Bush Goes On Background

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, March 3, 2004; 10:21 AM

When President Bush summoned five network correspondents into the Oval Office for a mysterious meeting yesterday, political and journalistic Washington started buzzing with the rumor that Osama bin Laden had been caught. Even the Kerry campaign was talking about it.

But no. Bush just wanted to chat on "deep background." That means the information can be used, but not attributed to anyone.

The secret interview lasted 80 minutes -- which was a lot longer than it stayed secret. In no time at all, Mike Allen of The Washington Post had all the details.

Allen reports in today's paper that Bush said "he believes Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) will be a tough and hard-charging opponent, but said he feels he is starting the general election from a stronger position than he did in 2000."

How does Allen know? "Several people provided accounts of it to The Washington Post but spoke only on the condition of anonymity because, in the view of the White House and by the agreement of the networks, the conversation never officially occurred."

Allen writes that the session "was designed to show Bush as eager to campaign and fight back against Kerry, and to portray the president as engaged in the issues of the day. . . . White House reporters have been complaining about their lack of access to Bush, and aides hoped to recapture some of the camaraderie of his campaign plane early in the 2000 race, when he engaged reporters with long, off-the-record chats."

So keep an eye on those networks in the coming days for oddly attributed but authoritative sounding pronouncements about what Bush is thinking.

For instance, as Allen notes, David Gregory went on NBC Nightly News last night and dropped this hint at the end of his report on the public parts of Bush and Cheney's day:

"The president has told people he believes tonight's Super Tuesday results mark the real beginning of the general election. Feeling that his conservative base is secure, Mr. Bush is now studying Kerry's positions and preparing to target the senator's record."

Bush Congratulates Kerry

Reuters reports that Bush called Kerry to congratulate him for clinching the Democratic nomination, and said he was looking forward to a "spirited" race.

"We had a very nice conversation," Kerry said of the call.

Maria L. La Ganga of the Los Angeles Times speculates those were "perhaps the last cordial words the two will have for months to come."

NBC News's Norah O'Donnell told "Imus in the Morning" today that "when we first heard that it might have happened, I wanted to make sure we had several sources because it did seem sort of unusual that the president was calling him, but he did." O'Donnell said "it clearly was a surprising call. I think that, you know, the president was perhaps trying to reach across the aisle at a time when his campaign is about to sort of hammer the senator."

Haiti Watch

At least for the moment, Haiti is certainly not looking like the poster child for the Bush Doctrine.

Ousted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide's claim that he was kidnapped by the U.S. military seems to be withering on the vine -- but there is still no clear explanation for the White House's abrupt decision to oust Aristide, and the country is now beset with increased violence, anarchy and even museum-looting.

Lydia Polgreen and Tim Weiner write in the New York Times: "In the absence of any other authority, Haiti seemed to be falling into the clutches of a self-appointed armed junta."

And while "the rebels' power grab was met with . . . contempt from Washington, where officials dismissed [rebel leader Guy] Philippe as a nonentity . . . [n]o one else appeared to be in charge of Haiti."

Meanwhile, writes Christopher Marquis of the New York Times: "At the White House, the spokesman, Scott McClellan, said the administration intended to deal only with the business people, civic leaders and politicians who make up the nonviolent opposition to Mr. Aristide and his Lavalas party."

Marquis sums up the White House position this way: "Administration officials seemed to be keeping the hope that the rebels would simply melt away, now that Mr. Aristide has left and the police force under his influence is to be reformed."

And what exactly happened over the weekend, anyway? Peter Slevin and Scott Wilson write in The Washington Post: "Now that Aristide is gone, his final hours in power are being dissected for clues about how he fell and what it says about the maneuvering of an autocrat and a U.S. government that ultimately pressed him to quit."

It is important to note that the United States is not in this alone.

Christine Ollivier of the Associated Press reports on how Haiti has created a rapprochement between the United States and France.

"The crisis in Haiti is bringing French President Jacques Chirac and President Bush closer together after their heated dispute last year over the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

"Bush telephoned Chirac on Tuesday to praise 'the excellent French-American cooperation in Haiti' and to 'thank France for its action,' said Chirac's spokeswoman, Catherine Colonna."

Kay to Bush: Come Clean

Julian Borger of the British newspaper, the Guardian, writes:

"David Kay, the man who led the CIA's postwar effort to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, has called on the Bush administration to 'come clean with the American people' and admit it was wrong about the existence of the weapons.

"In an interview with the Guardian, Mr Kay said the administration's reluctance to make that admission was delaying essential reforms of US intelligence agencies, and further undermining its credibility at home and abroad."

Cheney Comes Out Fighting

Michael Janofsky writes in the New York Times: "On the busiest primary day of the election year for the Democrats, Vice President Dick Cheney sat for three nationally televised cable interviews on Tuesday, an unusual schedule for an official who does not often take questions from national reporters.

