Karen Hughes to the Rescue

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, March 29, 2004; 11:40 AM

One thing's for sure: The White House wasn't in control of the message last week.

President Bush was out talking about homeownership and job training and entrepreneurship -- but who was listening?

Instead, the focus was on the firestorm ignited by Richard A. Clarke's red-hot book of accusations that the Bush administration has bungled the campaign against terrorism.

The White House is furiously attempting to neutralize the issue, but as Mike Allen wrote in The Washington Post on Sunday, Bush aides are still "struggling to regain political momentum."

Would all this have happened if Karen Hughes were still around?

Hughes, who left her White House job as counselor to the president in July 2002 to take her family back home to Texas, has always had an uncanny sense of how to craft, deploy and repeat effective messages.

"Hughes has been the guardian of Bush's public message throughout his political career, through two campaigns for Texas governor, the primary and general elections of 2000, the recount and into the White House," Allen writes in today's Post.

And guess what? She's back! (Sort of.)

"President Bush's confidante Karen P. Hughes returned to the public stage Sunday with plans to weave her combative defense of the White House into a six-week book tour, then go on the campaign payroll in mid-August," Allen writes.

One important element of her return, by all accounts, is her relationship with Karl Rove.

"When Hughes was in the West Wing, she served as a balance of power with Karl Rove, Bush's senior adviser, and witnesses have provided vivid accounts of their clashes. An entry in the index is 'Rove, Karl, author's disagreements with,'" Allen writes.

Hughes's book tour may start humble -- at Westlake High School, where her son is an 11th-grader -- but it goes big time tonight, with an interview with Barbara Walters on ABC's "20/20."

"Hughes' job at the White House was to sharpen the message and shape the soundbites," ABCNews.com reports. "She acknowledges that turns of phrase are one of her strengths. 'I don't know if it's a very marketable skill, but . . . one of my skills is soundbites.'"

Elisabeth Bumiller and Richard W. Stevenson write in the New York Times: "To the relief of Bush aides who acknowledge that the White House has been on the political defensive since January, the memoir hits bookstores Tuesday, the week after a book by Richard A. Clarke that blasted the administration with the charge that Mr. Bush ignored warnings about the Sept. 11 attacks.

"But advisers to the president say that Ms. Hughes's impending return to a more full-time role has stirred some unease within a campaign that has been wholly the province of Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's chief political adviser. The president trusts Ms. Hughes like almost no one else on his staff, so much so that some Bush aides say they are worried that a return of the two-headed Rove-Hughes team could lead to internal disputes about strategy and message that so far have been muted. Others point out that even though Ms. Hughes and Mr. Rove have a history of tension, they also have a history through three campaigns of working it out.

James Carney writes in Time: "Readers looking for West Wing intrigue will be disappointed by the Hughes book; when the subject is the President or Hughes' colleagues in the Administration, Ten Minutes from Normal is all kiss and no tell. Bush is presented as 'humble,' 'wonderful,' 'tough-minded,' 'decent and thoughtful,' with a 'laserlike ability to distill an issue to its core' and 'a knack for provoking discussion.' Even his tendency to mangle words is a sign, to Hughes, of a 'highly intelligent' mind outpacing a sluggish tongue. Occasionally -- and this is as critical as it gets -- her boss can be 'impatient' and 'challenging.'"

That is not to say that Hughes can't get critical when she wants to. And whenever someone affronts the president, she wants to.

As Jim Vertuno reports for the Associated Press, Hughes yesterday "called Clarke's criticism the 'Washington blame game.'

"'The only person responsible for the al-Qaida attacks on America was al-Qaida,' Hughes said Sunday. 'I've been very distressed and almost sickened as I've watched over the last week the distortion that I've seen.'"

More Misery for Rove

If Karl Rove is under siege again at the office, you'd think he could at least expect some peace and quiet at home.

But as Steven Ginsberg writes in The Washington Post: "Several hundred people stormed the small yard of President Bush's chief political strategist, Karl Rove, yesterday afternoon, pounding on his windows, shoving signs at others and challenging Rove to talk to them about a bill that deals with educational opportunities for immigrants. . . .

"[A]fter about 30 minutes of goading by protesters in English and Spanish, Rove agreed to meet with two members of the coalition on the condition that the rest of the protesters board their buses and leave his street. The group obliged.

"Rove opened his garage door and allowed Palacios and Inez Killingsworth to enter. The meeting lasted two minutes and ended with Rove closing the garage door on Palacios while she was still talking.

"Palacios said that Rove was 'very upset' and was 'yelling in our faces.'"

Clarke, Rice in Slugfest

As for all the fallout from the Clarke book, surely this is not what anyone had in mind.

