Preacher Bush

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, April 11, 2005; 12:38 PM

Uplifted by the pope's funeral, President Bush on Friday called the seven reporters traveling with him on Air Force One into his airborne conference room, sat them around a table and talked to them about Jesus.

"There is no doubt in my mind there is a living God. And no doubt in my mind that Lord, Christ, was sent by the Almighty. No doubt in my mind about that," he said.

For 47 minutes, Bush and the journalists had an intimate, friendly chat largely about the pope, his legacy and Bush's own "walk with Christ."

Here's the transcript of Bush's conversation with the pool, the rotating group of reporters who travel with the president when there's not enough room for everyone.

On Friday, that group consisted of Tom Raum from the Associated Press, Steve Holland from Reuters, Richard Keil from Bloomberg, Bill Sammon from the Washington Times, Holly Bailey from Newsweek, Rosiland Jordan from NBC and Ann Compton from ABC.

Sammon wrote to his print colleagues: "Shortly after takeoff from Rome, President Bush invited the pool to the conference room on Air Force One for an on-the-record, off-camera exchange. Dressed in nylon sweat pants and a navy warm-up jacket (his name stitched over his heart and the presidential seal on the right), Mr. Bush appeared relaxed and confident."

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush said Friday that attending Pope John Paul II's emotional funeral strengthened his belief in Christianity, in a living God and in how religious faith is a lifelong journey, not a respite. . . .

"At times using language familiar to Evangelicals, including talking in some detail about faith as a spiritual 'walk' with Christ, the president said viewing the pope's body made him feel 'much more in touch with the spirit.'

" 'I think a walk in faith constantly confronts doubt, as faith becomes more mature,' he said. 'And you constantly confront, you know, questions. My faith is strong. The Bible talks about, you've got to constantly stay in touch with the word of God in order to help you on the walk."

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Offering a rare, reflective self-portrait as he began the long flight from Rome to his Texas ranch after the funeral, Bush said he was taken by the moment's spirituality as he knelt at the bier after arriving at the Vatican on Wednesday. . . .

"The president, who held 17 full-dress news conferences at the White House during his first term, rarely speaks with reporters aboard Air Force One. Since his reelection, he has been holding news conferences about once a month. Friday's session in the airborne presidential conference room suggested he was increasingly at ease fielding journalists' questions."

Of course it helps if the questions are easy.

Here's one from Friday:

"Q How did the Pope's struggle with his health at the end of his life and his example throughout his life strengthen your own faith?"

Entirely missing, by contrast, were any questions about whether he thinks it's okay to eject dissenters from his public events, or what his exit strategy is for Iraq, or what effect the latest reports on flawed intelligence have on his doctrine of preemptive war -- or even why, at the pope's funeral, he wouldn't shake hands with his adversaries.

No Reaching Out

David E. Sanger and Steven Erlanger write in the New York Times that while some at the papal funeral reached out to historical enemies, Bush did not.

"The ceremony put President Bush in rare, close proximity to the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, and President Mohammad Khatami of Iran. But he did not use it as an opportunity to talk directly with Mr. Assad, with whom his administration has been sparring over Lebanon and Iraq. And while administration officials describe Mr. Khatami as a moderate among Iran's leaders, Mr. Bush had no contact with him, either. . . .

"A senior administration official, reached by telephone in Washington, said it was unclear whether Mr. Bush was close enough to either the Syrian or Iranian leaders to speak with them, much less shake hands. 'Even if he had been,' the official said, 'I don't think it would be like the president to initiate that kind of gesture. The moment would be too fraught.' "

Booed in Rome

Victor L. Simpson reports for the Associated Press: "When Bush's face appeared on giant screen TVs showing the ceremony, many in the crowds outside St. Peter's Square booed and whistled."

Gerson Interview

While Bush was at the pope's funeral, Melissa Charbonneau of the Christian Broadcasting Network scored an interview with Michael Gerson, the evangelical Christian who was recently promoted from chief speechwriter to the post of policy and strategic planning adviser.

