Lunch of the POTUSes

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, January 7, 2009; 1:26 PM

Today's historic gathering of all the living presidents -- and one president-to-be -- was destined to be at least four-fifths love fest.

President Bush and President-Elect Barack Obama have been playing nicey-nice ever since the election, even though Obama's victory was largely due to voters seeing him as Bush's antithesis. George H.W. Bush and the man who defeated him in 1992, Bill Clinton, famously became buddies doing tsunami relief.

The outlier was Jimmy Carter, who has made no secret of his profound contempt for his host.

Back in May of 2007, Carter called President Bush "the worst in history" when it comes to international relations, and the White House shot back that Carter was "increasingly irrelevant." (See my column at the time, Carter Infuriates White House.) Carter quickly apologized, saying he is normally careful "not to criticize any president personally."

Perhaps. But Carter's speech at the 2004 Democratic convention remains one of the most blistering critiques of Bush's international legacy -- even though it came more than four years ago.

"The United States has alienated its allies, dismayed its friends and inadvertently gratified its enemies by proclaiming a confused and disturbing strategy of pre-emptive war," Carter intoned.

"In the meantime, the Middle East peace process has come to a screeching halt for the first time since Israel became a nation. All former Presidents, Democratic and Republican, have attempted to secure a comprehensive peace for Israel with hope and justice for the Palestinians. The achievements of Camp David a quarter century ago and the more recent progress made by President Bill Clinton are now in peril. Instead, violence has gripped the holy land with the region increasingly swept by anti-American passions. . . .

"Elsewhere, North Korea's nuclear menace, a threat far more real and immediate than any posed by Saddam Hussein, has been allowed to advance unheeded with potentially ominous consequences for peace and stability in Northeast Asia. These are some of the prices our government has paid with its radical departure from basic American principles and values. . . .

"In repudiating extremism, we need to recommit ourselves to a few common-sense principles that should transcend partisan differences. First, we cannot enhance our own security if we place in jeopardy what is most precious to us, namely, the centrality of human rights in our daily lives and in global affairs. Second, we cannot maintain our historic self-confidence as a people if we generate public panic. Third, we cannot do our duty as citizens and patriots if we pursue an agenda that polarizes and divides our country. Next, we cannot be true to ourselves if we mistreat others. And finally, in the world at large, we cannot lead if our leaders mislead."

Until today, Bush has been at great pains to keep Carter at a distance. For instance, Carter's notable absence from the president-filled delegation to the April 2005 funeral of Pope John Paul II has never been fully explained.

One of the rare occasions when the two have crossed paths was the nationally televised funeral of civil rights icon Coretta Scott King. As I wrote in my column at the time, with Bush fidgeting in the background, Carter declared: "The struggle for equal rights is not over. We only have to recall the color of the faces of those in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, those who are most devastated by Katrina to know that there are not yet equal opportunities for all Americans."

And as I reported this past May, Bush lashed back at Carter in an interview with Mike Allen of Politico.

Allen: "Now, Mr. President, President Carter recently told Charlie Rose the next President could change America's image in 10 minutes. Here's what he said: 'I think the next President could change the image of this country around the world in 10 minutes by making an inaugural speech that would start off and say, "As long as I'm President we will never torture another prisoner, as long as I'm President we will never attack or invade another country unless our own security is directly threatened."'"

Bush: "Yes, well, what he ought to be saying is, is that America doesn't torture. If the implication there is that we do now, then he's wrong. And you bet we're going to protect ourselves by the use of military force. What he really is implying is -- or some imply -- you can be popular; if you want to be popular in the Middle East just go blame Israel for every problem. That will make you popular. Or if you want to be popular in Europe, say you're going to join the International Criminal Court.

"Popularity is fleeting, Michael. Principles are forever."

Here's what White House Press Secretary Dana Perino had to say about the lunch earlier today: "[A]lthough they may disagree on some policy prescriptions in order to solve problems in America, they're obviously all rooting for the same team. And they will have a chance today to have a rare opportunity of being together in one room to share ideas and viewpoints, war stories and experiences here at the White House.

"The last such meeting at the White House was on October 8, 1981, when all living former Presidents -- Nixon, Ford and Carter -- met Ronald Reagan before departing for the funeral of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

"The President will also meet with -- our President, 43, will meet with President-Elect Obama for 20 to 30 minutes prior to the lunch today. That will be a one-on-one meeting."

