Pep Talk Fails to Meet Expectations

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Friday, May 21, 2004; 10:40 AM

Here is a summary of what today's news stories say did not happen during President Bush's hastily-arranged visit with Republicans on Capitol Hill yesterday:

• He didn't provide any new details about the June 30 transition of sovereignty in Iraq.

• He didn't persuade a handful of balking Senate Republicans to go along with his tax plans.

• He didn't dissuade House Republicans from approving provisions in the defense bill he has threatened to veto.

• He didn't talk about embattled Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld or Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi.

• He didn't comment on the prison-abuse scandal.

• He didn't come up with a new speech.

• He didn't take any questions.

• He didn't say anything new.

Oh, and of course:

• He didn't meet with Democrats at all.


• He didn't talk to reporters.

Dana Milbank and Charles Babington write in The Washington Post: "President Bush ascended Capitol Hill yesterday for what Republican lawmakers called a 'pep rally' to restore the spirits of a GOP caucus worried about chaos in Iraq and Bush's declining poll numbers.

"Behind closed doors, Bush gave a 35-minute version of his stump speech covering Iraq, the economy and energy policy. When he finished, the participants filed past a bank of microphones to announce that they were unified in support of Bush and that there had been no dissent expressed at the meeting."

Bush did apparently reiterate the firmness of the June 30 handover of sovereignty to Iraqis and likened it to riding a bicycle.

"He talked about 'time to take the training wheels off,' " Rep. Deborah Pryce (Ohio) said. "The Iraqi people have been in training, and now it's time for them to take the bike and go forward."

Elisabeth Bumiller and Carl Hulse write in the New York Times: "After the session, Republicans generally praised Mr. Bush for making the effort to come to Capitol Hill, and for paying attention to them.

" 'I thought he really looked good this morning,' said Senator Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, who has a difficult relationship with the White House."

Edmund L. Andrews writes for the New York Times that Bush's "high-profile plea" for approval of the federal budget didn't persuade "a handful of centrist Republicans to abandon their insistence that any new tax cuts be paid for with either spending cuts or tax increases."

So, in a "major setback" for the White House, Senate Republican leaders were forced to postpone the vote, rather than lose it.

Richard Simon and Elizabeth Shogren note in the Los Angeles Times that the pep talk also didn't prevent the Republican-controlled House from "provoking a fight with the president, approving a defense bill that Bush had threatened to veto."

John Roberts of CBS News reports: "Privately . . . some lawmakers described the meeting as 'little more than a cheerleading session,' 'the usual trite phrases,' and saying 'the president wasn't very effective.' "

No Questions

Kathy Kiely writes in USA Today: "Lawmakers who expected a give-and-take with the commander in chief were disappointed, however. Microphones were set up in the room, and they were told to line up if they had questions. But Bush left without taking any."

But Ed Henry says on CNN that there were no hard feelings.

"It's just as well," he quotes Sen. Lott as saying. "We'd probably ask some stupid questions anyway."

Those Republican Tensions

Wayne Washington writes in the Boston Globe: "Internal bickering has long been a staple of Democratic Party politics, but this year Democrats are united in their determination to defeat Bush. Meanwhile, the fissures developing among Republicans could threaten his reelection."

Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes in the Baltimore Sun: "Some Republicans say they are fearful not only that Bush's stock is falling, but also that their party's ideas are getting lost in a tangle of administration setbacks."

David Gregory of NBC reports: "Privately, nervous Republicans have been complaining directly to the White House. Last Thursday, House Speaker Hastert brought along ten fellow members to see the president and Vice President Cheney, who later described the meeting as a 'venting session.' "

Crossing a Line?

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco rejected Republican demands Thursday that she apologize for her strong condemnation of President Bush, as raw nerves over Iraq collided with raw politics on Capitol Hill.

"Republican leaders accused Pelosi of taunting the troops, inspiring the enemy and putting American lives at risk by telling The Chronicle on Wednesday that Bush is an 'incompetent leader' who lacks the judgment, experience or knowledge to make good decisions."

In fact, Pelosi elaborated on her comments yesterday.

"The emperor has no clothes," she said. "I believe that the president's leadership in the actions taken in Iraq demonstrate an incompetence in terms of knowledge, judgment and experience, in making the decisions that would have been necessary to truly accomplish the mission without the deaths to our troops and the cost to our taxpayers."

In their Post story, Milbank and Babington write that "Republicans responded to Pelosi's unusually strong language by suggesting she was aiding the enemy in Iraq. 'We are in the middle of a war and in the middle of a political campaign,' said House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (Ill.). 'Mrs. Pelosi's comments were meant to inspire her political base, but who else do they inspire?' "

WMD Commission Leaves Tiny Paper Trail

As I reported in a news story last Friday and my Monday column, the presidential commission looking into prewar intelligence failures regarding weapons of mass destruction is holding its first hearing next Wednesday and Thursday. The commissioners have invited members of the National Intelligence Council and the Iraq Survey Group to talk to them in a closed meeting at an undisclosed location.

