What Was That Aboot?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, December 1, 2004; 11:14 AM

The Canadian and American press covered the same events yesterday in Ottawa, and came away with largely the same conclusion: Not much news.

But the Canadians were, well, considerably more blunt about it.

President Bush wraps up his 28-hour two-city visit to Canada today, after spending yesterday in Ottawa paying a call on Prime Minister Paul Martin and others.

Most reporters -- from both sides of the border -- made the obligatory stab at finding some substance in there somewhere. But that, Greg Weston of the Ottawa Sun reports, took a lot of effort.

"[A]fter all that talk, after all the trouble and expense of shutting down the capital, journalists from both countries were left scratching their heads over the obvious question du jour.

"What the heck was that all about?

"The two sides produced a three-page manifesto of bureaucratic bumpf, colourfully called a 'joint statement on common security and common prosperity':a new partnership in North America.' It includes such press-stopping announcements as both countries will 'set an agenda designed to increase the security, prosperity, and the quality of life of our citizens.' . . .

"In fact, if the two leaders agreed to anything new, it wasn't in their joint statement -- the whole thing was written by officials and printed several days before Martin and Bush even shook hands yesterday."

Brian Laghi, Jeff Sallot and Alan Freeman write in the Toronto Globe and Mail: "Yesterday's meeting produced little in the way of firm announcements, but Mr. Bush did unexpectedly raise the issue of ballistic-missile defence, a controversial matter for the Canadian government, which has not decided yet whether to formally embrace the idea."

And they write: "In contrast to the relationship between Mr. Bush and Prime Minister Paul Martin's predecessor, Jean Chrétien, the two current leaders struck a collegial tone.

"'I'm proud to be standing here with the Prime Minister,' Mr. Bush said after he, Mr. Martin and some of their cabinet ministers met yesterday for just under three hours. 'He's a statesman who is helping to build a better world.'

"While somewhat less effusive, Mr. Martin also tried to put a shine back on the relationship.

"'It was indeed a productive meeting,' he said."

There was much written about the state of Bush and Martin's personal relations.

Bruce Cheadle writes for the Canadian Press service that "rumblings in the past week from Washington suggested the personal ice had yet to melt. Martin's over-insistence that Bush address Parliament -- the president didn't want to and flatly refused -- hadn't exactly set the table for a comfortable house call.

"So it was like wary suitors out on an arranged double date that George and Laura Bush arrived on Parliament's doorstep."

But bonhomie eventually ruled the day.

Alexander Panetta writes for the Canadian Press with the biggest news of the day, such as it was: "George W. Bush rode into town on a world-reconciliation tour offering kind words for Canada but not a shred of contrition for his unilateralist foreign policy Tuesday."

Campbell Clark writes in the Toronto Globe and Mail: "George W. Bush threw the weight of the presidency behind the opening of U.S. borders to Canadian beef and cattle 'as quickly as possible' yesterday, but did not deliver the firm deadline that Canadian cattle farmers wanted and a federal minister had promised."

Jane Taber writes in the Toronto Globe and Mail on a rare unscripted moment: "George W. Bush broke away from his entourage of Secret Service agents and other aides on Parliament Hill yesterday to glad-hand with a group of newly elected and star-struck Tory MPs, telling them with a smile and twinkle in his eye to 'hang in there.'

"He then jumped into his freshly dusted, bulletproof black Cadillac limousine -- his driver had carefully cleaned the roof with a feather duster while Mr. Bush was meeting with Prime Minister Paul Martin -- and left for a working lunch at the Foreign Affairs building. . . .

"It was 12 hours of a full-frontal charm offensive yesterday from the U.S. first couple, with Mrs. Bush exuding her Texas graciousness and Mr. Bush showing off his tactile, frat-boy side."

Derek Puddicombe of the Ottawa Sun writes about how he successfully stalked Bush, then blew his chance to ask a tough question.

"'How do you like Ottawa?' I blurted out with Bush a couple of feet away."

And Canadian reporters fanned out amongst the protesters.

Laura Czekaj writes in the Ottawa Sun: "A deceptive early calm gave way to violence yesterday as some demonstrators protesting George W. Bush's visit to Ottawa got in a tension-filled shoving match with police riot squads. . . .

"Cops were pelted with rocks, paint bombs and whacked with sticks as they held back the crowd."