"The appearances gave Mr. Cheney an opportunity to counter months of Democratic criticism of President Bush by explaining and defending administration positions on major issues, including rebuilding efforts in Iraq, the transfer of power in Haiti and the president's support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages."

And, oh yes, his ticker's fine and he's staying on the ticket.

Cheney played the loyal soldier on the gay marriage issue.

As the Associated Press reports: "Vice President Dick Cheney said Tuesday he supports President Bush's call for a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages, though one of his daughters is gay and he has said in the past the issue should be left to the states."

Here's Cheney with Lester Holt on MSNBC: video and text.

Here's Cheney with Wolf Blitzer on CNN: text.

Here's Cheney with Brit Hume on Fox: video and text.

Blogger Andrew Sullivan says Cheney's comment on gay marriage struck him "as a very careful use of words. And after all, which father would want to explicitly consign his own daughter to second class citizenship?"

One Cheney comment already careening around the blogosphere is his assertion, with Holt, that "if the Democratic policies had been pursued over the last two or three years, the kind of tax increases that both Kerry and Edwards have talked about, we would not have had the kind of job growth we've had."

Joshua Micah Marshall, for instance, expressed astonishment. "[D]id Cheney really intend to say that without the President's policies 'we would not have had the kind of job growth (i.e., negative job growth) that we've had.'"

And speaking of Cheney, Paul Bedard writes in U.S. News's Washington Whispers column "that Kerry plans to boast that Vice President Dick Cheney as Pentagon boss made the same kinds of spending cuts and reforms Kerry voted for but that are now being called unpatriotic."

The Contest to Come

David S. Broder has this analysis in today's Washington Post: "For a politically polarized nation, a campaign pitting President Bush against Sen. John F. Kerry presents the starkest of choices -- and almost certainly a close election."

An intensely divided country, Broder writes, will now get to choose between two men with diametrically opposed personalities and political philosophies.

The Uncontrollable Factor

And in another analysis in The Washington Post, Dana Milbank and Robin Wright write that the "election is likely to be shaped by events the Bush administration cannot control."

Case in points: yesterday's attacks on Iraqi Shiites.

The fact that "little that can be done to stop the attacks and that such violence is likely to worsen as power is transferred to Iraqis on June 30 . . . raises the danger for President Bush that the public will come to see the attacks not as an inevitable side effect of democratic progress in Iraq but as the unraveling of the nearly year-old U.S. occupation there -- the main foreign enterprise of the Bush presidency. With the presidential election looming, Bush needs to show by this fall that democracy is waxing in Iraq and violence is waning."

Happy Birthday, DHS

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "In a speech for the first anniversary of the Homeland Security Department, Mr. Bush cast the renewal of the law, the USA Patriot Act, as essential to protecting the United States from terrorist attacks."

Here's the text of Bush's speech.

Commission Watch

Philip Shenon writes in the New York Times: "The independent commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks is refusing to accept strict conditions from the White House for interviews with President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney and is renewing its request that Mr. Bush's national security adviser testify in public, commission members said Tuesday. . . .

"Commission officials said that if the White House continued to insist on limitations on the interviews with Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, there might be little that the panel could do to force the issue and that the commission might have to accept the White House's terms.

"And they said that despite internal conversation about the possibility of issuing a subpoena for Ms. Rice's public testimony, that move was unlikely."

Today's Calendar

Bush is off to California this morning, one day after the Democratic primaries. It's the first stop of a six-day trip.

Nick Anderson and Edwin Chen write in the Los Angeles Times: "Although his popularity in California may be ebbing, President Bush arrives in Los Angeles today to gather money for his reelection and at least raise the possibility of competing for the nation's richest electoral prize come November."

Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press reviews the upcoming trip.

"In six days away from the White House, President Bush is the star attraction at five events aimed at pulling in cash to help get him re-elected and put other Republicans in office as well.

"In between, he'll speak on the economy and on his effort to give religious groups more of a role in federal programs, make good on a two-year-old invitation to host the president of Mexico at his Texas ranch, and even attend a rodeo."

Everything You Just Read is Wrong

New York Post columnist John Podhoretz yesterday proposed a warning label that I'm quite sure he would say would be particularly appropriate for this column.

"WARNING: Most of the analysis and reporting you are now reading, watching and hearing about the presidential race is wrong -- and it will continue to be wrong.

"On the three major issues of year -- the War on Terror, the economy and now gay marriage -- the political press in the United States is opposed to President Bush's stances and opinions. Not just opposed, but passionately opposed in almost every particular and with lock-step unanimity. That opposition is leaching into the coverage of the race and making it almost impossible for readers and viewers to draw an accurate picture of the current state of political play."

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