Whose Reality Is Yours?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, October 21, 2004; 12:29 PM

So maybe on Nov. 2, Americans won't be voting for presidential candidates as much as for competing realities.

This became more clear yesterday as President Bush and Democratic candidate John F. Kerry, speaking just miles apart in Iowa, accused each other of being hopelessly clueless.

Kerry said Bush can't fix the problems in Iraq because he doesn't recognize them.

Bush said Kerry doesn't see the true danger posed by terrorists.

So: Are things getting better or worse in Iraq? And was going to fight there a crucial step in defending the country against terror? Choose your reality -- and your candidate.

Dana Milbank and Lois Romano write in The Washington Post: "Bush said Kerry has a 'fundamental misunderstanding' of the fight in Iraq and is not capable of winning a war on terrorism. 'The next commander in chief must lead us to victory in this war, and you cannot win a war when you don't believe you're fighting one,' Bush said at a rally on the fairgrounds here where he suggested that the Democrat was unwilling to use military force.

"Kerry, addressing his supporters in Waterloo, Iowa, said Bush was 'in denial' about Iraq's problems. 'The president says he's a leader,' the Massachusetts senator said. 'Well, Mr. President, look behind you. There's hardly anyone there. It's not leadership.'

"At stake in the exchange was a crucial distinction: whether Americans connect the unpopular war in Iraq with the more popular war against al Qaeda -- a perception that would benefit Bush -- or whether they see the two as separate or at cross-purposes, as Kerry has argued."

A poll released yesterday by the Pew Research Center shows that Americans are split on the question, with 45 percent saying the Iraq war has helped the war against terrorism and 40 percent saying it has hurt. Eight months ago, the margin was 62-28.

The Pew poll also shows Kerry and Bush in a dead heat -- and shows Bush's approval rating at 44 percent.

Jill Zuckman and Rick Pearson write in the Chicago Tribune: "Kerry charged that Bush is not doing his job, is out of touch with reality, and is engaged in misleading Washington-speak that has made the nation weaker when it comes to terrorism and Iraq. . . . Kerry mocked Bush's leadership ability. 'Look behind you, there's hardly anyone there,' Kerry taunted the president. . . .

"Appearing in nearby Mason City, Bush said Kerry has a fundamental misunderstanding of the war on terrorism that would leave the country vulnerable to attack.

" 'You cannot lead our nation to decisive victory on which the security of every American family depends if you do not see the true dangers of a post-September the 11th world.' "

Rice Watch

Democrats seized on Glenn Kessler's story in The Washington Post yesterday about national security adviser Condoleezza Rice's extensive speech-making in key battleground states.

Jim Puzzanghera writes in the San Jose Mercury News: "Democrats on Wednesday criticized Rice, one of President Bush's closet advisers, for the locations and frequency of recent speeches. They say she has politicized a job that traditionally has been apolitical with speeches in battleground states, such as Ohio last week and Florida next week, and suggest she is failing to attend to her duties at the White House.

" 'For all its fear-mongering on the war on terror, this White House has a greater commitment to its political security than to our national security,' Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., said Wednesday, one of several statements issued by the campaign of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., after a Washington Post article about Rice's travels."

Rice gave an interview yesterday to Chris Mondics of the Philadelphia Inquirer, which is located in the battleground state of Pennsylvania.

Rice said "that the Bush administration did not anticipate the quick collapse of Iraqi government institutions after the initial military victory, hampering U.S. efforts to stabilize the country.

"But in an interview with The Inquirer, Rice rejected criticism that the United States had not committed enough troops to the effort, arguing that pouring more soldiers into the country might have created a new set of problems by further alienating the Iraqis."

Warren Vieth and Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar write: "Members of President Bush's Cabinet are fanning out these days on official visits to swings states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, New Mexico and Michigan.

"Although executive branch agencies are supposed to be nonpartisan, the political appointees who run them usually work in some cheerleading for the president during election season. Democrats say the Bush administration has taken the practice to new levels."

Pat Robertson Revisited

Peter Wallsten and Edwin Chen write in the Los Angeles Times: "Democrats trying to portray President Bush as too headstrong when he decided to invade Iraq got help this week from an unlikely source: televangelist and Bush supporter Pat Robertson.

