Which Is the 'Real' Bush?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, October 4, 2004; 12:36 PM

So who was that George Bush we saw Thursday night? The one who at times looked more peevish and bored than gregarious and resolute?

The notion that voters may come away from the debate thinking of Bush as someone who becomes upset when challenged is potentially devastating to the image of the president that the White House has fostered since Sept. 11, 2001.

And it dovetails with the concern -- not limited to Democrats -- that Bush may be in denial about the grim realities facing U.S. troops in Iraq.

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "Bush has flashed such expressions -- and worse -- at reporters when they ask him hostile questions. But the public has generally not seen the president's more petulant side, in part because he is rarely challenged in a public venue. He has held fewer news conferences than any modern predecessor, Congress is in his party's control, and he has a famously loyal staff. In rare instances when Bush has been vigorously challenged -- most recently in interviews with an Irish television journalist and a French magazine -- he has reacted with similar indignation. . . .

"Bush aides acknowledged privately that that the candidate seemed imperious during the debate, and even Bush-friendly publications joined in the criticism."

Adam Nagourney writes in the New York Times: "An administration official, speaking anonymously because he also did not want to be identified as critical of Mr. Bush's debate performance, said he had been astounded to see Mr. Bush repeatedly display on television a disdainful look that was familiar to people who work with him in the White House, but which aides, in preparing him for the debates, warned against."

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Polls taken after the debate found that picture of Bush surprised many voters, who are more accustomed to the confident and congenial chief executive they see in more scripted settings. . . .

"Are Bush's scowls likely to turn the race? The danger for Bush is that the images will convince voters he is indignant when questioned or challenged. That could reinforce a weakness for the president in the polls: the sense that he's too stubborn."

John Tierney writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush said 'hard work' 11 times, generally to describe the challenges facing him in the fight against terrorism, although at moments it looked as if the most onerous part of his job was the debate. After watching him sputter, slump, frown and pound the podium, some experts in body language said they had never seen him so disgusted and forlorn."

And, Tierney writes, "independent observers were questioning Mr. Bush's living-room appeal. They said he looked quite different from the debater they saw in 2000, as if he wasn't used to having his assertions questioned."

Elisabeth Bumiller and David M. Halbfinger write in the New York Times that, "in a sign that the Bush campaign suddenly found itself on the defensive, the president's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, who is normally elusive to the press, sought out reporters to push the campaign's argument that Mr. Kerry was a walking contradiction on Thursday night and that Mr. Bush was focused and pensive during the encounter, not peevish.

" 'That wasn't irritated,' Mr. Rove said. 'I know irritated.' "

Howard Fineman, Richard Wolffe and Tamara Lipper write in Newsweek that Bush aides watched the debate in an "eerily silent" curtained-off racquetball court.

"Kerry had fought his way off the ropes. This time he did it against a president who looked unprepared for battle, advised by overconfident aides who were twirling cigars on the eve of the debate at a bar in South Beach. With pride, the president suggested that he deserved re-election primarily for his personal strength -- but, at least last Thursday night, Kerry was seen as the strong character. And while Bush contended that liberty would bring tranquility to the planet, he was unable to make that claim with the kind of inspiring rhetoric and detail he offers in the melodious speeches crafted by his speechwriters."

Presidential historian Richard Reeves writes in an opinion column: "What happened to Bush? What's wrong with him? I would say he has a bad case of Ovalitis -- an ear infection endemic to the Oval Office. Sit there long enough, and you don't hear anything you don't want to hear. . . .

"At first the president must have seen through all the bowing and scraping, but gradually it became his due; he is the boy in the bubble. And the bubble moves with him around the country as his staff and the Secret Service protect him from any unpleasant words or people. Tickets to his rallies are given only to the loyal. He holds no press conferences. He hides away out there in the Crawford sagebrush. He's alone."

Over the Weekend

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post that on Sunday, "Bush was not on the campaign trail, but his staff kept the emphasis on his preferred subject: security issues. On Fox, White House communications director Dan Bartlett said that despite post-debate polls showing gains for Kerry, voters still trust Bush more than Kerry to fight terrorism. 'That's what matters to the American people, and that's what's going to matter on November 2nd,' he said.

Dan Balz wrote in The Washington Post over the weekend that "Bush advisers were described as stunned by how negative the reviews were of the president's performance, which many of them regarded as not his best but not so bad. Bush was portrayed as upbeat while acknowledging to supporters that he knew he could have done better. His aides indicated they plan some retooling before Friday's debate, but they maintained a sense of outward confidence."

