Commencement, Christian-Style

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtontpost.com
Friday, April 22, 2005; 12:43 PM

The White House announced yesterday that President Bush will give two commencement addresses next month, one at the U.S. Naval Academy and one at Calvin College in Western Michigan.

The Naval Academy is not a surprise. Bush has been maintaining the tradition of rotating between the military service academies, and this year it's Annapolis's turn.

But Calvin College? It's a small Christian college with 900 graduating seniors in Grand Rapids. Why's he going there?

Well, although Calvin is little known amongst the general public, it is nevertheless a highly regarded center of evangelical intellectual thought.

And on campus, they're all excited about the honor. In a press release, Calvin College President Gaylen Byker declared: "We want our students to leave this place challenged and motivated to renew God's world in whatever they do. For our graduates to hear from President Bush as they prepare to leave Calvin and make a difference in the world is an extraordinary opportunity for them.' "

So just how did the Calvin selection come about?

The official story, out of Calvin, is that it's all thanks to the persistence of an alumnus, U.S. Rep. Vernon Ehlers, along with college booster, Republican donor and former ambassador Peter Secchia.

But the Grand Rapids Press says it happened this way: "About a month ago, Karl Rove pulled aside a West Michigan congressman with an idea.

" 'Would Calvin College be interested in having the president as a speaker?' the Bush adviser asked U.S. Rep. Vern Ehlers, R-Grand Rapids.

"The result: The president will speak May 21 at the college's 85th commencement ceremony. It is a major coup for the Christian Reformed-based liberal arts school."

Kathleen Gray writes in the Detroit Free Press: "Bush will encounter a college officials describe as 'unapologetically Christian.' Students must take religion courses, including biblical liturgy and theology and developing a Christian mind. Spiritual activity coordinators live in each dorm. There is no alcohol allowed on campus."

Alan Wolfe wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 2000 that Calvin College is "part of a determined effort by evangelical-Christian institutions to create a life of the mind."

He also notes that the college asks "its faculty members to belong to the Christian Reformed Church; they are all also expected to sign three confessional creeds of the church: the Heidelberg Confession, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dordt."

In 1999, James C. Turner wrote in Commonweal magazine that Calvin is one of the "seedbeds of an intellectual renaissance within American evangelicalism."

Flashback to 2000

Bush has been to Calvin College before. It was the site of one of the Republican presidential candidate debates in 2000.

Congressman Ehlers told the Grand Rapids Press that the president has "fond memories" of his appearance there.

Candidate Bush shared the stage with Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, Gary L. Bauer, Steve Forbes and Alan Keyes.

There were quite a few memorable exchanges between Bush and McCain, his only serious opposition at the time.

For example, McCain was relentless in his criticism that too much of Bush's proposed tax cut proposal would benefit the wealthiest of Americans while ignoring other needs.

"There's a fundamental difference here," McCain said. "I believe we must save Social Security, we must pay down the debt, we have to make investment in Medicare. For us to put all of the tax cuts -- all of the surplus into tax cuts, I think, is not a conservative effort. I think it's a mistake. I think we should put that money into allowing Americans to be sure that their Social Security system will be there when they retire."

Bush shot back: "I have a plan that takes $2 trillion over the next 10 years and dedicates it to Social Security. My plan has been called risky by voices out of Washington. In my judgment, what's risky is to leave a lot of unspent money in Washington, because guess what's going to happen: It's going to be spent on bigger federal governments."

New Joint Chiefs

As expected, Bush today appointed Marine Gen. Peter Pace to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Navy Adm. Edmund P. Giambastiani Jr. as the new vice chairman.

New York Post reporter Deborah Orin writes in her pool report: "Everyone smiled, including the President, at his inability to pronounce Giambastiani's name -- he finally settled for saying the admiral will 'be known as Admiral G.' It became a kind of running gag."

Social Security Watch

In one of the least-covered presidential speeches of recent history, Bush dropped by the Grand Hyatt hotel yesterday to talk to the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America.

