Intimate Moments With the President

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Friday, March 12, 2004; 10:27 AM

Newsday columnist Lawrence C. Levy describes this scene at yesterday's groundbreaking for a Long Island memorial to the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks:

"After turning over the first shovel of dirt, Bush walked toward the families at the ceremony. Perhaps drawn to the large portrait of a young firefighter that she carried, Bush first sought out Pat Kiefer, whose son Michael perished at the World Trade Center.

"Bush didn't know that Mrs. Kiefer held him responsible for her son's death. 'I don't have any problems with the ads,' she later told me, referring to footage of Ground Zero in Bush's commercial. 'He's trying to show he was there after the attack, and he was, but I'll never forgive him for not doing something before it happened.'

"But as the police bagpipers played Amazing Grace, she recounted that the most powerful man in the world put his arm around her shoulder and looked into her eyes as they talked about her son's love of firefighting. 'He's a handsome boy,' Bush said before moving on to the next survivor. 'It's obvious where he got his looks.'

"Bush, she said, made her giggle and blush. She never told him what was on her mind."

Ken Fireman of Newsday also spoke with Kiefer after the event.

"'Where was he before 9/11?' Kiefer said. 'He should have been around before, knowing that our security was so lax. Somebody was asleep, and he should have known. Then my son and all these people would still be here.'

"Asked if such sentiments would lead her to vote for Kerry in November, Kiefer shook her head. 'I will never vote again,' she said. 'I have no faith in any of them. The most important thing in my life was taken from me, and they could have prevented it. I will never forgive them for that.'"

And Martin C. Evans of Newsday describes how Bush spent a few moments yesterday with relatives of Long Islanders killed in Iraq, including Marlowe Fletcher, whose paratrooper son Jacob was killed when his bus was struck by a bomb in November.

Fletcher pinned a pair of his slain son's paratroopers wings on the president's chest.

"'He kept telling us it was his honor,' said Fletcher, of Island Park. 'He's a regular guy. There was no phoniness about him. He got a little teary-eyed while he was with us.'

But Jacob's mother, Dorine Kenney, rebuffed the invitation to meet with Bush. As Evans wrote Thursday, Keeney said that Bush has done little to honor America's Iraq war dead, and that she did not want to attend a ceremony shoehorned between a Bush political rally and a campaign fund-raiser. "I feel I need to spend my days with people who will comfort me," Kenney told Evans, "rather than people who won't."

A Day of Contrasts

Yesterday was a day of contrasts for the president, though none quite as emotional as the ones above.

As Fireman writes: "President George W. Bush Thursday helped break ground for a memorial to Nassau County terror attack victims, then pinned the emotional banner of 9/11 to his re-election standard in a speech to campaign contributors.

"During a day-long trip to Long Island, Bush also defended his embattled economic policies in a visit to an auto parts plant in Bay Shore, passing protesters critical of his call for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

"But the emotional focus of the presidential visit -- for Bush, his critics and the relatives of 9/11 victims who joined him at the ground-breaking ceremony -- was the terror attack and Bush's response to it.

(, the Web site for the Long Island-based newspaper, also has video of protesters and two photo galleries of the Bush visit, which started in Bay Shore, then moved on to East Meadow.)

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "In recent days, Bush has been criticized for including images of a flag-draped coffin and the ruined World Trade Center in his first reelection ads. But this time, Bush aides and event organizers say, the linkage between terrorism and politics was coincidental because the fundraiser was already scheduled when Nassau County -- governed by Democrats -- invited him to participate in the groundbreaking.

"Still, if the proximity between politics and Sept. 11 was unintentional, it was unmistakable Thursday."

Here is the text of Bush's remarks at the fundraiser. "We have had a fantastic day here today," he said. "And it's topped off by what is a successful effort to make sure that my campaign is properly fueled -- (laughter) -- for the charge ahead."

Greg Hitt writes in the Wall Street Journal that while advisers agree that making Sept. 11 a guiding theme of his 2004 re-election bid is a great way to demonstrate his steadfast leadership, "Even some of Mr. Bush's supporters say that he risks alienating voters by seeming heavy-handed."

