Subtle Messages at Clinton Lovefest

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Tuesday, June 15, 2004; 10:59 AM

It was quite the bipartisan lovefest yesterday as the Bushes welcomed the Clintons back to the White House -- ever so briefly -- for the unveiling of the Clinton portraits.

President Bush spoke warmly of his predecessor; Clinton was almost self-effacing. It was a soaring example of the fact that the White House, on occasion, can transcend politics. It was a stirring reminder of the importance of continuity of government.

So any online columnist who attended the event hoping to see fisticuffs was sorely disappointed.

But amid all the effusion, I got the sense that both Bush and Clinton subtly used the occasion to serve their interests.

Bush gushed over Clinton's enthusiasm and optimism -- even as Bush's campaign is busy portraying Democrat John F. Kerry as dour and pessimistic. Message: See what Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and I have in common?

And Clinton took a less subtle whack at the brutality of modern politics -- and the rhetoric of good vs. evil that sometimes infuses the Bush administration.

"I hope that I'll live long enough to see American politics return to vigorous debates where we argue who's right and wrong, not who's good and bad," Clinton said.

From the back of the room, I saw Bush nod his head up and down.

What is it about these two men, both claiming they want to be uniters, that they have nevertheless so fiercely divided the country?

The Coverage

Mike Allen of The Washington Post writes that the event "transformed the White House into an island of bipartisan humor and graciousness in a roiling election-year sea. . . .

"Bush even plugged his predecessor's book, 'My Life,' which is to be published next week in a hail of publicity. After ticking off a few high points of Clinton's life, Bush added, 'I can tell you more of the story, but it's coming out in fine bookstores all over America.'

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "Forgotten, for the moment, was Mr. Bush's campaign pledge 'to restore honor and dignity' to the Oval Office. And forgotten was the unwritten rule inside the Bush White House that Mr. Clinton's presidency would rarely be mentioned by name -- except to blame it for leaving Mr. Bush with an approaching recession, for contributing to violence in the Middle East, or for letting North Korea keep its plutonium. . . .

Sanger quotes Rahm Emanuel, once among the most partisan of Clinton's aides: "I thought everybody was going to break out in 'Kumbaya.'"

Can't get enough of this stuff? Here are video reports from John Roberts of CBS News and Terry Moran of ABC News.

And here's the complete transcript, including remarks by both Clintons.

Whither the Portraits?

So where will the portraits hang?

White House chief usher Gary Walters explains on the White House Web site. It's a pretty complicated sequence of events.

"President Clinton's portrait will hang in the Entrance Hall where President Bush's portrait is now," Walters said, referring to the first President Bush, "but they will exchange places so that President Bush hangs on the side of the Grand Staircase. President Kennedy's portrait will be moved to the west end of the Cross hall to replace F.D. Roosevelt." Etc. etc.

Stumping for Medicare

Amy Goldstein writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush stepped Monday into the controversy over the first part of the new Medicare law that has gone into effect, acknowledging that 'we've got some problems' with the drug discount cards that became available two weeks ago.

"With fewer than expected older Americans signing up for the cards and Democrats working to fan opposition to the law, Bush said that some Medicare patients are shying away because they consider it too complicated to get a card. Still, he delivered a strong defense -- and accompanied a 74-year-old woman to a local pharmacy where she used her new card to save $17 on her blood-pressure medicine."

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush has shied away from talking frequently or in depth about the topic on the campaign trail this year. His stance reflects concern among Republicans that the Medicare overhaul legislation he enthusiastically signed into law last year has so many problems, including a big price tag and a prescription drug benefit more limited than many retirees might have hoped for, that it could work against them."

Steve Kraske and Alan Bavley write in the Kansas City Star: "Before his speech, Bush made a stop at the Hy-Vee Food and Drug Store on Missouri 152 in Liberty to buy a prescription with Wanda Blackmore, a Kansas City woman who joined the president's entourage when he arrived at Kansas City International Airport.

"Blackmore walked to the counter and spent $1.90 to buy a blood-thinning medication. Using her card saved $17, the president noted."

Edwin Chen of the Los Angeles Times was the print pool reporter tagging along with the president in Missouri, and joined the crowd in the drug store.

He reported to his colleagues: "Just before this transaction, your pooler found himself out of position, and POTUS and Wanda walked by in the very next aisle. He turned down your pooler's offer for Tylenol, saying: 'No, I'm in good shape. Doing pretty good.'"

Here is the text of Bush's remarks in his public event.

Stem Cell Watch

Scott Lindlaw writes for the Associated Press: "The White House rejected calls Monday from Ronald Reagan's family and others to relax President Bush's restrictions on stem-cell research in pursuit of potential cures for illnesses."

