Let the Debate Spin Begin

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, September 21, 2004; 12:22 PM

The White House wants you to know that if there is one thing that Sen. John F. Kerry is better at than President Bush, it is debating. Boy, is he good.

With the two campaigns settled on a debate schedule that calls for the first face-off to take place next Thursday night, the name of the game now is diminishing expectations.

Anne E. Kornblut writes in the Boston Globe: "Despite tussles over the timing and format, the 90-minute debates will take place more or less as initially proposed; only the subjects of the first and third debates have changed."

So now: "Both sides scrambled to lower expectations even before the agreement was announced. Bush aides described Kerry as 'the most experienced debater in the nation,' while Kerry aides depicted Bush as an affable performer who has never lost a debate in public life."

Thomas M. DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News: "Bush and Kerry both want the millions of voters who will watch the first debate on Sept. 30 from Coral Gables, Fla., to believe he's pathetically outclassed. . . .

"That's why Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart, in the finest tradition of Clintonian excess, could maintain with a straight face that President Bush has never lost a debate.

"Or why chief Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd, normally the essence of sobriety, could recently declare: 'John Kerry is the greatest debater since Cicero.'"

R. W. Apple Jr. writes in the New York Times: "For John Kerry, running behind in most polls, the debates will offer a chance to show exactly who he is and what he stands for. For President Bush, they will offer a chance to win over some of the skeptical voters who still consider him a lightweight, even after almost four years in office."

Apple spoke with Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. She wonders, Apple writes, if people will "come away from the debates and what is said and written about them believing that Mr. Kerry is indecisive -- the flip-flopper pictured in Republican commercials and speeches? Or will they conclude that Mr. Bush is a rigid ideologue who inhabits a fantasy world, as the Democrats would have it?"

The debates will be governed by a 32-page "memorandum of understanding" that you can read yourself right here.

Some of the rules:

• "The candidates may not ask each other direct questions, but may ask rhetorical questions."

• "The candidates shall not address each other with proposed pledges."

• "At no time during these debates shall either candidate move from their designated area behind their respective podiums."

• "The Commission shall allocate tickets to the two campaigns in such a manner to ensure that supporters of each candidate are interspersed with supporters of the other candidate."

And among the special rules for the one town-hall-style debate:

• "Prior to the start of the debate, audience members will be asked to submit their questions in writing to the moderator. No third party, including both the Commission and the campaigns, shall be permitted to see the questions. The moderator shall select and approve all questions to be posed by the audience members to the candidates. . . . The moderator will . . . eliminate any questions that the moderator deems inappropriate. . . . If any audience member poses a question or makes a statement that is in any material way different than the question that the audience member earlier submitted to the moderator for review, the moderator will cut-off the questioner and advise the audience that such non-reviewed questions are not permitted."

• "The audience members shall not ask follow-up questions or otherwise participate in the extended discussion, and the audience member's microphone shall be turned off after he or she completes asking the question."

Author George Farah tells ABC News's Tamala Edwards there will be "no spontaneity whatsoever. . . .

"You're not watching a debate, you're watching a glorified bi-partisan press conference -- with the moderators prohibited from asking follow-up questions, the town hall audience members having their questions prescreened, with the candidates having only 90 seconds so they're just issuing memorized sound bites."

The Porter Goss White House Two-Step

Dana Priest writes in The Washington Post about the second day of confirmation hearings for Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), the White House nominee for CIA director.

Goss "promised to correct any senior White House official who mischaracterizes intelligence in public. He said his personal intervention would likely be done in private."

But: "Asked to name an instance in which an administration official mischaracterized intelligence in public statements, Goss replied: 'I don't believe any public official in a position of responsibility has deliberately mischaracterized or misled anybody in the United States or anyplace else.'

"In response to later questioning, Goss said Vice President Cheney statement on Dec. 9, 2001, that Sept. 11 hijacker Mohamed Atta had gone to Prague to meet with an Iraqi intelligence officer was not 'as well confirmed perhaps as the vice president thought.' The CIA never reported it had credible evidence that the meeting occurred, although Cheney used it often in the months before the war as strong evidence to show a link between Iraq and the Sept. 11 attacks."

And Douglas Jehl writes in the New York Times that under sharp questioning Goss also spoke critically of some now-discredited assertions by national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.

But, "In each case, Mr. Goss cautioned that he did not know what information Mr. Cheney and Ms. Rice had used as the basis for their statements. He said he still believed that Iraq had provided some unspecified training to Al Qaeda, though he declined to elaborate."

Iran Watch

Steven R. Weisman writes in the New York Times that "the cause of regime change in Iran is expected to be revived if President Bush is re-elected, administration officials say. . . .

