Cheney, Clinton Slug It Out In One-Liners

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Monday, March 8, 2004; 10:38 AM

At the 119th annual Gridiron Club dinner on Saturday, many of Washington's most elite journalists and politicians gathered to poke fun at each another.

As Linda Hales writes in The Washington Post, President Bush was a no-show, spending the weekend on his ranch with Mexican President Vicente Fox.

Or, as Gridiron president and Wall Street Journal columnist Al Hunt put it: "That pretty much sums up the White House philosophy: Why waste time with newspaper reporters when you can spend quality time with Fox?"

Instead, the featured speakers included Hillary Rodham Clinton, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Dick Cheney. Or, as Hunt described them: "a senator who wants to be president, a mayor who wants to be king, and a vice president who already is both."

Some of Clinton's jokes:

• "In the Clinton administration, we used to say in eight years, we've added more than 22 million new jobs. . . . You guys could say: 'Since 1993, our country has created 19 million new jobs.'"

• The Clinton administration used to say it had "moved millions from welfare to work," to which Bush could add, "We've made that journey round trip."

• "I actually saw the vice president as we were walking in," she said. "I was getting out of my car. . . . he was getting out of Justice Scalia's."

The Daily Standard, the online companion to the Weekly Standard, obtained a copy of Cheney's remarks. Among them:

• "At one point during your skits, I had a little scare. I felt a tightness in my chest. I started gasping for air and breathing irregularly. Then I realized it's called laughing. . . . "

• "I always feel a genuine bond whenever I see Senator Clinton. She's the only person who's the center of more conspiracy theories than I am."

• "Here's an unsigned question. 'Mr. Vice President, don't you think it's time to step down and let someone else add new energy and vitality to the ticket?' No . . . I don't. And Rudy . . . you need to do a better job disguising your handwriting. Oh . . . and Rudy has a follow up. 'How can you be so sure you'll be on the ticket?' Because the CIA told me so!"

• "Anyway, ladies and gentlemen, it's getting late . . . and Nino [Scalia] and I have to get up early to go duck hunting."

In addition to speeches, there are also skits performed by journalists.

Connie Cass of the Associated Press writes: "In the most unusual turn of this year's satirical script, syndicated columnist Robert Novak -- who sparked a federal investigation by printing the name of an undercover CIA officer -- was taking the stage as that CIA officer's disgruntled husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson.

"Dressed as Wilson in top hat and cutaway coat, Novak sings of himself: 'Novak had a secret source . . . so he outed a girl spy the way princes of darkness do. . . . Now John Ashcroft asks Bob who and how, could be headed to the old hoosegow.'"

Another skit depicted Bush adviser Karl Rove as Oz's Scarecrow, singing about his boss, "If he only had MY brain."

Was Bush's absence a terrible slight? Gridiron Club historian Cheryl Arvidson told me that "in the 119 years history of the Gridiron, every president with the exception of Grover Cleveland has come -- as many times as they could."

Bush the elder was four for four when he was president. This Bush made the last three. But it's not an ironclad tradition. "Clinton missed at least one, when he broke his foot. Reagan missed at least one. Nixon missed at least one. I think Carter missed at least one. So it's not unprecedented for a president not to come to every one," Arvidson said.

For some more jokes -- not from the Gridiron -- read Bruce Weber's story in the New York Times today about how "the relationship between comedy and politics has never been more entangled."

9/11 24/7

As Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen wrote in The Washington Post yesterday: "Illuminating how dramatically Sept. 11, 2001, has reshaped politics, George W. Bush and his Democratic rival, John F. Kerry, are kicking off the 2004 campaign with a heated, and sometimes highly personal, fight over national security and terrorism."

The whole issue of 9/11 came barreling back onto the front pages last week, when the Bush campaign unveiled its first TV ads.

Michael Isikoff and T. Trent Gegax write in Newsweek: "The controversy over President George W. Bush's new TV ads featuring fake firefighters and fleeting images of the 9/11 attacks threw campaign officials on the defensive -- and raised questions about the Bush team's ability to effectively spend its massive $150 million war chest, some GOP insiders say."

But Bush on Saturday indicated he would not pull the ads. In a press conference on Saturday with Fox, Bush said:

"First of all, I will continue to speak about the effects of 9/11 on our country and my presidency. I will continue to mourn the loss of life on that day, but I'll never forget the lessons. The terrorists declared war on us on that day, and I will continue to pursue this war. I have an obligation to those who died; I have an obligation to those who were heroic in their attempts to rescue. And I won't forget that obligation.

