he is using the general to get out a message that the public wouldn't believe if it was coming from him. (Just yesterday, Bush told a group of conservative columnists: "People listen to Petraeus, not to me.")
Nevertheless, Bush insisted today that he considered an attack on Petraeus to be an attack on the troops. And he was scathing in his criticism of Democrats, only some of whom have publicly denounced the ad.
Moveon's full-page ad in the New York Times last week was headlined "General Petraeus or General Betray Us?" and accused Petraeus of "cooking the books for the White House."
"I thought that the ad was disgusting," Bush told reporters. "I felt like the ad was an attack, not only on General Petraeus, but on the U.S. military. And I was disappointed that not more leaders in the Democrat [sic] Party spoke out strongly against that kind of ad.
"That leads me to come to this conclusion: that most Democrats are afraid of irritating a left-wing group like MoveOn.org -- are more afraid of irritating them than they are of irritating the United States military."
But how did a newspaper advertisement, of all things, become such a hot topic in the political discourse about the war? The answer: Republicans in Washington see it as a winning issue.
That's the case even though there were legitimate concerns expressed about Petraeus's selective use of statistics both before and after his testimony; even though a Washington Post poll before his testimony showed most Americans expected him to try to make things look better than they are; and even though the newest polls clearly show the public didn't buy what Petraeus was selling.
Here's two fantasy follow-up questions for Bush: If you make a general your political standard-bearer, don't your political enemies get to take aim? And is it possible Democrats were reserving their outrage for issues other than a political ad?A Partisan Morning
Bush kicked off the news conference with a blistering attack against a bipartisan bill that would provide four million uninsured children with health insurance.
Although the bill enjoys considerable support from Republicans in Congress, Bush accused Democrats of "putting poor children at risk so they can score political points in Washington." Bush again promised to veto the bill, which he called "an incremental step toward the goal of government-run health care for every American."
And Bush denied that he is a liability for Republican candidates in 2008, laying out what he called a winning platform for the GOP: "Candidates who go out and say that the United States is vulnerable to attack and we're going to make sure our professionals have the tools necessary to protect us are going to do well. Candidates who go out and say that helping these Iraqis realize the benefits of democracy are going to do well. Candidates who go out and say that it's very important for the United States to have clear principles when it comes to foreign policy, they'll do well. Candidates who say we're not going to raise your taxes will do well."Other Issues
Bush was asked about the "Jena 6" -- the six black teenagers in Louisiana charged in the beating of a white classmate. Thousands of chanting demonstrators filled the streets of Jena today in a show of support.
"The events in Louisiana are -- have saddened me, and I understand the emotions," Bush said. "And all of us in America want there to be, you know, fairness when it comes to justice."
When asked why he hadn't spoken out on the topic before, he snapped: "I just spoke out on it."
Bush said he was optimistic about the economy. That's not exactly news, though.
And he refused to say anything at all about the recent hush-hush Israeli bombing raid in Syrian territory.
Asked about whether he was changing the goalposts for success in Iraq, Bush replied: "No, the goals are the same. Achieving those goals have been slower than we thought. And the question is, one, whether or not it's worth it to try to achieve the goals."
That's a far cry from what Bush said in January, when he announced a series of benchmarks, said that the Iraqi government would be held to account for them, and warned that the American commitment was "not open-ended."Why the Short Notice?
Almost all of Bush's public events are made known to the press well ahead of time -- with one notable exception. The president's press conferences are routinely announced on very short notice. Today's announcement, typically, went out at 8:45 a.m. -- giving the press corps, not all of whom are exactly early risers, one hour to call in and less than two hours in total to prepare.
Why? What possible end is served in jerking the press corps around like this? Does the White House hope to put reporters at a disadvantage? Does hope the questions will be less incisive? It makes no sense unless it sees some advantage in this for itself somewhere.Bush's Conservative Roundtable
Not enough sycophants and enablers in the West Wing? Bush called in reinforcements yesterday, inviting a slew of conservative columnists to the Roosevelt Room for a 90-minute group grope in which he tried out a lot of the sound bytes he ended up using at today's press conference.
(Readers of my Monday column about Bush's similar meeting with supportive bloggers will also find much of what he said today familiar.)
Among the participants yesterday afternoon: Michael Barone (U.S. News), Tony Blankley (Washington Times), David Brooks (New York Times), Ron Kessler (NewsMax), Charles Krauthammer (Washington Post), Bill Kristol (Weekly Standard), Larry Kudlow (CNBC), Morton Kondracke (Roll Call), Kimberly Strassel (Wall Street Journal), Kathryn Lopez and Kate O'Beirne (National Review).
When press secretary Dana Perino announced the roundtable at the morning gaggle yesterday, some reporters laughed out loud.
