Bush's Awkward Embrace

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, March 6, 2008; 1:04 PM

There's something about passing the torch to John McCain that appears to make President Bush very uncomfortable.

At yesterday's pomp-filled endorsement of his would-be successor, Bush came off like a man overcompensating for anxiety with manic bonhomie. Even before McCain's arrival -- when Bush literally began tap-dancing for the press corps as he waited for the Republican nominee's car to pull up to the North Portico -- the president seemed unusually self-conscious and ill at ease.

Which was kind of ironic, given that yesterday's event was far more fraught with peril for McCain than it was for Bush.

When the two men finally emerged for their joint Rose Garden appearance, Bush was rambunctious and domineering. McCain, by contrast, responded to Bush's giddiness with a rigor-mortis smile and some clear indications that he would be keeping Bush at arm's length from this point forward.

McCain stiffly stated that he expected Bush's "heavy schedule" would make the president a rarity on the campaign trail. And while he generically paid his respects, McCain said nothing to indicate that he sought to emulate his host.

It fell to Bush to make the point that a McCain presidency would be four more years of the same -- at least when it comes to the defining theme of the Bush presidency. "There will be a new President, a man of character and courage," Bush said, "but he's not going to change when it comes to taking on the enemy."

Shouting It From the Rooftops

You'll never guess who was the most excited about yesterday's endorsement.

As of this writing, there's no mention of it on the home page of McCain's Web site. There's no mention of it all on the Republican National Committee's home page. In fact, I can't find any mention whatsoever of the event on either Web site at all. (It's like: Bush Who?)

But on the Democratic National Committee Web site, the lead headline blares: "Bush Endorses John McCain as His Successor."

"Since the event was held in the middle of the afternoon we fear that some Americans may miss George Bush's assurances that John McCain would continue the Bush Administrations failed economic and foreign policies," the DNC explains. "As a public service we've posted a video of the press conference for voters to see."

The Coverage

Matt Stearns writes for McClatchy Newspapers that "the event highlighted the difficulty that McCain may have in emerging from the shadow of a president who is no wallflower. Bush was aggressive, verging on bombastic, in the press conference, and he jumped in to answer questions that seemed aimed at McCain.

"'I'm not through, and I'm going to do a lot,' Bush said of his remaining time in office, as McCain smiled by his side. At another point, Bush gave a lengthy answer on the importance of steadfastness in war efforts. McCain then said: 'I don't have anything to add.'"

Steve Holland writes for Reuters: "McCain sometimes had trouble getting a word in edgewise."

Massimo Calabresi writes for Time: "The meeting was supposed to project a unified Republican front, a burying of past hatchets with smiles all around. But from the moment a fashionably late John McCain made President Bush awkwardly wait for him (and tap dance for the assembled media) at the North Portico of the White House, it was clear that this public endorsement of the freshly-crowned Republican presidential nominee was largely a marriage of convenience. . . .

"Bush put on his best strutting, cocky performance. He praised McCain's strength and his 'big heart' and his ability to 'handle tough decisions.' But there were already hints McCain saw the relationship in different terms. In his opening statement, he said he'd welcome the President on the campaign trail as his schedule allows, and he repeated that theme five times in ten minutes. He'd hold joint campaign events 'in keeping with the President's schedule,' he said. He hopes the President will 'find time from his busy schedule' to campaign with him, he said. McCain apparently hasn't seen the 'Week Ahead' memos the White House has been sending out that shows Bush's lame duck agenda sparsely dotted with feel-good meet-and-greets.

"McCain's excessive concern for Bush's day job simply underlined the fact that these two were never going to be the prettiest pair. First, they had to overcome their history, which is neither dead nor buried, despite what both sides want you to think. . . .

"Some observers are looking for what one insider calls the Texas two-step: a cordial embrace of Bush by the candidate, combined with trash talk behind the scenes by campaign staff. Then the question is, do the two men just drift apart, like Gore and Clinton, or does McCain draw a sharp line."

James Gerstenzang and Maeve Reston write in the Los Angeles Times: "Bush wrapped the Arizona senator in a brief political embrace Wednesday, just about when McCain would want it: eight months out from election day.

"Given the public's low opinion of the president, Democratic and Republican political operatives said, the further away from the election that that endorsement took place the better. And with the race for the Democratic presidential nomination still neck and neck, what better time than when attention is focused on Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama?"

Jill Zuckman writes in the Chicago Tribune: "McCain will face a serious challenge in deciding how much to campaign with the deeply unpopular president at a time when skittish voters are demanding change. . . .

"McCain's conundrum is clear. He wants to unite Republicans behind him, especially conservatives, and Bush's imprimatur is useful in doing so. But he also wants to attract independents and even Democrats, and Bush is more likely to hurt than help that effort.

