Same Old Bush

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Tuesday, February 22, 2005; 1:08 PM

Not quite halfway through his European tour, President Bush was asked this morning: Is there anything to his visit beyond a charm offensive? What will make the second-term Bush presidency less dictating and unilateralist than the first?

The question was raised by a European reporter at this morning's joint press conference with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

Bush's answer, in short: Nothing. It's Europe that needs to get over the Iraq issue and move on.

Here's how he put it:

"The major issue that irritated a lot of Europeans was Iraq. I understand that. I can figure it out. And the key now is to put that behind us, and to focus on helping the new democracy succeed."

But Bush himself isn't exactly putting Iraq behind him. He's still trying to justify it. He continued:

"The policy in the past used to be, let's just accept tyranny, for the sake of -- well, you know, cheap oil, or whatever it may be, and just hope everything would be okay. Well, that changed on September the 11th for our nation. Everything wasn't okay. Beneath what appeared to be a placid surface lurked an ideology based upon hatred. And the way to defeat that ideology is to spread freedom and democracy. That's what NATO understands, see. . . .

"And so my message is, is that the past is -- I made some hard decisions -- as did other leaders, by the way, in Europe -- about how to enforce 17 different United Nations resolutions on Iraq. Not one resolution, but 17 different resolutions. And we liberated Iraq and that decision has been made, it's over with, and now it's time to unify for the sake of peace.

"And I believe that message -- I believe -- forget the charm part; I believe that message is a message that people can understand. And they're beginning to see that the strategy is working."

NATO's leaders did agree today to a modest pledge to help train security forces in Iraq -- but whether they think Bush's strategy is working there is another story entirely.

Bush's long answer was presaged by a much shorter exchange a few moments earlier. A reporter from the French newspaper Le Monde began a meandering question by noting that Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, on a scouting trip to Europer earlier this month, described himself as a new Rumsfeld. (That was to distinguish from the "old Rumsfeld" who had condemned European countries that refused to back the war against Iraq.)

"Same old Bush," the president interrupted.

Here's the transcript.

At the Concert Noble

Bush gave what was billed as his major address yesterday at the Concert Noble ballroom in Brussels.

Michael A. Fletcher and Keith B. Richburg write in The Washington Post: "President Bush challenged Europe on Monday to put aside its differences with the United States over the Iraq war and become a 'strong partner' in 'advancing freedom in the world.' He also called on Russia to 'renew a commitment to democracy and the rule of law.' . . .

"On the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Bush declared that a settlement was 'now within reach.' He called on Palestinian leaders to 'confront and dismantle terrorist groups.' He appealed to Israel to freeze Jewish settlement activity and 'ensure that a new Palestinian state is truly viable, with contiguous territory on the West Bank. A state of scattered territories will not work.' . . .

"But even as the president sought a closer working relationship with Europe, there was little indication of any U.S. movement on the policies that soured relations between the longtime allies. Instead, U.S. officials said they saw Europeans slowly being won over to their view."

Paul Reynolds writes for the BBC: "In the major speech of his European visit, President Bush made some effort to accommodate European sensitivities -- principally over the Middle East -- but his main aim was to present his own agenda, by inviting Europeans to join him in the 'hard work of advancing freedom and peace in the world.' "

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "White House officials had promoted the speech as a major embrace of European unity, and had released excerpts on Sunday night suggesting that the president would extensively support the idea of the 25-member European Union as a partner rather as a rival to the United States.

"But he did not devote more than a few sentences to those ideas, and cast his support for a new European unity in the context of his goal of advancing liberty."

All Eyes to Putin

Bumiller writes that the speech "was most striking for his toughest words yet about President Vladimir V. Putin's rollback of democratic reforms and crackdown on dissent in Russia. Mr. Bush is to meet with Mr. Putin on Thursday in Slovakia's capital, Bratislava."

And indeed, all eyes are on the Bush-Putin summit on Thursday.

As Peter Baker wrote in Sunday's Washington Post: "The Bush-Putin summit in Slovakia, according to White House aides and outside critics, will be the first test of the grand promise laid out in the president's inauguration address last month to promote democracy abroad and confront 'every ruler and every nation' about internal repression with the goal of 'ending tyranny in our world.'

"Aides have carved out at least 2 1/2 hours in Bratislava on Thursday for the two to talk privately at length so the president would have enough time to get into a genuine exchange with his Russian counterpart about the rollback of democratic institutions and the elimination of political opposition."

Jeremy Page writes in the London Times that Bush "made clear at the weekend that he will not criticise Mr Putin in public over the Kremlin's control of national media, the abolition of direct elections for regional governors, or the break-up of the Yukos oil company. Instead, he will raise concerns about its increasingly autocratic ways in private, reasoning that his personal bond with Mr Putin is strong and that a public censure would backfire."

Lots of Symbolic Firsts

The White House is clearly hoping that Bush gets a lot of mileage from some symbolic firsts.

