Where's the President?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, April 8, 2004; 9:51 AM

As the national security adviser nicknamed the "Warrior Princess" by her staff marches onto the field of battle this morning to defend the administration -- all alone, in public, under oath -- there is a growing focus on President Bush's willingness only to face the panel investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in private, unrecorded and with Vice President Cheney at his side.

Here's CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider on Tuesday: "The question that's emerging out of all this is simple: Why does the president of the United States have to appear jointly with the vice president of the United States? I mean, can you imagine Clinton and Gore testifying before such a commission or the first George Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle? Why do they have to appear together?

"It's raising some damaging questions about whether or not George Bush knows enough to testify on his own or whether he's dependent on Vice President Cheney."

Presidential confidante Karen Hughes defended the joint appearance on Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press": "I'm not sure what the rationale specifically was, but I think the White House believes that it is an effective use of their time," she said. "Many times, President Bush and Vice President Cheney were in the room together during much of the events, much of the briefings, much of the lead-up that the commission is looking at. And so I think it's appropriate that they appear together and discuss how they saw the events leading up to September 11."

When a reporter asked Bush himself on Monday why he chose to appear with Cheney, he ducked the question, simply saying "it will be a great opportunity from them to ask both of us our opinions on the subject." (Here's the transcript.)

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the joint appearance "embarrassing" last week.

The political cartoonists have been scathing. Here are cartoons from Tom Toles, Mike Luckovich and Ann Telnaes.

Washington Post columnist Harold Myerson, never a fan of the president, wrote with particular bitterness yesterday: "The only unequivocally good policy option before the American people is to dump the president who got us into this mess, who had no trouble sending our young people to Iraq but who cannot steel himself to face the Sept. 11 commission alone."

Not surprisingly, The Washington Post's David S. Broder presaged all this last week in his opinion column titled "Bush's Surrender."

Conservative commentators have been quiet on this particular issue so far.

On Iraq, the Same Question

Similarly, as the situation in Iraq becomes more and more horrifying, there's also a new focus on the president's visibility.

Dan Balz and Dana Milbank write in The Washington Post: "A week of escalating violence in Iraq, accompanied by growing numbers of U.S. casualties and gruesome images on television and in newspapers, threatens to erode public confidence in President Bush and redraw the political calculus of the impact of the war on terrorism in the presidential election. . . .

"The president stayed out of sight at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., but events have played havoc with his schedule. Originally, Bush planned to remain out of view until he attends Easter services on Sunday, but aides acknowledged that was untenable at such a momentous time. Now they are planning an Easter Sunday speech at nearby Fort Hood, according to aides, and a possible appearance Friday."

Adam Nagourney and Carl Hulse write in the New York Times: "As scenes of violence in Iraq flashed across television screens, Mr. Bush was mostly out of sight, on his ranch in Crawford, Tex., even as some of his conservative supporters began expressing concern that Mr. Bush's Iraq policy could diminish his re-election prospects."

He's on the Ranch

Scott Lindlaw of the Associated Press reports that Bush will be "leading a tour of his ranch for hunting, fishing and land-conservation advocates" today, and might not even watch Rice on TV.

"Aides said Bush had given no indication of planning to watch the testimony Thursday live on television. Rather, Bush intended to receive updates from his top advisers, a senior administration official said. Bush was attending his usual national-security meetings in the morning."

Jeremy Pelofsky of Reuters reports that Bush's guests will include representatives of "the National Rifle Association, Ducks Unlimited and Pheasants Forever."

CBS News reports that "The president will also, later in the day, sit down for an interview with Ladies' Home Journal."

Condoleezza Rice Day

But today is all about Condoleezza Rice, of course.

Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post: "National security adviser Condoleezza Rice will be sharply questioned today about the Bush administration's military planning to meet the terrorism threat and its refusal to undertake strikes against al Qaeda in the first eight months of 2001, according to several members of the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks."

Pincus will be Live Online immediately following Rice's testimony to take your questions.

Philip Shenon writes in the New York Times: "The leaders of the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks urged the panel's members on Wednesday to try to avoid partisanship in their public questioning..."

Hope Yen reports for the Associated Press that "Thomas H. Kean, the panel's Republican chairman, says he and Democratic vice chairman Lee Hamilton are mindful of the political overtones in a presidential election year. . . .

"'In a very difficult atmosphere, in a town that is the most polarized I've ever seen, the commission is trying to do a job for the American people that is to the best of our ability nonpolitical,' Kean said in an interview. 'That is enormously hard to do, but I think we can get it done and people should leave us alone.'"

Michael Janofsky of the New York Times profiles one commission member who might not take Kean's advice: Bob Kerrey, the former senator from Nebraska, whose qualities include "a sharp and often acerbic tongue, a penchant for calling attention to himself and a mind that is ever-changing."

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post about the growing controversy surrounding Philip D. Zelikow, the panel's executive director and a former colleague and longtime friend of Rice's.

Knut Royce writes in Newsday: "As she appears this morning before the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Rice's testimony likely will reflect Bush's own marching orders and views and the counterterrorism policies devised elsewhere rather than any game plans she may have crafted herself.

"Several recent policy misstatements by Rice support the notion that she had little hands-on role in formulating counterterrorism plans either before or after Sept. 11."

David Montgomery writes in The Washington Post that Rice's friends say she won't crumble.

Documents Were Withheld

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "The commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks announced yesterday that it has identified 69 documents from the Clinton era that the Bush White House withheld from investigators and which include references to al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and other issues relevant to the panel's work."

And Remember: It Didn't Come Easy

Bob Kemper of the Chicago Tribune writes that "Rice's presence Thursday morning is the result of a familiar, torturous process. It starts with a White House rejection of a commission request for access to a document or an official, then weeks of stubborn resistance to commission insistence and, finally, acquiescence in the face of overwhelming public pressure."

Not Always Good Press

Some reports are suggesting that before Clarke's book came out, Rice had enjoyed nothing but good press. Not true.

As Judy Keen notes in USA Today: "This isn't Rice's first experience with Washington drama. She has been criticized, mostly by Democrats, for her management of the competing interests of Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Critics say Rice, a Soviet specialist by training, is out of her league when dealing with the Middle East and other trouble spots."

Here for instance, is a Washington Post story from October by Glenn Kessler and Peter Slevin describing how "Rice has come under fire from former and current administration officials and a range of foreign policy experts."

Who's Right?

Steve Holland of Reuters reports: "The White House on Wednesday blamed 'minority extremist elements' in Iraq for a deadly upsurge in fighting that pits U.S. forces against Sunnis and Shi'ites and said a militant Shi'ite cleric could help end the violence by surrendering."

Here's the text of yesterdays' gaggle by press secretary Scott McClellan.

But James Risen writes in the New York Times: "United States forces are confronting a broad-based Shiite uprising that goes well beyond supporters of one militant Islamic cleric who has been the focus of American counterinsurgency efforts, United States intelligence officials said Wednesday.

"That assertion contradicts repeated statements by the Bush administration and American officials in Iraq."

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