"'I think one thing he will have to do if he has any shot of winning this fall is put a great deal of distance between himself and George Bush,' said William Mayer, a political science professor at Northeastern University. 'If he is just seen as an extension of Bush, then the Democrats win.'"

Michael Cooper and Elisabeth Bumiller write in the New York Times: "Mr. McCain's top advisers have said that they are eager to enlist the president for his fund-raising prowess but that they do not want him to appear too often with Mr. McCain. They have insisted that their reluctance in having Mr. Bush campaign heavily has nothing to do with the president's unpopularity.

"Instead, they have said they would not like any sitting president to appear too often with Mr. McCain because he needs to 'stand in the sun' on his own, as one adviser recently put it."

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "Beware, John McCain. The money comes with a price. Sure, President Bush will raise millions of dollars for your Republican presidential campaign and GOP candidates. But he'll also give you the aura of a presidency tarnished by painful gasoline prices, a sagging economy, the threat of recession, a blemished U.S. reputation around the world, turbulence in the Middle East and many more problems.

"There's also the unpopular war in Iraq -- although you already are closely associated with that."

Michael D. Shear and Michael Abramowitz write in The Washington Post: "Democrats seized the opportunity to link McCain and Bush, who has the job approval of only about 32 percent of Americans. An independent group launched a $1.1 million ad campaign called ' McSame' that links McCain's positions with those of Bush."

Charlie Savage writes in the Boston Globe: "Party chairman Howard Dean declared that a McCain presidency would represent a 'third Bush term' by continuing Bush's policies on Iraq, the economy, and healthcare."

Opinion Watch

The New York Times editorial board blogs: "Mr. Bush's embrace is one Mr. McCain should be wary of. . . .

"Mr. McCain has already thrown his lot in with Mr. Bush on the highly unpopular Iraq War, saying the United States may need to remain there for as long as 100 years.

"Mr. McCain could be compounding his problems by appearing to endorse the rest of what the Bush administration has come to represent for many Americans: allowing big corporations to call the shots on government policy; trampling on the law and civil liberties; sky-high gas prices; and allowing the economy to slide toward recession."

Here's MSNBC'S Tucker Carlson talking to The Hill's A.B. Stoddard and Democratic strategist Peter Fenn last night:

Carlson: "The torch has been passed. The question is: will it burn John McCain? . . . A.B., that was an uncomfortable moment. I wasn't expecting it to be as uncomfortable as it was. And it seemed to me in some way, but I can't quite articulate, it diminished John McCain, maybe because Bush seemed to need to answer every question and kind of hovered around him like a nervous mom. Did you think that?"

Stoddard: "Yes. I think when Bush is not comfortable -- I mean we really -- John McCain needed it to go sort of smoothly today, and when Bush is awkward, it makes it awkward. Everybody knows that they're former rivals. Everybody knows it's awkward. Everyone wonders what they talked about at lunch. . . . [F]or him, this is the day that he needs to go to the White House, be endorsed, consolidate his base, and then make plans to run away from this day in the next three months."

Fenn: "The best thing I think about this day was probably when John McCain was in the car and he looked in his rearview mirror and he saw Bush waving goodbye."

Daily Kos blogger smintheus writes: "The thing that stands out most, apart from McCain's cringing presence, is how he passively allows Bush to dominate the event. Bush jumped on the first question to box McCain in as heir to his Iraq policy. It was in response to a question posed to both McCain and Bush, 'how the Republican Party . . . is going to make the case that you're going to provide the change that the voters seem to want, both on Iraq and the economy?' Ignoring the economy (how typical), Bush gave a rambling version of his fear-mongering GWOT talk."

Blogger Digby writes: "Bush just endorsed McCain and sounded like he's on a meth bender. He couldn't let McCain have the spotlight.

"If I were McCain I'd be hoping that's the last time I have to appear with Junior during this campaign. He's a reminder of everything people loathe about Republicans."

Transcript Oddities

McCain started off his remarks with deference: "Thank you, sir. Well, I'm very honored and humbled to have the opportunity to receive the endorsement of the President of the United States, a man who I have great admiration, respect and affection [for]."

But the very next thing he said took a big bite out of his credibility: "We -- he and I, as is well known, had a very good competition in the year 2000."

That competition -- as is well known -- was about as bitter as they come. Most notably, McCain was convinced that Bush aides were behind a smear campaign before the South Carolina primary alleging that he had an illegitimate black child.

Asked point-blank whether Bush's endorsement is a positive or negative for him, McCain ducked the question. Bush, typically, made a joke of it.

Q: "Mr. President, do you -- how much do you intend to do for Senator McCain? And do you think, in some cases, that your help could actually hurt him more than help him?"