Later, one reporter asked: "Regarding the columnist roundtable, was there any logical standard used in issuing the invitations?"
That got even more laughs.
Perino replied: "We regularly meet with conservative columnists. The president is proud to do so. We meet with many other journalists, as well."
Kathryn Lopez and Kate O'Beirne quickly turned around a summary of the meeting for the National Review Online yesterday. Their startling conclusion: "[T]he president is optimistic about the U.S. military's ability to accomplish its mission."
William Kristol writes for the Weekly Standard: "Much of what the president said was, naturally, familiar; and some of his most interesting comments and reflections he put off-the-record. But there was at least one on-the-record answer by the president that should make news. For the first time, President Bush weighed in on the debate over the MoveOn.org ad."
Kristol quotes Bush as saying: "When I saw the ad by the far left-wing people, I was incredulous at first and then became mad." Then Bush continued, using almost the exact same words he used this morning.
Ronald Kessler writes for NewsMax about his attempt to get Bush to take swipes at the two top Democratic presidential contenders: "As noted in a recent NewsMax article, even though it could be their greatest vulnerability in the general presidential election, the media have virtually ignored Clinton's and Obama's votes against revising FISA," Kessler complains.
"Referring to the two presidential candidates' nay votes, I asked Bush, 'What does that tell you about someone who would do that?'
"'Well, the American people are going to have to figure that out themselves,' said Bush."
In a blog post on National Review's Corner, Lopez writes that "the president was in a serious but confident mood -- clearly sending the message that this administration is not close to over."
Kessler e-mails me that "everyone behaved except the president, who kept tormenting Kim Strassel of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, whose baby was due yesterday, about whether she was about to give birth in the Roosevelt Room."
Morton M. Kondracke writes in Roll Call (subscription required): "Bush may be a lame duck. And he showed he knows that his credibility is low. He said, 'People listen to Petraeus, not to me.' Still, like Frank Sinatra in what became his signature song, Bush seems determined to go out doing it 'My Way.'"
Kondracke's description of Bush's thoughts about children's health insurance got his piece touted in the White House press office's morning e-mail to the press corps -- but someone got the URL more than a little wrong. Anyone who clicked on the White-House provided link instead got an ESPN story on the Yankees victory over the Orioles last night.All You Need Is Love
In yet another post on the Corner, Lopez writes: "Asked what traits people should look for in choosing a President, George Bush responded immediately: 'Be comfortable with your family. Work hard to make sure there is love in the White House.'"
What did Bush mean by that? "The buzz coming out of the West Wing this afternoon was: 'Did the president just rule out Rudy Giuliani for president?'," Lopez writes, noting that Giuliani doesn't even speak to his children anymore.
Jonah Goldberg responds on the Corner: "I'm with Bush on the principles-are-important stuff. But this 'love' stuff is an awfully gooey standard for people to run too far down field with."
And consider, Goldberg writes, that President Reagan's "relationship with his kids was not off the charts in the 'fill the White House with love' department. . . .
"The real problem with statements like this -- when released to the public -- is they make conservatives sound otherworldly and almost bizarre in their priorities. Character matters, a lot. But come on."Sticking With the President
David M. Herszenhorn and Carl Hulse write in the New York Times: "A proposal that Democrats put forward as their best chance of changing the course of the Iraq war died on the Senate floor on Wednesday, as Republicans stood firmly with President Bush.
"With other war initiatives seemingly headed for the same fate, Senate Democrats, who only two weeks ago proclaimed September to be the month for shifting course in Iraq, conceded that they had little chance of success. . . .
"'The Republican leadership and the White House is getting them all to march in line,' said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, who ranks third in the party leadership. 'But it is marching further and further away from where America is. We just keep at it. It's all we can do.'"
Shailagh Murray and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "The vote offered the most vivid evidence yet that the Bush administration still controls Iraq war policy, despite months of congressional debate, the war's persistent unpopularity and a summer-long effort by activists to pressure Republicans. Unless other options with broad appeal emerge soon -- a prospect both parties now say is unlikely -- Bush's plan to keep most troops in Iraq through next summer will remain intact.
"'Our Republican colleagues are more interested in protecting our president than our troops,' Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said moments before the vote, when defeat appeared certain. 'This is Bush's war. Don't make it also the Republican senators' war.'"On Habeas, Too
Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "A Republican filibuster in the Senate yesterday shot down a bipartisan effort to restore the right of terrorism suspects to contest in federal courts their detention and treatment, underscoring the Democratic-led Congress's difficulty with terrorism issues."Another Cave in the Works?
Maura Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush plunged directly into the campaign to save his warrantless wiretapping program, arguing Wednesday that telecommunications firms that cooperated with spy agencies should be granted retroactive immunity from possible prosecution.
"Bush also urged Congress to pass a permanent revision of legislation that gave the program a six-month lifespan."
