Just Don't Call It a Vacation

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, August 20, 2004; 11:09 AM

President Bush spent the day yesterday on his Texas ranch riding his mountain bike and watching the Olympics on TV. But don't call it a vacation.

Bush arrived at his 1,600-acre Prairie Chapel ranch in Crawford on Wednesday night, where he'll spend a week enjoying a bit of down time. (That's the White House's preferred phrasing.)

Other than his daily national security briefing and a meeting Monday with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and senior defense officials, his public calendar is a wide open space.

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press that both the president and first lady have at least one clear order of business, though:

"He's working on the acceptance speech he'll deliver in two weeks at the Republican National Convention. She's working on one she'll deliver earlier at the convention."

Another possible course of action, as Adam Entous writes for Reuters: "President Bush is expected to issue directives as early as next week based on some of the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission, including improving intelligence sharing between agencies."

So just how many days has Bush spent down timing?

CBS Radio's Mark Knoller keeps meticulous tabs on Bush's every move and files this report for the cbsnews.com Web site:

"A CBS News tally shows that President Bush is now making his 38th visit to his Prairie Chapel ranch since taking office. Add up the number of full or partial days he has been there -- it comes out to 254.

"That's about 20 percent of his presidency. Add in his time at Camp David and the Bush family home in Kennebunkport, Maine, and the percentage more than doubles. And the White House is self-conscious about it."

Knoller concludes: "Though it's definitely worth noting how much time Mr. Bush spends at his ranch -- it's unfair to say it's all vacation -- it's certainly a vacation atmosphere."

Want to get a feel for Crawford? Visit the town's Web site.

No Swift Denunciation

Yesterday's gaggle with press secretary Scott McClellan in Crawford is worth a read.

Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry charged yesterday that a group attacking his military record was operating as a front organization for President Bush.

"And the fact that the President won't denounce what they're up to tells you everything you need to know -- he wants them to do his dirty work," Kerry said.

So at the gaggle, McClellan was pounded by reporters asking him either to denounce the ad or explain why he wouldn't.

McClellan insisted that the White House condemns all ads from independent groups. McClellan also repeatedly said that the White House itself has never questioned Kerry's service. But he wouldn't denounce the ad.

An excerpt from the gaggle:

"Q On the Swift Boat ad, Kerry is saying that the President is relying on front groups to challenge Kerry's war record. Why won't the President denounce this particular ad? McCain asked the President to do so, and every day that you don't condemn it, it just leaves the door open for the issue to continue.

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, Pete, I think there's a little bit of a mischaracterization there. Senator Kerry knows that his latest attack is false and baseless. The President has condemned all of the ads by the shadowy groups. We have called on Senator Kerry to join us in calling for an end to all the unregulated soft money activity that is going on in this campaign. And the President has stayed focused on the issues and the choices that the voters face. That's what this ought to be about. There are some clear choices that the voters face for the future. This should not be about the past, and we've made that very clear.

"Q But don't you think you could put this matter to rest if you would just condemn this particular ad? That's what Kerry is asking.

"MR. McCLELLAN: And the President has condemned all of the ads and condemned all of the soft money -- unregulated soft money that is going on. Senator Kerry should join us in calling for an end to all of this soft money -- unregulated soft money activity. Senator Kerry has declined to do so. The President has been on the receiving end of more than $62 million in negative, false attacks from these shadowy groups that exist. The President thought that we got rid of all of this kind of soft money activity when he signed the campaign finance reforms into law. Apparently Senator Kerry was against this soft money activity previously, too. Now he appears to be for it, as long as it benefits his campaign.

"Q There are the ads, and then there's the charge within the ads. Last week at one of the 'Ask President Bush' events, a voter stood up and repeated the charge that Senator Kerry had self-inflicted wounds in Vietnam. The President didn't say anything. What does the President think about the charge?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Terry, the President thinks that we should get rid of all of this unregulated soft money activity by these shadowy groups. It's not known who is contributing to these groups. The President believes that there ought to be full disclosure and rapid disclosure of contributions. He's called for that previously. He has set an example by doing that himself."