"Appearing on CNN on Tuesday night, Robertson recalled a private meeting with Bush before the Iraq war began, at which he said the president asserted there would be no casualties. . . .

"Robertson's comments quickly became an issue in the presidential campaign and put the White House in the awkward position of denying comments from one of Bush's most prominent supporters.

" 'I think he must have either misunderstood, misheard or been confused about what the conversation was because I've never heard the president say anything of the sort, and he wouldn't have,' Karen Hughes, a senior Bush advisor, told reporters. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said: 'Of course the president never made such a comment.'"

"Bush strategist Karl Rove told reporters that he was in the room for the Feb. 10, 2003, meeting, and that Robertson was incorrect in his recollection.

" 'I was right there,' Rove said."

Here's the transcript of Robertson's interview Tuesday.

And here's the transcript from a June appearance on MSNBC, when Robertson spoke to Campbell Brown:

"BROWN: I want to ask you how you feel about the war in Iraq. And if God is calling this war a disaster, does that mean that he is actually opposed to it?

"ROBERTSON: Well, I don't think God's opposed to the war, necessarily, but it was a danger sign. I felt very uneasy about it from the very get-go. Whenever I heard about it, I knew it was going to be trouble. I warned the president. I only met with him once. I said, You better prepare the American people for some serious casualties. And he said, Oh, no, our troops are, you know, so well protected, we don't have to worry about that. But it has been messy. And I think we're going to come out of it, though. I think we'll have a free Iraq. But it certainly has been a mess so far."

So it's not the first time Robertson has said this -- although it is the first time the White House has denied it.

Protest Watch

Ken Herman writes for the Cox News Service about Jeff and Nicole Rank's lawsuit against the Secret Service.

You'll recall that the Ranks wore anti-Bush shirts to a Bush rally on the West Virginia State Capitol grounds on July 4.

"Shortly after revealing the shirts, two men who the Ranks believe worked for the Secret Service or the White House demanded that the garments be removed or covered. The Ranks refused and were arrested, handcuffed and jailed for trespassing.

"The charges later were dropped and Charleston city officials apologized, saying the arrests were made at the behest of the Secret Service.

"Now the Ranks are making a federal case out of it, suing White House advance staff official Greg Jenkins, who declined to comment on how his staff deals with Kerry backers at Bush events, and Secret Service Director Ralph Basham for violating their right to peaceful protest."

Herman also describes how, "on a chilly recent morning at Riverfront Stadium in Waterloo, Bush backers showing up early for a rally were greeted with a sign that said, 'Want to be closer? Upgrade your tickets here!'

"Those who signed up were taken to a table of cell phones near where first base would be for a ballgame. In exchange for the upgrade that got them closer to Bush, rally attendees were turned into an instant phone bank and given lists of people to call to solicit support for the president."

Zarqawi Watch

Kerry made an assertion yesterday that hasn't been heard much lately: that Bush could have removed Abu Musab Zarqawi, who has emerged as a leader of anti-U.S. fighting in Iraq, before the war.

"We could have, but did not, take them out," Kerry charged. "That was a terrible mistake that this administration has never explained."

That would appear to be a reference to the report in March by NBC's Jim Miklaszewski which, indeed, has never really been followed up.

The Disbanding of the Iraqi Army

How did things get so bad in Iraq? Arguably a key factor was the decision more than a year ago to disband the Iraqi army.

One theory goes that if the army had been left in place, Iraq might never have become so insecure and U.S. troops might not have needed to do as much, for as long.

Michael R. Gordon writes in the New York Times that keeping the army in place was, in fact, the plan -- until the head of the U.S. occupation, L. Paul Bremer III, overruled American generals.

But was this a White House call? And what was the rationale?

Gordon writes: "More than a year later, Mr. Bremer's disbanding of the Iraqi Army still casts a shadow over the occupation of Iraq. The American military had been counting on using Iraqi soldiers to help rebuild the country and impose order along its borders. Instead, as a violent insurgency convulsed the nation, United States forces found themselves deprived of a way to put an Iraqi face on the occupation. . . .

"In a memo to the Pentagon, Mr. Bremer noted his desire that 'my arrival in Iraq be marked by clear, public and decisive steps to reassure Iraqis that we are determined to eradicate Saddamism.' While his main purpose was to promote the de-Baathification of Iraq, plans to abolish Mr. Hussein's army soon became part of the initiative. . . .

