Lovefest or Slugfest?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, April 12, 2005; 11:18 AM

The visuals were all warm and fuzzy, showing President Bush taking Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on a coveted tour of his ranch, the two men standing proudly side by side before the microphones, Bush even passing Sharon a tray of chocolates wrapped in Israeli flags.

But when it comes to the Middle East, things are often not as they appear.

The goal of yesterday's event was for Bush to show support for Sharon's planned pullout from Gaza.

But amid the kind words and the diplomatic language, Bush told Sharon yesterday to stop expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and Sharon -- in the nicest possible way -- flatly refused.

It's not often someone tells Bush no, least of all in public. But lucky for Sharon, Bush expressed little interest in pursuing the matter.

Here's the transcript of their statements to the press.

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush told Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday that the United States opposes Israel's plans to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank and prodded him to stick to the U.S.-backed vision for peace in the Middle East."

At the same time, VandeHei writes, "Bush, holding a first-ever meeting at his Texas ranch with Sharon, offered the Israeli leader the high-profile endorsement of the Gaza pullout he was seeking and urged the Palestinians to coordinate with Israel."

The result: "[B]oth men walked away from their 11th meeting in four years with the ammunition they sought to keep the peace process alive and deflect criticism of their respective approaches at home and abroad."

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "Both the Americans and Israelis seemed content to leave any attempt to bridge their differences for another day. They concentrated instead on ensuring that Mr. Sharon succeed with his plan for withdrawal from Gaza and that the transition to Palestinian control of Gaza be an opportunity for building trust between Israelis and Palestinians.

" 'To me, that's where the attention of the world ought to be -- on Gaza,' Mr. Bush said after a meeting with Mr. Sharon that included Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice."

Peter Wallsten and Tyler Marshall write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon differed strongly and publicly Monday over the future of West Bank settlements under the U.S.-backed peace plan, underscoring the fragile nature of negotiations to end the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. . . .

"The impasse demonstrated that Bush and Sharon, despite a close alliance over the past four years, offer widely different interpretations of what the U.S.-supported peace plan means for settlements."

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "The highly public standoff between the two leaders centers on Sharon's intention of building new housing between Jerusalem and Maale Adumim, the largest Israeli settlement in the West Bank, which is predominantly Palestinian.

"Bush sternly calls the plan a violation of the 'road map to peace' that Israeli and Palestinian leaders have embraced. Sharon calls it essential to ensuring that any lasting peace accord includes an Israeli map encompassing all of his nation's major population centers."

Adam Entous writes for Reuters: "It appeared the two leaders agreed to disagree on the issue at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. . . . "

At the afternoon gaggle, reporters repeatedly tried to get press secretary Scott McClellan to help them understand how the two leaders could be reading the "road map" so differently,

No luck. "You can look at the roadmap for yourself," McClellan said.

He was, however, willing to characterize the closed-door meetings. "I would describe the meetings as very warm and friendly. They had a very warm and friendly visit," he said.

Later, he added: "Like I said, it was very warm and friendly."

Parsing the Symbolism

Bush took Sharon on a ride in his pickup truck for some "windshield ranching," a high honor -- but Sharon didn't get to spend the night.

Stevenson explains: "His visit to Mr. Bush's ranch put Mr. Sharon in a small circle of allies who have gotten an invitation to spend time with the president in his home. But his stop was relatively brief. Mr. Sharon spent Sunday night behind a ring of security at a hotel in nearby Waco while Mr. Cheney bunked at the ranch with Mr. Bush."

Watch Karl Rove

"Karl Rove -- The Architect" is the subject tonight on PBS's Frontline: "With the campaign over, Rove has turned his attention to the battle for Bush's legacy on issues like Social Security, taxes, and tort reform. But his ultimate goal is something larger.

" 'I think what they are trying to do is bigger than the Great Society, and approaches the New Deal. They aren't kidding around,' Washington Post reporter Tom Edsall says."

The reviews are in -- and mixed.

David Bianculli writes in the New York Daily News that the show "shines a bright light on Rove and his tactics -- much more on the campaign strategies than on the man, but nonetheless offering insight into both. And it does so without judgment, letting the record, and many close Rove associates, speak for themselves. . . .

"Producer Michael Kirk and co-producer Jim Gilmore, working with The Washington Post, have crafted this one-hour special as a career overview of Rove's political blueprints -- a résumé that is unfurled with what could be described as either resentful respect or grudging admiration."

Noel Holston writes in Newsday: "The documentary is fascinating but disappointing. It tells us what Rove has accomplished and what he would like to do. But who Rove is and why he is so devoted to conservatism is underexamined."

And Virginia Heffernan writes in the New York Times: "'Karl Rove -- The Architect,' a documentary on PBS tonight, spins a story of astounding stupidity out of a career it insists is among the most influential in American politics. This is unpardonable."