One might have hoped the book would elicit a candid and valuable review of the Bush administration's failings in the campaign against terror. Or one might have hoped it would be dismissed as the bogus recriminations of a former insider.

Instead, as we head into Week Two of the Clarke Wars, what we have here is a brutal slugfest in which Clarke and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice (and their patrons) are attacking each other with such ferocity that Washingtonians are wondering which of these two will be the last one standing.

Rice, Clarke, members of the Sept. 11 commission, other administration officials -- everyone was on TV yesterday. The two central issues: Will Rice testify in public, and under oath? And is Clarke a stinking liar?

In This Corner: Condoleezza Rice

Rice went on CBS's "60 Minutes" last night -- where it all started just a week earlier.

(See the White House Briefing archives if this is at all unclear.)

As Dana Milbank and Walter Pincus write in The Washington Post, Rice "renewed her determination not to give public testimony and said she could not list anything she wished she had done differently in the months before the 2001 terrorist attacks." She also "brushed aside the notion that the U.S. government should apologize to Sept. 11 victims' families for not stopping the attacks."

Meanwhile, on ABC, "Republican commissioner John F. Lehman, who has written extensively on separation-of-power issues, said that 'the White House is making a huge mistake' by blocking Rice's testimony and decried it as 'a legalistic approach.'"

But Milbank and Pincus also report: "Administration officials were searching for a compromise last night with the commission that would limit the political damage from her refusal to testify." One possibility: "perhaps by agreeing to the declassification of Rice's private testimony."

Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: Ms. Rice "'has appeared everywhere except my local Starbucks,' Richard Ben-Veniste, a member of the commission, said in an interview. 'For the White House to continue to refuse to make her available simply does not make sense.'"

T. Christian Miller writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Top Republicans on the Sept. 11 commission joined Democrats on Sunday in calling for national security advisor Condoleezza Rice to testify publicly about a former subordinate's claims that the White House did not take seriously Al Qaeda's threat to the United States."

In U.S. News, Kenneth T. Walsh examines Rice's situation in detail, and sees all sorts of problems, including this one: "Clarke's insider account opened a new window on policymaking at the National Security Council and on Rice's role there -- and the view isn't pretty. 'This is the most dysfunctional NSC that ever existed,' says a senior U.S. official. 'But it's not Condi's fault. The person that's made it so dysfunctional is Cheney.'"

Today, there are scowling pictures of Rice everywhere. See Time and Newsweek, just for starters.

Here is the complete transcript of Rice on "60 Minutes."

And in This Corner: Richard A. Clarke

"You know," Clarke said on CNN's "Late Edition" yesterday (which he shared with Sept. 11 commission co-chairs Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, among others), "if you look back at his last week, things have gotten very overheated in Washington and very personal and very vitriolic. And I'm told that the White House has decided to destroy me. Let's bring it back to what the issue is.

"The issue is not about me. The issue is about the president's performance in the war on terrorism. And because I had the temerity to suggest he didn't do much of anything before 9/11, and by going into Iraq he's actually hurt the war on terrorism after 9/11, the White House has geared up this personal attack machine and is trying to undermine my credibility."

On Friday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), said Clarke may be guilty of perjury and called for declassifying testimony Clarke gave a congressional committee in 2002.

And that was just part of a blistering attack on the Senate floor (see the full text). Among the soundbites: "It is awesomely self-serving for Mr. Clarke to assert that the United States could have stopped terrorism if only the three President's he served had better listened to his advice."

In the new issue of Time, Vice President Cheney is quoted as saying of Clarke: "He's taken advantage of the circumstances this week to promote himself and his book. I don't know the guy that well. I have had some dealings with him over the years, but judging based on what I've seen, I don't hold him in high regard."

Yesterday, in his hour with Tim Russert on NBC's "Meet the Press," Clarke responded to Frist by calling for an even more extensive declassification of government documents from before the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Let's declassify all six hours of my testimony. . . . And I want more declassified. I want Dr. Rice's testimony before the 9/11 Commission declassified. And I want the thing that the 9/11 Commission talked about in its staff report this week declassified."

Ronald Brownstein warns in his Washington Outlook column in the Los Angeles Times: "Even if the White House completely discredited Clarke with the public, which seems highly unlikely, the administration would still face tough questions over its initial approach to terrorists. The debate has moved beyond one man."

In the Boston Globe, David Abel describes Clarke's high school years, as a short-haired boy "before a sea of longhaired classmates in the Boston Latin School of the late '60s."

And at Ringside

On ABC's "This Week," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld disagreed with Clarke that going to war in Iraq hurt the overall war on terrorism. Also appearing, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Sept. 11 commission members Lehman and Jamie Gorelick.