"How this administration handled that day, as well as the war on terror, is worthy of discussion. And I look forward to discussing that with the American people. And I look forward to the debate about who best to lead this country in the war on terror."

CNN White House correspondent Dana Bash reported Sunday: "I will tell you that behind the scenes, talking to some Bush aides privately, what they are saying is that the point of these ads were to reset the story line. . . . after the Democrats had their primary and everybody was so focused on them, they want to sort of reintroduce the president.

"There is nothing they still think that really helps the president and shows the president in a more positive light than reminding them -- the American people -- of how they felt about him in and around September 11. So while they understand that this is controversial, they feel at least they are resetting the debate, if you will. The fact we are talking about it makes it better for them than if we were talking, for example, about what happened on Friday, which is the fact that the president got a pretty awful jobs report. And that is the issue that Democrats want to talk about."

But the Democrats also seem to want to talk about 9/11.

Jim VandeHei of The Washington Post reports: "Sen. John F. Kerry, intensifying the election fight over terrorism and national security, accused President Bush on Sunday of 'stonewalling' for political reasons separate investigations into the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and prewar intelligence on Iraq.

"'I think one of the most critical questions in front of the country is with respect to 9/11, why is this administration stonewalling and resisting the investigation into why we had the greatest security failure in the history of our country and why is he also resisting having an immediate investigation into the security failure with respect to the intelligence in Iraq,' Kerry told reporters at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss."

Kerry's comments came two days after, as Douglas Jehl reported in the New York Times: "Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts delivered a blistering indictment on Friday of President Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq, accusing Mr. Bush of deliberately exaggerating the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's government. . . .

"Mr. Kennedy accused the president of resorting to 'pure, unadulterated fear-mongering, based on a devious strategy to convince the American people that Saddam's ability to provide nuclear weapons to Al Qaeda justified immediate war.'"

Talk of 9/11 will, if anything, mount this week.

As Mike Allen reported in The Washington Post on Saturday: "President Bush, facing criticism for using stark footage from the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in his campaign commercials, will visit a memorial to the victims next week, the White House announced Friday.

"Bush plans to travel Thursday to East Meadow, N.Y., for the groundbreaking ceremony of the Nassau County 9/11 Memorial. Afterward he is to speak at a campaign fundraiser in the same town. . . .

"Bush's political advisers argue that the controversy will not hurt them in the long run, and some even argued that it helped them. One Bush aide, who insisted on anonymity before discussing strategy, said the controversy helped the campaign frame the race around its preferred subject."

"We have started the campaign the way we wanted to and on the issues we intended, and the conversation around the water cooler is about September 11th again," the official said. "We fundamentally need people to remember September 11th and everything it has caused in everyone's life."

White House Leak Watch

Mike Allen wrote in Saturday's Washington Post: "Aides to President Bush agreed to turn over a log of a week's worth of telephone calls from Air Force One and other records to satisfy subpoenas from a federal grand jury investigating the leak of a CIA operative's identity, White House officials said Friday."

In the Saturday press gaggle, press secretary Scott McClellan responded to many questions on the issue, sometimes somewhat elliptically.

"The White House Counsel's Office did send a letter out to White House staff, urging everybody to comply fully with the request from the investigators, and that's exactly what we are doing. But, yes, at this point we're still in the process of complying fully with those requests. We have provided the Department of Justice investigators with much of the information and we're continuing to provide them with additional information and comply fully with the request for information."

Newsday's Tom Brune -- who last week reported about the contents of the subpoenas, which were issued in January -- on Saturday described the contents of one of the subpoenaed documents, a gaggle transcript alleged to be "missing" from the White House Web site.

"A transcript subpoenaed in the CIA leak probe reveals the White House press operation began efforts to personally discredit former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV days before a columnist blew the cover of his CIA-officer wife."

I wonder if he read it right here -- where, as I described in my Friday column, I found it without a subpoena.

Is the White House Stretched Thin?

Robin Wright and Glenn Kessler wonder in a news analysis for The Washington Post whether Washington is suffering from foreign crisis overload.

A possible case in point: Haiti, where "Washington resisted getting embroiled until the final days of the confrontation, despite long-brewing signs of trouble."