Dana Milbank wrote in The Washington Post: "President Bush said Saturday that under a 'Kerry Doctrine,' Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry would require permission of foreign powers before launching military action.

"The inflammatory charge, leveled here by Bush and in a new campaign commercial, was immediately denied by Kerry's advisers. The accusation is based on a partial reading of Kerry's remark in Thursday's debate that he would have a 'global test' to prove the legitimacy of U.S. military action; Kerry also said that he would reserve 'the right to preempt in any way necessary to protect the United States.' "

Here are transcripts from his talks in Cuyahoga Falls, Mansfield and Columbus, Ohio.

Jim VandeHei and Dana Milbank wrote in The Washington Post that on Friday, "Bush, trying to fight back after what even some Republicans called a lackluster debate performance, said Kerry proved in their first face-to-face encounter that he lacks the clarity and consistency to triumph in Iraq, as well as the resolve to protect the United States without first getting the approval of other nations."

" 'Senator Kerry last night said that America has to pass some sort of "global test" before we can use American troops to defend ourselves,' Bush said in Allentown, Pa., before delivering a similar message in New Hampshire. 'The use of troops to defend America must never be subject to a veto by countries like France.'

Here are the transcripts from Allentown, Pa., and Manchester, N.H.

Here's Bush (and the audience) in Allentown:

"Senator Kerry last night said that America has to pass some sort of global test --


"THE PRESIDENT: -- before we can use American troops to defend ourselves. He wants our national security decisions subject to the approval of a foreign government.


"THE PRESIDENT: Listen, I'll continue to work with our allies and the international community -- but I will never submit America's national security to an international test. (Applause.) The use of troops to defend America must never be subject to a veto by countries like France. (Applause.)"

About that Global Test

So is Bush distorting Kerry's position on the "global test"? The press coverage says yes.

I already quoted Milbank.

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush sought to cast as a sign of weakness Mr. Kerry's comments Thursday night that the United States needed credible reasons for taking pre-emptive action to head off threats. . . .

"But whatever the substantive case might be, Mr. Bush's campaign clearly saw the 'global test' phrase as an opportunity not only to reinforce its portrayal of Mr. Kerry as wobbly on national security, but also to counter the story line Democrats were gleefully seizing on: that Mr. Kerry had bested Mr. Bush, broken the aura of inevitability about a Republican victory and re-energized the president's opponents."

Here's how CBS Radio's Mark Knoller put it: "It's a misrepresentation of what Kerry said."

Veep Watch

Mike Allen and John F. Harris write in The Washington Post: "Tomorrow's vice presidential debate, which both campaigns once presumed would be a sideshow to the presidential race, has assumed critical importance, with Republicans depending on Vice President Cheney to halt the ticket's slide in momentum.

"After what Republicans acknowledge was President Bush's faltering performance in his televised encounter with Democratic nominee John F. Kerry, GOP strategists said Cheney's aim is to return public attention to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the administration's broader handling of the terrorism threat and away from what they called a 'second-guessing' debate over the decision to invade Iraq."

Melinda Henneberger writes in Newsweek, about Cheney: "Now it's up to him to make the case for constancy in a war that Kerry says diverted resources from more pressing priorities, like going after Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. In a way, it's the assignment the almost preternaturally steady Cheney has been preparing for all of his life."

Richard W. Stevenson and Randal C. Archibold write in the New York Times: "The goal for Mr. Cheney, his aides and advisers say, is to portray President Bush as a steadfast, principled leader, and Senator John Kerry, his Democratic opponent, as a wavering, pandering liberal. The task for Mr. Edwards, his team says, is to argue that Mr. Bush has failed to make the nation safer and to hit him hard on the less than robust economy, softening him for the battering aides say Mr. Kerry will deliver on domestic issues in the debates to come."

Poll Watch

Brian Braiker writes in Newsweek: "With a solid majority of voters concluding that John Kerry outperformed George W. Bush in the first presidential debate on Thursday, the president's lead in the race for the White House has vanished, according to the latest Newsweek poll....

"Meanwhile, Bush's approval ratings have dropped to below the halfway mark (46 percent) for the first time since the GOP convention in late August."

Susan Page writes in USA Today: "Favorable public reaction to his performance in the first presidential debate has boosted Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and narrowed the contest with President Bush to a tie, according to a new USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll.

Those poll results show Bush's approval at 50, down 4 points since the debate.

