TV Covers the Bush 'Dodge'

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Wednesday, January 28, 2004; 9:59 AM

The broadcast press corps is hot on the story of what some correspondents are calling President Bush's "retreat," or at least "dodge," on the issue of Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction.

On ABC, Terry Moran pulls no punches: "Asked directly whether he still believes weapons of mass destruction will be found in Iraq, President Bush simply dodged the question."

On CBS, John Roberts sees danger for the White House. "President Bush refused to even entertain the notion today that he received bad intelligence, but if what David Kay says is true, he is facing another massive intelligence failure, right on the heels of 9/11 -- only this time, it's an election year."

On CNN, Dana Bash lays it out this way: "As he made his case for war last year, the president was unequivocal about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. . . . For months, the weapons hunt progressed and none was found, but the White House remained publicly confident illicit weapons would be unearthed.

"Now, a retreat. No prediction from the president at all, only a reminder that the inspectors are still looking."

On Fox News, Jim Angle reports that Bush remains "steadfast in his view of Saddam, calling him a dangerous man in a dangerous part of the world."

Angle's report uses these Bush sound bites: "I said in the run-up that Saddam was a grave and gathering danger, that's what I said. And I believed it then, and I know it was true now. . . . And given the events of September the 11th, we know we could not trust the good intentions of Saddam Hussein, because he didn't have any."

But Angle says that because inspectors need more time, the issue will emerge again closer to the election, "making this even more of a political football than it already is."

Finally, Jay Leno weighed in last night, on NBC's "Tonight Show": "Oscar nominations came out today. Up for best actor, Sean Penn for 'Mystic River,' Jude Law for 'Cold Mountain,' and of course, George W. Bush for 'Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction.'"

Kay on NBC

David A. Kay, the former chief weapons inspector in Iraq, will testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee today.

He's been on NBC twice this week, already. Tom Brokaw interviewed him on Monday. Here is an excerpt:

"Brokaw: But as you know, the vice president and, to a lesser degree, the president of the United States, raised the nuclear threat as a reason that the United States had to go to war against Iraq.

"Kay: I think the weight of the evidence -- was not great.

"Brokaw: David, as you know, a lot of the president's political critics are going to say, 'This is clear evidence that he lied to the American people.'

"Kay: Well, Tom, if we do that, I think we're really hurting ourselves. Clearly, the intelligence that we went to war on was inaccurate, wrong. We need to understand why that was. I think if anyone was abused by the intelligence it was the president of the United States rather than the other way around.

"Brokaw: The president described Iraq as a gathering threat -- a gathering danger. Was that an accurate description?

"Kay: I think that's a very accurate description. "

And yesterday, Kay was on NBC's "Today". Matt Lauer played him a video clip from last year's State of the Union address, in which Bush said: "Year after year, Saddam Hussein has gone to elaborate lengths, spent enormous sums, taken great risks to build and keep weapons of mass destruction."

Accurate or inaccurate?

"Inaccurate in terms of the reality we found on the ground now," Kay said. "I think it was an accurate statement given the intelligence the president and others were being given then."

No Repeat, No Surrender

The New York Times headlines its story this morning "Bush Backs Away From His Claims About Iraq Arms." David E. Sanger writes: "Asked by reporters if he would repeat earlier expressions of confidence that the weapons would be found in light of recent statements by the former chief weapons inspector in Iraq, David A. Kay, that Mr. Hussein had gotten rid of them well before the war, Mr. Bush did not answer directly."

Sanger also gets some skinny from inside the White House.

"In private, some administration officials acknowledged Tuesday that Dr. Kay's conclusion that the intelligence was deeply flawed was becoming an unwelcome political problem that the White House would have to confront, either now or when the presidential campaign heats up.

"Two administration officials reported that a debate has erupted within the administration over whether Mr. Bush should soon call for some kind of reform of the intelligence-gathering process."

Bill Nichols and Richard Benedetto write in USA Today that the president's press secretary isn't helping clear things up.

"Pressed by reporters earlier on Tuesday to say whether the president still believed that banned weapons would be found in Iraq, spokesman Scott McClellan did not answer directly.

" 'We want to be able to compare what we knew before the war with what we learn from the (inspectors),' McClellan said. 'Their work is ongoing, so let's let them gather all the facts.' "

USA Today also tracks some of Bush's evolving statements on weapons of mass destruction.

Kay told The Washington Post yesterday that his teams found evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime destroyed some stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons in the mid-1990s. As Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank write: "The discovery means that inspectors have not only failed to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq but also have found exculpatory information -- contemporaneous documents and confirmations from interviews with Iraqis -- demonstrating that Hussein did make efforts to disarm well before President Bush began making the case for war."

They also report: "In a private meeting between Bush and congressional leaders, Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) told Bush it is important to determine what went wrong to produce the flawed prewar weapons charges. Democratic sources said that prompted a testy exchange between Bush and Daschle."

Bush's comments about weapons of mass destruction came during a photo op with Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski. Read the White House transcript. Bush also made remarks yesterday during a photo op with congressional leaders. You can also read the full text and see the video of McClellan's press briefing.

Polish Arm-Twisting

Speaking of that Oval Office photo op with the Polish president, Al Kamen of The Washington Post writes about how Kwasniewski turned the traditional banalities and platitudes into a public arm-twisting on the issue of visa requirements.

Kwasniewski was even so bold as to interrupt the president -- in front of all those people! -- with some campaign-style horse-trading talk.

"Bush: There are thousands of Polish Americans who --

"Kwasniewski: Millions.

"Bush: Millions, excuse me. I just don't want to overstate the case here.

"Kwasniewski: Especially before the election. Millions and millions."

He had a point. According to the 2000 Census, there are some nine million Americans of Polish descent, and their highest concentrations are in Michigan and Wisconsin, two states Bush lost to Al Gore in 2000. In Wisconsin, it was a squeaker, and less than 6,000 more votes, Polish or otherwise, would have made the difference.

Turkey on the Menu

Bush meets today with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. Ken Guggenheim of the Associated Press writes that the meeting "highlights a diplomatically sensitive question about the future of Iraq: What should be done about the Kurds?"

Cheney and the Prince of Peace, Part II

Mike Allen of The Washington Post sets the scene as Vice President Cheney met with the Pope yesterday, and got a bit of a lecture on "international cooperation."

Cheney presented the Pope with a crystal dove.

Here's a Reuters photo of the pontiff giving the dove a stroke, as if to bless it.

Reuters video and Associated Press video also recorded the event.

As Eric Schmitt and Frank Bruni write in the New York Times, this wraps up a five-day trip to Europe during which the vice president tried to "rally support for the campaign against terrorism" in part by "trying to temper the widespread image here of the United States as a stubbornly independent and sometimes arrogant superpower."

Cheney also stopped by the Aviano Air Base to rally the troops.

Deb Riechmann of the Associated Press reports there were no doves there. "The troops were in camouflage, and some waved small American flags. In the hangar was an F-16 fighter jet and a Black Hawk helicopter."

© 2004