Something to Watch For Tonight

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Friday, October 8, 2004; 9:29 AM

Here's a debate-watching tip: Perk up your ears every time President Bush says "of course" tonight.

Because if recent history is a guide, what's coming is a statement that his supporters might find obvious, but that his critics might consider a whopper.

I first noticed this after last week's debate. (Here's the full text.)

"Of course we're after Saddam Hussein -- I mean bin Laden," Bush said early on.

Depending on where you're coming from, politically, that's either manifestly true or a Freudian slip exposing a significant falsehood.

Later in the debate, Bush said: "And, of course, Iraq is a central part in the war on terror."

Well, that was precisely the number one point of contention that night.

So I decided to see when else Bush said "of course." And here is every other use of the phrase on debate night:

• "Of course we're doing everything we can to protect America."

• After Kerry asserted that Bush rebuffed the United Nation's offer to play a role in post-war Iraq: "Of course, the U.N. was invited in."

• "First of all, of course I know Osama bin Laden attacked us. I know that."

• "Of course, we change tactics when need to, but we never change our beliefs, the strategic beliefs that are necessary to protect this country in the world."

They all have something in common, don't they?

Bush's views were being challenged that night, and his use of the phrase "of course" sounded defensive in nature. So I decided to go back and look at how Bush used the phrase in other situations recently where he was confronted by tough questions.

Here's Bush's sole use of the phrase at his joint press conference with Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, last month:

• Talking about his decision to attack Saddam Hussein, Bush said: "Of course, I was hoping it could be done diplomatically. But diplomacy failed. And so the last resort of a President is to use force. And we did. And now we're -- we're helping the Iraqis."

And do you remember Bush's last prime-time press conference in April? Here's every time he used the phrase then:

• "And of course I want to know why we haven't found a weapon yet."

• Speaking of the President's Daily Brief that he received a month before Sept. 11, 2001, headlined: "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US," Bush said: "And of course that concern[ed] me."

• "[I]s there anything we could have done to stop the attacks? Of course I've asked that question, as have many people of my Government."

• "But of course, I expect to get valid information. I can't make good decisions unless I get valid information."

• Speaking of the war on terror: "And my fear, of course, is that this will go on for a while."

• "One of the interesting things people ask me, now that we're asking questions, is, 'Can you ever win the war on terror?' Of course you can."

The Big Mo.

So can President Bush win back the momentum in Missouri?

It may depend on what kinds of questions he gets at the debate in St. Louis tonight -- softballs, hardballs or screwballs?

Judy Keen write in USA Today: "He's no Oprah, and his audiences are supporters who don't usually ask tough questions, but President Bush has an aptitude for the town hall format that will be used in tonight's debate with Sen. John Kerry."

USA Today has some handy figures, too. "Number of question-and-answer sessions President Bush has done with audiences this year: 19

"Number that were open to the public: None. . . .

"Number of Q&A sessions where audience members told Bush they pray for him: 7 "

David L. Greene writes in the Baltimore Sun: "After a disappointing first debate, the president also has ample room to improve tonight. Merely avoiding looking annoyed could garner positive reviews."

Peter Slevin writes in The Washington Post about the preparations in St. Louis.

"Secrecy about the questions is one essential rule among many for what is expected to be the least predictable of the three presidential debates. Rather than a journalist designing questions, Friday night's town hall session will be turned over to the worries and musings of prospective voters.

"The 100 to 150 participants were chosen by the Gallup polling organization. They may have opinions about the candidates. They may be leaning to one candidate or the other. But they must also have told a Gallup representative that they might still vote for the other guy."

Ron Hutcheson and Thomas Fitzgerald write for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Bush heads into the second presidential debate, a town-hall meeting in St. Louis, after a lackluster performance in the first contest and a week of news that called into question his handling of the Iraq war. Recent polls show that Kerry, the underdog before the debate Sept. 30, either has closed the gap or has a narrow lead over the president."

Bush in the Bubble

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "Several Bush advisers said the president may well pay a price for his decision to remain isolated from tough or unexpected questions when he faces Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), whose events are notably less scripted, in a town-hall-style debate tonight at Washington University in St. Louis. . . .

"Although all presidents are kept somewhat removed from reality because of security concerns and their staffs' impulse for burnishing their image, Bush's campaign has taken unprecedented steps to shield him from dissenters and even from curious, undecided voters."

And have you wondered why reporters don't just shout questions at the president, if he won't talk to them otherwise?

Allen explains: "The tradition of the White House news corps shouting questions at the president has largely faded during this term because Bush reacts testily and does not answer, and his staff typically sets up events so he does not have to walk near reporters."

What's That on Bush's Back?

Dave Lindorff writes in Salon: "Was President Bush literally channeling Karl Rove in his first debate with John Kerry? That's the latest rumor flooding the Internet, unleashed last week in the wake of an image caught by a television camera during the Miami debate. The image shows a large solid object between Bush's shoulder blades as he leans over the lectern and faces moderator Jim Lehrer. . . .