Fact-Checking Continues

Since my Friday column, I've come across yet more debate fact-checking, both from journalists and bloggers.

Tony Karon of Time.com writes: "President Bush simply can't let go of his prewar picture of Saddam Hussein as a grave and gathering danger despite the realities that have debunked it; John Kerry says he'd do everything differently, yet when he gets to specifics they sound identical to what the Bush Administration is already doing."

David E. Rosenbaum in the New York Times addresses several issues, including a seminal one: Has Kerry flip-flopped on Iraq? He writes that "a review of Mr. Kerry's public statements found that his position had been quite consistent. But as the politics changed, Mr. Kerry repeatedly changed his emphasis. News accounts reflected what he was emphasizing at the time. And Mr. Kerry was often unclear in expressing his views."

And blogger Hugh Hewitt disputes Kerry's recounting of a meeting with Charles DeGaulle.

Several e-mailers alerted me to the fact that the Media Matters Web site is actually fact checking the fact-checkers.

For instance, Gabriel Wildau writes: "In an October 1 segment on NBC's Today show devoted to fact-checking assertions by both candidates at the September 30 presidential debate, NBC News senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers distorted Senator John Kerry's statements to cast them as misleading."

And one blogger pointed out that I had erred in writing on Friday that "Bush was wrong when he corrected Kerry by saying that the senator forgot to mention that Poland supplied forces when the invasion began."

It was an overstatement by Bush, not an error. In fact, there were indeed 56 Polish commandos in on the invasion, not zero (compared to 250,000 or so U.S. troops, about 45,000 from Britain and about 2,000 from Australia).

Several readers e-mailed me with questions I couldn't answer, including: Did Kerry really see the same intelligence as Bush, or just a screened subset? And if FBI director Robert Mueller really does come into Bush's office "when I'm in Washington every morning," how many times has that been, lately, considering how much Bush has been on the road?

About Those Bloggers

And some bloggers took offense at my statement that "blogger fact-checking looked shallow and strident by comparison to the press corps' -- although there were some good catches."

One blogger in particular noted that many of the items I attributed to journalists had in fact been caught by bloggers as well.

And yes, it's true that a fair number of the errors documented by journalists were also mentioned, somewhere in some form, by bloggers.

Perhaps I set the bar too high: I was hoping that bloggers, collectively, would find lots of things that the press, under a super-fast deadline, would miss. And that bloggers, some of them being very opinionated, would be able to find flaws in the opposing candidate's statements that mainstream (possibly insufficiently critical) journalists might overlook. You could call this my parallel pajama-people processor postulate.

Instead, I ended up being stunned at what a good job journalists did. In terms of documentation, breadth, and credibility -- not to mention accessibility -- it was no contest.

That said, I think the bloggers still did pretty well, and I'll bet they get even better next time.


One of the most-cited gotchas from Thursday was Bush's assertion that "the A.Q. Khan network has been brought to justice."

But CNN reports that national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, appearing on Late Edition, "said Bush did not misspeak when he said that the network of Pakistan's A.Q. Khan -- the founder of Pakistan's nuclear program who was caught selling secrets on the global black market -- had been 'brought to justice.'

"Khan is living in a villa and was pardoned this year by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. None of Khan's co-conspirators have been brought to trial."

Here's how Rice explained it, from the Late Edition transcript.

"A.Q. Khan is out of business and he is out of the business that he loved most. And if you don't think that his national humiliation is justice for what he did, I think it is. He's nationally humiliated."

Aluminum Tubes Watch

David Barstow, William J. Broad and Jeff Gerth wrote an exhaustive piece in Sunday's New York Times about the aluminum tubes that "became a critical exhibit in the administration's brief against Iraq" in 2002, during the run-up to war.

The Times writes that "almost a year before, Ms. Rice's staff had been told that the government's foremost nuclear experts seriously doubted that the tubes were for nuclear weapons, according to four officials at the Central Intelligence Agency and two senior administration officials, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity. The experts, at the Energy Department, believed the tubes were likely intended for small artillery rockets.

"The White House, though, embraced the disputed theory that the tubes were for nuclear centrifuges, an idea first championed in April 2001 by a junior analyst at the C.I.A. Senior nuclear scientists considered that notion implausible, yet in the months after 9/11, as the administration built a case for confronting Iraq, the centrifuge theory gained currency as it rose to the top of the government. . . .

"It was a momentum built on a pattern of haste, secrecy, ambiguity, bureaucratic maneuver and a persistent failure in the Bush administration and even among Democrats in Congress to ask hard questions. That momentum gave urgency to the call for action against Iraq."