"The role of top Bush administration officials in approving the plan is unclear," Gordon writes.

"Condoleezza Rice, Mr. Bush's national security adviser, indicated that the idea did not originate in the National Security Council but acknowledged that the White House did not object."

Resolute or Stubborn?

Jackie Calmes writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The president likes to be seen as standing, unflinching, on principle. 'Resolute and firm' are the words he uses to define himself in his own stump speech."

Democrats, however, "are seeking to portray Mr. Bush's resolute style as a kind of stubbornness that has stopped him from changing course as the situation in Iraq has worsened or budget deficits have ballooned. . . .

"So is Mr. Bush resolute or stubborn? The way voters decide will go a long way toward determining whether he gets another term."

Calmes notes in concluding: "In reality, Mr. Bush hasn't been as unwavering as his rhetoric suggests. He has made 180-degree turns, often without acknowledging any shift at all."

Campaign Promises Watch

Ron Hutcheson and William Douglas write for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "President Bush will end his four-year term having fulfilled about 46 percent of the promises he made during the 2000 presidential campaign, according to an analysis by Knight Ridder.

"Progress on Bush's campaign to-do list -- 178 specific commitments -- slowed almost to halt in 2004 as election-year politics intruded on legislative activity. With time running out on his four-year contract, Bush's hopes for overhauling the nation's legal system, revamping Social Security and enacting a new national energy policy now depend on the outcome of the November election."

Here's the scorecard.

Crystal Ball Watch

Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes in the Baltimore Sun: "No longer content to use Bush's four-year record as grounds for criticism, Kerry is increasingly looking into his crystal ball to predict doomsday scenarios for a second Bush term.

" 'It's certainly a dose of their own medicine,' said Mike McCurry, a senior Kerry campaign adviser. . . .

"In Kerry's portrayal, Bush is a miserly president who would privatize Social Security and cut benefits for senior citizens who depend on them, while helping his fat-cat friends get rich off new personal accounts that would bankrupt the program."

He's also "a war-mongering president who pursues a ham-fisted foreign policy that would ultimately increase the likelihood that the government would have to reinstitute a military draft. . . .

"On Tuesday, the president told an audience in St. Petersburg, Fla., that his opponent was distorting his plans in order to gain an electoral advantage -- a protestation that Kerry has been making all year."

And speaking of crystal balls, Susan Baer writes in the Baltimore Sun: "If President Bush is re-elected, who will stay and who will go?"

The article speculates on the departures of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft, among others. Ashcroft's "rumored successor: Marc Racicot, the former Montana governor who is chairman of the president's re-election campaign. Racicot was a contender for the job in 2000."


David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times that when President Bush starts talking about what he calls "the transformational power of liberty" it is "Mr. Bush's way of infusing the storyline of his presidency with a sense of mission."

Sanger writes the language is "artfully crafted to get his audiences to look beyond the daily headlines of beheadings and suicide bombers, of an insurgency that has defied American military might, and to focus Americans' attention on the fact that Afghans have just gone to the polls and that Iraqis are trying to do the same."

Critics, meanwhile, charge that it "amounts to little more than an ex post facto justification of the war. They note that Mr. Bush gave only one major speech about democratizing the Middle East before invading Iraq, although he spoke almost daily of the threat of unconventional weapons."

Fun on the Web

Sarah Boxer writes in the New York Times about the profusion of "old-fashioned mudslinging . . . in the wild, unregulated cultural landscape of the Web." In particular, she notes the rise of a mutation of political animation "born of the marriage of video games and Dada photomontage."

For instance: "In a game called 'Our President Needs Your Help,' you are enjoined to whack the president over the head every time he orders a drink at a bar. He orders 50."

Here are a few: Our President Needs Your Help, Bush Shoot-Out, Political Rhapsody, Fahrenheit 2004 and Dishonest Dubya.

Richard Leiby writes in The Washington Post's Reliable Sources column that just in time for Halloween, a new version of "Monster Mash" is out on the Internet, "but this time as a scathing critique of the Bush administration's environmental policies." An animated video, available at monsterslash.org, depicts Bush and Cheney "as ghastly characters laying waste to forests."