"Repeated calls to the White House and the Bush national campaign office over a period of three days, inquiring about what the president may have been wearing on his back during the debate, and whether he had used an audio device at other events, went unreturned."

For the latest in the breathless Internet speculation, go to

'Pushing the Limits of Subjective Interpretation'

Adam Nagourney and Richard W. Stevenson write in the New York Times that "the scathing indictment that Mr. Bush offered of Mr. Kerry over the past two days -- on the eve of the second presidential debate and with polls showing the race tightening" took even Bush's negative campaigning to a blistering new level.

"In the process, several analysts say, Mr. Bush pushed the limits of subjective interpretation and offered exaggerated or what some Democrats said were distorted accounts of Mr. Kerry's positions on health care, tax cuts, the Iraq war and foreign policy. . . .

"Mr. Bush's aides defended Mr. Bush's statements, saying that the president had fairly spotlighted positions Mr. Kerry has taken over the years. . . .

"But other analysts, including some Republicans, said Mr. Bush was repeatedly taking phrases and sentences out of context, or cherry-picking votes, to provide an unfavorable case against Mr. Kerry."

Bush and WMD

Bush commented on the CIA report on Iraq's weapons capability yesterday, largely ignoring its central point: That Bush's central rationales for going to war in Iraq (the original ones, that is) have been proven to be wrong.

Matea Gold and Maura Reynolds write in the Los Angeles Times: "The Bush administration cited the existence of the weapons as the central rationale for going to war in March 2003. Responding to the CIA report Thursday morning, Bush did not mention the lack of their existence. Instead, he spoke as though the CIA report contained evidence justifying the war."

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "Bush said the report by chief U.S. weapons inspector Charles A. Duelfer, while concluding that Hussein possessed no such weapons at the time of the war, revealed that the former Iraqi leader hoped to manipulate the international community into ending sanctions with the intent of restarting his weapons programs."

Kerry responded by saying "the president of the United States and the vice president of the United States may well be the last two people on the planet who won't face the truth about Iraq."

David E. Sanger and Jodi Wilgoren write in the New York Times: "Both Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney focused on sections of the report saying that Mr. Hussein had wanted to reconstitute his weapons programs at some point and that he had found his way around economic sanctions."

OK, so Dana Priest asks in The Washington Post: "Did Saddam Hussein intend to restart his weapons programs if the crippling U.N. sanctions were lifted?

"Charles A. Duelfer, the top U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, found no plans and no existing capability to restart these programs, and he said in his report released Wednesday that divining Hussein's intention 'is like having the picture box cover of a jigsaw puzzle to guide the assembly of the component puzzle pieces.' "

Ronald Brownstein writes in a Los Angeles Times news analysis: "The study comes as violence continues to plague Iraq. The situation exposes Bush to a potentially dangerous squeeze: mounting losses on the ground combined with mounting challenges to his original justification for the war."

Here's the text of Bush's statement, and the transcript of his campaign rally in Wisconsin.

Plame Watch

Adam Liptak writes in the New York Times: "A federal judge held a reporter for The New York Times in contempt of court on Thursday for refusing to name her sources to prosecutors investigating the disclosure of the identity of a covert C.I.A. agent.

"The reporter, Judith Miller, published no articles about the agent, Valerie Plame. Even so, the judge, Thomas F. Hogan, of United States District Court in Washington, ordered her jailed for as long as 18 months, noting that she had contemplated writing such an article and had conducted interviews for it."

Bush's Economic Record

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post about the "mounting budget deficits and debt that may prove to be one of Bush's most enduring legacies. . . .

"Four years ago, the outlook was very different."

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times that "the record is mixed. The economy has been growing since late in 2001, robustly at times. But despite three substantial tax-cut packages -- Mr. Bush signed a fourth into law this week -- job creation has been modest at best. The government's financial condition has deteriorated. Polls show that many Americans doubt conditions are improving.

"Mr. Bush, though, has expressed no doubts that his is the right course."

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "In a sign that Mr. Bush's tax cuts have had a bigger impact on the federal deficit than administration officials have often suggested, personal and corporate income taxes are both lower than they were in 2000 even though personal income and corporate profits are both substantially higher."

Lynne Cheney Watch

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Jean Merl write in the Los Angeles Times: "The Education Department this summer destroyed more than 300,000 copies of a booklet designed for parents to help their children learn history after the office of Vice President Dick Cheney's wife complained that it mentioned the National Standards for History, which she has long opposed."

Last decade, Lynne Cheney "led a vociferous campaign complaining that the standards were not positive enough about America's achievements."

JibJab Watch

The folks who brought you "This Land" are out with "It's Good to Be in D.C.."

Froomkin Watch

I'm taking a few days off. See you again on Wednesday.

© 2004