About That Apology

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, May 7, 2004; 11:10 AM

Today: A special parsing edition of White House Briefing. At issue:

• Did President Bush really, fully apologize for the abuse of Iraqi prisoners?

• Did he really fervently back Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld?

If you've been watching the TV news and reading the newspapers, you would probably answer "Yes" to both.

But let's go to the videotape (or the transcript) -- and observe very carefully.

First, the thing being called an apology. Here, Bush is telling reporters about his talk with King Abdullah of Jordan:

"I told him I was sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners, and the humiliation suffered by their families. I told him I was equally sorry that people who have been seeing those pictures didn't understand the true nature and heart of America."

Typically, when you apologize, you apologize to the people who have been harmed. But instead, Bush here is not apologizing directly to the Iraqis, he is reporting that he apologized to a third party.

Does that meet the schoolyard test? If your little boy came home and said that after he kicked Tommy he apologized to Jimmy, would you be satisfied?

As Susan Milligan writes in the Boston Globe: "Bush stopped short of taking responsibility for the episodes of abuse, but the president's comments were the closest he has come to a full apology since the photos were first aired April 28."

As Talking Points Memo blogger Joshua Micah Marshall writes: "The president did what he was willing to do after the politicals told him the first try wasn't enough. Everyone's drawn their conclusions, and so forth. But what precisely was the idea in apologizing to Abdullah and then going out and announcing that he'd apologized to Abdullah?"

And then, it is worth noting that Bush said he is equally sorry that people have misinterpreted what happened. This reminds me a bit of my least-favorite apology construction: I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings.

As for Rumsfeld, this is what the president said:

"Secretary Rumsfeld is a really good Secretary of Defense. Secretary Rumsfeld has served our nation well. Secretary Rumsfeld has been the Secretary during two wars. And he is -- he's an important part of my Cabinet, and he'll stay in my Cabinet."

That last part is about as definitive as anyone could ask for. But "really good" is not exactly effusive by White House standards. And doesn't the middle part sounds a bit like a eulogy?

A Kind and Gentle Bush

But before we go on, a genuine Internet phenomenon:

Technorati tells me there are 271 blogs -- and counting -- linking to this heartwarming story by Kristina Goetz in the Cincinnati Enquirer about President Bush in Ohio on Tuesday hugging a girl who lost her mother in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.

The photo, in particular, is touching.

Apology Watch

About that apology again.

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "A wide variety of officials in the administration had advised Bush to apologize on Wednesday when he gave interviews to two Arab television channels and were puzzled when he did not, senior U.S. officials said. An apology had been recommended in the talking points Bush received from the State Department and elsewhere, the officials said. Senior administration aides then made a push overnight for him to say he was sorry during his news conference with Abdullah, the officials said. . . .

"Bush continued his damage-control efforts yesterday by giving an interview to the Egyptian al-Ahram newspaper for more than 30 minutes, and White House officials said they planned to release a videotape of the exchange to Egyptian television and the European Broadcast Union.

"Journalists in the interview said Bush teared up as he recounted a meeting he held in November with female Iraqi leaders."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "The president, who had deplored the abuse but stopped short of an apology in Arab television interviews on Wednesday, appeared to direct his words to the king as the leader of an Arab nation."

Here's CNN's Paula Zahn talking to White House correspondent John King last night:

"Zahn: So, the president didn't use the word sorry yesterday when a lot of people were expecting to hear it. Today, he did. Why?

"King: Because of the reactions to the fact that he did not use it yesterday. Here in the United States and especially across the Arab world, Mr. Bush used that word sorry, Paula, after emerging from a private meeting in the Oval Office with King Abdullah of Jordan.

"The king and, we're told, other members of the Jordanian delegation told the president and other U.S. officials that, if they wanted to begin, just begin, to calm the outrage in the Arab world, Mr. Bush needed to directly apologize. Now, the president, after he did that, also discussed the ramifications of this prison abuse scandal. You just talked to the deputy secretary of state. He said the United States was in a bit of a hole. . . .

"Also important from the White House perspective is that Mr. Bush not only said the word sorry, but that he got to appear in public with a respected Arab leader like King Abdullah of Jordan, Mr. Bush hoping this picture at least begins to tempers the outrage across the Arab world."

Ken Fireman writes in Newsday: "One administration official said the fact Bush did not apologize Wednesday but did so yesterday was less the result of calculation than happenstance. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the White House had expected Bush to be asked for an apology in the Wednesday interviews and was surprised when he wasn't. 'If he had, I think he would have apologized,' the official said.

Fox News's Jim Angle reports: "Some critics had clamored for an outright apology. The president apparently expressed one, to King Abdullah. . . . The president said he was equally sorry that people who see the pictures will get the wrong impression of those who are serving in Iraq with such dignity."

Rumsfeld Watch

Bradley Graham and David Von Drehle write in The Washington Post: "Inside the administration, Rumsfeld's crisis inflamed the dueling camps of his supporters and his critics -- a rift that has become deeper and more public as the U.S. situation in Iraq has deteriorated. . . .