Check out this contorted language in Bush's statement yesterday -- not Bush's doing for once, but that of his lawyers: "It's particularly important for Congress to provide meaningful liability protection to those companies now facing multi-billion dollar lawsuits only because they are believed to have assisted in efforts to defend our nation following the 9/11 attacks."
Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball write for Newsweek: "The nation's biggest telecommunications companies, working closely with the White House, have mounted a secretive lobbying campaign to get Congress to quickly approve a measure wiping out all private lawsuits against them for assisting the U.S. intelligence community's warrantless surveillance programs. . . .
"[C]ritics say the language proposed by the White House -- drafted in close cooperation with the industry officials -- is so extraordinarily broad that it would provide retroactive immunity for all past telecom actions related to the surveillance program. Its practical effect, they argue, would be to shut down any independent judicial or state inquires into how the companies have assisted the government in eavesdropping on the telephone calls and e-mails of U.S. residents in the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks."
Ostensibly, of course, "Democratic leaders, who say they were stampeded into passing the law last summer, are insisting on having more thorough hearings and forcing the administration to turn over documents on the surveillance program. If the telecoms want immunity, some Democrats say, the White House should at least say what it is they need immunity for."
But Isikoff and Hosenball write that "congressional staffers said this week that some version of the proposal is likely to pass -- in part because of a high-pressure lobbying campaign warning of dire consequences if the lawsuits proceed."Blackwater Watch
Steve Fainaru writes in The Washington Post about how Blackwater USA, the private security company involved in a Baghdad shootout last weekend, has been able to act with such impunity: "Many U.S. and Iraqi officials and industry representatives said they came to see Blackwater as untouchable, protected by State Department officials who defended the company at every turn. . . .
"In Baghdad, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki promised that Blackwater guards would be held accountable for what he called 'a big crime' in the weekend violence. Iraqi officials have threatened to expel Blackwater from Iraq over the incident, in which at least nine Iraqis were killed."
Any chance of that happening? Hardly.
John M. Broder and James Risen write for the New York Times: "Publicly, the Bush administration has not said how it would respond if the Maliki government tries to carry out its threat to evict Blackwater, but administration officials and executives in the security contracting industry both said Wednesday that they believed that the White House and the State Department would seek to block any move by Iraq to force the company out.
"The issue is already leading to sharp tensions between the governments, and any effort by the United States to force Iraq to keep Blackwater could make the Maliki government appear to be a weak puppet."
And here's an astonishing piece of the backstory: Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed al Askari told Leila Fadel of McClatchy Newspapers that Blackwater was responsible for "former Iraqi Electricity Minister Ahyam al Samarrai's escape from a Green Zone jail in December. Samarrai had been awaiting sentencing on charges that he had embezzled $2.5 billion that was intended to rebuild Iraq's decrepit electricity grid. . . .
Calling it "a strange and little-publicized incident of the war," Fadel reports: "Until now, Iraqi officials hadn't named the private security company that they believe helped Samarrai, the only Iraqi cabinet official convicted of corruption, to escape from a jail that was overseen jointly by U.S. and Iraqi guards. He subsequently was spirited out of the country and is believed to be living in the United States."
Bush today expressed regret that innocent civilians were killed in the shooting on Sunday.Mukasey Watch
Adam Liptak writes in the New York Times about the vivid lessons that attorney general nominee Michael B. Mukasey took away from serving as judge for the 1996 trial of "blind sheik" Omar Abdel Rahman.
When it comes to "the proper balance between security and liberty, between intelligence gathering and criminal prosecution, and between government secrecy and accountability. . . . Judge Mukasey has made clear that, although the issues are difficult ones, he is inclined to favor security, intelligence and secrecy."
Robert D. Novak writes in his syndicated column that Mukasey "appears unqualified and ill-equipped for the daunting task of rehabilitating the Justice Department."
He sees the Mukasey nomination as a result of "[i]nfluential senior aides flinch[ing] at a difficult confirmation, reflecting a disinclination to confront Democrats -- with consequences for the last year of George W. Bush's presidency. . . .
"An unpopular president managing an unpopular war, Bush looks like a lame duck playing out the string."
George F. Will writes in his Washington Post opinion column that senators should ask Mukasey at his confirmation hearing whether he agrees with Bush's "far-reaching claims of presidential powers."Yoo's View
Meredith Hobbs writes in the Fulton County Daily Report that former Bush administration lawyer John C. Yoo told Georgia members of the Federalist Society "that Bush's aggressive use of power since the Sept. 11 attacks will be proven justified by history because the nation needs a powerful president in times of war. . . .
"'The greatest presidents are those who exercise executive power most aggressively,' he said, contending that George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Roosevelt and Truman, like Bush, seized power in wartime and acted without the authorization of Congress."