You Want Your News Unvarnished? Really?

Dana Milbank of The Washington Post offers his White House Notebook readers a chance to see what White House news would be like without that pesky "media filter."

He offers a medley of upbeat excerpts from briefings given by unidentified senior administration officials at last week's Group of Eight summit in Georgia.

Without the filter, Milbank concludes, everything "would look very, very good. And positive, and excellent."

Reagan Legacy Watch

There is increased message traffic out there on the Internet about Ron Reagan's eulogy of his father on Saturday.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "As Republicans try to cloak President Bush in the mantle of Ronald Reagan, their biggest obstacle may be Mr. Reagan's own family.

"Even before Mr. Reagan died, Nancy Reagan and her daughter, Patti Davis, made their opposition to Mr. Bush's policy on stem-cell research well known. But on Friday, at the culmination of an emotional week of mourning for the former president, his son Ron Reagan delivered a eulogy that castigated politicians who use religion 'to gain political advantage,' a comment that was being interpreted in Washington as a not-so-subtle slap at Mr. Bush.

"The remark has provoked intense debate among Republicans about precisely what the younger Mr. Reagan meant."

Here is the text of Ron Reagan's eulogy. CNN has video.

Still confused about how Ron Reagan feels about President Bush? helpfully reran a 2003 interview with Reagan in which he said: "[M]y father was a man -- that's the difference between him and Bush."

The rest of the quote I'm not allowed to reproduce here.

Live Online With 'Bush on the Couch'

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET with a guest: Justin Frank, Georgetown psychoanalyst and author of "Bush on the Couch." The book, on sale today, is an unauthorized "applied psychoanalysis" of the president.

There's lots of interesting biographical stuff -- and lots of psychoanalytic speculation -- in the book. As The Washington Post's "Reliable Source" columnist Richard Leiby wrote recently, Frank claims President Bush exhibits "sadistic tendencies" and suffers from "character pathology," including "grandiosity" and "megalomania" -- viewing himself, America and God as interchangeable.

Send me your questions and comments for Frank.

Cheney Repeats Challenged Assertion

Mike Schneider writes for the Associated Press: "Vice President Dick Cheney said Monday that Saddam Hussein had 'long-established ties' with al Qaida, an assertion that has been repeatedly challenged by some policy experts and lawmakers.

"The vice president offered no details backing up his claim of a link between Saddam and al Qaida."

Torture Watch

Will Dunham writes for Reuters: "The Bush administration sees no 'wiggle room' on the definition of torture, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on Monday, even as a classified Justice Department memo stated some 'cruel, inhuman or degrading' acts may not amount to torture.

"'There is no wiggle room in the president's mind or my mind about torture. That is not something that's permitted under the Geneva Convention or the laws of the United States,' Rumsfeld told a news briefing outside the Pentagon with visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai."

Vatican Watch

AFP reports: "The White House refused to confirm or deny a published report that US President George W. Bush sought election-year help from the Vatican during a visit there earlier this month.

"The president and Vatican secretary of state Cardinal Angelo Sodano 'discussed a number of priorities of shared concern, and their views are well known on those issues,' spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters.

"The National Catholic Reporter, an independent weekly, reported recently that Bush asked Sodano to push US Catholic Bishops to be more aggressive politically on issues like gay marriage, which the White House opposes."

Today's Calendar

Bush and Afghan President Hamid Karzai meet then hold a joint news conference today. Bush also meets in the morning with the King of Jordan, makes remarks via satellite to the Southern Baptist Convention, and attends the Congressional Picnic on the South Lawn.

Light Bulb Joke

In Sanger's New York Times about the Clinton portraits, he makes references to the fact that Clinton alumni are circulating a joke about how many Bush administration officials it takes to change a light bulb. The answer is seven. But Sanger only describes two of seven roles. Here is the entire joke:

• One to deny that a light bulb needs to be replaced.

• One to attack and question the patriotism of anyone who has questions about the light bulb.

• One to blame the previous administration for the need of a new light bulb.

• One to arrange the invasion of a country rumored to have a secret stockpile of light bulbs.

• One to get together with Vice President Cheney and figure out how to pay Halliburton one million dollars for a light bulb.

• One to arrange a photo-op session showing Bush changing the light bulb while dressed in a flight suit and wrapped in an American flag.

• And finally, one to explain to Bush the difference between screwing a light bulb and screwing the country.

Stepford White House

Richard Leiby, The Washington Post's "Reliable Source," writes about the short-lived movie promo for "The Stepford Wives" that "depicted Condoleezza Rice as a topless hottie and Hillary Clinton as a bosomy housewife holding a baking sheet."

KMBC-TV in Kansas City broke the story, and has slow-mo video of the morphing.

© 2004