"This White House wordsmith has also been the target of critics, who say he has infused the President's speeches with too much religious rhetoric.

"CBN News: In December 2004, you talked about the idea of God being banished from the public square.

"Gerson: My philosophy is that a rigid secularization, which really bans religion ideas from public discourse, is dangerous. It's dangerous because faith has been a source of social justice throughout American history. . . .

"CBN News: The President himself has taken a careful balance. He's never spoken from a pulpit?

"Gerson: Exactly. We've adopted what we call a principled pluralism. The President is welcoming to all faiths in our common life rather than being sectarian, which is promoting an individual faith -- the role of a church. But it is not the role of the governing authority."

Meanwhile, Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press about William McGurn, a longtime Wall Street Journal columnist and chief editorial writer who now has Gerson's old job.

Social Security: Pivot Ahead

Richard W. Stevenson and Robin Toner write in the New York Times: "After spending months seeking to convince the nation that Social Security faces serious problems that demand immediate action, President Bush will pivot to a new message next month, working in coordination with Congressional leaders to begin setting out the menu of potentially painful solutions, White House officials said. . . .

" 'Phase 1 is heighten the sense that this is a big issue worthy of immediate consideration by Congress,' said Karl Rove, the deputy White House chief of staff for policy and Mr. Bush's political strategist. 'We have some ways to go in the calendar on that, but the movement on that has been very good.' "

As for Phase II: "The strategy after that, administration officials said, is to begin laying out at least in general terms the ways in which Social Security could be put on a sound financial footing. The officials did not say what steps Mr. Bush might support, but they said any proposals would be decided in conjunction with Congressional leaders, suggesting that Mr. Bush does not intend to wade alone into that debate, with all the peril it entails."

But Will Private Accounts Still Be There?

Warren Vieth writes in the Los Angeles Times that "as the clock winds down on Bush's self-imposed timetable for promoting his restructuring plan, some conservatives fear he has laid the groundwork for what they regard as the worst possible outcome -- pressure for tax increases and benefit cuts to ensure Social Security's solvency, but a rejection of private accounts as part of the fix. . . .

" 'One thing this roadshow has achieved is that it's made the do-nothing approach more difficult to defend,' said [an] administration advisor. 'On the other piece of this -- the role that personal accounts play as part of the solution -- I don't think we've gotten anywhere. In fact I think we've probably backslid.' "

Bubble Watch

Mary Jo Almquist and Teri Finneman write in the Fargo (N.D.) Forum: "North Dakota's congressional delegation has formally requested an investigation into the do-not-admit lists designed to keep people out of President Bush's Social Security speeches.

"Sens. Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Secretary of the Treasury John Snow on Friday asking them to investigate the development and distribution of the black lists, including one that surfaced in Fargo."

Rex Nutting writes for MarketWatch: "The Bush administration has spent millions of dollars in the past two months on its campaign to overhaul Social Security, narrowly skirting laws that prohibit spending of taxpayer funds to indirectly lobby Congress."

What Debate?

Bush on Social Security, in his Air Force One chat: "I like the debate, by the way, as an aside. I'm enjoying this."

The Clinton Comparison

In that same Air Force One chat, Bush compared himself to President Clinton, who also tried to make changes to Social Security.

"You know, I remember I was telling President Clinton, I remember watching one of his town hall meetings in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on this very subject. And I thought it was a very impressive presentation. By the way, a lot of the language happens to be pretty close to some of the town hall meetings we've had."

This isn't the first time Bush has compared his roadshows with Clinton's. (See the "Clinton Comparison" item in my Feb. 8 column.)

But there's a great deal of difference between their approaches, both in terms of substance and style. Clinton, for instance, was considering private accounts as "add-ons" rather than "carve-outs."

And when Clinton went on the road to talk about Social Security, he let himself get grilled by journalists and critical audience members. And he shared the stage with experts who didn't agree with him -- including Republicans.

Here, for instance, is the transcript of Clinton's town hall meetings in Albuquerque in 1998.