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press about the photo-op before lunch: "President-elect Barack Obama hailed a rare Oval Office gathering of all U.S. presidents as extraordinary on Wednesday, while President George W. Bush wished him well and pledged that the office 'transcends the individual.' . . .

"'All the gentlemen here understand both the pressures and possibilities of this office,' Obama said. "For me to have the opportunity to get advice, good counsel and fellowship with these individuals is extraordinary.' . . .

"'I want to thank the president-elect for joining the ex-presidents for lunch,' Bush said, even though he's not quite a member of that club yet."

Favors for Loyalists

On his way out the door, Bush is giving some of his most loyal aides plum appointments that will last long after he heads back to Texas.

CNN reports: "President Bush made another round of last-minute appointments Tuesday, giving 45 aides, supporters and others a parting gift as he leaves office: presidential appointments to boards and councils, with terms lasting three to six years after he leaves office."

Indeed. Here's the announcement.

Four senior White House aides -- special counsels Emmet Flood and William A. Burck, counsel Fred F. Fielding and deputy national security advisor Daniel M. Price -- were named to six-year terms as members of the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, an offshoot of the World Bank. The appointments carry no direct compensation, but put them on a select list of conciliators or arbitrators available to serve in certain investment disputes, at a rate of at least $3,000 a day plus expenses.

And as the Jewish Telegraph Agency reports: "President Bush stacked his final selection of appointees to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council with senior Jewish members of his administration.

"Among 11 appointees announced Tuesday evening were Josh Bolten, Bush's chief of staff; Elliott Abrams, a deputy national security adviser responsible for the Middle East; Michael Chertoff, the homeland security secretary; Michael Mukasey, the attorney-general; and Cheryl Halpern, the former chairwoman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting whom Bush has also recently nominated as an alternate delegate to the United Nations."

Another appointment went to Sanford Gottesman -- not himself a White House aide, but a campaign donor and the father of President George W. Bush's deputy chief of staff, Blake Gottesman.

Members of that board historically have not received compensation, a museum spokesman told me today.

Ken Herman earlier blogged for Cox News Service about Bush's Christmas Eve personnel announcement, which also favored some top aides.

"Israel Hernandez, a deputy commerce secretary who began as Bush's personal aide in the 1994 gubernatorial campaign, and former Deputy Transportation Secretary and ex-Bush campaign honcho Maria Cino were named to four-year terms on the Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations.

"Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and White House political director Barry Jackson were given six-year terms on the board of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

"Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, an accomplished pianist, got a six-year term on the board of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts."

The Budget Mess

Steven Thomma writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "President-elect Barack Obama Tuesday ripped outgoing President George W. Bush for 'irresponsibly' doubling the federal debt, then warned that he could preside over trillion-dollar-a-year deficits for 'years to come.'

"Huddling with his budget team, Obama told reporters he would ban pork barrel spending projects known as earmarks from his proposal to stimulate the economy. He also vowed to make the difficult choices necessary to curb runaway deficits and debt.

"He said, however, that he wouldn't propose his first federal budget until after the stimulus proposal -- which itself could cost about $800 billion. And he cautioned that staggering annual deficits would continue even after that.

"'At the current course and speed, a trillion-dollar deficit will be here before we even start the next budget,' Obama said at his Washington transition office."

Lori Montgomery writes in The Washington Post: "'We are going to bring a long-overdue sense of responsibility and accountability to Washington,' Obama said. 'We are going to stop talking about government reform, and we're actually going to start executing.'

"Bush's tax cuts helped eliminate the surpluses of the Clinton years and helped drive the annual budget deficit to a record $413 billion in 2004. The deficit later plummeted to $162 billion in 2007 but soared to $455 billion in the fiscal year that ended in September, largely because of a small stimulus package enacted last February, slowing tax revenues and rising expenses in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Jeff Zeleny and Edmund L. Andrews write in the New York Times: "Mr. Obama sought to distinguish between the need to run what is likely to be record-setting deficits for several years and the necessity to begin bringing them down markedly in subsequent years. . . .

"In his most explicit language on the subject since winning the election, Mr. Obama sought to reassure lawmakers and the financial markets that he was aware of the long-term dangers of running huge deficits and would take steps to limit and eventually reduce them."

