By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, September 3, 2008; 12:37 PM
Far from getting a hero's welcome, President Bush didn't even get through the doors of the Republican National Convention hall last night. In an abbreviated address beamed in from 1,000 miles away, Bush offered a stilted endorsement of his former rival -- then faded away, his ghostly image on a giant screen quickly replaced by an homage to Ronald Reagan.
John McCain's campaign is desperately trying to appeal to a nation hungry for change. One way to do that, of course, would be to explain precisely how a McCain presidency would be substantively different from a third Bush term. But either unwilling or unable to do so, the campaign has instead chosen to very publicly cut Bush loose.
Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "It was supposed to be President Bush's glory moment in his party's spotlight, full of tributes to his eight years of leadership and cheers from grateful partisans, as he passed the mantle to his would-be successor.
"Instead, Bush's brief appearance Tuesday at the Republican National Convention in Minnesota was essentially a footnote. He got eight minutes via satellite hookup from a lonely White House podium 1,100 miles away. A Democrat-turned-independent, Sen. Joe Lieberman, got the showcase final speaking slot. . . .
"Bush was well received, but it was not a rousing send-off for the man who, despite his unpopularity, somehow managed to keep Democrats confounded with his veto power and more often than not got his way. . . .
"When McCain's team scaled back the convention lineup because of Gustav, they had a chance to scale back the president's role, too. And they took it. . . .
"Bush aides acknowledged the president would have preferred to take his turn in the convention limelight, while insisting he was pleased to do whatever he could. The execution of his appearance from afar was a bit awkward at times."
Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "President Bush proclaimed Senator John McCain 'ready to lead this nation' in a farewell speech to the Republican convention here on Tuesday night. But far from being the kind of unifying send-off and baton pass engineered for Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, the evening only highlighted Mr. McCain's eagerness to get the president off the stage.
"'John is an independent man who thinks for himself,' Mr. Bush said via satellite from the White House, in an eight-minute speech intended to reinforce the McCain campaign's theme that the senator is no clone of the president. . . .
"[O]n a night when Republicans gave top billing to other speakers, the president's physical distance from the gathering in St. Paul -- his huge image was beamed out over an empty lectern to a crowd in the arena that cheered mostly at mentions of Mr. McCain -- also underscored the gulf between the Bush camp and the McCain one. . . .
"Mr. McCain's team was clearly more interested in using the convention to advance its aims -- trying to define Mr. Obama in negative terms and building a positive narrative for Mr. McCain and his running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska -- than in looking back at Mr. Bush's presidency or allowing Mr. McCain to become too closely identified with the president. . . .
"Republicans said the McCain camp did not edit or approve the president's talk on Tuesday night. But there was close coordination between the campaign and the White House about the themes Mr. Bush should sound."
Matt Spetalnick writes for Reuters that Bush's "cameo appearance amounts to little more than a minute for each year of his two-term presidency. . . .
"White House spokeswoman Dana Perino earlier called it a 'mutual decision' between the White House and convention organizers that Bush deliver his rescheduled speech from the White House rather than in person.
"She cited Bush's desire to stay in Washington to keep close watch on Gustav's aftermath as well as logistical problems of getting him to St. Paul on short notice. She said in the process, his speech had been shortened from an original 15 minutes to less than eight minutes."
James Gerstenzang blogs for the Los Angeles Times about what a canard that is: "Whenever a president wants to head off on vacation to, say, Martha's Vineyard, Mass., or Crawford, Texas, while geopolitical storms brew, his aides have insisted that he can monitor world crises regardless of his locale. And generally they are correct."
Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "Bush's words served to buttress one of the main goals the McCain campaign had set for the second night of the convention: to present the candidate as a leader who takes action and speaks his mind regardless of the political toll. But Bush's presence, even if only on the big screens at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center, also complicated McCain's difficult task of convincing war-weary Americans that his administration would represent a departure from Bush at a time in which many voters say they want change in Washington. . . .
"Bush, along with Vice President Cheney, was scheduled to speak to the convention in person on Monday night but canceled to focus on preparations for Hurricane Gustav, which made landfall Monday on the Gulf Coast. . . .
"McCain aides, while expressing respect for the commander in chief, made clear they did not think Bush's presence would help the candidate. Even [McCain campaign manager Rick] Davis did not offer an effusive endorsement of the president's plan to address the convention. 'I think it's fine,' he said. 'Look, he's the president, he's got a lot of options available to him. I think he did a nice job over the last three or four days in dealing with the hurricane crisis. Our party still uniformly supports him and likes him.'"
