Bush's Reluctance to Apologize

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, May 6, 2004; 10:55 AM

Will President Bush ever say he's sorry -- about anything?

Yesterday, all sorts of people who work for Bush apologized for the horrific abuse of Iraqi prisoners at a U.S.-run prison. Press secretary Scott McClellan even apologized on Bush's behalf.

But the president himself? No way.

In fact, rather than apologize, Bush started finger-pointing. And his finger, lest anyone be in any doubt, is pointing directly toward Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Meanwhile, new polls show Bush's approval ratings are sinking.

No Apology

The White House's intense damage-control efforts began yesterday with Bush doing two hastily-arranged interviews with Arab television networks.

Mike Allen and Dan Balz write in The Washington Post that Bush "asserted that 'justice will be delivered' to those responsible but stopped short of apologizing. . . .

In contrast, "McClellan, who was not asked about any other topic during a 38-minute briefing yesterday, said Bush is 'sorry for what occurred and the pain that it has caused.' When asked why Bush did not say so himself, McClellan replied: 'I'm saying it for him right now.' "

Michael Tackett writes in the Chicago Tribune: "In an age when the public confession, the tear-streaked interview and the mournful pose of remorse are as common as a cable channel, President Bush has great difficulty uttering these words: 'I'm sorry.' . . .

"To his supporters, Bush's posture on apology is seen as strength rather than stubbornness. In addition, they contend, saying sorry to a skeptical Arab world likely would have little force."

But, Tackett writes: "Presidents who accept direct responsibility--John F. Kennedy during the Bay of Pigs and Ronald Reagan after the Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon, for instance--have reaped clear benefits."

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "Although the president did not apologize, his national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, and the deputy secretary of state, Richard L. Armitage, did so in interviews with Arab broadcasters on Tuesday. The new commandant of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, also apologized to the Iraqi people, as did the military spokesman in Iraq, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt."

Deb Riechmann of the Associated Press writes: "There was no apology, no 'I'm sorry,' when President Bush set out to defuse Arab anger about the abuse and death of Iraqi prisoners. Instead, he fell back on Washington's time-tested mistakes-are-made formula.

"It was a condemnation without contrition."

Judy Keen and Richard Benedetto write in USA Today: "If the intensity of damage-control efforts is any gauge of the concern inside the White House about the scandal over mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners, President Bush and his advisers are very worried."

And the number one question likely to persist, they write: "Why didn't Bush apologize in the Arab TV interviews? An adviser said he simply wasn't asked. In a news conference last month, Bush sidestepped a question about whether he takes 'personal responsibility' for the Sept. 11 attacks. Some analysts speculated that he would not apologize Wednesday because it might make him appear weak and diminish his standing in the Arab world."

Here's the full text of the al-Aribiya and al-Hurra interviews, and a video clip.

Really Really Sorry

From the transcript of yesterday's press briefing.

"Q Okay, a simple question. The President had two interviews today the White House set up for Arabic TV networks. In neither did the President apologize. Why was that?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we've already said that we're sorry for what occurred, and we're deeply sorry to the families and what they must be feeling and going through, as well. The President is sorry for what occurred and the pain that it has caused. It does not represent what America stands for. America stands for much better than what happened.

"Q He didn't think that was necessary to say in his own voice, with his own words?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, he was -- he was addressing the questions that were asked, but we've made it very clear that we are deeply sorry for what occurred."

Then again, later:

"Q Scott, getting back to the apology issue that Mark raised, did you mean to say that the President didn't apologize because -- he didn't address that issue because no one brought it up in either interview?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we've already said that we are deeply sorry for what occurred. The White House has already said that, on behalf of the President.

"Q There seems to be a sense, among some Arab scholars and Arab diplomats today that from, at the very least, a cultural standpoint, that it would have gone a long way had the President himself apologized. It's, with all due respect, a little bit different than you or Condoleezza Rice or someone else. If the Arab world had heard him -- heard the President personally apologize, it would have gone a long way. Why did he choose not to use those words?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I just told you, the President is deeply sorry for what occurred, and the pain that it has caused.

"Q Why didn't he say so himself?

"MR. McCLELLAN: The President is deeply sorry for it. And he was pleased to sit down and do these interviews and address the questions that were asked of him.

"Q Why didn't he say so himself?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I'm saying it for him right now, Peter. And Condi Rice said it yesterday. We've already made -- the President --

"Q -- wasn't what was --

"MR. McCLELLAN: No, but go back to the interview. The President made it very clear that what occurred was wrong, and that it does not represent what America stands for. So he made it very clear in those interviews that it was wrong, that we do not stand for that, and that when we -- when that kind of activity comes to our attention, we take action to address it, and make sure that it doesn't happen again.

"Q There's a distinction, Scott.

"Q Shouldn't an apology be at the President's forethought, not you saying it?"

Also Really Sorry

Dexter Filkins reports in the New York Times that Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the new commandant of Abu Ghraib prison, took reporters around the prison yesterday.

"I would like to apologize for our nation and for our military for the small number of soldiers who committed illegal or unauthorized acts here at Abu Ghraib," he told the reporters after a tour of the prison.