Bush has called great attention to the fact that the first overseas dinner of his second term was with his former nemesis, French President Jacques Chirac -- and that his first overseas meeting was held at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

"This is my first dinner since I've been re-elected on European soil, and it's with Jacques Chirac -- and that ought to say something. It ought to say how important this relationship is for me, personally, and how important this relationship is for my country," he said during his photo opportunity with Chirac last night. (Here's the transcript.)

Then again at today's press conference: "This is my first trip overseas of my second term, and I'm proud to make the home of NATO my first stop."

Bush is also consistently referring to his fellow leaders by their first names.

In interviews with European reporters on Friday, he was constantly referring to "Jacques," "Gerhard" (that's German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder) and Vladimir (Russian President Vladimir Putin, who Bush reportedly refers to in private as "Pootie-Poot.")

Before his dinner with Chirac, it was "Jacques," and during his joint press conference with de Hoop Scheffer, it was "Jaap" (pronounced "yawp.")

What's notable, however, is that all this apparent first-name bonhomie is not mutual. So far, at least, neither Chirac nor Scheffer have called him "George" in public.

It will be interesting to see what Pootie-Poot calls him.

Freedom Fries

And speaking of symbolism, Bush yesterday also rendered inoperative one of the most blatant -- and catchy -- symbolic attacks on France during the first term.

At the dinner for Chirac, hosted by the Americans, there was a side dish of potatoes and Bush reportedly went out of his way to call them "French fries."

During the height of the administration's francophobia, they had been renamed "freedom fries" when they appeared on the Air Force One menu.

Dinner With Jacques

Elaine Sciolino writes in the New York Times: "George W. Bush and Jacques Chirac have never been friends, but they are down-to-earth political realists who know when to hunker down and make peace. . . .

" 'Every time I meet with Jacques, he's got good advice,' Mr. Bush told reporters during a photo opportunity before dinner (even though it is no secret that Mr. Bush gets impatient with Mr. Chirac's lectures).

"Mr. Chirac twice said that he had always enjoyed 'warm relations' with Mr. Bush (even though he added, 'We didn't share the same view of Iraq')."

There's much in the morning press about Bush's "cowboy" line.

Here's Sciolino's take: "During a photo opportunity, Mr. Bush refused to be pinned down on whether relations had improved to the point where Mr. Bush would be inviting Mr. Chirac to the United States or even to Mr. Bush's ranch in Texas.

" 'I'm looking for a good cowboy,' Mr. Bush joked, dodging the question. He did not say whether he considered Mr. Chirac a cowboy. Mr. Chirac did not seem to get the joke."

James Harding and Daniel Dombey write in the Financial Times: "Certainly the brusque Mr Bush of his first term seemed to have been left behind, as the US president allowed his meetings to run well over schedule. Instead of half an hour with Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian prime minister, he spent nearly an hour; dinner with French President Jacques Chirac lasted nearly double the allotted time."

But, they note, "the goodwill only went so far. Mr Chirac, who spoke fluent English on the Larry King show, chose to speak French."

And as for the whole cowboy-ranch thing, Harding and Dombey write that "a White House official later made clear a prized invitation to the ranch was not on the horizon."

Finally, a Chirac coda: This morning, reports Reuters, Chirac publicly defied Bush by endorsing Schroeder's suggestion that the European Union, rather than NATO, should perhaps be the main partner in future transatlantic cooperation.

"U.S. officials continue to stress the centrality of NATO, which the United States founded and still dominates," Reuters explained.

The Blair Spin

Bush's great ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, tried to emphasize the positive this morning at his brief, post-breakfast photo op with Bush. (Here's the transcript.)

"Whatever the differences in the international community have been over the past couple of years, I think we have a really solid basis now for going forward in a unified way," Blair said.

And he called attention to Bush's push for Middle East peace.

"There's a renewed sense of vigor and optimism in that process. And with the London conference coming up next week, I think we've got every possibility now of trying to reach a settlement, which I think would do so much for international relations worldwide."

Pool reporter Mark Silva of the Chicago Tribune reported to his colleagues that the pool had been warned not to ask questions at the Blair event. But CBS News's John Roberts tried to get one in anyway, asking: "What more does President Bush need to do for Iran to believe he fully supports the negotiations?"

Silva reported that Bush chuckled audibly: " 'Heh heh heh,' Bush laughs, as the two turn on their heels and leave to head for NATO."

Coming Up Next

Bush meets later today with European Union leaders and has another joint press availability. Stephen Castle of the Independent offers a preview of that abbreviated summit, writing that "even by the standards of the Bush White House, the assembled heads of Europe will be given short shrift tomorrow when they gather to address the President of the United States."

Tomorrow, Bush is off to Mainz to meet with Schroeder.

Richard Wolffe writes in Newsweek about how tightly stage-managed the trip is.

"For example, White House officials ditched plans for a town-hall meeting with regular folk in Mainz when the German government said it couldn't guarantee friendly questions.