Bill Rodgers writes, somewhat bitterly, in the Ottawa Sun: "The American president is traveling light on his trip to Canada, at least when it comes to the White House press corps. Reporters travelling with Bush say he usually has about 100 scribes tagging along with him, but on this trip the number fell to about 68 -- just another trivial fact to feed the notorious inferiority complex of Canadians."

Here is the text of the Bush-Martin news conference, and the text of the exchange of toasts at dinner.

And Now, the Americans

Dana Milbank and Doug Struck write in The Washington Post: "Bush's visit to the Canadian capital was intended to mend relations frayed by the war in Iraq. But as antiwar demonstrators clashed with riot police outside Parliament, Bush replied with defiance when asked at a news conference whether he was responsible for a rift between Canada and the United States.

"'We just had a poll in our country where people decided that the foreign policy of the Bush administration ought to stay in place for four more years, and it's a foreign policy that works with our neighbors,' he said.

"He added: 'I made some decisions, obviously, that some in Canada didn't agree with, like, for example, removing Saddam Hussein and enforcing the demands of the United Nations Security Council.'

"The White House had said in advance that it expected no diplomatic breakthroughs on the two-day trip, which will take Bush to Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Wednesday to thank residents for accepting U.S. aircraft stranded after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "President Bush on Tuesday thanked Canadians who waved a welcome to him 'with all five fingers' on his first official visit to their country, but he also appeared defensive at a time when he was expected to reach out and try to repair the rift over the war in Iraq. . . .

"A large majority of Canadians opposed the American-led invasion of Iraq last year, and Jean Chrétien, who was prime minister at the time, refused to send troops.

"But Mr. Bush added that on the first official visit of an American president to Canada in nearly a decade, 'I frankly felt like the reception we received on the way in from the airport was very warm and hospitable, and I want to thank the Canadian people who came out to wave -- with all five fingers -- for their hospitality.'"

Maura Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times: "With lighthearted banter and an elegant beef dinner, President Bush and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin proclaimed a new era of goodwill between the two neighbors Tuesday, agreeing to set aside friction over Iraq and pledging to resolve lingering trade and security issues.

"The bonhomie between the leaders was not matched on the streets outside, however, where several thousand demonstrators rallied against the president and his policies. The situation culminated in a scuffle with riot police in the late afternoon, and 12 arrests were reported."

Rick Klein writes in the Boston Globe that "Martin, frustrated that Bush has not lifted the 18-month-old ban on Canadian beef imports, noted pointedly at a joint press conference with Bush that the issue has been 'studied to death' already."

Klein writes: "Many in the socially liberal nation have bristled at [Bush's] positions on foreign policy and trade, his opposition to abortion and gay marriage, and the tightened security measures at border crossings. The biggest flash point in the recent relationship has been the war in Iraq, where Bush is viewed as having squandered the good will that flowed south after Sept. 11, 2001.

"White House officials declined an offer extended to Bush to address the House of Commons this week. Many Canadian commentators have speculated that the invitation was turned down to avoid the embarrassment of having the president heckled by foreign lawmakers, but White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the president would rather address the Canadian public, as he will today in Halifax."

And James Harding writes in the (British) Financial Times that in spite of the five-fingered greetings, Bush "delivered the verbal equivalent of a single-fingered rebuff to his many critics north of the border."

Harding writes that Bush's comments were convivial in tone, but reflected "the self-assured 'victory lap' quality of Mr Bush's international outreach since re-election."

Today's Calendar

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "After his daylong official visit to Ottawa on Tuesday, Bush was using Halifax, Nova Scotia, the Canadian equivalent of Ellis Island, as a backdrop Wednesday to talk about U.S.-Canadian relations, border security, efforts to spread democracy and the battle against terrorism."

Steve Holland writes for Reuters: "President Bush, scorned by many in Canada for the Iraq war, will hark back on Wednesday to help given after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as an example of a close relationship between two neighbors that do not always see eye to eye."

Bush returns to the White House in the afternoon, and welcomes 2004 Nobel prize winners to the Oval Office.

Press Corps Watch, Part 1

Mike Allen writes a long and thought-provoking piece in today's Washington Post Style section about the "dark art" of "covering a prickly president who has held the fewest formal news conferences of any president beginning with Eisenhower and prides himself on his ability to stay on message. . . .

"These sessions are a contest between Bush's desire to repeat his previously articulated views ('sticking a tape in the VCR,' as one frequent Bush questioner puts it), and the reporters' quest to elicit something that will contribute to democracy, not to mention getting them on television or the front page. . . .