The Panetta Selection

Karen DeYoung and Joby Warrick writes in The Washington Post: "President-elect Barack Obama said yesterday that he has selected a 'top-notch intelligence team' that would provide the 'unvarnished' information his administration needs, rather than 'what they think the president wants to hear.' . . .

"In a clear reference to harsh interrogation policies, including waterboarding, that were used against CIA terrorism detainees, Obama said his team would be 'committed to breaking with some of the past practices and concerns that have, I think, tarnished the image of . . . the intelligence agencies as well as U.S. foreign policy.'"

The main focus of DeYoung and Warrick's story, however, is that some members of the intelligence community -- including those who think Obama should "think twice" about banning torture as an interrogation tactic -- are upset over his choice of Leon E. Panetta as CIA director. Panetta, who has no direct intelligence experience, is also a vocal opponent of torture. (See yesterday's column.)

And here's an almost comical image from their story: Senior CIA officials -- from the agency that has operated secret prisons and covertly tortured terror suspects -- complaining that the selection process was "opaque."

Meanwhile, David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Here's the message, according to Obama's advisers: Panetta is a Washington heavyweight with the political clout to protect the agency and help it rebuild after a traumatic eight years under George Bush, when it became a kind of national pincushion. . . .

"A quick survey of CIA sources indicated support for Panetta among a workforce that is notoriously prickly -- and that has demonstrated an ability to sabotage bosses it doesn't like."

Tim Rutten writes in his Los Angeles Times opinion column: "President-elect Barack Obama should ignore the sudden hysteria over his choice for director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Despite what some congressional critics are saying, there's every reason to believe former California congressman Leon Panetta will do as well or better than most of his predecessors."

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "Panetta is expected to try to restore a moral compass to the CIA, which periodically loses its way. . . . Panetta is a proven Washington figure, but he must be confirmed first, and his lack of expertise in intelligence issues could provide a pretext for senators who are comfortable with the status quo."

The Boston Globe editorial board writes that Panetta is a good choice: "Under Panetta, the CIA will no longer cut the cloth of intelligence to suit the designs of policy makers. And Panetta can be counted on to enforce the rule he set down last year, when he wrote that the United States 'must not use torture under any circumstances.'"

The San Francisco Chronicle editorial board writes: "The CIA, like the rest of the nation's intel operations, is in serious need of renewal after reckless rule-bending by the Bush team.

"Since Sept. 11, 2001, when the CIA famously missed the warning signs, the list of miscues has grown: secret prisons, harsh interrogations including waterboarding, and warrantless wiretaps. Inexperience - meaning a distance from these disastrous practices - sounds like an advantage."

The Chicago Sun-Times editorial board writes: "[W]e like where this is going: a United States of America that once again holds sacred civil liberties and human rights."

Obama's Two Number-One Challenges

Deb Riechmann and Lolita C. Baldor write for the Associated Press: "Israel and militant Palestinians are locked in deadly battle in the Middle East, but Iran poses the biggest challenge in the region to the incoming Obama administration, President George W. Bush's national security adviser says.

"At the same time, the Mideast offers President-elect Barack Obama the greatest opportunity to put his imprint on world affairs, Stephen Hadley said, referring to the need for a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace accord that eluded both Bush and former President Bill Clinton."

Biggest challenge, Iran. Got it. But wait.

John D. McKinnon writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The biggest foreign-policy challenge awaiting President-elect Barack Obama isn't Iraq or Afghanistan but Pakistan, President George W. Bush's national-security adviser said.

"In an interview previewing a valedictory speech he plans to give on Wednesday, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said Pakistan's increasingly turbulent border region poses threats not just to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, but also to neighboring India, as evidenced by the recent Mumbai terrorist attacks, as well as to urban areas of Pakistan itself -- and the world beyond."

Obama, Bush and Gaza

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "After days of studied silence on the Gaza conflict, Obama promised yesterday 'to hit the ground running' on achieving a broad Middle East peace deal.

"'We are going to engage effectively and consistently in trying to resolve the conflicts that exist in the Middle East,' he told reporters, adding that 'the loss of civilian life in Gaza and Israel is a source of deep concern to me, and after January 20th I am going to have plenty to say about the issue.'"

Kessler also traces today's crisis, in part, to a series of Bush decisions. Consider:

"[T]he Bush administration encouraged Israel to withdraw from Gaza and demolish its settlements there, arguing that it was a step forward on peace. But, as a condition, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2004 demanded a letter from President Bush in which the United States conceded two critical peace issues on settlements and refugees to Israel. The Israeli government later cited the letter as giving implicit permission to continue some settlement expansion during peace talks brokered late in the Bush administration, undermining those efforts.