On CBS's "Face the Nation," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell pointed to Bush taking direct briefings almost every morning from CIA Director George J. Tenet as "something President Clinton had not been doing."

"Fox News Sunday" hosted commission chair Kean, vice chair Hamilton and Rumsfeld.

Poll Watch

Brian Braiker reports the results from a Newsweek poll: "Richard Clarke's charge that George W. Bush largely ignored the Al Qaeda threat before the September 11 attacks has dealt a sharp blow to the president's ratings on a crucial issue. According to the latest NEWSWEEK poll, the percentage of voters who say they approve of the way the president has handled terrorism and homeland security has slid to 57 percent, down from a high of 70 percent two months ago. . . . Still, the president's overall approval rating remains steady at 49 percent and Bush remains neck and neck with presumptive Democratic Party nominee Senator John Kerry."

Any Room for Agreement?

Dana Milbank and Dan Eggen write in Saturday's Washington Post: "For all the sniping over efforts by the Bush and Clinton administrations to thwart terrorism, information from this week's hearings into the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks suggests that the two administrations pursued roughly the same policies before the terrorist strikes occurred."

Washington Post In the Loop columnist Al Kamen notes that maybe everyone can agree with Clarke that "while the Bush administration didn't ignore concerns over terrorism, he felt it didn't consider the threat to be a matter of great urgency before Sept. 11."

Kamen calls attention to the Dec. 11, 2001, Washington Post story by Bob Woodward and Dan Balz in which they quote from an interview with Bush:

"There was a significant difference in my attitude after Sept. 11. I was not on point, but I knew he was a menace, and I knew he was a problem. I knew he was responsible, or we felt he was responsible, for the [previous] bombings that killed Americans. I was prepared to look at a plan that would be a thoughtful plan that would bring him to justice, and would have given the order to do that. I have no hesitancy about going after him. But I didn't feel that sense of urgency, and my blood was not nearly as boiling."

And as the New York Times's Eric Lichtblau notes, in part two of the report of the joint Congressional inquiry into Sept. 11 intelligence failures, released last December, there is the following passage:

"Bush Administration officials testified that they did not begin their major counterterrorism policy review until April 2001. Thus, it appears that significant slippage in counterterrorism policy may have taken place in late 2000 and early 2001. At least part of this was due to the unresolved status of Mr. Clarke as National Coordinator for Counterterrorism and his uncertain mandate to coordinate Bush Administration policy on terrorism and specifically on Bin Ladin."

On Executive Privilege

T. Christian Miller writes in the Los Angeles Times that Rice made the separation of powers argument again yesterday, to justify her decision not to testify before the Sept. 11 commission.

"[S]he said the commission 'derives its authority from the Congress,' and added: 'There is a long-standing principle that sitting national security advisors do not testify before the Congress.'

"Rice acknowledged that some of her predecessors had appeared before congressional committees, but said those involved issues of 'criminal intent or criminal allegations or impropriety' -- not administration policy.

"Jamie S. Gorelick, a Democratic commission member who served as a deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, said the separation-of-powers argument was not relevant, noting that President Bush, and not Congress, had appointed Kean chairman.

"'We are distinguishable from Congress,' Gorelick said on ABC's 'This Week.' 'And if that's what they are worried about, they ought to put it aside.'"

Charles Lane wrote in Saturday's Washington Post: "The White House's refusal to permit national security adviser Condoleezza Rice to testify publicly and under oath before the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks is not unprecedented in the practices of both the Bush administration and previous administrations, according to legal analysts and a report by the research arm of the Library of Congress."

Here's that Congressional Research Service report from 2002.

Behind the Outing

The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz reports on how Clarke's previously anonymous 2002 briefing got outed last week. (See Thursday's White House Briefing for background.)

"Fox News correspondent Jim Angle says the tape had been sitting in his desk drawer for a year and a half.

"So when former counter-terrorism official Richard Clarke began assailing President Bush's handling of al Qaeda in TV interviews for his new book, Angle asked the National Security Council for permission" to put it on the record, Kurtz writes.

Today's Calendar

Sonya Ross of the Associated Press writes that Bush today welcomes seven former Soviet-dominated nations to NATO.

"Bush presides Monday at a White House ceremony to greet the prime ministers of the new member nations along with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

"With the addition of Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, NATO's membership grows from 19 countries to 26."

Scott Lindlaw of the Associated Press previews Cheney's speech for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce today: "Vice President Dick Cheney, seeking to shore up President Bush's standing on the economy, contends that Democratic opponent John Kerry would sweep away an array of tax cuts the administration has enacted."

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