"Reporters save up questions, and seek ideas from their bosses and even from competitors. They edit the wording, trying to cut off escape hatches the president might run for. Rules of thumb are adopted: A question with hostile wording, according to many on the Bush watch, has a zero percent chance of eliciting news from this president because he erects defenses and moves on."

But CBS News White House correspondent John Roberts tells Allen that Bush "has worked very hard to create an atmosphere of 'protocol' around all of his events" and uses stern looks to shoot down any question he doesn't want to take. "It's all part of the message-control regime at the White House, but it's not something the White House press corps should roll over and play dead for."

Allen looks at some of the more successful questions -- and questioners -- of the past four years.

Press Corps Watch, Part II

Dana Milbank wrote in a washingtonpost.com "postcard from Ottawa" yesterday: "With so little prospective news, the White House press corps -- which arrived here a full six hours before the scheduled presidential news conference -- spent the morning eating scones and muffins in a conference center. A few wandered out in a quest for the most desirable Canadian souvenir: flu shots.

"A 10 minute walk from Parliament Hill brought journalists to the Appletree Medical Centre, where cheerful Canadian health workers accepted 20 Canadian dollars for a flu vaccine -- plentiful here despite the severe shortage south of the border. The dose: Canadian firm ID Biomedical's Fluviral, a vaccine not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in the United States."

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow, at a special day and special time. I am postponing today's discussion because I am bit under the weather. Send me your questions and comments now.)

The Ridge Resignation

As expected, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge became the seventh Bush Cabinet member to resign yesterday.

John Mintz and Mike Allen write in The Washington Post: "Administration officials said President Bush is seeking to replace Ridge with a tough manager who can set clear lines of authority and untangle overlapping responsibilities in the department. . . .

"Among possible successors being mentioned by administration officials and homeland defense experts are White House homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend; White House deputy chief of staff for operations Joseph Hagin; Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for transportation and border security at Homeland Security; and former New York Police commissioner Bernard Kerik.

"Other possible candidates include former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Environmental Protection Agency head Michael Leavitt."

Richard W. Stevenson and David Johnston write in the New York Times: "There was no evidence that Mr. Ridge was under any pressure to step aside but also no indication that Mr. Bush made a concerted effort to persuade him to stay. . . .

"Further cabinet changes are coming, people who have spoken to White House officials say, with Tommy G. Thompson, the secretary of health and human services, likely to be the next to resign."

Robert Block writes in the Wall Street Journal: "Seven of 15 members of Mr. Bush's cabinet have resigned since the president won a second term last month. The Homeland Security department is expected to play a major role in the president's campaign against terrorism. Nevertheless, observers have suggested that finding a heavyweight successor to Mr. Ridge may be difficult because of political infighting, administrative headaches and money shortages in a huge new government bureaucracy still experiencing growing pains."

Chitra Ragavan this week in U.S News and World Report profiles Townsend: "Petite, blond, expensively dressed, and telegenic to boot, Frances Fragos Townsend is a far cry from the rumpled suits and ramrod-straight law enforcement types who typically work the Washington terrorism beat."

Derek Rose in the New York Daily News looks at Kerik. "Washington insiders say Kerik has lobbied for the job while building a fortune working as a security consultant with Giuliani. Kerik recently sold his $5.8 million in shares of Taser International Inc., on which he serves as a director.

"Some have speculated the move was made in anticipation of his getting the cabinet post. Kerik also has proven his loyalty to President Bush by campaigning for his reelection this year."

Here is the text of Bush's statement thanking Ridge for his service.

Social Security Watch

John Harwood writes in a Wall Street Journal column: "President Bush's team wasted no time after last month's election in claiming a mandate for his second-term agenda. With a popular majority and an expanded army in Congress, they had a right to.

"But voters can't endorse specific policies they aren't aware of. If Mr. Bush has a mandate to do something on Social Security, he doesn't have a mandate to do anything in particular. And nobody knows that better than his fellow Republicans in Congress, who remain a significant obstacle to the president's ambition. . . .

"Intraparty resistance sounds like an oxymoron if you listen to the talk about Mr. Bush's lockstep Republican legions. But it makes plenty of sense on Capitol Hill, home to one of the most risk-averse species on the planet. The principled resistance of House conservatives against U.S. intelligence reform backed by Mr. Bush will appear tame alongside an issue on which members actually feel their seats are at risk. . . .