At 11 a.m. EDT tomorrow, producer Michael Kirk will be Live Online, taking your questions and comments.

Hunker Down

John F. Harris writes in The Washington Post that the conventional wisdom about scandals in Washington used to be: "The coverup is almost always worse than the crime. Never hunker down. Above all, never lie."

No more.

"Recent evidence suggests that hunkering down can sometimes work just fine, in a political and news media environment that has changed significantly in recent years."

Among the examples Harris cites: "In 2003, when the White House came under investigation in the Valerie Plame case -- with senior administration officials facing political and legal scrutiny for apparently divulging the identity of the covert CIA operative -- many Washington commentators argued that President Bush and his aides needed to yield to the inevitable, by starting a public housecleaning and firing the responsible parties.

"Instead, the Bush White House has taken no personnel actions and said virtually nothing in public. The controversy was largely dormant in the closing months of the 2004 election. And last month, special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald said he finished his investigation -- with no indictments to date -- except for questioning two reporters who have refused to testify."

And then there's Vice President Cheney's secret energy task force.

Today's Calendar

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press that Bush today is giving a "pep talk at an Army base that has contributed thousands of troops to the war in Iraq.

"Bush was to give a speech Tuesday and eat lunch with soldiers stationed at Fort Hood, the largest active-duty armored post in the military. Then he was meeting privately with the families of about 30 soldiers who have been killed."

Social Security Watch

Heidi Przybyla writes for Bloomberg: "AARP, the largest senior-citizen's group in the U.S. and a leading opponent of President George W. Bush's Social Security plan, has privately discussed compromises with the White House that include more taxes, future benefit cuts and raising the retirement age.

"Sounds like a deal in the making? Not really, said Bill Novelli, AARP's chief executive. Overshadowing everything, he said, is the issue of private accounts, which the White House insists must be part of any package, and are opposed by AARP and almost all congressional Democrats."

Glen Johnson writes for the Associated Press: "Black leaders on Monday accused President Bush of 'playing the race card' in his pitch to sell his proposed Social Security overhaul.

"NAACP leaders Julian Bond and Dennis Courtland Hayes said Bush should focus on addressing the underlying health care reasons why blacks have a shorter life expectancy instead of citing it as a reason they should support his idea of private accounts. . . .

" 'President Bush does have a comprehensive plan that has greatly improved health, education, homeownership and economic opportunity for all Americans, including African-Americans,' said spokesman Trent Duffy. 'The fact is that the current system penalizes some workers who don't reach retirement age, which is one of the many loopholes that can be fixed by bringing Social Security into the 21st century.' "

Delayed Reaction

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush considers House Majority Leader Tom DeLay a friend and hopes to keep working with him, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Monday.

"McClellan was asked if Bush was among those who believe the embattled Texas Republican should resign, or at least answer allegations of ethical misconduct.

" 'Majority Leader DeLay is someone the president considers a friend. And he is someone he has worked closely with to get things done in Washington,' McClellan said."

Bush and the Jews

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Jewish voters remained overwhelmingly Democratic in the 2004 presidential election, but President Bush made inroads with those who attend religious services most often, according to a study to be released today.

"The study by a think tank associated with the National Jewish Democratic Council mostly confirmed the initial impression from exit polls in November that found little movement toward Bush among American Jews."

Tax Panel Watch

Allan Sloan writes in his Washington Post column about how the President's Advisory Panel on Federal Tax Reform that Bush created in January has some pretty clear marching orders.

"If you decode Bush's executive order creating the commission -- it's on the commission's Web site, www.taxreformpanel.gov -- you can pretty much guess what the panel will propose. It's not going to design a tax return that you can fill out without software or a master's degree in taxation. Rather, it seems all but certain to lend Bush's existing agenda the imprimatur of the word reform. . . .

"This 'reform' package would be part of Bush's unstated but clear goal of turning the income tax into a tax on wages only, and making the country even friendlier for inherited wealth and for people with lots of income from investments. As for wage slaves who are trying to accumulate wealth, good luck. They'll pay tax not only on the salary they earn, but also on what they spend."

Clinton and the Bush Clan

Peter S. Canellos advances a highly provocative theory in the Boston Globe today: "Clinton has become a member of the Bush clan."

He explains: "Born after his father's death, Bill Clinton has spent his life searching for connection. His need for approval was, arguably, the yearning that propelled him all the way to the White House.

"Now it appears Clinton has found his surrogate family. He is part of a sprawling clan, legendary for its warmth and unity. It is a clan that is so accustomed to acquiring surrogate sons and daughters that adoption has become a part of its strength."

There are some memorable lines here. For instance, Canello describes Clinton with the Bushes in Rome as looking "a little out of place, like a Great Dane who thinks he belongs to a family of dachshunds."

© 2005 washingtonpost.com