Bush 'Shaken' by Iraqi Prisoner Abuse

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, May 4, 2004; 10:50 AM

In a rare expression of disappointment with any aspect of the war in Iraq, President Bush told a group of regional reporters yesterday that he was "shaken" by the reports of prisoner abuse in Iraq "because I know this doesn't reflect the values of our country."

Bush invited reporters from the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press and Booth Newspapers onto his luxuriously outfitted campaign bus as it rolled through Southwest Michigan.

From the transcript of the interview:

"Q: Have you been shaken at all by anything that's happened in the last month?

"THE PRESIDENT: Yes, I have. I've been shaken by the reports of abuses to the prisoners in Iraq. I'm shaken because I know that this doesn't reflect the values of our country. And I spoke to the Secretary of Defense about that again today. And I said, I need a full report on whether or not these abuses are widespread, or whether they're contained to a particular unit. And there are ongoing investigations, and he will get those to my desk as quickly as possible."

It was an unusual acknowledgement from the president, who has consistently refused to express any regrets about the war in Iraq in spite of growing criticism over statements before the war about weapons of mass destruction and a failure to anticipate the difficulty of occupation.

At his news conference three weeks ago, Bush could find nothing to say when asked to name his biggest mistake.

And most notably, he has remained stolid even in the face of growing U.S. casualties. Again, from yesterday's transcript:

"Q: Mr. President, I think it was 137 American troops were killed in Iraq last month, 10 overnight, I think it was. When you get your morning briefing or hear of these deaths, what's your reaction? Do you pound the table? Do you get mad? Do you get emotional?

"THE PRESIDENT: No, I'm sad. I'm sad. And I'm sad because I know that somebody hurts and somebody grieves, somebody's heart is broken. Laura and I spent time with the families of those who have died, and it is a -- it's a hard, but necessary part of the job."

Also, in a surprisingly frank exchange about the political campaign, as Richard A. Ryan writes in the Detroit News: "Bush conceded he learned a lesson in Michigan in 2000 when he was 'whipped' twice, first in the primary by Arizona Sen. John McCain and then by Vice President Al Gore in the general election."

From the transcript:

"The lesson I learned in 2000 is that you can get whipped here. (Laughter.) So I'm going to change it. The lesson I learned in 2004 is you can win in Michigan with a positive, upbeat campaign, that speaks -- you know, that speaks about a vision that is hopeful and optimistic.

"But, listen, I had a couple of good lessons in your state, which you might remember -- not only once, it might have been twice I learned that lesson in 2000. (Laughter.)"

Reporters began the interview by trying to lure the president into a controversy dividing residents of the great state of Michigan:

"Do you consider the people that live here Michiganders or Michiganians?

"THE PRESIDENT: I consider them to be solid Americans.

"Q: Good answer."

Prisoner Abuse

Adam Entous of Reuters reports that "Bush told his defense secretary on Monday to take 'strong actions' against those responsible for abusing Iraqi prisoners and quickly assess whether the problem is more widespread as finger-pointing broke out over who is to blame in the scandal."

Read the transcript of press secretary Scott McClellan's press gaggle for more on that.

The news of prisoner abuse threatens to undermine the rationale for unseating Saddam Hussein that Bush espouses most often these days: that the United States ended a regime that was torturing and abusing Iraqis.

As Anne E. Kornblut reports in the Boston Globe, Bush as recently as yesterday in Michigan repeated "that Iraq is better off now that Saddam Hussein is gone and his 'torture cells are closed,' summoning an image that has haunted troops in recent days."

My fellow washingtonpost.com columnist Jefferson Morley writes that the photographs of prisoner abuse are increasingly leading the international press to compare Bush to Saddam Hussein.

About That Bus Tour

Mike Allen of The Washington Post writes: "President Bush boarded a bus emblazoned 'Yes, America Can,' shed his suit jacket and set out across the Midwest on Monday to chat with supporters and offer himself as a sympathetic leader attuned to working-class values. . . .