So with all this secrecy, how are we supposed to keep tabs on these guys?

As it turns out, lawyers representing the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation sent a letter to the commission asking just that last month. I happen to have gotten hold of the correspondence.

The letter from Howard M. Crystal, Eric R. Glitzenstein and Jules Zacher asks whether the commission intends to comply with the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

That act says, in short: "Any advisory group, with limited exceptions, that is established or utilized by a federal agency and that has at least one member who is not a federal employee, must comply with the FACA."

And under FACA, committees must have a charter, must provide public notice of meetings, must conduct open meetings except when discussing classified material and must make all the documents prepared by or for the committee, as well as transcripts, available to the public.

The letter writers also expressed their "grave concerns that the commission does not include independent experts in the specific subject matter to be addressed by the Commission," as required by FACA. (See my All About the WMD Commission page to read about the members and the staff.)

Commission counsel Stewart Baker, (writing on letterhead that discloses no location) wrote back, expressing confidence in the experience of the commissioners and enclosing a copy of the commission's charter. But he said his letter should "not be construed as a concession . . . that FACA can constitutionally be applied to the Commission."

So the attorneys wrote a follow-up letter, reiterating their questions about public notice, about open meetings, and about access to documents.

In his second response, dated May 11, Baker wrote:

"While I question the value of an extended correspondence on these topics, your letter did raise a good point that needs to be addressed.

"The Commission does intend to make documents available for public review, but we face some logistical difficulties. Because of the inherently sensitive nature of the materials it will be reviewing during the course of its work, the Commission's offices will be contained within a Sensitive Compartmentalized Information Facility ("SCIF"). The construction of that facility was just completed, and the Commission is currently in the process of relocating there from its temporary offices. The Commission has been informed that providing public access to those offices would raise security concerns, and accordingly is exploring various locations for its reading room. The Commission hopes and expects that this logistical issue will be resolved soon and I will inform you of the location of the reading room -- and of any applicable procedures for public access to the documents contained there -- at that time."

Two days later, the commission did post a notice in the Federal Register of its intention to hold a closed meeting May 26-27. As a bonus, the notice included information on how to reach the commission.

"Members of the public who wish to submit a written statement to the Commission are invited to do so by facsimile at (202) 456 -- 7921. Comments also may be sent to the Commission by e-mail at," the notice says.

Will the Commission Ever Meet in the Open?

Yesterday, I spoke again with commission spokesman (and former White House correspondent) Larry McQuillan, and asked him if the commission intends to meet in public -- ever.

"At this point, there's just no decision been made," he said. "It hasn't been ruled out, but there isn't anything on the immediate horizon."

The problem is that so much of what they're talking about is so secret, he said. "There is a legitimate interest by the public -- and a sincere desire by us to try to not have everything kept closed to the public."

But he's not sure how much he can say. For instance, he's not even sure how much he'll be able to say about what happens next week.

"I believe the intent is to certainly give the public some kind of description and sense of what happened," he said. "I just don't know how detailed that can be."

The commission will have a Web site, at, up and running in the near future, McQuillan says.

I just wonder if there will be anything on it.

Reuters takes notice of the commission, as Caroline Drees writes about the upcoming session and notes: "Future sessions will also examine the quality of intelligence on WMD in countries such as Libya or in the hands of militant groups."

Speaking of the WMD Commission

In my Monday column, I encouraged readers to click on my All About the WMD Commission page to get the answer to several question, including this one:

• "Which commissioner chairs a human-rights organization funded by a billionaire who is also funding the anti-Bush political movement?"

The question should have been in the past tense. I learned yesterday that commission member Patricia M. Wald, a former chief judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, is now also a former chair of the Open Society Justice Institute, a human-rights organization funded by George Soros. She stepped down from that position as soon as she was appointed to the commission.

Timken: A Correction

The folks at the Timken Co. inform me that I got something wrong in my Tuesday column.

When President Bush visited the Timken Co. in Canton, Ohio, last year, he actually spoke at the company's research center building -- not in one of the three bearing plants that the company announced last week it is closing.

The research center is fully 10 miles north of the three factories, says public relations manager Jason Saragian.

Some of the people in the audience for the president's talk did make the drive up from the three factories. So in other words only some of the people Bush spoke to are getting fired -- not all.

I regret the error.

Saragian also noted that numerous operations remain in Stark County. The company's global headquarters, the research center and three steel plants -- which employ a total of 3,500 people -- aren't going anywhere. So by eliminating the 1,300 jobs at the three bearing factories, Timken is really only going to be cutting one third of its Stark County workforce -- not all.