But "White House officials deny that the administration is stretched thin or overburdened.

"'This White House is the most calm that I've worked in. I was struck by this [at the end of February] as we were wrapping up six-party talks on North Korea and had Haiti and Iraq's Transitional Administrative Law. The phones were ringing off the hook, but there was no sense of crisis in the White House. No one starts running a fever if there's a crisis,' said a senior administration official who has worked in top positions for several administrations."

And yet, "Administrations have difficulty juggling more than two or three major issues at the same time, added David Gergen, director of Harvard's Center for Public Leadership and a White House adviser to Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. 'This White House is already dealing with three. Any more than that and you'll drop one. It's too small a system and staff,' he said."

The Campaign

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times that Bush is fully engaged in campaign, making all sorts of decisions himself.

That's right, Karl Rove is not calling the shots, or so says "one Republican official close to the re-election effort who did not want to be named for fear of angering" Rove.

And yeah, it may not have been a great week for the campaign, but "Despite the bruising, White House officials described the president last week as in an unusually good mood, and revved up to engage politically after a protracted weigh-in on the sidelines of the primaries."

Edwin Chen writes in the Los Angeles Times: "As his reelection bid kicks into gear, President Bush is offering a catchall explanation designed to inoculate himself against potential vulnerabilities -- from a weak economy and massive budget deficits to the growth of government and a curtailment of civil rights.

"In a phrase, it's 9/11."

Also at the L.A. Times, Ronald Brownstein writes in his Washington Outlook column: "By now, the Bush family must consider jobs a four-letter word. . . .

"The economy's continuing failure to produce meaningful numbers of jobs, reinforced by other bread-and-butter concerns such as rising healthcare costs, looms as the greatest vulnerability for Bush in the general election campaign that effectively began last week."

Judy Keen writes in USA Today: "President Bush says he wants a manned mission to Mars, a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, pollution-free hydrogen cars and changes in Social Security so workers can invest some of their payroll taxes in the stock market.

"But he's not wielding much of his clout to make those goals a reality."

And while the Bush campaign accuses Kerry of being a waffler, blogger Daily Kos is compiling a list of Bush flip-flops that's getting a lot of attention in the blogosphere.

Today's Calendar

Scott Lindlaw and Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press both preview Bush's day today zipping around Texas.

Lindlaw writes: "President Bush calls himself a 'windshield cowboy,' the kind who patrols his ranch from a pickup truck, not from a horse.

"But like his father, the former president, and many other politicians before him, Bush visits the popular Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo on Monday. It's his lone public appearance during a sweep through the Lone Star State for another Texas-size haul of campaign cash.

"Bush's attendance at the event, wedged between two re-election fund-raisers, marks his return there after seven years. He stopped by the event in 1997, as governor of Texas, wearing a dark suit and no Stetson."

Loven writes: "Until last month, President Bush hadn't been to a NASCAR race since he was governor of Texas and running for president. On Monday, he goes to a rodeo and livestock exhibition in Houston -- again, for the first time since he was governor.

"Such appearances at sporting events this election year help Bush shore up his standing with his core supporters: white men.

"They also show him as a plain-talking boots-wearer with Middle America tastes -- an image Bush has cultivated for years to counter his background as an Ivy Leaguer from an old, wealthy, New England-based family."

The first lady is delivering remarks to the American College of Cardiology in New Orleans today, then taking questions from the media.

The vice president is speaking at a fundraiser in Des Moines for a congressional candidate.

Fox News

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox reached an agreement in principle Saturday that will allow millions of Mexicans with short-term visas to cross the border without being fingerprinted and photographed by U.S. authorities."

Thinking Pink

Lena H. Sun writes in The Washington Post: "Underneath a 40-foot-tall woman's pink slip held aloft by a helium balloon, about 50 protesters gathered in front of the White House yesterday chanting 'Pink Slip George Bush,' calling for him to be ousted for his handling of the economy and the war in Iraq."

Did Someone Say 'Treats'?

Paul Bedard writes in U.S. News's Washington Whispers column: "Pressies tell us that because Bush avoids them after landing, they sometimes call out Barney's name in hopes he'll run their way. When it works, the trick forces Bush to retrieve the pup and face some questions. 'Yes, we know the trick,' says a Bushie, happy it sometimes fails. 'We just hope they don't start using treats.'"

© 2004