"White House officials said they wanted to use the first swing of Bush's last campaign to leverage a natural advantage they believe he has yet to exploit against Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) -- that he is more approachable and likable."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes for the New York Times: "On the first extensive trip of his re-election campaign, President Bush went rumbling by luxury bus across southern Michigan on Monday with the intensity of a man running as if the election were six days away rather than six months."

As for the bus itself: "Campaign aides said Mr. Bush's bus had three rooms, including a kitchenette, as well as a flat-screen television, black leather sofas and chairs, and the presidential seal displayed on a back wall. Name cards were placed on the chairs this morning for Mr. Bush and the first lady, as well as for Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's chief political adviser."

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Although Bush aides insist that their travel plans were laid long ago, the 'Yes, America Can' express follows a similar tour by Kerry last week designed to hammer away at the nearly 2.8 million manufacturing jobs lost nationwide since Bush took office."

Richard Benedetto and Judy Keen write in USA Today: "Bush made it clear at his first stop that he's ditching the formality of presidential appearances for the regular-guy approach politicians employ. 'You think it's all right if I take off my jacket?' he asked. The crowd yelled its assent. 'We're not in Washington anymore,' he said."

David Gregory of NBC News called it "the kind of made-for-TV event this White House loves to produce." He concluded: "This bus tour is little more than a campaign gimmick, one used by both sides. But in a race promising to be a photo finish, White House aides say the president won't pass up any chance to energize his core supporters."

Today's Calendar

It's really not so much a bus tour today. It's mostly flying, actually.

Bush flies on Air Force One from Detroit to Toledo this morning before a short bus ride to a pancake breakfast in Maumee, Ohio. Then he rides back to Toledo, and flies on Air Force One to Dayton. He'll hold an "Ask President Bush" event in Dayton, then drive to Lebanon, Ohio, for an event at the Golden Lamb Inn. Finally, he heads over to Cincinnati for a rally where he will be introduced by Steven Curtis Chapman, a Christian music artist. Then a quick ride to the airport and he flies Air Force One back to Washington.

Deb Riechmann of the Associated Press writes: "Tuesday's bus tour, about 60 miles through western Ohio, actually includes two airplane flights. . . . His first two stops -- Maumee and Dayton -- are in counties Al Gore won in 2000. The last two stops -- Lebanon and Cincinnati -- are in counties that Bush won easily."

Ask, President Bush

The Bush campaign rolled out a new kind of event yesterday, called "Ask President Bush," obviously intended to make it seem like Bush was, you know, answering questions (albeit from people attending Bush campaign events).

But Bush mostly gave a long and winding speech. Then he did most of the asking himself, quizzing pre-screened participants about their experiences with tax relief and the like. Only at the very end did he take questions himself -- nine, total. And pretty much all of them were softballs.

Here's the transcript of the event.

Some of the questions:

"Q Hello, I would like to know how can I help you win more Latino votes in the state of Michigan? (Applause.)"


"Q I'm really concerned about you sharing with America how you have chosen to make sure that African Americans, Hispanics, women, these coalitions, how you are putting them to the task and getting involved with your election. Can you talk about that?"

When one participant asked "Why did you come to Niles?" Bush answered: "Because I wanted to get out of Washington."

The Final Question

The last question was fascinating, though.

"Q I'm curious to know why -- I hear you mention God in most of your speeches, and I'm curious to know how your faith in God affects your daily routine. (Applause.)

"THE PRESIDENT: Thank you, sir. First, you've got to understand, my job is never to promote a religion. My job is to promote freedom for people to worship the way they see fit. The job of the President is to make sure that America is a free society where you can worship or don't worship. You're just as strong a patriot if you worship, as if you don't worship. That's -- the job of the President is to make sure this precious aspect of our society is strong.

"Personally, I do rely upon the Almighty. I'm reading Oswald Chambers. (Applause.) If you've read Oswald Chambers, you understand that Oswald Chambers is a pretty good gauge to test your walk. I rely upon -- let me say this -- I appreciate the prayers of the people. The fact that people pray for me and Laura is a powerful part of our life. It is humbling to know that people in Niles, Michigan, who I probably will never get to thank personally, say a prayer for us. And it sustains me.