"The Bush administration also did not effectively push Israel to negotiate its 2005 withdrawal from Gaza with [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas, who had just been elected president after [Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser] Arafat died. Abbas wanted to demonstrate that he could negotiate with the Israelis, but Jerusalem withdrew from Gaza unilaterally, as had been the plan when Arafat was still alive.

"Ghaith al-Omari, a former top Abbas aide, remembers bitterly that Hamas strung up a huge banner after Israeli troops departed: 'Three Years of Intifada Beat Ten Years of Negotiations.'

"'Hamas took all the credit for the withdrawal,' Omari said. 'It was a clear strategic mistake.'

"Then the United States pushed for legislative elections in the Palestinian territories in early 2006, hoping for a demonstration of democracy on the march in the Middle East. The Israelis tried to sound a warning about including Hamas on the election list. In October 2005, then-Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (now foreign minister) flew to Washington to plead that Hamas not be permitted to run, only to be told by U.S. officials: 'Don't worry, Hamas won't win.'

"Hamas defeated Fatah, instantly elevating its status and spawning the crisis that led to today's conflict. Hamas eventually took over all of Gaza, giving it the ability to terrorize Israeli cities with increasingly sophisticated rockets."

Bush and the Oceans

As expected, Bush yesterday designated three huge new marine national monuments in the Pacific Ocean.

The New York Times editorial board writes: "It's strange but true. Mr. Bush, who has been monumentally indifferent to the health of continents and the atmosphere, is going down in history as a protector of the oceans. . . .

"Big as they are, the monuments are not nearly enough to offset eight years of Mr. Bush's bad environmental policies, marked by inaction on climate change, the sacrifice of millions of acres of public lands to oil and gas exploration, and indifference bordering on hostility to endangered species and fragile ecosystems. . . .

"Melting ice caps and ocean acidification are an urgent threat to the very fish, reefs and islands that Mr. Bush lately has seen fit to protect."

Legacy Watch

Lydia Saad and Jeffrey M. Jones write for Gallup: "[T]he American public perceives that more ground has been lost than gained in the United States over the past eight years on a whole range of issues. Bush leaves office with his efforts to combat AIDS being the achievement Americans are most likely to give him credit for improving. . . .

"The public also generally perceives that race relations have improved on Bush's watch -- 40% say the country has gained ground in this area versus 25% who say it has lost ground. But that could largely be ascribed to Barack Obama's election as the nation's first black president. . . .

"While Bush argues that the country has been made safer by his anti-terrorism policies -- the proof being that no major terrorist incident has occurred on U.S. soil since 9/11 -- Americans are only marginally positive about the nation's progress on terrorism. Roughly 4 in 10 say the United States has made progress on terrorism and national defense -- two of the highest such marks for any issue in the poll. However, nearly as many say the country has lost ground in these areas, leaving net scores just slightly above 0 (+3 for both issues).

"Americans are overwhelmingly negative about the paths the U.S. economy and the U.S. position in the world have taken under Bush, and in general are more negative than positive about how conditions have changed in 10 of 14 major areas since Bush took office."

Garrison Keillor writes in Salon about Bush leaving the White House "with a big grin in a couple of weeks, his self-esteem apparently fully intact, imagining that his legacy will emerge golden and shining in a hundred years after all of us are deceased. He is one of the cheerfullest idiots you ever saw, a man who could burn down his own house and be happy that the patio was still standing."

Matthew Dallek writes in an opinion piece for Politico: "Conservative intellectuals, pundits and policymakers will be more likely to tar Bush as a traitor to conservative principles than to defend him as a clear-eyed comrade-in-arms and a man of foresight and wisdom. Karl Rove and Karen Hughes, George and Laura Bush, and Rice and Donald Rumsfeld will continue to give interviews. Some will write memoirs. And all will defend Bush as a good man who restored 'honor' and 'dignity' to the Oval Office, who kept Americans safe after Sept. 11 and who will be vindicated by historical developments that have yet to happen. But this will be a tiny coterie of courtiers and loyalists whose spin will not be enough to save Bush from the historical juggernaut that is coming his way."