"A White House official said that it is the view of a number of people close to Bush that getting rid of Rumsfeld would be 'a self-inflicted political and policy wound disproportionate to the secretary's responsibility for this human failure on the part of a small number of soldiers.'"

"Yet some presidential advisers argued that Rumsfeld's departure would allow Bush to distance himself from the scandal, and perhaps be the clean break that would allow the administration -- and Bush's reelection campaign -- to focus on other issues."

Bumiller in the New York Times writes: "At the White House, where Mr. Rumsfeld has exasperated senior staff members for what they perceive as his disdain for them, advisers said that Mr. Bush's dressing-down of Mr. Rumsfeld on Wednesday was not merely public relations. The president was uniformly described as furious at his defense secretary, even as his motive for authorizing his staff to leak the scolding to reporters was intensely debated."

More to come today, of course, with Rumsfeld on the Hill.

Trying to Nail Down a Date

The press corps is really eager to find out just when Bush first found out about the prison abuse.

The White House won't pin it down.

As The Post's Allen writes: "Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday on CBS's 'Early Show' that beginning in mid-January, everyone 'up the chain of command . . . was kept apprised orally of the ongoing investigation.'

"Asked if Bush 'was well aware of the situation,' Pace replied: 'Yes.'"

But press secretary Scott McClellan isn't exactly helping to clear things up.

From yesterday's press briefing:

"Q The L.A. Times lead story today mentions the date January 13th, and then it says, about that time in January -- 'About that time in January, Secretary Rumsfeld mentioned the prisoner abuse investigation to the President at a regularly scheduled White House meeting.' I wondered if having that data point helps you narrow down when this might have been?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think having those data points show when this information rose up to higher levels within the military. And certainly, as I said, Secretary Rumsfeld was the one who informed the President. So it would have been some time after Secretary Rumsfeld became aware of it. But the exact dates -- I cannot pinpoint that exact date of when the President was told.

"Q Scott --

"Q Excuse me.

"Q Sorry.

"Q This says in January --

"MR. McCLELLAN: Right.

"Q -- the Secretary mentioned it to the President. Now --

"MR. McCLELLAN: And I don't know where that came from. I saw that Pentagon officials said they weren't -- they weren't aware, either.

"Q Now you said, just a few months ago, that at that time, the President asked questions. That's typically memorialized. I wonder if people --

"MR. McCLELLAN: No. I wouldn't necessarily say that that's the case. He meets with Secretary Rumsfeld on a regular basis and meets with him once or twice a week, at least, here at the White House in the Oval Office. So he has regular meetings with Secretary Rumsfeld. They talk about a number of important issues when it comes to our security concerns and what we're working to do in Iraq.

"Q Okay, so if I may just ask a last question. Have people who were associated with that meeting, responsible for that meeting, looked in notes, email, phone calls to see if there was any follow-up done on these questions the President asked?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the Pentagon and the military continue to brief about the follow up that was going on and the investigations that were proceeding. That was all very well-known publicly.

"Q The White House -- I'm sure the White House, it's in your interest to figure out what this date is --

"MR. McCLELLAN: It's in our interest to make sure that something like this doesn't happen again, Mike. That's where our focus is.

"Q So you can't -- you're not answering -- you won't say, do people -- made any effort to --

"MR. McCLELLAN: No, our focus is on making sure that something like this does not happen again and to make sure that people are being held accountable.

"Q Scott, just to clarify that. You said, no -- the answer is 'no' to whether or not people are looking into it; people are not looking into it?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Looking into?

"Q Into whether or not there were notes taken, anybody took any --

"MR. McCLELLAN: What we're doing is focusing on the actions that are being taken now, so, no."

That's right: No.

Big Trouble

The Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal see big problems ahead for Bush.

Janet Hook writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The cascade of troubling developments in Iraq has posed an extraordinary test of President Bush's leadership, forcing him to do several things that do not come easily to him. . . .

"Bush's leadership style -- both in domestic and foreign policy -- has produced a remarkably disciplined and focused White House for most of his tenure in office.

"But now, some critics argue that his administration's tightly held process of setting and sticking by policy -- described by administration insiders in several recent books -- has contributed to some of the problems it faces after the end of major combat in Iraq. Critics say administration planners gave short shrift to signs that stabilizing Iraq would require more time, money and manpower than they expected."

Carla Anne Robbins, Jackie Calmes and Greg Jaffe write in the Wall Street Journal: "As the gruesome abuse of Iraqi prisoners damages America's standing abroad and threatens domestic support for the U.S. occupation of Iraq, President Bush faces pressure to make changes on three fronts: personnel, diplomacy and military strategy."

Another tidbit from that story: "White House aides are livid over the Pentagon's handling of the prison abuses. Chief political adviser Karl Rove privately complained that Mr. Bush was 'blindsided,' aides said."