While I had Saragian on the phone, I asked him who is going to make the bearings now being made in Canton, once the factories close. He said 80 percent of the production will go to other factories in the United States. So only about 20 percent of those jobs, at most, are going overseas -- not all.

In the meantime, the Associated Press reports that "Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry on Thursday asked President Bush to step into a contract dispute that threatens to close an Ohio bearings plant where the president promoted his tax-cut plan last year."

Live Online

I'll be Live Online answering your questions and posting your comments at 11 ET today. Please submit your questions and comments.

Cheney Rolls Out the Wife and (One) Kid

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press that while the vice president has been Kerry's chief White House critic, yesterday in Philadelphia, it was his wife's turn.

"His wife, Lynne, who addressed the conservative New York-based Manhattan Institute, picked up the Bush re-election team's charge that Kerry often takes both sides of an issue."

And daughter Liz spoke to CNN's Judy Woodruff.

"I am very committed, as my entire family is, including my sister, Mary, who is director of vice presidential operations for the campaign, to working very, very hard to make sure that the president and my dad are re-elected in November," she said.

Mary Cheney, however, was noticeably not in public herself. The lesbian Cheney daughter has been lying low ever since gay marriage surfaced as an issue in the election and gay organizations began calling on her to speak her mind.

Talking to Woodruff, Liz Cheney gave a confusing answer when asked about her own position on same-sex marriages. She apparently agrees with the president about a constitutional ban, but also agrees with a diametrically opposed statement made by her dad in 2000.

Maybe Mary could clear things up.

Laura Bush Watch

Mary Leonard writes more today in the Boston Globe about her interview Tuesday with the first lady.

"In an interview on her plane, called Executive One Foxtrot, Bush said she was 'not really' worried about the president's popularity, at a three-year low in recent polls, and she described this campaign as going 'very, very well.' But she called it 'bittersweet' because it will be their last and unlike any of the others in her nearly three decades in the Bush family.

" 'As we've lived [in the White House] for three years and as I've studied more and more history and looked into the lives of the women who lived [there] before me, I've sort of developed this idea of responsibility that the first lady has to be constructive, to use the time that we have to be as constructive as she possibly can be for our country,' she said.

"Besides education and women's health, Bush said she will speak out on national security, the military, and foreign affairs in the campaign, because 'women are worried about security and worried about safety.' "

Campaign Cash Watch

In a story primarily about how Sen. John F. Kerry pulled in almost twice the campaign funds as the president last month, Paul Farhi writes in The Washington Post: "At the same time, Bush's campaign is spending money at an unprecedented rate. In part because of a $50 million ad blitz in March and early April, Bush has spent nearly $130 million on his reelection effort, a record amount, according to reports that the campaign filed yesterday with the Federal Election Commission. In April alone, his campaign spent almost $31 million to help counteract a series of negative news reports that have hurt the president's standing in the polls."

Today's Calendar

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush, forced to defend a Deep South state he comfortably won four years ago, is trying to offset the attention Democratic rival John Kerry is lavishing on Louisiana.

"Bush combines a pitch for votes and money Friday as he delivers the commencement address at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge before heading to a New Orleans suburb to speak to Republican Party donors."

And before nightfall, he'll be back on his ranch in Crawford for the weekend.

Press secretary Scott McClellan yesterday previews Bush's commencement speech. From the briefing transcript:

"I think that, generally speaking, the President will touch on important lessons learned as they complete their college careers, and talk about responsibility and service and the differences between right and wrong, going forward. But I expect -- this is a commencement address; I expect it will be somewhat light-hearted and focus on important issues of responsibility and service and some of the lessons that those students have learned during their years in college.

"Q So this is not part of this series of speeches that the President is apparently planning to make the case about the details --

"MR. McCLELLAN: No, I wouldn't look at it that way."

Como Se Dice: Wacky Funsters?

Also from the briefing transcript:

"We will vigorously implement the recommendations of the Commission For Assistance to a Free Cuba, so that Cuba will reflect the vision of the great Cuban patriot, Jose Marti: Con todos y para el bien de todos -- With all the people, and for the good of all the people. May God bless the Cuban people.

"Q You speak Spanish.

"MR. McCLELLAN: Thank you. Gracias.

"Q Oh my goodness."

And later:

"Q Yes, two questions, please. From your statement at the podium, that Mr. Brahimi --

"MR. McCLELLAN: Is the Spanish okay? (Laughter.)

"Q We can do it in Spanish.

"Q Yes, we could ask the question in Spanish.

"Q Bueno.

"Q Quien es mas macho, Jorge Bush, o Scott McClellan? (Laughter.)"

© 2004