Yoo, who wrote the famous " torture memos" said "that Bush's abrogations of power from the other branches are for the defense of the U.S. and, thus, good," Hobbs writes.Bottoms Up
David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "The Bush administration has been so enthusiastic in touting its new alliance with Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province that it's easy to overlook two basic questions: Why did it take so long to reach an accommodation with the Sunnis? And is Anbar really a good model for stabilizing the rest of Iraq? . . .
"The fact is, Sunni tribal leaders have been queuing up for four years to try to make the kind of alliances that have finally taken root in Anbar. For most of that time, these overtures were rebuffed by U.S. officials who, not inaccurately, regarded the Sunni sheiks as local warlords. . . .
"These local deals may make sense as short-term methods for stabilizing the country. But we shouldn't confuse these tactical alliances with nation-building. Over time, they will break Iraq apart rather than pull it together. Work with tribal and militia leaders, but don't forget who they are."
Wayne White writes for NiemanWatchdog.org (where I am deputy editor) that our new alliances in Anbar may not last. But nonetheless, he sees an enormous value in them that hasn't been sufficiently appreciated: "[E]ven following a withdrawal of U.S. forces, it is unlikely that [al Qaeda in Iraq] will be able to regain a significant foothold in Iraq. Tribal and insurgent elements attacking AQI elements or assisting U.S. forces in doing so now have a price on their heads and have every reason to resist strongly attempts on the part of AQI to return."
What that means, White writes, is that Bush's "principal concern related to post-U.S. withdrawal scenarios -- that substantial portions of Iraq would become havens for terrorists -- is much reduced."Johanns's Departure
Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush on Thursday announced that Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns is leaving the Cabinet to return to Nebraska, where he is expected to run for the U.S. Senate."Rather's Lawsuit
Michelle Nichols writes for Reuters: "Former CBS news anchor Dan Rather sued the network on Wednesday for $70 million, saying CBS violated his contract by depriving him of air time and made him a scapegoat to 'pacify the White House.'"
Blogger Marcy Wheeler adds: "The most interesting thing about the Dan Rather complaint, IMO, is the description it gave of CBS and Administration attempts to spike the Abu Ghraib story." She has excerpts.Psychologizing the President
Andrew Greeley writes in his Chicago Sun-Times opinion column: "It is a question about which many Americans wonder. Why can't he change his mind? . . .
"[T]he president's endless optimism and refusal to admit errors are, to put it quite bluntly, abnormal behavior. . . .
"Some members of Alcoholics Anonymous will tell you that such behavior is not atypical in men who beat drunkenness by sheer willpower. They no longer drink, but they have not gone through the humility and the transformation of the self that the AA requires of its members. The president proved he could beat alcoholism without sitting around and talking about it (except with Billy Graham). I'm not saying this is the explanation of the president's sunny confidence about Iraq. I am saying, however, that it is a model that fits the data."
Sidney Blumenthal makes Greeley look charitable. Blumenthal writes in his Salon opinion column that for Bush, "[t]here has never been a moment when we were not winning in Iraq. Victory has followed victory, from 'Mission Accomplished' to the purple fingers of the Iraqi election to, most recently, President Bush's meeting at Camp Cupcake in Anbar province with Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, the Sunni leader of the group Anbar Awakening (who was assassinated a week later). . . .
"Bush grasps at the straws of his own disinformation as he casts himself deeper into the abyss. The more profound and compounded his blunders, and the more he redoubles his certainty in ultimate victory, the greater his indifference to failure. He has entered a phase of decadent perversity, where he accelerates his errors to vindicate his folly. As the sands of time run down, he has decided that no matter what he does, history will finally judge him as heroic. . . .
"Bush's ever-inflating self-confidence hides his gaping fear of failure. His obsession with deference demands exercises of humiliation that never satisfy him. His unwavering resolve is maintained by his adamant refusal to wade into the waters of ambiguity."Krugman's Complaint
Paul Krugman blogs on nytimes.com: "One of my pet peeves about political reporting is the fact that some of my journalistic colleagues seem to want to be in another business -- namely, theater criticism. Instead of telling us what candidates are actually saying -- and whether it's true or false, sensible or silly -- they tell us how it went over, and how they think it affects the horse race. . . .
"[T]his sort of coverage often fails even on its own terms, because the way things look to inside-the-Beltway pundits can be very different from the way they look to real people. . . .
"Which brings me to the Petraeus hearing. . . .
"The whole story about how the hearing had changed everything was a pure figment of the inside-the-Beltway imagination.
"What I found striking about the whole thing was the contempt the pundit consensus showed for the public -- it was, more or less, 'Oh, people just can't resist a man in uniform.' But it turns out that they can; it's the punditocracy that can't."Cartoon Watch