(I wrote about the "Ask the President" exchange mentioned there in Monday's column.)

And later on in the gaggle:

"Q Do you believe it's fair game for allies of the President to be charging that John Kerry served dishonorably?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, ultimately in any campaign the voters are going to make the ultimate decision on all the issues. But this goes to the issue of shadowy groups that are funded by unregulated soft money. That's what this issue is about.

"Q By not condemning this ad, you are leaving the impression that you support the contention that John Kerry served dishonorably.

"MR. McCLELLAN: We condemned all the ads, Dana. We condemned all the ads. The President condemned all the ads. You heard from him just recently. Why won't -- why won't Senator Kerry join us in calling for an end to of this activity, when we've been on the receiving end of substantial amounts of money of this kind of activity.

"Q Forget about the ads. Why won't you disassociate yourself from the charge that John Kerry served dishonorably in Vietnam?

"MR. McCLELLAN: We've never questioned his service, and we never will. So I think we've made that very clear."

Kate Zernike and Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times examine the formation of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the group that is leading the attacks on Kerry. "A series of interviews and a review of documents show a web of connections to the Bush family, high-profile Texas political figures and President Bush's chief political aide, Karl Rove," Zernike and Rutenberg write.

Also at the Gaggle

White House reporters have noticed that McClellan is answering more and more questions that are overtly campaign-related, rather than referring them to his campaign counterpart.

"Q Scott, there was a time when you and other White House -- the President's spokespeople in the White House referred all questions about the campaign to the campaign organization. That's no longer the case. I'm just wondering, has an affirmative decision been made that, basically, the White House and the campaign are now one in the same? Have we reached that point, or maybe we've turned a corner?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Look, we've always defended the President's record and set the record straight when needed, and we will continue to do that. But in terms of any defining moment, no, I wouldn't look at it that way, and I don't know that everything has always been referred to the campaign. Certainly the campaign can provide you with some additional information when there are political attacks launched.

"Q Can you talk a little bit about how the President is juggling his two roles now, as a candidate and as the President, his day job and also being out so much campaigning?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, wherever the President is, he is always focused on his official duties. He is President of the United States 24-7. Obviously there is a -- this is a campaign season, as well. And so he -- and we have the White House staff, and then you have the campaign staff. And he's certainly involved in some of the campaign strategizing and planning, and he is certainly spending some time focusing on the upcoming Republican Convention in New York. So he's working on his remarks and he's going to continue to focus more and more on his agenda going forward for the American people."

Not Winning Hearts and Minds

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration is facing growing criticism from both inside and outside its ranks that it has failed to move aggressively enough in the war of ideas against Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups over the three years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001."

Wright notes that "in a report to Congress in October, the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy warned that cultural exchanges and similar efforts to win the hearts and minds of Muslims were 'absurdly and dangerously underfunded.'"

Here's the text of that report.

Wright also reminds us that "President Bush used bold language last November in pledging to end six decades of U.S. policy that opted for stability in the oil-rich region over promoting liberty, including in such key allies as Egypt."

Certainly Not Working in Venezuela

Juan Forero writes in the New York Times that President Hugo Chávez's triumph in a Venezuelan referendum was "a blow to the Bush administration, which has struggled with how to deal with Mr. Chávez, a leftist firebrand who presides over the world's fifth-largest oil exporter and has opposed Washington on every major initiative in Latin America."

Social Security Watch

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Even as President Bush has started telling voters that overhauling Social Security would be a key part of his second-term agenda, he is likely to avoid offering specifics before election day, according to Bush aides, lawmakers and privatization advocates. . . .

"Purposefully left unanswered are the most divisive questions -- such as what fraction of a worker's payroll taxes could go into a private investment account instead of the Social Security trust fund, how the government would pay the estimated $1 trillion in transition costs, and how the government would protect retirees whose investments did not turn out well."