"At a time when the violent insurgency in Iraq is vexing the Bush administration and stirring worries among Americans, events may be propelling the United States into yet another confrontation, this time with Iran. The issues have an almost eerie familiarity, evoking the warnings and threats that led to the war to overthrow Saddam Hussein, and stirring an equally passionate debate. . . .

"The Bush administration has yet to forge a clear strategy on how to deal with Iran, partly because of a lack of attractive options and partly because there is a debate under way between hard-liners and advocates of diplomatic engagement."

Iraq Week

Bush fired back yesterday after Kerry's morning speech decrying the president's "colossal failures of judgment" on Iraq.

Jonathan Finer and Mike Allen write in The Washington Post: "Speaking to more than 1,000 revved-up supporters in a large gymnasium here, President Bush on Monday called Sen. John F. Kerry's morning remarks on Iraq part of his Democratic opponent's 'pattern of twisting in the wind with new contradictions of his old positions.'"

Jodi Wilgoren and Elisabeth Bumiller write in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush's advisers watched the 10 a.m. speech on television at the White House and set to work with him aboard Air Force One at noon to insert a hard-hitting response into the president's remarks at a campaign event in Derry, N.H. . . .

"Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, made an unusual round of calls to reporters covering the Kerry campaign to talk about the speech, saying the Democrats seemed to be 'grasping' for new attacks. . . .

"'We welcome the debate' on Iraq, he added. 'You use the old football analogy, where would you like to be playing, on your side of the 50 or theirs? We're playing in their red zone.' . . .

"Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's chief political adviser, seemed gleeful at the engagement, saying, 'The guy seems to have this belief that every time he speaks it's a blank sheet, and he doesn't have to worry about contradictory things he's said in recent days, weeks and months.'"

On ABC News, Terry Moran told Peter Jennings: "So Mr. Bush is trying to turn the debate on Iraq into a debate on John Kerry and that allows the president, Peter, to avoid some of the questions about Iraq -- they're coming not from just Senator Kerry, but from some leaders in his own party as well.

Jim Axelrod on CBS News said that "if Senator Kerry's idea was to deliver a once-and-for-all-here-is-my-position speech . . . then President Bush's response was same-old-same-old."

Here is the text of Bush's talk in Derry. Here's his speech in New York.

Slip of the Tongue

In Derry, Bush was talking about the situation in Iraq, which critics say he is sugarcoating.

"It's tough as heck in Iraq right now because people are trying to stop democracy," he said. "That's what you're seeing. And Iraqis are losing lives, and so are some of our soldiers. And it breaks my heart to see the loss of innocent life and to see brave troops in combat lose their life. It just breaks my heart. But I understand what's going on. These people are trying to shake the will of the Iraqi citizens, and they want us to leave. That's what they want us to do."

Then, he said: "And I think the world would be better off if we did leave." Pause. "If we didn't -- if we left, the world would be worse," he corrected himself.

Wrong About Abu

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press that for several weeks now, in the part of his regular stump speech where he tries to make a connection between Saddam Hussein and terrorist groups, Bush has been confusing his Abus.

"During remarks in Derry, N.H., Bush said the late terrorist Abu Nidal killed Leon Klinghoffer, a 69-year-old Jewish American who died after being tossed -- along with his wheelchair -- off a hijacked cruise liner named Achille Lauro in 1985.

"'Do you remember Abu Nidal?' Bush asked the crowd. 'He's the guy that killed Leon Klinghoffer. Leon Klinghoffer was murdered because of his religion. Abu Nidal was in Baghdad, as was his organization.' . . .

"Actually, it was Abul Abbas, the leader of a violent Palestinian group, who killed Klinghoffer."

United Nations Day

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "It has become a rite of autumn: Every September, President Bush speaks to the United Nations here and receives polite applause -- then each entity spends the rest of the year thwarting and disparaging the other."

Milbank writes that "supporters and opponents of Bush agree, the president has no hopes of a substantive breakthrough as he prepares to address the General Assembly on Tuesday morning. . . .

"The significance of Tuesday's speech, not surprisingly, is in the presidential election, just six weeks away. Bush will discuss a range of noncontroversial issues -- including funds to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, hunger and illiteracy -- and use the appearance here to debunk the accusation by Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry that Bush has been trigger-happy and acted alone."

Colum Lynch writes in The Washington Post that "U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan will tell the 191-member U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday that the rule of law in the post-Sept. 11 world has been eroded both by the United States and by other nations as they battle terrorism, and by Islamic extremists and their horrific acts of violence, according to senior U.N. officials."

Some of other issues Annan will likely touch on -- and that Bush surely won't: abuse of prisoners of war in Iraq by U.S. troops, the erosion of civil liberties and human rights in the name of the war on terror, the importance of international treaties, including a global ban on nuclear tests and an accord to slow the production of emissions that fuel global warming, and a proposed tax on international financial transactions and on heavy weapons sales to raise billions of dollars for the poor.