Among the questions and comments he fielded:

• Are we simply creating a system that is inevitably going to plunge a lot of very old people into poverty?

• Who's going to pay for this privatization?

• It seems to me, there's a "shell game" going here.

• If it were entirely up to you and a decision had to be made today, what would you do?

• Why not raise the ceiling for incomes subject to Social Security tax?

Carolyn Lochhead writes more in the San Francisco Chronicle about Clinton's approach in 1998.

Cheney on Social Security

In another move to make sure top officials aren't forced to confront dissent on Social Security, the White House has turned to radio shows where they are guaranteed to get friendly interviews.

The White House Web site just posted the audio of Vice President Cheney's interview last week with Michael Medved, who has a show on the Christian Salem Radio Network.

It was not exactly a tough interview. Here's a sample question from Medved: "The one thing that is very difficult for me to understand, Mr. Vice President, is the fanatical, ferocious opposition to your desire to try to save Social Security. . . . What kind of mistake or motivation do you think is behind some of this opposition?"

Medved later posed what I'm betting he thought was another easy one. But it wasn't.

Medved, incredulously: "They say that you're scaring people about the reliability of U.S. government bonds, that the Social Security trust fund, that great fiction that's been created over the years, is actually full of these rock solid government bonds, and by questioning the reliability of those bonds, you're really undermining the whole full faith and credit of the U.S. government. And your response, Mr. Vice President?"

Cheney: "Michael, I think U.S. bonds are indeed valuable reliable investments. I wouldn't suggest otherwise. . . . The point is, though, that the money that those bonds represent, and the payroll taxes that's been paid over the years, that was over and above what was required to pay immediate benefits, and what's going to happen here down the road is we're going to reach the point before too long where we're paying out more than we're taking in, in the payroll tax and the Social Security benefits. And that means we'll have to go borrow money, in effect, to repay those bonds. And that's when we start to get the demographic problem working for us."

Rove's Role

Tom Hamburger writes in the Los Angeles Times about a February meeting during which Karl Rove corralled the nation's most influential business lobbyists to join a trade association supporting Bush's Social Security plans.

The Unspoken Problems

Greg Ip writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The debate over Social Security has managed to drown out other longstanding issues in American society, including the widening gap between rich and poor and surging health-care costs. Yet these two phenomena play an important, though little appreciated, role in Social Security's problems. That is because they are eroding the base of taxable wages available to support Social Security benefits."

Gas Prices Watch

Richard Wolffe and Tamara Lipper write in Newsweek: "White House officials tell Newsweek that Bush will become increasingly vocal in public about fuel costs, seizing on the public concern to push ahead with his long-stalled energy bill, as well as delivering speeches on energy issues, including new technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells and cleaner coal. . . .

"In the meantime, the president will look like he's addressing the problem simply by talking to the Saudi leader. 'And come September,' says one official planning for the meeting, 'prices will inevitably drop when the driving season is over.'"

Sharon at Crawford

Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes in the Baltimore Sun that "by throwing open the doors of his beloved Prairie Chapel [ranch] to Sharon today, Bush is marking a new phase in his close, high-stakes relationship with the Israeli leader.

"For Bush, who has labored to steer clear of the details of Middle East peacemaking, a spring day on his 1,600-acre spread near Waco is an ideal way to show strong support for Sharon at a time when his early backing of the Israeli leader could be on the brink of paying dividends."

Bush and Sharon are expected to hold a joint press availability around noon central time.

Guckert/Gannon Watch

"Jeff Gannon," the pseudononymous conservative from a partisan Web site who asked softball questions in the White House briefing room for more than a year, was on a panel at the National Press Club on Friday.

Here's the video.

Joe Strupp writes in Editor & Publisher that Gannon explained his behavior this way: "I was about the only news source providing . . . information without a filter. There is nothing wrong with reporting what the administration says about a particular issue. . . . Why does everything have to be looked at through a lens that represents every point of view?"