By contrast, Hugh Hewitt, also in Politico, concludes: "Here was an extraordinary and controversial man who accomplished a great deal, lost many battles, stood by his friends sometimes too long and could be stubborn beyond political calculation but who accomplished his most urgent task of protecting the union against its many enemies. The successful completion of that task is what all great presidents have in common."

The View of Bush From Beyond the Beltway

Lots of Washington-based journalists are looking back on the last eight years, of course. But I find myself particularly interested in the views of Bush's presidency from outside the Beltway. How did Bush affect the lives of ordinary Americans? What do people who aren't necessarily obsessed with politics make of his legacy? And what do people in other countries think was most important?

So I'd like your help finding examples of news stories and opinion columns from outside the Beltway that look back on the Bush era. I already read the major national newspapers, and the work of many Washington bureaus, so what I'm looking for are examples from local and regional papers -- and international sources -- written by people outside Washington. Let's try to collect as many as we can - and then call attention to the most interesting and evocative.

For this project, I'm collaborating with NewsTrust.net, a non-profit social news network devoted to quality journalism. Based on ratings from its reviewers, NewsTrust offers unique web review tools that help people find good journalism online.

Check out NewsTrust's special topic page on the Bush Legacy: Beyond the Beltway, then join the "news hunt." Sign up as a NewsTrust member to review some of these stories yourself, as well as submit new stories from outside the Beltway.

You can also share your thoughts in my White House Watchers discussion group.

Packing Up

From yesterday's press briefing:

Q. "Dana, how will it work around here -- I mean, two weeks out -- how did it work around here? When do boxes start coming out? When do you start putting things away? When do the -- when does the First Family pack up and the moving vans come in? How does all that work?"

Perino: "Well, you know how -- the President's style is always to be one that's a little bit prepared early, and he and Mrs. Bush have been working to box things up. They didn't come with a lot of things; they didn't bring a lot of furniture here. So mostly what they have are books, obviously their clothes, and then some of the things that they've picked up along the way on their travels as they've traveled.

"So they're trying to box those things up, and then they'll be headed down to Texas I think over time -- over the next couple of weeks, a little bit before the 20th."

The Blair House Mystery

Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post: "The veil is lifted. We now know who is booked at Blair House, kicking President-elect Barack Obama and his family to the waiting list and across Lafayette Square to the Hay-Adams Hotel.

"The only overnight visitor at the presidential guest manse is none other than John Howard, a former Australian prime minister and leading member of President Bush's coalition of the willing in Iraq.

"Howard and his entourage will be bunking at Blair House on Jan. 12, the night before he, former British prime minister Tony Blair and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe are to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bush, said Sally McDonough, a spokeswoman for first lady Laura Bush."

'I Don't Hear Voices'

Another mystery resolved in the latest Bush "exit interview," this one with conservative columnist Cal Thomas:

Thomas: "Before a major decision, before launching the toppling of Saddam, do you say, 'you know, God, if I'm not making the right decision, step in and check -- stop me'? How does it practically work?"

Bush: "For me, prayer is wisdom and strength, protect my family; protect the troops. Look, you make the best decisions you can at the time and you listen to a lot of advisers who are here to provide you good, sound advice. I'm spiritual; I'm not mystical."

Thomas: "What does that mean?"

Bush: "It means that I don't hear voices. I don't hear voices. I know that I have to make tough calls based upon the circumstances at the time. And so that's why I say, for me, prayer is a very personal, personal matter."

The Bush Brand

Damien Cave writes in the New York Times: "Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida said Tuesday that he would not run in 2010 for the Senate seat being vacated by Mel Martinez, ending speculation about whether he could renew the Bush brand from Congress."

Bush Library Watch

The Dallas Morning News editorial board writes: "The question has loomed since the earliest discussions about President George W. Bush's presidential library: Will the donors' names be disclosed? . . .

"Now, the library foundation has confirmed what had become apparent. No contributor lists will be made public.

"That's disappointing. . . .

"Although not a single brick has been laid for the Bush library, the venture already has faced opposition from professors, religious groups and their supporters. Bush could underscore his commitment to creating a credible academic institute by disclosing donors.

"Otherwise, critics will be free to speculate: What's there to hide?"

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on Bush's secret plan, Jim Morin on Richard Milhous Cheney, John Darkow on turning over the keys, Chan Lowe on Bush's memoirs, and Pat Bagley on the Bush legacy.

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