Jim Krane of the Associated Press writes: "Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the spokesman for the U.S. command, also apologized. 'My Army has been embarrassed by this. My Army has been shamed by this.' "

CBS News's Allen Pizzy has video of those apologies.

When national security adviser Condoleezza Rice went on Arab TV on Tuesday, she apologized. Here's the transcript. "And we are deeply sorry for what has happened to these people, and what the families must be feeling," she said.

The Reaction

Christine Hauser writes in the New York Times that, at the Dar-al Baida barber shop in Baghdad, shop owner Bassim Muhammad watched Bush on TV and was not impressed

"'You call that an apology?' Mr. Muhammad said afterward. 'How can anyone apologize for something like that anyway?' "

Jonathan Wright of Reuters writes: "President Bush did too little too late when he told two Arabic-language television stations that he condemned the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners, Arab commentators and pundits said on Thursday."

Egyptian columnist Ahmed el-Birri wrote in Egypt's al-Ahram: "It's not enough for Bush to be indignant. . . . What they need to do is take an immediate decision to withdraw their forces from Iraq, confess the terrible injustice they have done to Iraq and apologize in public for what their troops have done."

CNN quotes Rami Khouri, executive editor of Beirut's Daily Star newspaper: "He should stand up and apologize, apology is one of the great redeeming acts of any leadership and the Arab people would respond positively to that."

OK, What About Some Regret?

Lois Romano writes in The Washington Post that, while criticizing the administration's response to the prison abuse, Sen. John F. Kerry yesterday stopped short of demanding that Bush issue a formal apology.

But he should expressing regret, Kerry says.

"The world needs to hear from the president that the United States of America regrets any kind of abuse of this kind . . . because we have to show the world that we're willing to correct our own mistakes."

The Finger-Pointing Begins

Robin Wright and Bradley Graham write in The Washington Post: "President Bush privately admonished Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday, a senior White House official said, as other U.S. officials blamed the Pentagon for failing to act on repeated recommendations to improve conditions for thousands of Iraqi detainees and release those not charged with crimes."

They write that "the president informed Rumsfeld of his dissatisfaction during a meeting in the Oval Office yesterday morning after the two left a National Security Council meeting. Bush was particularly bothered at not having been told that the photos of the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison were in circulation, even though Pentagon officials knew that CBS had obtained them, the senior White House official said."

So what did Rumsfeld tell who -- and when?

"Bush aides conceded that Rumsfeld had earlier given Bush a general sense of the investigation of Abu Ghraib during a meeting that included Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. But White House press secretary Scott McClellan said officials have not been able to pin down the exact date, except that it was after Jan. 16, when the Pentagon issued a release announcing the probe."

Wright and Graham write that they were told that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell urged action in several White House meetings that included Rumsfeld.

My question: Was Condoleezza Rice at any of those meetings?

Elisabeth Bumiller and Richard W. Stevenson write in the New York Times: "The disclosures by the White House officials, under authorization from Mr. Bush, were an extraordinary display of finger-pointing in an administration led by a man who puts a high premium on order and loyalty. . . .

"The disclosure of the dressing-down of the combative Mr. Rumsfeld was the first time that Mr. Bush has allowed his displeasure with a senior member of his administration to be made public. It also exposed the fault lines in Mr. Bush's inner circle that have deepened with the violence and political chaos in American-occupied Iraq."

And what's Karl Rove take on all this?

Bumiller and Stevenson write: "Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, has told one Bush adviser that he believes that it will take a generation for the United States to live this scandal down in the Arab world, and that one of the dangers of basing a campaign on national security and foreign policy is that events can be beyond the president's control."

Edwin Chen of the Los Angeles Times writes: " 'The president wasn't satisfied when he saw those pictures on TV,' the official said, referring to photographs of Iraqi prisoners stripped naked and being abused. 'And he made that clear to Secretary Rumsfeld. They should have been brought to his attention, and he shouldn't have had to learn of them through the media.'

"The official said Rumsfeld agreed with Bush that the manner in which the information reached the president was 'not satisfactory.' "

Incidentally, on ABC's "Good Morning America" on Wednesday, Rumsfeld himself got sort of close to apologizing.

Here's a clip: "Anyone, any American, who sees the photographs that we've seen, has to feel apologetic to the Iraqi people who were abused, and recognize that that is something that is unacceptable, and un-American," Rumsfeld said.

Whose Torture Chambers?

Much has been made of the fact that Bush is still using a line from his stump speech about how the torture chambers in Iraq are closed.

But here's something no one seems to have noticed: He has made a change. Now he's saying specifying whose torture chambers.

Up until lately, the line generally went "Because we acted, torture chambers are closed."

That was up until early Tuesday afternoon. See, for instance, his remarks in the Ohio towns of Lebanon or Maumes.

But since Tuesday night -- or by the time he got to Cincinnati -- he's been more specific. The exact words now: "Because our coalition acted, Saddam's torture chambers are closed."

And he's used that precise phrasing two more times since then, at a Sterling Heights, Mich., rally later Tuesday night, and at the Republican National Committee Gala in Washington last night, which raised a record $38.5 million for the Republican National Committee.