For instance, "Conservative activist Bill Kristol, who was chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle, likens the Republicans' decision to hold their 2004 convention in New York to the president's landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier in May when he declared an end to major combat operations in Iraq."

Message: I'm Really, Really Optimistic

At his first stop in New York yesterday, Bush participated in another "conversation," as the White House calls them, on the economy.

The naysayers and the eggheads may be wringing their hands over job losses, record-breaking deficits and polls showing a loss of confidence in his economic policies, but not the president! These unscripted, talk-show format conversations offer Bush a chance to hammer away at his economic message, in the most basic terms: He's really optimistic.

Here are some excerpts from the text of his remarks on the economy. Bush's point: Optimism, good; pessimism, bad.

"See, I'm sitting here next to Vince -- he's optimistic about the future. He just told me he was. And I don't think he was faking. . . .

"And -- but I want you to remember what we've been through, just to keep this conversation in perspective about why we should be optimistic about what this -- the future of this country. . . .

"We can out-compete with anybody. See, pessimistic people say, America can't compete. An optimistic person says, we can compete with anybody, let's just make sure the rules are fair and the playing field is level. . . .

"No, this plan of ours is a plan that says, we're not going to have outsourcing because we want to make sure we've got better jobs right here at home -- better, high-paying, high-quality jobs. And the way to do that is have an optimistic, pro-growth economic policy. And that's what I intend to put forth to the United States Congress. . . .

"You see, a country is vibrant when you've got small businesses who are optimistic and excited and are willing to take on additional employees. . . .

"I hope you get a -- share the same sense of optimism I do about the future of our country. When you hear about the entrepreneurial stories, you've got to be optimistic. These guys are hiring people. They believe the future is going to be better. When you hear the story of compassion coming out of the local hospital, it's got to make you optimistic about the decency of the people of this country. And then when you hear about the stories of these hardworking citizens of our country who have got big dreams for their families, and willing to achieve those big dreams, it's got to make you optimistic. I really am."

Nomination Bites the Dust

Bush's economic team does seem to keep giving ammunition to the pessimists.

As Mike Allen and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "A Nebraska executive withdrew under pressure from consideration for a new job leading administration efforts to restore manufacturing jobs, an aide to President Bush said yesterday. The six-month-old search began anew.

"The prospective nominee, Anthony F. Raimondo, recently opened a factory in China, and Bush's opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), called the businessman 'a poster person' for policies 'that have affected millions of Americans negatively.'

Not only that, but it turns out Raimondo was a supporter of Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) in 2000, enraging the state's Republican senator, Chuck Hagel, when he found out about the White House plans on Wednesday.

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times that "Bush administration officials said that the withdrawal of Anthony F. Raimondo, a business executive from Columbus, Neb., had nothing to do with the attacks from Mr. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.

"Instead, an administration official said Mr. Raimondo had withdrawn because of 'Senate confirmation issues.' The official asked not to be named because, she said, this is the 'preferred practice' of the Bush administration."

With Friends Like These. . . .

Jim Abrams of the Associated Press reports that House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) is so frustrated by White House intransigence on its threat to veto a giant, jobs-rich highway bill, that he refuses to discuss the bill with anyone at the White House other than Bush.

"I don't deal with his people any more." Hastert said. "We weren't getting straight numbers from his people and they changed their mind in the middle of the process."

David Rogers of the Wall Street Journal writes that Hastert has decided that he "will move ahead with a $275 billion highway and mass-transit bill next month, almost $20 billion more than the six-year spending target set by the Bush administration but still substantially less than many lawmakers want.

"Mr. Hastert said he informed President Bush directly of the intended compromise at a face-to-face meeting Wednesday at the White House. . . .

"[F]or a party leader who is typically the consummate White House team player, the speaker's public display of frustration with the administration was striking."

Medicare Watch

Tony Pugh of Knight Ridder Newspapers obtained a copy of a June e-mail message from Richard S. Foster, the chief actuary for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, in which "the government's top expert on Medicare costs was warned that he would be fired if he told key lawmakers about a series of Bush administration cost estimates that could have torpedoed congressional passage of the White House-backed Medicare prescription-drug plan. . . .