Poll Watch

CBS News is out with a new poll, showing a statistical dead heat between Bush and Kerry.

Bush's approval ratings are low according to this poll, with 43 percent having a favorable view of Bush compared to 44 percent viewing him unfavorably.

Here's more from CBS.

National Security Advice

Barry Schweid writes for the Associated Press: "Defending President Bush's foreign policies, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice counseled Americans to be 'less critical of every twist and turn' in Iraq.

Here is the text of Rice's speech yesterday at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Not Reimbursed

In yesterday's column, I wrote about all the swing-state municipalities that have incurred expenses from presidential visits, and how some of them have billed the Bush campaign, and how at least two have been successful.

Make that one.

An alert reader called my attention to the fact that, while this August 12 story in the King County (Wash.) Journal stated that Republicans would foot the bill for security costs, this August 13 story explains: "The cost of guarding President Bush on the Eastside today will not be borne by the Republican Party after all.

"Instead, Eastside cities will pay the bills, the U.S. Secret Service said Thursday, just like they did last year.

"U.S. Rep. Jennifer Dunn, the Washington state chair of the Bush/Cheney re-election campaign, told the Journal Wednesday that expenses this time would be paid by the party, but her spokeswoman Brooke Adams said Thursday that Dunn wouldn't have included security costs in that statement.

"'She knows it's always been taken care of by the cities,' Adams said."

So while the party is indeed paying such things as catering expenses, the cities are out of luck.

Cheesy Joke Backfires

It was a delicious little line, with a yummy backstory. But it turns out that Bush's crowd-pleasing line about Cheez Whiz in his speech on Tuesday outside Philadelphia was not sincere.

"You know, this is my 32nd visit to your state," Bush told the crowd. "Since I've been President. A lot of people are wondering why I'm coming so much -- it ought to be obvious to you; I like my cheese steak 'Whiz with.'"

That, in Philadelphia-ese, means he likes his cheese steak sandwich slathered in Cheez Whiz and onions.

Last year, Kerry had ordered a Philadelphia cheese steak with Swiss, for which he was roundly mocked.

But Liz Cox Barrett of the Columbia Journalism Review's campaigndesk.org yesterday spotted Kathleen E. Carey's story in the Delaware County Times in which a local merchant divulges that Bush eats his cheese steaks not with Cheez Whiz at all -- but with American cheese.

Prescription Drug Watch

President Bush's comment Wednesday that allowing Americans to import cheaper drugs makes sense, if it's safe, has suddenly made the issue a hot one in the campaign.

Lois Romano writes in The Washington Post: "White House spokesman Scott McClellan, at Bush's Texas ranch, sidestepped a question about whether importing drugs would hurt U.S. pharmaceutical companies, some of whose employees and officials are significant donors to Bush. 'Right now we cannot assure the safety of these drugs that would be imported in the United States. It's a safety matter,' McClellan said."

Who Could Be the NID?

John Harwood writes in the Wall Street Journal's Washington Wire column: "If Congress follows the 9/11 Commission's recommendation and creates a national intelligence director, White House homeland-security adviser Frances Townsend could get the job. She's an effective communicator who spent much of her career working in the Justice Department under Janet Reno."

Why People Like Bush

Why do people still support President Bush?

Kevin Ferris, a member of the Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board, set out recently to answer that question.

"It's a question that came up frequently at the Democrats' convention -- often accompanied by a shake of the head and a look of incredulity."

So Ferris identified some Bush supporters and asked them. He found that they admire him most for three things: "Conviction. Resolve. Vision."

Culture War

Caryn James, in the New York Times, casts a critical eye on the political offerings in the pop cultural world, and finds a lot of polemics. She describes John Sayles's upcoming movie, "Silver City," as "something rare among the dozens of politically themed works on screen and on stage: a Bush-bashing work that is more than Bush-bashing."

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