David von Drehle writes for Time about how "the GOP showcased an endorsement from Al Gore's 2000 running mate while stuffing their incumbent president into a box. Literally. . . .
"All evening, the elephant in the room was the elephant not in the room. . . .
"Squeezed into the last minutes before prime time began, Bush used his moment -- less than half as long as Lieberman's -- to vouch for McCain as 'ready to lead this nation.' . . .
"The image of a fouled anchor is an official insignia of the U.S. Navy, embossed on jacket buttons and cap badges. As a graduate of the Naval Academy, the son and grandson of admirals, John S. McCain has been contemplating fouled anchors all his life.
"Now he has one dragging on his ambitions, an unpopular president mired in the polls and tangled in a troubled economy. It's nothing personal, but when a sailor -- or politician -- has exhausted all other strategies for hoisting the dead weight, he has no choice but to cut it loose."
Edwin Chen writes for Bloomberg: "George W. Bush became the first incumbent president to skip his party's nominating convention in 40 years. . . .
"Conventions typically pay homage to party elders. This time, however, the Bushes are playing a minor role even though the family is arguably the most successful in the Republican Party's history."
Chen notes that despite bringing on many former Bush aides -- and adopting their most controversial tactics -- the McCain campaign is still trying to maintain plausible deniability. "Mark Salter, a McCain confidant, described the former Bush aides as 'a bunch of good people' whose work for the president 'shouldn't be held against them.'"
Michael Crowley blogs for the New Republic: "He looked like a man in exile--or maybe a quarantined leper."
Rich Lowry blogs for the National Review: "Kind of sad and maybe even a little disrespectful that Bush was reduced to such a small role."The Angry Left?
The line in Bush's speech that won the most applause from the Republican delegates was this one: "Fellow citizens: If the Hanoi Hilton could not break John McCain's resolve to do what is best for his country, you can be sure the angry left never will."
Mark Silva blogs for the Chicago Tribune: "The angry Left?
"Is that McCain's opposition?
"Barack Obama wants to raise taxes, the Republicans are warning voters. And he is 'dangerously unprepared' to lead, their TV ads warn viewers. But 'angry?'"
And Matthew Yglesias blogs for thinkprogress.org: "The analogy between American liberals and Vietnamese Communists is extremely offensive."The Big Picture
Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post that "the party's titular leader has been largely an afterthought for Republicans this week. . . .
"While many delegates largely respect Bush for his values and wartime leadership, he has bequeathed McCain a difficult political landscape that practically demands that the senator from Arizona run a campaign distancing himself from the Bush administration.
"By almost every objective standard, Bush will leave his party worse off than it was when he was nominated eight years ago in Philadelphia. During his tenure, the GOP lost control of Congress and its dominance of statehouses slipped while losing about 200 seats in state legislatures. More than half of registered voters now identify themselves as Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents -- a tilt that is significantly more Democratic than at this time in any of the past three presidential election cycles. And Republicans enter the final stretch of the campaign season at a substantial financial disadvantage compared with their rivals.
"A McCain victory could radically change this picture. But every bit of evidence suggests that Bush and longtime political adviser Karl Rove were unable to achieve their ambitious and long-held objectives of expanding the GOP base and creating a durable Republican majority. Their hope of ending traditional Democratic dominance on such issues as health care (with a new Medicare prescription drug plan) and education (with the No Child Left Behind law) while growing the GOP tent to include more Latinos and African Americans has all but ended. Younger voters are fleeing the GOP in droves, prompting fears that if there is a party realignment, it probably will be a Democratic one. The Iraq war, meanwhile, has eroded the Republicans' traditional advantage on national security issues."
Rove, not surprisingly, doesn't share that analysis. He tells Abramowitz: "There was a systematic effort by liberal opponents of this administration to say two things: that he lied about the war and that he was incompetent. Neither is correct. . . . He was a successful president because he tackled big issues, bigger than his predecessor was willing to take on. In some he succeeded and in some he did not, but always he led."Laying Low
Bush is going a long way for a quick photo op today, traveling three and a half hours in either direction to spend 30 minutes in Baton Rouge, for a briefing on storm damage.
After that, his schedule is bare: Three days at Camp David, capped by a Tee Ball game on the White House lawn Sunday afternoon.That's the Drill
Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "Just one day after Hurricane Gustav lashed the Gulf Coast with much less intensity than first feared, President Bush pivoted back to politics on Tuesday. . . .
"Bush turned a hurricane statement into a case for oil drilling and blasted a familiar target: the Democratic Congress, which is less popular than he is. . . .