Wonkette blogger Ana Marie Cox said: "One of the reasons that Jeff got in [to the White House] is that many of the reporters do not go because the briefings are a joke, they do not tell you anything. It is kind of empty. I think it would be awesome if bloggers stormed the briefing room and started asking questions. If more people appeared naked in the briefing room, it would be entertaining."

Anne Schroeder writes in The Washington Post: "The scene in the lobby was quite raucous, The Post's Jose Antonio Vargas reported. Blogger Mike Rogers was told that he was 'banned for life' from the club after he repeatedly pursued former Talon News correspondent Jeff Gannon, aka James Guckert, loudly asking him how he got his White House credentials. During the panel discussion, Gannon brought down the house with this little nugget: 'You can hardly call Fox News conservative.' "

Poll Watch

Steve Holland writes for Reuters: "Seated at the head of a conference table aboard Air Force One, talking at length with reporters, President Bush showed little sign of worry about a recent slide in public opinion polls."

Here's that exchange in full:

"Q Mr. President, I know you're not -- you've said -- you've often said you're not consumed by polls, but a fair amount has been written lately about your approval ratings, which in some polls are at sort of a low point. Some polls --

"THE PRESIDENT: Some of them were going up the other day.

"Q Okay. Well, some say that --

" THE PRESIDENT: You can find them going up and you can find them going down. (Laughter.)

"Q In general, what --

"THE PRESIDENT: You can pretty much find out what you want in polls, is my point. (Laughter.)"

But as Holland notes in his story: "Poll numbers in the past several days point, however, to a basic reality for the president: the Social Security debate, high gasoline prices and negative fallout from the Terri Schiavo case have combined to hurt him."

Why the Polls May Not Matter

Ronald Brownstein writes in his Los Angeles Times column: "Every White House says the president isn't concerned about his polls. In Bush's case that actually seems true."

The lack of unease "reflects a political calculation among Bush's strategists. In their eyes, mass opinion doesn't matter as much as the attitude of the voters motivated to turn up on election day. As long as the president pleases his base, strategists believe they can produce an electorate that is more sympathetic to Bush and the GOP than the country is generally."

The downside? All this "has come at the cost of widening the country's political divisions. Bush's electoral strategy makes him inherently less sensitive than most presidents to the concerns of voters outside his core coalition. He appears content to operate as president of half the country. The gap between Bush's approval rating among voters in his own party and the opposition is the largest ever recorded."

Rove Watch

Rove makes it into Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential men and women of 2005, under "thinkers."

James Carville, of all people, writes: "Sometimes the truth hurts, and it pains me to say this, but Karl Rove is the pre-eminent political strategist in the U.S. today. . . .

"Rove, 54, mobilized the base. And he formulated a message that avoided the fact that his candidate had positions and a record that the majority of the American people disagreed with. He made the last election one not about policies or positions or even about values or national security -- he made it about decisiveness. Who else ever won the presidency on a message that basically says, 'You may not like what I stand for, but I stand for something'? President Bush won not because he was a better candidate but because he had a better campaign."

Happy Tunes

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "What, exactly, is on the First iPod? . . . [W]hat does the presidential selection of downloaded songs tell us about Mr. Bush?"

Here's a partial playlist. It includes country singers like George Jones, John Fogerty's "Centerfield" and the Knack's "My Sharona."

Joe Levy of Rollin Stone tells Bumiller: "This is basically boomer rock 'n' roll and more recent music out of Nashville made for boomers. It's safe, it's reliable, it's loving. What I mean to say is, it's feel-good music. The Sex Pistols it's not."

A Modest Proposal

Jacques Steinberg asked some experts how they would remake the evening news -- CBS's in particular.

Mark Burnett, who helped establish the reality show craze in America, had this idea:

"[I]f there were a correspondent on a news show that asked hard questions of the president, as they should, and got kicked out of the White House, I'd love to see them report the next night from outside the gate. It would be like, 'Hey, it's Joe Shmo, and as you know, I'm not allowed in there, but here's where I'm reporting today.' I'd cut back to him each night until they let him back in. It would galvanize ratings."

I'd watch.

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