Really Exclusive Interview

Michelle M. Martinez writes in the Austin American-Statesman about how an Austin high school student landed an exclusive one-on-one interview with President Bush a while back.

She had connections: "It was Kendall McKinnon, daughter of Bush media adviser Mark McKinnon."

The interview is not online. "Bush's answers to questions concerning second-term priorities, standardized testing and differences between himself and his Democratic opponent, U.S. Sen. John Kerry, appear in a two-page spread in the Sept. 27 edition," Martinez wrote.

Cheney Watch

Fox News showed conservative commentator Sean Hannity's recent interview with Cheney last night. Here's the transcript and the video, parts one, two and three.

And in a washingtonpost.com Campaign Postcard yesterday, Dana Milbank explained how it came to pass that "a statement Vice President Cheney has been uttering for the past 19 months has just gained stature as big news."

The Cheney Flu

Reuters reports: "Vice President Dick Cheney has received a flu shot, aides said on Wednesday, citing his history of heart disease as a reason to qualify for a shot during a national shortage."

AFP reports on the Kerry campaign's complaint "that Treasury Secretary John Snow and Senate Majority leader Bill Frist also had jabs, despite Bush's advice that the young and healthy did not need to get an injection.

"Once again, the Bush administration proves that it is the 'do as we say, not as we do' White House," the campaign said in a statement.

Attack of the Insects

From a pool report yesterday by the Baltimore Sun's David Greene: "POTUS in Minnesota was in talk-show host mode again, wandering the platform with a hand-held microphone and working the crowd effectively. At one point, he shooed an unidentified insect off his arm and joked with the crowd, 'undecided voter.' The audience erupted in laughter."

This just a day after two spiders jumped on Cheney's back in Kalamazoo. (He was rescued by his wife.)

War on Error

Bush yesterday mocked Kerry foreign policy adviser Richard C. Holbrooke for saying that "we're not in a war on terror in a literal sense" and calling it a "metaphor" such as the war on poverty.

"Confusing food programs with terrorist killings reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the war we face, and that is very dangerous thinking," Bush said.

Here's the New York Times Magazine story:

"Even Democrats who stress that combating terrorism should include a strong military option argue that the 'war on terror' is a flawed construct. 'We're not in a war on terror, in the literal sense,' says Richard Holbrooke, the Clinton-era diplomat who could well become Kerry's secretary of state. 'The war on terror is like saying "the war on poverty." It's just a metaphor. What we're really talking about is winning the ideological struggle so that people stop turning themselves into suicide bombers.' "

And another point: The War on Poverty was a bit more than a food program.

Today's Calendar

Lara Jakes Jordan writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush is turning Pennsylvania into his 'Northern White House,' visiting the battleground state as often as his home in Crawford, Texas."

Bush "will be making his 40th trip to Pennsylvania with visits to Downington and Hershey on Thursday. His 41st visit will bring him to Wilkes-Barre on Friday."

On a bus tour, Bush is expected to pitch his plan to curb rising medical costs by limiting malpractice awards and renew his attack on John Kerry's plans to expand insurance coverage.

And in a late addition, the Bush campaign is also squeezing in a meeting with the Archbishop of Philadelphia.

Richard Fellinger writes for the York (Pa.) Daily Record: "President Bush will stump in Hershey today, but political experts say his top goal isn't to win the support of midstaters.

"It's to get midstaters to vote -- and in big numbers -- because he assumes the vast majority will vote Republican.

"Central Pennsylvania is Bush country, a heavily Republican bastion between Democratic enclaves in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh."

Laura Bush, Librarian

Susannah Rosenblatt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Teresa Heinz Kerry's unguarded speaking style created a small campaign sideshow Wednesday after she questioned in an interview whether First Lady Laura Bush had held 'a real job.'

"Heinz Kerry apologized later in the day, saying she had forgotten about Bush's 10 years as a teacher and librarian. She called the first lady to make amends. . . .

"The Bush campaign criticized Heinz Kerry for appearing to draw a distinction between women who work in the home, and those who work outside the home."

Late Night Humor

From "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" via the Associated Press: "In an interview in USA Today, Teresa Heinz Kerry said she didn't think Laura Bush, who was a public school librarian for nine years, had ever held a 'real job.' Let me tell you something, if you're a librarian married to George W. Bush, there is no harder job on earth."

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