Rice was all over television yesterday, responding to this story.

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post that she was insisting that "it is still unclear whether Iraq attempted to procure tens of thousands of aluminum tubes for a nuclear weapons program or a conventional rocket program, despite conclusions by the Senate intelligence committee and U.N. investigators that the tubes could not be used in any nuclear program."

The Downside of Unilateralism

Jeffrey Fleishman writes in a Los Angeles Times news analysis: "Much of Europe and the world feel insecure, but a growing number of nations no longer look to the U.S. for leadership and sanctuary. The Bush administration's unilateralist policies in Iraq and its perceived aloofness have left it less trusted at a time of widening global vulnerability, according to polls and interviews in more than 30 countries.

"Osama bin Laden remains on the loose. Videos of hostage beheadings in Iraq flicker across the Internet. The nuclear aspirations of North Korea and Iran are troubling. Many countries feel powerless to stop the onslaught and recognize that the U.S. is the only nation militarily strong enough to serve as a bulwark against increasing dangers. But they also feel powerless to persuade Washington to adopt a more nuanced, multilateral strategy."

The End of Preemption

James Sterngold writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "George Bush has insisted repeatedly on the campaign trail that his presidency has been characterized by unwavering policies based on core convictions. But a key component of his security and military strategy -- a willingness to wage war 'pre-emptively' against perceived enemies -- lies largely in tatters, say experts and policy-makers.

"These experts, from both sides of the political spectrum, say the brutal experience in Iraq has eroded many elements of what has come to be called the 'Bush doctrine,' leaving the United States with less flexibility in the war on terror."

The Week Ahead

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "Just in time for the election, President Bush is going to one of the most contested states to sign his fourth tax cut in four years."

Bush visits Des Moines, then holds an "Ask President Bush" event in nearby Clive, Iowa, later today.

Judy Keen writes in USA Today: "President Bush will spend this week focusing on taxes and health care, talking about only half -- Sen. John Kerry's half -- of the first presidential debate and hoping that Tuesday's vice presidential debate will supplant criticism of his own performance.

"On Wednesday, he will talk in Pennsylvania about his plan for more restrictive medical liability laws and attend a campaign rally in Michigan. On Thursday, he'll speak in Wisconsin. After Friday's presidential debate in St. Louis, Bush will be in Minnesota on Saturday."

Moonies Gets Faith-Based Funds

Don Lattin writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "President Bush has some new troops in his crusade to promote 'healthy marriage' and teen celibacy with federal funds -- followers of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the controversial Korean evangelist and self-proclaimed new world messiah.

"At least four longtime operatives of Moon's Unification Church are on the federal payroll or getting government grants in the administration's Healthy Marriage Initiative and other 'faith-based' programs."

Tinfoil Hat Watch

Washington Monthly blogger Kevin Drum writes: "The internet is your go-to medium for news of the weird, and this weekend's clear winner in the world of weird speculation was the buzz about George Bush's earpiece.

"It all started when Bush looked up halfway though an answer during Thursday's debate and snapped petulantly, "Let me finish." This is a trademark Bush line and normally wouldn't draw any comment except for one thing: no one had interrupted him. He had plenty of time left, Kerry hadn't said anything, and Jim Lehrer hadn't said anything either. So who was he talking to?"

Laughing at the President

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times that reporters gathered at the University of Miami cackled when Bush said: "Of course I know Osama bin Laden attacked us -- I know that," in response to Senator John Kerry's implication that he had conflated Iraq and Al Qaeda.

"That moment in Coral Gables, Fla., was a crucial step in the days-long formation of general perceptions of how the debate played out for Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry, who was also on the receiving end of guffaws but none so loud and sustained. . . .

"Hours later, however, the idea that Mr. Bush lost decisively was filtering into late-night comedy. 'He looked testy, didn't he?' Jay Leno asked his studio audience on the 'Tonight' show. 'He hasn't choked that bad since the last time he had a pretzel.'"

And Darel Jevens of the Chicago Sun Times describes Saturday Night Live's treatment of the debate.

"Comedian Will Forte, who became the NBC show's Bush impersonator only last spring, played the commander-in-chief as weary, whiny and at wit's end -- a shift from the dimwitted but cocky Bush that Will Ferrell depicted in the 2000 race.

" 'Frankly, I don't know why my opponent wants this job,' the bogus Bush said during a re-creation of Thursday's debate. 'Because it's hard!' "

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