"When the House of Representatives passed the controversial benefit by five votes last November, the White House was embracing an estimate by the Congressional Budget Office that it would cost $395 billion in the first 10 years. But for months the administration's own analysts in the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services had concluded repeatedly that the drug benefit could cost upward of $100 billion more than that."

Speaking of Medicare, Reuters reports that "the U.S. Senate approved by voice vote early on Friday the nomination of Mark McClellan to run Medicare and Medicaid, the government health insurance programs that cover nearly 80 million poor, elderly and disabled Americans. . . .

"His brother, Scott, is Bush's press secretary."

Stoking the Base

David D. Kirkpatrick writes in the New York Times: "In a speech expressing his solidarity with the National Association of Evangelicals at its annual convention here, President Bush on Thursday forcefully restated his call for passage of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage to enthusiastic rounds of applause. . . .

"Several prominent evangelical Protestants in Washington have told the White House that backing the constitutional amendment is vital to getting evangelical voters to turn out on Election Day."

Here's the text of Bush's videoconferenced remarks. "I will defend the sanctity of marriage against activist courts and local officials who want to redefine marriage," he said. "The union of a man and woman is the most enduring human institution, honored and encouraged in cultures and by every religious faith. Ages of experience have taught humanity that the commitment of a husband and wife to love and to serve one another promotes the welfare of children and the stability of society. And government, by recognizing and protecting marriage, serves the interests of all. It is for that reason I support a constitutional amendment to protect marriage as the union of a man and a woman."

Terrorism in Spain

Bush made brief remarks expressing sympathy with the victims of yesterday's terrorist bombings in Spain.

From the text: "Today I spoke to His Majesty the King of Spain -- Jose Maria Aznar, as well -- about our country's deepest sympathies toward those who lost their life as a result of terrorist bombings in Spain. I told him we weep with the families. We stand strongly with the people of Spain. I appreciate so very much the Spanish government's fight against terror, their resolute stand against terrorist organizations like the ETA. The United States stands with them. Today we ask God's blessings on those who suffer in the -- in the great country of Spain."

Campaign Watch

Mark Z. Barabak and Janet Hook report in the Los Angeles Times: "As President Bush steps up his reelection bid, key Republican officials and strategists are expressing concern about his campaign, saying the White House took too long to engage in the race and lacks a clear strategy for addressing voters' economic worries. . . .

"[T]he nervousness is a notable shift from earlier Republican bravado, as is the criticism of a White House political team that, until recently, has been widely regarded as perhaps the best in the business."

Charles Babington writes in The Washington Post: "Top Republicans tried yesterday to spoil Sen. John F. Kerry's return to Congress as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, bitterly attacking his off-microphone remark in which he called Republicans a 'crooked . . . lying group.' . . .

"The day's events left little doubt that congressional Republicans are coordinating their messages with the White House and the Bush-Cheney campaign."

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "Just one week after launching a wave of positive commercials, President Bush went on the attack with a new ad yesterday."

Watch the ad yourself.

And watch ABC's George Stephanopoulous dissect it.

In The Washington Post,

Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank truth squad Bush's allegation that Kerry proposed a $1.5 billion cut in the intelligence budget that would have gutted the intelligence services. They conclude: "In terms of accuracy, the parry by the president is about half right."

You Can't Choose Your Family

Cameron W. Barr and Dan Eggen write in The Washington Post about the former congressional press aide from Takoma Park who was arrested yesterday for allegedly maintaining an "intelligence relationship" for several years with U.S.-based spies for Saddam Hussein.

"Among other activities, authorities said, Susan Lindauer, 40, cooperated with Iraqi intelligence agents in January 2003 by delivering a letter to the home of a relative, White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., urging the Bush administration to hold off its invasion of Iraq so weapons inspectors could continue their work."

Shannon McCaffrey and Ron Hutcheson write in Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Lindauer's grandmother was the cousin of Card's father."

© 2004