Bush: "Look, if it -- if my showing up and endorsing him helps him, or if I'm against him and it helps him -- either way, I want him to win." And again, a little later: "As I told you, you know, if he wants me to show up, I will. If he wants me to say, 'You know, I'm not for him,' I will."

The Tap Dance

The Associated Press reports: "Left waiting for John McCain, President Bush paced back and forth and finally broke into a little tap dance at the White House on Wednesday.

"Bush was playing for the cameras and stalling for time at the North Portico while waiting for McCain to show up for an endorsement of his campaign as the Republican presidential nominee. It was an unusual scene -- the almost-always punctual Bush left cooling his heels for McCain. The president clapped his hands in impatience and called to his personal aide about the delay.

"Finally he did a little jig. 'I'm just going to tap dance the day away,' Bush said with a laugh.

"It became clear McCain wasn't yet in the driveway or approaching the White House.

"'We'll start over, play it like it never happened,' Bush joked to reporters.

"Then, he turned on his heel and walked back into the White House."

Here's a video compilation from Thinkprogress.org, and a photo montage from AFP.

Beyond the Red Carpet

Reuters reports: "President George W. Bush may have given presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain the royal treatment at the White House on Wednesday, but the two men did not exactly have a meal fit for a king.

"McCain, an Arizona senator, picked up the president's endorsement for his candidacy while dining on something simple: a hot dog."

Poll Watch

In my Feb. 26 column, Bush: Clueless and Happy, I wondered whether the president has any idea what a drag he'll be on the Republican ticket.

Perhaps he has a better idea now, if he read the morning paper.

Jon Cohen and Jennifer Agiesta write in The Washington Post: "Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) kicks off his general-election campaign trailing both potential Democratic nominees in hypothetical matchups, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. . . .

"Both Democrats are buoyed by moderates and independents when going head to head with McCain and benefit from sustained negative public assessments of President Bush and the war in Iraq.

"About two-thirds of Americans disapprove of the way Bush is handling his job and think the war was not worth fighting, and most hold those positions 'strongly.' A slim majority also doubt that the United States is making progress toward restoring civil order in Iraq, even as McCain and others extol recent successes there.

"These views are closely related to voters' choices: McCain does poorly against Clinton and Obama among those who disapprove of the president and those opposing the war."

'The Man Between War and Peace'

Thomas P.M. Barnett writes in Esquire: "If, in the dying light of the Bush administration, we go to war with Iran, it'll all come down to one man. If we do not go to war with Iran, it'll come down to the same man. He is that rarest of creatures in the Bush universe: the good cop on Iran, and a man of strategic brilliance. His name is William Fallon, although all of his friends call him 'Fox,' which was his fighter-pilot call sign decades ago. Forty years into a military career that has seen this admiral rule over America's two most important combatant commands, Pacific Command and now United States Central Command, it's impossible to make this guy--as he likes to say--'nervous in the service.' . . .

"[W]hile Admiral Fallon's boss, President George W. Bush, regularly trash-talks his way to World War III and his administration casually casts Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as this century's Hitler (a crown it has awarded once before, to deadly effect), it's left to Fallon--and apparently Fallon alone--to argue that, as he told Al Jazeera last fall: 'This constant drumbeat of conflict . . . is not helpful and not useful. I expect that there will be no war, and that is what we ought to be working for. We ought to try to do our utmost to create different conditions.'

"What America needs, Fallon says, is a 'combination of strength and willingness to engage.'

"Those are fighting words to your average neocon--not to mention your average supporter of Israel, a good many of whom in Washington seem never to have served a minute in uniform. But utter those words for print and you can easily find yourself defending your indifference to 'nuclear holocaust.' . . .

"Just as Fallon took over Centcom last spring, the White House was putting itself on a war footing with Iran. Almost instantly, Fallon began to calmly push back against what he saw as an ill-advised action. Over the course of 2007, Fallon's statements in the press grew increasingly dismissive of the possibility of war, creating serious friction with the White House. . . .

"How does Fallon get away with so brazenly challenging his commander in chief?

"The answer is that he might not get away with it for much longer. President Bush is not accustomed to a subordinate who speaks his mind as freely as Fallon does, and the president may have had enough."

Thomas E. Ricks writes in The Washington Post: "Asked about the article yesterday, Fallon called it 'poison pen stuff' that is 'really disrespectful and ugly.' He did not cite specific objections. . . .

"The White House declined to comment, but administration insiders said the article was being discussed there yesterday."

The Daily Jaw-Dropper

Karen DeYoung writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration yesterday advanced a new argument for why it does not require congressional approval to strike a long-term security agreement with Iraq, stating that Congress had already endorsed such an initiative through its 2002 resolution authorizing the use of force against Saddam Hussein.

"The 2002 measure, along with the congressional resolution passed one week after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks authorizing military action'to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States,' permits indefinite combat operations in Iraq, according to a statement by the State Department's Bureau of Legislative Affairs. . . .

"Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.), whose questions at a House hearing Tuesday elicited the administration statement, described it as an 'open-ended, never-ending authority for the administration to be at war in Iraq forever with no limitations.' The conditions of 2002 no longer exist, he said.

"'I don't think anybody argues today that Saddam Hussein is a threat,' he said. 'Is it the government of Iraq that's a threat?'

"The proposed agreement has become a contentious issue in the presidential campaign. Democratic candidates and their allies on Capitol Hill have charged that the administration is trying to lock in a U.S. military presence in Iraq before the next president takes office.

"According to yesterday's statement, the administration's interpretation of the 2002 resolution is that 'Congress expressly authorized the use of force to 'defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq.' '

"In a letter to Ackerman, Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey T. Bergner said that authority exists with or without a U.N. mandate. In addition to the resolutions, he wrote, 'Congress has repeatedly provided funding for the Iraq war.'"

Here's the text of the letter.

Contempt Watch

The Boston Globe editorial board writes: "When the history of the Bush administration is written, one of the most disturbing chapters will be the 2006 purge of US attorneys - all Bush appointees - who failed to toe the White House line by aggressively prosecuting Democratic officeholders or winking at possible misdeeds by Republicans.

"The attorney general at the time, Alberto Gonzales, was so incapable of giving a straight explanation about the dismissals that he finally had to resign. Still unanswered, though, is whether someone in the White House orchestrated the firings. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is justified in pulling out all the legal stops to get at the truth."

Trust Us

The next time the government asks for unchecked authority to demand information that would normally require a warrant -- and then says it should be trusted not to abuse that authority -- remember this story.

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III told senators yesterday that agents improperly used a type of administrative subpoena to obtain personal data about Americans until internal reforms were enacted last year.

"Mueller said a forthcoming report from the Justice Department's inspector general will find that abuses recurred in the agency's use of national security letters in 2006, echoing similar problems to those identified in earlier audits.

"Inspector General Glenn A. Fine reported a year ago that the FBI used such letters -- which are not subject to a court's review -- to improperly obtain telephone logs, banking records and other personal records of thousands of Americans from 2003 to 2005. An internal FBI audit also found that the bureau potentially violated laws or agency rules more than 1,000 times in such cases.

"Mueller testified that a follow-up report from Fine's office, due to be released this month, will 'identify issues similar to those in the report issued last March.' . . .

"Michael German, a former FBI agent who is national security policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement that 'it's becoming more and more obvious that outside oversight is essential since the Bureau's learning curve is sadly unimpressive.'

"'Instituting judicial oversight would guarantee that someone would be looking over the shoulder of agents using a tool as invasive as an NSL,' German said. The ACLU and other civil liberties groups say the government's use of security letters should be significantly narrowed or brought under court supervision."

Oil Watch

Jad Mouawad writes in the New York Times: "OPEC on Wednesday rebuffed calls from President Bush to increase oil output, instead citing 'mismanagement' of the American economy as a major factor driving prices up.

"Record prices are suddenly creating the sharpest tensions in years between the oil cartel and the United States, the world's largest oil consumer. Two days after the president called for more oil on the global market, OPEC members, meeting in Vienna, chose to leave their production levels unchanged, declaring that the market has plenty of oil already.

"The cartel's president blamed financial speculators and American economic problems, which have helped lower the value of the dollar, for the high oil prices. After the meeting, oil prices settled above $104 a barrel, a record. . . .

"'OPEC is angry that President Bush wants them to increase production while the dollar is sinking and the administration is doing nothing about that,' said Fadel Gheit, an oil analyst at Oppenheimer & Company in New York. 'It's really not surprising that they have ignored him.'"

Just In From East Anglia

Breaking Air Force One news out of Norfolk, England. Emily Dennis writes in the Eastern Daily Press: "They are known for being the most security conscious country in the world. But United States Air Force officials were left red-faced today after it emerged that a Suffolk factory worker had been sent hundreds of emails outlining highly classified information, including documents detailing the proposed flight path of a visit to the region by President Bush.

"The website Gary Sinnott had set up to promote the town of Mildenhall on the internet also received emails about military tactics and passwords intended for personnel at the neighbouring US airbase.

"It meant that top secret messages that terrorists would have given their eye teeth for were being sent to his private computer - and he found it impossible to stop them.

"What began as a slow trickle of mundane messages soon escalated and hundreds of classified emails were sent from around the world to Mr Sinnott's website after people mistook www.mildenhall.com for the military website www.mildenhall.af.mil."

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich and Jimmy Margulies on the passing of the torch; Sandy Huffaker and Jack Ohman on the 3 a.m. phone call; Joel Pett on having a beer with the president.

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