"Bush will instead face a hand-picked group of German yuppies who've enjoyed exchange trips to the U.S."

Wolffe also offers advice on "How to translate the nicely crafted phrases you'll hear from all sides."

For instance, when Bush says " 'We all share the common values of freedom and democracy,' what he really means is 'So why don't you help in Iraq now?' "

Poll Watch

Will Lester writes for the Associated Press about a new AP poll that shows "a majority of people in Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain said they thought it should not be the U.S. role to spread democracy."

Interestingly enough, a majority of those living in Canada, Mexico and South Korea also disagreed with that role -- as did a slight majority, 53 percent, in the United States.

The Wead Tapes

The New York Times reported on Sunday that Doug Wead, an author and former aide to Bush's father, has a whole lot of tapes he made of private conversations with Bush dating back to the 2000 campaign and beyond. Some excerpts were then broadcast on ABC News and elsewhere.

David D. Kirkpatrick writes in the New York Times: "Variously earnest, confident or prickly in those conversations, Mr. Bush weighs the political risks and benefits of his religious faith, discusses campaign strategy and comments on rivals. . . . And in exchanges about his handling of questions from the news media about his past, Mr. Bush appears to have acknowledged trying marijuana. . . .

"When Mr. Wead warned that he had heard reporters talking about Mr. Bush's 'immature' past, Mr. Bush said, 'That's part of my schtick, which is, look, we have all made mistakes.' "

In a taped segment played on "Good Morning America," Bush addressed how he would deal with questions about cocaine use.

"The cocaine thing, let me tell you my strategy on that," Bush said on the tape. "Rather than saying no . . . I think it's time for someone to draw the line and look people in the eye and say, you know, 'I'm not going to participate in ugly rumors about me and blame my opponent,' and hold the line. Stand up for a system that will not allow this kind of crap to go on."

Bush also said: "I don't want any kid doing what I tried to do 30 years ago. And I mean that. It doesn't matter if it's LSD, cocaine, pot, any of those things, because if I answer one, then there will be another one. And I just am not going to answer those questions. And it may cost me the election."

And that may not even be the good stuff.

Lois Romano and Mike Allen write in The Washington Post: "Asked whether Bush would view the actions as an act of treachery from a trusted friend, Wead said, 'It depends on what else is on the tapes. . . . Ninety percent of the tapes have not been heard. He can see that my motive was not to try to hurt him.

" 'If I released all the tapes, it would be an act of betrayal,' Wead said. 'Most of them have never seen the light of day and never will.' "

Fake News Watch

Poseur or plant? Here's a quick overview of some of the coverage of the Jeff Gannon/James Guckert story:

Here's Guckert in a long interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper.

"COOPER: Was anyone at the White House aware of your private activities?

"GANNON: I would say that -- I would say no, absolutely, categorically no.

"COOPER: There are many questions that have been raised about whether or not -- people raising the specter that you are somehow a White House plant. Are you a White House plant? . . .

"GANNON: Absolutely not."

And as for the allegation that Guckert got access to a secret CIA memo about Valerie Plame, Guckert confirmed that he had just read about it in the Wall Street Journal.

"I was given no special information by the White House or by anybody else, for that matter," he told Cooper.

But Paul Harris writes in the Observer: "Suddenly, his 'softball' questions to White House officials looked less like eccentricities and more like plotting by an administration which has frequently displayed a dark mastery of the arts of press control."

Dotty Lynch writes for CBS News that "the leap to a possible [Karl] Rove connection was unavoidable."

Hendrik Hertzberg writes in the New Yorker: "The non-Fox cable news outlets began to pick up on it last week; MSNBC even assayed a special logo, 'Gannongate.' A better name for it, though, would be 'Nothinggate,' because nothing is what is likely to come of it. What all the memorable scandals of the past thirty years -- real and fake alike, from Watergate to the Clinton impeachment -- have had in common is that the opposition party controlled at least one house of Congress, which gave it the power to hold hearings and issue subpoenas. If Bush ends up having an easier time of it in his second term than any of his two-term predecessors since F.D.R., it won't be because the scandals aren't there. It'll be because the tools to excavate them are under lock and key."

Joe Strupp writes in Editor & Publisher that Guckert "obtained his first White House press credentials as a representative of the pro-Republican Web site, GOPUSA, not as a Talon News reporter, as previously believed, Press Secretary Scott McClellan told E&P today.

"McClellan said White House Press Office staffers considered the openly partisan site to be a legitimate news organization when they gave Guckert, a.k.a. Jeff Gannon, the first of numerous day passes in February 2003."

Ralph Blumenthal writes in the New York Times that Guckert's former boss denies that Guckert was an administration plant or was given preferential treatment.

Blumenthal also spoke to Guckert. "Asked why he did not, in his function as a White House reporter, even try to interview White House officials, he said, 'I thought there was a lot of meat that came out of the press briefings.

" 'You may say that lacks some kind of journalistic ambition,' he added."

© 2005