"A lashing at lawmakers for inaction is not unusual from Bush. But this one was. Timing and context can change everything in politics.
"It was only Sunday, with a natural disaster looming, that Sen. John McCain ordered his party to take off its Republican hats and wear American ones. A deadly storm that might rival Hurricane Katrina was looming, so the Republican National Convention was cut back. Business-as-usual partisanship was declared out of order.
"Then a weaker storm hit, the federal response went well, and the country seemed to take a collective sigh of relief.
"So Bush put that Republican hat right back on. . . .
"White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the president was not being partisan.
"'I looked at those points; I don't think that they were at all even up to the line in terms of being political,' Perino said. 'And I would say that our opponents, the Democrats, use every day, every opportunity to bash this president, and I just don't think we're going to worry about it.'"Iraq Watch
David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "Monday's turnover of responsibility to the Iraqis for security in Anbar Province, once Iraq's most violent territory, serves a purpose" for both McCain and Bush.
"It allows Mr. Bush to claim that five years after the invasion, Iraq is achieving stability, and it allows Mr. McCain to argue that he was the first to come up with the winning strategy, an infusion of additional troops.
"Mr. Bush skimmed past his long-running, very public argument with Mr. McCain over troop levels when he addressed the convention here on Tuesday night by video link.
"'Some told him that his early and consistent call for more troops would put his presidential campaign at risk,' Mr. Bush told the delegates. 'He told them he would rather lose an election than see his country lose a war. That is the kind of courage and vision we need in our next commander in chief.'
"That is likely to be a central element of Mr. McCain's campaign coming out of the convention, his policy aides here said."
But the lesson of Anbar is much more ambiguous than Bush and McCain might have you believe.
Tina Susman wrote in Tuesday's Los Angeles Times that although the handover was " touted by President Bush as a sign of U.S. success in Iraq" it was also "tinged with evidence of political friction and security threats bubbling below the surface."
Amit R. Paley wrote in Tuesday's Washington Post that "uncertainty lingered about the future of a linchpin in the effort to secure Anbar and the rest of Iraq: the Awakening movement, a 100,000-person group of former Sunni insurgents who now cooperate with U.S. troops.
"The Shiite-led government has recently stepped up a campaign to arrest leaders of the Awakening and dismantle parts of the program, whose members receive $300 a month from the U.S. military. Many fighters have abandoned their posts and fled their homes to avoid detention, stoking fears that some will rejoin the insurgency."
Dexter Filkins wrote in the New York Times that the calm "appears fragile in some respects."
And Filkins writes: "The striking turnaround in Anbar Province, accomplished by making deals with Sunni tribal leaders, has inevitably raised a question here: Could the Americans have avoided years of bloodshed by reaching out to the tribal leaders five and a half years ago?
"'Yes, yes,' [Mowaffak al-Rubaie, the national security adviser,] said, shaking his head. 'But they didn't know.' . . .
"Hamid al-Hais, a tribal leader . . . , said the trouble in Anbar could be traced to the fateful decisions of mid-2003, when L. Paul Bremer III, the chief administrator of the occupation, ordered the dissolution of the Iraqi Army -- a bastion of Sunni power under Mr. Hussein -- and the dismissal of senior members of Mr. Hussein's Baath party.
"That, Mr. Hais said . . . , had set in motion the Sunni insurgency, which is only now burning out."
As Fred Kaplan wrote last year for Slate, it's still not entirely clear how involved Bush himself was in that decision -- but there's no doubt that he bears the responsibility.Gonzales Watch
Carrie Johnson writes in The Washington Post: "Former attorney general Alberto R. Gonzales told investigators that he could not recall whether he took home notes regarding the government's most sensitive national security program and that he did not know they contained classified information, despite his own markings that they were 'top secret -- eyes only,' according to a Justice Department report released yesterday.
"Gonzales improperly carried notes about the warrantless wiretapping program in an unlocked briefcase and failed to keep them in a safe at his Northern Virginia home three years ago because he 'could not remember the combination,' the department's inspector general reported.
"A National Security Agency official who reviewed the notes said they contained references to operational aspects of the wiretapping initiative, including a top-secret code word for the program, information that had been 'zealously protected' by the agency and was 'not a close call' in terms of its sensitivity, the report said. . . .
"Mishandling classified material violates Justice policies and can result in criminal charges, but prosecutors in the department's national security division declined to bring a case after reviewing the allegations and consulting with career officials, spokesman Dean Boyd said. . . .
"The notes covered an 'emergency' meeting that President Bush held with congressional leaders in the White House Situation Room in early 2004, as authority for the warrantless wiretapping plan was set to expire.