"Somebody said to me one time, well, how do you know they're praying for you? And I said, I just do, I know it. And it's an important part of the presidency from my perspective. (Applause.)"

Who Was Oswald Chambers?

Oswald Chambers, who died in 1917, was a Scottish-born devotional writer. His most famous work, called "My Utmost for His Highest," consists of daily readings.

You can find them online. Today's reading, for instance, says in part: "Beware of imagining that intercession means bringing our personal sympathies into the presence of God and demanding that He does what we ask." And: "Spiritual stubbornness is the most effectual hindrance to intercession, because it is based on sympathy with that in ourselves and in others that we do not think needs atoning for."

Here's more about Chambers.

It's not news that Bush reads Chambers. In the "Bush & God" issue of Newsweek in March 2003, Howard Fineman wrote: "George W. Bush rises ahead of the dawn most days, when the loudest sound outside the White House is the dull, distant roar of F-16s patrolling the skies. Even before he brings his wife, Laura, a morning cup of coffee, he goes off to a quiet place to read alone.

"His text isn't news summaries or the overnight intelligence dispatches. Those are for later, downstairs, in the Oval Office. . . . Instead, he's told friends, it's a book of evangelical mini-sermons, 'My Utmost for His Highest.' The author is Oswald Chambers, and, under the circumstances, the historical echoes are loud. A Scotsman and itinerant Baptist preacher, Chambers died in November 1917 as he was bringing the Gospel to Australian and New Zealand soldiers massed in Egypt. By Christmas they had helped to wrest Palestine from the Turks, and captured Jerusalem for the British Empire at the end of World War I."

Not long after that story, Catherine Bennett in The Guardian wrote that due to the book's daily nature "we can all of us, each day, accompany Bush on his spiritual journey."

In addition, she wrote, "The calendar format allows us to look back at key moments in this conflict and identify the spiritual text which might have informed the president's day." She provides examples.

Audience Participation

By nightfall, in a campaign rally in Sterling Heights, Michigan, Bush had his audience in full call-and-response mode.

Here's the transcript.

By my reckoning, in 45 minutes, the transcripts shows 94 instances of applause, five episodes of booing, nine explosions of "four more years" chanting and six bursts of "USA! USA!" etc.

For instance:

"THE PRESIDENT: Thanks for coming. It is great to be back in Michigan. (Applause.) In case you haven't heard, we're on the George W. Bush bus tour. (Applause.) It's my way to let the people of Michigan know how much I appreciate their support -- (applause) -- how much I'm counting on your support. (Applause.) It's my way of letting you know I want to win and be President for four more years. (Applause.)

"AUDIENCE: Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!

"THE PRESIDENT: Thank you all for coming. . . . I've got a positive vision for winning the war on terror and to spreading peace and freedom throughout the world. (Applause.) A positive vision for creating jobs and opportunity for every single American. (Applause.) A positive vision for capturing the great spirit of this country, so every citizen has a chance to realize their dreams. I've got a goal to make sure this country is safer and stronger and better. I will leave no doubt where we stand, and we will win on November the 2nd. (Applause.)

"AUDIENCE: Four more years! Four more years! Four more years! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA!"

Then, later on:

"THE PRESIDENT: Great events -- great events will turn on this election. The man who sits in the Oval Office will set the course of the war on terror and the direction of our economy. The security and prosperity of America are at stake. The stakes are high. I'll have a tough race, and that's why I'm counting on your help.

"I'm running against -- I'm running against an experienced United States Senator.


Getting Mileage from SUVs

Bush also unleashed a new twofer zinger, portraying Kerry as both inconsistent and aloof.