Robin Wright of The Washington Post also took note of Rove's concerns: "The White House is so gloomy about the repercussions that senior adviser Karl Rove suggested this week that the consequences of the graphic photographs documenting the U.S. abuse of Iraqi detainees are so enormous that it will take decades for the United States to recover, according to a Bush adviser."

Live Online

I'm Live Online today at 11 a.m. EDT, answering your questions about the White House, taking your comments and links, and pointing you to coverage around the Web. Please send your comments now.

Immediately following me, at noon: Ron Suskind, author of "The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House and the Education of Paul O'Neill."

How's that for a White House lineup?

Praying With Oliver North

David D. Kirkpatrick writes in the New York Times: "An annual address by President Bush marking the National Day of Prayer was broadcast Thursday night over several Christian television and radio networks as part of an evangelical concert, transmitting his message to a pivotal political constituency around the country.

"The president's participation in the broadcast drew criticism from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a liberal group, which suggested that the nonprofit evangelical organization that sponsors the concert and related events was improperly advertising for Mr. Bush's re-election. . . .

"President Bush has often proclaimed that the United States is doing God's work by spreading freedom in Afghanistan and Iraq. But on Thursday he appeared to adopt a more humble tone."

From Bush's remarks: "Americans do not presume to equate God's purposes with any purpose of our own. . . . God is not on the side of any nation, yet we know He is on the side of justice. And it is the deepest strength of America that from the hour of our founding, we have chosen justice as our goal."

And yes, Oliver L. North was in the (White) House! Not in the basement, but right there in the East Room. He was the honorary chairman of this year's prayer day.

The National Day of Prayer Web site, by the way, has suggestions about what to pray for.

Among other things: "Pray for journalists to be fair and accurate and for entertainers to conduct themselves in a responsible manner. We can also pray for the Christian individuals in the news and entertainment industries, asking the Lord to grant them strength and perseverance as they endeavor to let their lights shine in what is often an environment hostile to those who voice their belief in Christ."

Middle East Watch

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush said yesterday that he will open talks with Palestinian officials, with a written commitment to a 'just peace,' as part of a diplomatic offensive that White House officials said will include a meeting between national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia planned for next week in Europe. . . .

"The decision to reopen high-level contacts with Palestinian officials -- after months of shunning them -- followed mounting pressure from Arabs after Bush last month offered written assurances to Israel on key land and refugee issues in a final peace deal."

Steven R. Weisman writes in the New York Times: "After a White House meeting at which Mr. Bush and King Abdullah both sought to defuse tensions that had caused a postponement of their meeting, the two leaders praised each other as longtime friends who shared the goal of democracy in the Middle East.

"Administration officials said they felt that any tensions between the two were kept beneath the surface."

Cuba Watch

Peter Slevin writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration said yesterday that it would tighten the 40-year-old U.S. financial squeeze on Cuba and work to prevent President Fidel Castro from passing power to Communist Party successors.

"In a series of moves quickly denounced by Democrats as an election-year play for votes in Florida, the White House said it would sharply limit visits to the island by Cuban Americans and cut the amount they could spend there."


Caryle Murphy writes in The Washington Post: "George W. Bush recently joined a special group of U.S. presidents -- those whose names will forever be part of Washington's monumental landscape. To belong to this club, a good sense of timing is required."

Today's Calendar

The Associated Press writes: "President Bush, arguing that his prescription of tax relief is healing the economy and creating jobs, is taking that campaign message to voters in two states he lost by narrow margins four years ago.

"Bush was to resume a re-election campaign bus tour of the Midwest on Friday... The one-day bus tour of the three Mississippi River towns -- Dubuque, Iowa, and Prairie du Chien and LaCrosse in Wisconsin -- offers the Republican incumbent valuable face time with voters in states where recent polls show him in a dead heat with Democratic rival John Kerry."

Poll Watch

Will Lester of the Associated Press writes: "Public opinion of President Bush's handling of hot-button issues such as the economy and the war on terrorism is near the low point of his presidency, but Democratic rival John Kerry has been unable to capitalize on the Republican's slide, an Associated Press poll found."

The Lynch Quandary

Anne Schroeder, in The Washington Post's Names & Faces column, writes that "Jessica Lynch faced quite the quandary last weekend . . . when she was forced to choose between her boyfriend, Ruben Contreras, and President Bush.

"After an impromptu meet-and-greet with Dubya and Mrs. Bush backstage after the White House Correspondents' Dinner, Lynch was invited by press secretary Scott McClellan to see the prez again at the White House on Sunday morning. Alas, the adorable 21-year-old had other plans: She was booked on a predawn flight to make it home in time to celebrate Contreras's 25th birthday."

Skipping Their Daughters' Graduations

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush and first lady Laura Bush will skip their twin daughters' college graduations later this month to avoid creating a distraction at the respective schools, the White House said Thursday. . . .

"Jenna Bush is slated to graduate May 22 from the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor's degree in English. Barbara Bush graduates May 24 with a bachelor's in humanities from Yale University."

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