"Gonzales and Andrew H. Card Jr., then presidential chief of staff, visited ailing Attorney General John D. Ashcroft in the intensive-care unit of George Washington University Hospital on March 10, 2004, in an apparent effort to persuade him to reauthorize the program over the objections of Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey."
Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Gonzales's mishandling of the classified documents adds a new embarrassment to the long list of problems that tainted his tenure as attorney general. He resigned one year ago, after two and a half years in the job, in the face of growing criticism from lawmakers over his role in the N.S.A. wiretapping program and in the dismissals of nine United States attorneys."
Lara Jakes Jordan writes for the Associated Press: "In the court of public opinion, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' best defense is memory failure. Again. . . .
"Whether anyone believes Gonzales' memory lapses is almost besides the point. It's one of the oldest lawyer tricks in the book: If you don't fully remember the details, don't say anything that might later land you in trouble."
And Jeff Stein blogs for CQ: "If lying to FBI agents was enough to send Scooter Libby to jail, why isn't it enough to prosecute Alberto Gonzales?
"Despite strong evidence in a today's Justice Department report that the former attorney general lied to federal investigators probing his careless handling of highly classified documents, the department declined to prosecute. . . .
"In a statement that doesn't pass the laugh test, Gonzales told IG investigators he didn't know the documents were secret. . . .
"But the IG found the smoking gun -- in Gonzales's hand, no less.
"The envelope containing documents related to the NSA surveillance program bore the handwritten markings, 'TOP SECRET - EYES ONLY - ARG' [the attorney general's initials] followed by an abbreviation for the SCI codeword for the program."
In their response to the report, Gonzales's lawyers write: "It is far too easy to forget that on September 11, 2001, the United States suffered a devastating, violent attack on its homeland and its citizens."
As for the hospital visit, the lawyers finally confirm that it was Bush himself who sent Gonzales and Card to Ashcroft's bedside. "Secretary Card and Judge Gonzales went to speak with the Attorney General because the President told them to do so," the lawyers write.Cheney Watch
Tabassum Zakaria reports for Reuters: "The United States has a deep interest in the wellbeing of its allies in the Caucasus region, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney said on Wednesday during a visit to Azerbaijan.
"'We've met this evening in the shadow of the recent Russian invasion of Georgia,' Cheney told reporters as he sat next to Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev.
"'President Bush has sent me here with a clear and simple message for the people of Azerbaijan and the entire region: the United States has a deep and abiding interest in your well-being and security.'"
Guy Chazan and John McKinnon write in the Wall Street Journal: "Vice President Dick Cheney will use his trip to the Caucasus this week to try to loosen Russia's grip on Caspian and Central Asian oil and gas exports. But he may be too late."
And AFP reports on some added drama on Cheney's next stop: "Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko claimed Wednesday he was the victim of a 'coup' attempt after parliament approved laws trimming presidential powers. . . .
"'A political and constitutional coup d'etat has started in the parliament,' Yushchenko said in a televised speech on Wednesday, a day after parliament passed laws reducing his powers and making it easier to impeach him. . . .
"The sudden flare-up in Ukraine came a day ahead of a planned visit to Kiev by Cheney, a trip seen as a show of Washington's backing for the pro-Western policy course pursued by Yushchenko, often against strong domestic opposition."The Palin-Bush Connection
Michael Isikoff blogs for Newsweek "The McCain team has hastily assembled a team of former Bush White House aides to tutor the vice-presidential candidate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, on foreign-policy issues, to write her speeches and to begin preparing her for her all-important Oct. 2 debate against Sen. Joe Biden.
"Steve Biegun, who once served as the No. 3 National Security Council official under Condoleezza Rice at the White House, has been hired as chief foreign-policy adviser to the Alaska governor, campaign officials told Newsweek. . . .
"Matt Scully, a former Bush White House speechwriter who helped draft some of the major foreign-policy addresses during the president's first term, is working on Palin's acceptance speech to the convention Wednesday night.
"Mark Wallace, a former lawyer for the Bush 2000 campaign who served in a variety of administration jobs including chief counsel at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and deputy ambassador to the United Nations, has been put in charge of 'prep' for the debate against Biden.
"Wallace's wife, Nicolle Wallace, the former White House communications director, has taken over the same job for Palin.
"Tucker Eskew, another senior Bush White House communications aide, is serving as senior counselor to Palin's operation.
"Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the former chief economist at the Council of Economic Advisers who has been serving as top economics guru for the McCain campaign, has moved over to serve as Palin's chief domestic-policy adviser."Cartoon Watch