"THE PRESIDENT: He's been on both sides of big issues. And if he could find a third side -- (laughter and applause.) He recently gave us another example of his technique. Last winter, my opponent was in Michigan and somebody asked him about the cars he had. (Laughter.) Here in the great auto-producing state, he said, quote, 'We have some SUVs.' He was talking about having a couple of mini-vans and a big Suburban. Last month, on Earth Day, Senator Kerry had a different description of his fleet. (Laughter.) He said, and I quote, 'I don't own an SUV.' To clear up the confusion he said, 'The family has it. I don't have it.' (Laughter.) In other words, he doesn't have an SUV except when he's in Michigan. (Laughter.) Now, there's a fellow who's getting a lot of mileage out of his Suburban. (Laughter and applause.)"

Presidential Management Style

Maura Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times about the picture that emerges from three recent insider accounts of the workings of the Bush administration.

She spoke to "experts in decision-making and presidential management" who conclude that "the president appears to have a highly personal working style, with little emphasis on systematic analysis of major decisions.

"'There seems to be almost an absence of any analytical or deliberative process for mapping the problem or exploring alternatives or estimating consequences,' said Graham Allison, a professor of government at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University."

Fred I. Greenstein, a presidential historian at Princeton University, "said that one striking thing about all three books was what they don't show. There are few examples, for instance, of Bush presiding over meetings in which subordinates presented problems, weighed evidence and aired differing views."

A Better PDB?

Jessica Mintz writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The presidential daily brief titled 'Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US' triggered a political firestorm. But for Greg Storey, what was most striking about the document was its lack of style.

"'Why is it that the president puts up with these horribly written and laid out documents to assess the threat against our nation?' wondered Mr. Storey, a 33-year old Web designer.

"So he set out to do something about it."

Here's Storey's blog item explaining what he did and why. Here's the original document; here's the better-designed version.

What's Secret?

Charlie Savage writes in the Boston Globe: "The Bush administration is coming under fire for allegedly allowing political concerns to determine what it deems to be sensitive national security material after a series of document declassifications that critics contend were timed for strategic advantage.

"In several recent cases, the administration first refused requests for information by saying that releasing it would jeopardize national security, then released that same information itself at a moment when it became politically convenient to do so -- leaving the impression that it was safe to release all along."

That Other Commission

In a story about intelligence reform in today's Washington Post, Walter Pincus notes that "U.S. Appeals Court Senior Judge Laurence H. Silberman, co-chairman of President Bush's Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, said recently that his newly formed group has just begun its inquiry into the Iraq failure and some intelligence successes, such as Libya. There, U.S. and British knowledge of Moammar Gaddafi's programs forced the Libyan leader to cooperate in destroying his weapons and stockpiles. Silberman's panel reports next March."

Middle East Watch

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "The White House has decided not to provide Jordan's King Abdullah with a letter acknowledging possible Palestinian territorial claims if Israel retains settlements in the West Bank, U.S. officials said yesterday.

"The king, who is due to meet with President Bush on Thursday, had sought written assurances after Bush exchanged letters with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon three weeks ago recognizing key Israeli concerns in any peace deal."

Also see Kessler's analysis yesterday about how gambling on Sharon went awry for Bush.

Out of the Pool

Dana Milbank asserts in his White House Notebook column in the Washington Post that the Chicago Tribune's Bob Kemper "did for the White House pool report what Ernie Pyle did for war journalism and Walter Cronkite did for network news. With the departure of Kemper -- who left for a job with the Atlanta Journal and Constitution -- the nation has lost its foremost chronicler of White House tedium."

When space is limited, a small "pool" of White House reporters files dispatches to their colleagues. "Often, however, the pool reporter is not allowed to observe the president, either, leading to creative -- if uninformative -- reports," Milbank writes.

"The Bush White House has expanded the audience for the pool reports by e-mailing them also to more than a thousand government officials and Republican operatives. This gives the dispatches -- part travelogue, part gripe and occasionally part news -- a disproportionately large following. Nobody delighted this following more than Kemper."

Milbank provides side-splitting examples, including Kemper called Bush adviser Karl Rove "that little leprechaun from the West Wing."

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