Poll Watch

Randy Lilleston writes for USA Today: "Americans are more dissatisfied with the nation's direction than at any time in more than eight years and President Bush's job approval rating has sunk into a tie for his worst-ever showing, according to a new Gallup Poll."

Here's the data from Gallup's Web site.

And there's a new Wall Street Journal/NBC poll out, with even grimmer stats for the president.

John Harwood writes in the Wall Street Journal that Bush's "approval rating slipped to 47%, the lowest of his presidency, while a 49% plurality of voters say he doesn't deserve a second term. By a 50%-to-33% margin, voters say the nation is headed in the wrong direction."

Harwood writes that Bush, "already grappling with growing doubts about his Iraq policy, is facing a more surprising obstacle to re-election: voters' persistent worries about the economy. . . .

"Mr. Bush's slim national lead in the presidential campaign depends, for now, largely on doubts about Democratic challenger John Kerry that the president is stoking in stump attacks and a barrage of negative television ads."

Here's NBC's Tim Russert discussing the numbers with Tom Brokaw. Russert says it is a "red flag" that 51 percent of independent voters now say Bush does not deserve re-election.

Here's the poll data.

A Good Day for Prayer

Alan Cooperman writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush's participation in a National Day of Prayer ceremony with evangelical Christian leaders at the White House will be shown tonight, for the first time in prime-time viewing hours, on Christian cable and satellite TV outlets nationwide.

"For Bush, the broadcast is an opportunity to address a sympathetic evangelical audience without the risk of alienating secular or non-Christian viewers, because it will not be carried in full by the major television networks. . . .

"Some civil liberties groups and religious minorities charged that the National Day of Prayer has lost its nonpartisan veneer and is being turned into a platform for evangelical groups to endorse Bush -- and vice versa.

G. Jeffrey MacDonald writes in the Christian Science Monitor that "national organizers have used $1.3 million in private funding in part to urge prayers for specific political successes. Beneath this year's slogan, 'Let Freedom Ring,' are prayers for five power centers: government, media, education, church, and family. All followers are encouraged, for instance, to pray for schools to get 'back to basics' and stop 'teaching homosexual propaganda to kindergartners.' Even the official prayer from US Senate Chaplain Barry Black, to be read at local gatherings, seems to celebrate the war effort: 'Lord, bless our military as it advances freedom's cause around the world.' "

More Money Needed

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "The White House yesterday asked Congress for an additional $25 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the fiscal year that begins in October, reversing course on its plan to wait until after the election to seek more money.

"White House budget director Joshua B. Bolten and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz made an unscheduled trip to Capitol Hill yesterday afternoon to lay out the request in a meeting with House and Senate Republican leaders."

Michael Moore Watch

Jim Rutenberg and Laura M. Holson write in the New York Times: "Michael Moore took to television on Wednesday to denounce the Walt Disney Company's refusal to allow its Miramax division to distribute his new documentary criticizing President Bush, stoking a controversy that Hollywood executives expect to lure new distribution partners to the project and, eventually, audiences."

Moore posted a message on his Web site: "Some people may be afraid of this movie because of what it will show. But there's nothing they can do about it now because it's done, it's awesome, and if I have anything to say about it, you'll see it this summer -- because, after all, it is a free country."

Inside the Roadshow

In today's Washington Post Style section, Ann Gerhart vividly recounts Bush's two-day campaign swing through the Midwest -- some of it on a bus that she says cost the campaign $45,000 a week to lease.

"This is multimillion-dollar Americana extravaganza, the image-making machinery of the White House working at its precision peak, nothing left to chance, building to the great Wow moment. This, the president's first overnight campaign trip of the 2004 race, is October political theater in May, a massive motorcade making seven stops in two days in up-for-grabs Michigan and Ohio. This trip is a carefully calculated expenditure of precious presidential time dressed up with piles of pancakes and miles of bunting."

Cinco de Mayo

The Associated Press reports: "After skipping the celebration a year ago amid Mexico's opposition to the war in Iraq, President Bush once again took special note of Cinco de Mayo, one of Mexico's most important national holidays."

Here are Bush's remarks.

On Today's Calendar: Cuba

AFP reports: "US President George W. Bush was expected Thursday to announce new measures to promote democracy in Cuba and hasten the demise of the island's communist leader, Fidel Castro, officials said.

"The steps will include enhanced efforts to stymie Havana's jamming of US-funded radio and television broadcasts into Cuba and better enforcement of limits on the amount of money Cuban-Americans can send to relatives on the island in remittances, the officials said."

Gary Marx writes in the Chicago Tribune: "The recommendations, contained in a 500-page report that President Bush is expected to release Thursday, also calls for creating a top-level post to oversee Cuba's expected transition to democracy. . . . "

On Today's Calendar: Jordan

Barry Schweid writes for the Associated Press: "Arab governments are watching closely for expressions of support from President Bush at a White House meeting Thursday with King Abdullah II of Jordan."

Ask Me Stuff

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 11 a.m. EST, answering your questions about the White House, taking your comments and links, and pointing you to coverage around the Web. You can send your comments now.

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