Scott Lindlaw writes for the Associated Press: "Also Tuesday, Bush meets with the leaders of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Japan and Iraq. Last year, Bush met with the heads of France and Germany -- two of his harshest critics on Iraq. But there are no Europeans on this year's list, and aside from his host, Annan, no sharp critics of the Iraq war."

The Coalition of the Willing

The Associated Press notes: "The White House has removed Costa Rica from an Internet list of nations in the so-called 'coalition of the willing' in Iraq.

"Costa Rica asked the United States this month to take it off the list after its Constitutional Court ruled that its presence on the list it violated pacifist principles of the Central American nation." Costa Rica was on the list even though it didn't actually contribute any troops to the effort.

But is the list updated -- or merely gone missing?

The AP writes: "The White House says the list of coalition members remains on its Web site. On Monday, however, the site's link to the list went to a page that said the requested page could not be found."

I found another version of that same page, still on the White House servers, but definitely a bit out of date. Costa Rica is still there. And it starts off: "President Bush is assembling a Coalition that has already begun military operations to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction . . . "


Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "CBS News anchor Dan Rather apologized yesterday for a 'mistake in judgment' in relying on apparently bogus documents for a '60 Minutes' report charging that President Bush received favorable treatment in the National Guard, ending a nearly two-week-long defense of the network's journalistic conduct that media analysts say has badly hurt its credibility."

Press secretary Scott McClellan said that's not enough in yesterday's press gaggle: "There are a number of serious questions that remain unanswered and they need to be answered. Bill Burkett, who CBS now says is their source, in fact, is not an unimpeachable source, as was previously claimed. Bill Burkett is a source who has been discredited in the past. So this raises a lot of questions. There were media reports about Mr. Burkett speaking with senior -- or having senior-level contacts with the Kerry campaign. That raises questions. What were those contacts and what was discussed with Bill Burkett? Who was the original source of these documents and who was responsible for forging these documents?"

Ken Herman writes for the Cox News Service that Burkett's attorney, David Van Os, told him that "the twisted tale had its roots on a cable TV political gabfest earlier this year.

"Burkett got a call 'out of the blue' from someone who had seen him MSNBC's 'Hardball with Chris Matthews' in February discussing his longstanding allegation that Bush aides ordered the destruction of the then-governor's National Guard records in Austin. There are some old National Guard records that Burkett needs to see, he was told."

The two men agreed to meet at a Houston rodeo.

"And so it came to be, according to Van Os, that a man unknown to Burkett walked up to the Simmental Association booth at the Astrodome and said, 'Are you Bill Burkett?'"

Libya Watch

Steven R. Weisman writes in the New York Times: "President Bush revoked the United States trade embargo on Libya on Monday and took other steps aimed at eventually establishing normal relations with the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in return for its keeping a promise to give up nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

"Libya, however, remains on the American list of states that sponsor terrorism."

First Lady and Abortion Rights

PRNewswire reports that in the October issue of GQ, Devin Friedman interviews Laura Bush and "writes that despite remaining unencumbered by scandal or controversy, Laura Bush shows evidence of what her (unofficial) biographer Ann Gerhart calls 'stealth independence.' The most convincing evidence of this, reports Friedman, is the First Lady's comment five years ago that she thought Roe v. Wade shouldn't be messed with. When Friedman asks if that's still her opinion, Bush replies 'Yeah,' and with that, considers the conversation closed."

White House Love

Anne E. Kornblut of the Boston Globe wrote in her pool report yesterday: "Top announcement of the day -- Josh Deckard, of lower press, got engaged to his girlfriend last Friday."

Deckard is an assistant press secretary.

Late Night Humor

Nedra Pickler reports from the Associated Press on Kerry's appearance with David Letterman last night, where he presented his "Top 10 Bush Tax Proposals":

"10. No estate tax for families with at least two U.S. presidents.

"9. W-2 Form is now Dubya-2 Form.

"8. Under the simplified tax code, your refund check goes directly to Halliburton.

"7. The reduced earned income tax credit is so unfair, it just makes me want to tear out my lustrous, finely groomed hair.

"6. Attorney General (John) Ashcroft gets to write off the entire U.S. Constitution.

"5. Texas Rangers can take a business loss for trading Sammy Sosa.

"4. Eliminate all income taxes; just ask Teresa (Heinz Kerry) to cover the whole damn thing.

"3. Cheney can claim Bush as a dependent.

"2. Hundred-dollar penalty if you pronounce it "nuclear" instead of 'nucular.'

"1. George W. Bush gets a deduction for mortgaging our entire future."

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