"For some fiscal moderates such as [Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia], borrowing to finance the transition to a new system doesn't seem like such a smooth idea. 'Floating a bond issue of a trillion dollars is not the message you want to send to the markets right now,' Mr. Davis says. With the federal budget more than $400 billion in the red and the dollar weakening, he cautions, 'Deficits are beginning to matter.'"

Intel Watch

Charles Babington and Walter Pincus write in The Washington Post: "President Bush, facing pressure to do more to enact a stalled bill that would restructure the nation's intelligence community, said yesterday he will ask Congress's top two leaders to help pass the measure by next week.

"Meanwhile, Vice President Cheney, meeting with leaders of the Sept. 11 commission, underscored the administration's support for the bill, according to commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean and Vice Chairman Lee H. Hamilton.

"Bush's and Cheney's comments come as several lawmakers, commission members, terrorism victims' families and others say the White House must put more force behind its stated support of the bill, which stalled 10 days ago in the House."

Philip Shenon writes in the New York Times that opposition from two powerful House Republicans "has been politically awkward for the White House, suggesting that only weeks after his election to a second term, Mr. Bush may be unable to enforce discipline among members of his own party in pursuing his agenda on Capitol Hill."

A Straight (From the Hip) Answer

There was one of those "background briefings by a senior administration official" yesterday afternoon. The White House e-mailed the transcript to reporters, but didn't put it on the Web site. Here's an excerpt:

"Q My question is. . . . a question about the Chavez arms purchases from Russia, whether or not this is an issue of any concern to the U.S. It seems to be an issue of concern to the Colombians.

"SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It should be an issue of concern to the Venezuelan people. Millions of dollars are going to be spent on Russian weapons for ill-defined purposes.

"Q Can I just follow up? What is your understanding of the purpose of the MiG purchases?

"SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: My understanding is that they're looking to upgrade their fighter fleet, and they've decided that MiGs might be the fighter to purchase.

"Q And that is -- is there a concern for the U.S.?

"SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me put it this way: We shoot down MiGs."

Well, OK then. That's certainly a bit more of a direct answer than we're used to.

James Harding and Andy Webb-Vidal wrote hours later in the Financial Times: "The forthright remark was quickly clarified by Sean McCormack, the National Security Council spokesman at the White House, who said the comment simply reflected the fact that Venezuela's arms build-up 'is clearly an issue that we monitor closely'.

"But the unequivocal criticism of Venezuela's arms purchases underscores Washington's hostility towards the Chávez government and concern that Russia is arming a country viewed by the US as a destabilising force in the region.

"At the end of a visit to Moscow last weekend, Mr Chávez said his government would take delivery of 40 helicopters from Russia and he had agreed to buy 100,000 semi-automatic rifles. The move is expected to be followed by Venezuela's acquisition of the most advanced model of the Mig-29 fighter jet. Reports in recent weeks suggest Mr Chávez wants as many as 50."

As Milbank and Struck also pointed out, the same official -- in contrast to Bush's statement that he had asked for an expedited decision on whether to lift the beef ban -- said a decision on beef was months away and said another big dispute, about U.S. tarifss on Canadian softwood, was "eternal."

Who is this guy?

Political Capital Watch

Chris Suellentrop writes in Slate: "'Political capital' is shaping up to be the first buzzword of the second Bush administration.

"'Political capital' is today's indispensable cliché -- what 'paradigm shift' was to the early 1990s, what 'new new thing' was to the turn of the century, what 'tipping point' and 'perfect storm' were to 2003, what 'gravitas' is to the beginning of every presidential campaign and what 'it all comes down to turnout' is to every campaign's end. Unlike 'misunderestimated' (already in decline from overuse), Bush doesn't get credit for coining this one, but he is its greatest popularizer."

But Suellentrop says the metaphor is not a good one. Typically, you don't spend capital, you save it -- and it grows over time. Not so with Bush's political capital.

Writes Suellentrop: "The president doesn't have any capital, and he knows it. Like a citizen of Weimar Germany, he has a wheelbarrow full of hyper-inflating cash that has to be spent before it becomes worthless."

Late Night Humor

Via Paula Zahn on CNN, from "Late Night With David Letterman":

"By the way, here's a late-breaking bulletin . . . from the Bush White House. The White House Christmas tree has submitted its resignation."

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