Here's the text of his speech.

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush served as pitchman in chief Thursday as he touted his Social Security plan to a roomful of salesmen."

Steve Holland writes for Reuters: "Despite a sag in the stock market this year, President Bush said on Thursday that private retirement accounts as part of Social Security would draw a higher rate of return than the current system."

Bush once again insisted that the current Social Security system delivers a paltry 1.8 percent "real rate of return" on payroll taxes. I'm trying to figure out where he came up with that number, since Social Security benefits can vary so wildly simply based on how long someone lives, not to mention countless other factors.

And Bush again talked about how the Social Security trust fund doesn't really exist. This time, he played it for laughs:

"First, as I travel the country, I find out some people think there's such thing as a Social Security trust. By that I mean we collect your money through the payroll tax, and we hold your money for you, and then when you retire, we give you your money back. No -- (laughter) -- that's not the way it works. That's what you call a -- it was set up as a pay-as-you-go system, in other words, you pay and we go ahead and spend. (Laughter.) You pay through payroll taxes, and we spend your payroll taxes on making sure we cover the benefits of the retirees. And with the money leftover, like there's money leftover now, we spend it on other government programs.

"So instead of having a trust, we have a pay-as-you-go system, and that which exists in the system is a filing cabinet, or a series of filing cabinets, full of IOUs. In other words, we've got paper."

The irony of the president of the United States mocking the value of promises represented by pieces of paper -- in front of an audience full of insurance agents! -- was apparently lost on everyone, including the journalists in attendance.

The Man Behind the President

Jackie Calmes writes in the Wall Street Journal, about Charles P. 'Chuck' Blahous III, "the self-described geek behind President Bush's foundering plan to revamp Social Security."

Calmes writes that Blahous's influence on the president has been enormous.

"He . . . helped persuade the president to reject the arguments of some conservatives who say that creating private accounts alone can fix Social Security, without more painful changes in benefits and taxes. That has drawn him the wrath of longtime White House allies who now worry that Mr. Bush might agree to benefit and tax changes to keep Social Security solvent, and drop private accounts. . . .

"While higher-ranking advisers spend more time with the president, they use Mr. Blahous's talking points. 'He's our ongoing rabbi,' says chief White House strategist Karl Rove. The usually circumspect Mr. Blahous once told a friend that during briefings, Mr. Bush would sometimes smile and say, 'I'm getting it, aren't I?' "

Powell Comes Back to Bite Cheney

Douglas Jehl writes in the New York Times: "President Bush on Thursday issued a strong new defense of John R. Bolton, his nominee as ambassador to the United Nations. But associates of Colin L. Powell, the former secretary of state, said he had expressed reservations about Mr. Bolton in conversations with at least two wavering Republican senators. . . .

"Mr. Powell was secretary of state under Mr. Bush for nearly four years, and told associates in 2004 that he was looking forward to returning to private life. But he was described by some associates as hurt that Mr. Bush, in selecting Ms. Rice as the new secretary, did not ask Mr. Powell if he wanted to stay.

"Mr. Powell remains highly regarded by many moderate Republicans, but as secretary of state, his relationship with Vice President Dick Cheney was notably strained, according to many accounts, including a detailed narrative in 'Plan of Attack,' the latest book by Bob Woodward of The Washington Post.

"Mr. Cheney is now regarded as Mr. Bolton's chief patron in the administration, and some officials say he has strongly resisted the idea that the White House might withdraw the nomination in the face of Democratic complaints and Republican wavering."

The Power of the White House

Andrew Balls in the Financial Times mulls the Bush administration's sudden shift of position on China's currency last week -- reversing a longstanding Treasury Department approach -- and concludes: "The sharp change was the clearest sign yet that economic policy in President George W. Bush's second term is going to be led firmly from the White House. A tight team of close associates of the president is calling the shots, say current and former administration officials.

"This group consists of Dick Cheney, vice-president, Andrew Card, the president's chief of staff, Joshua Bolten, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Karl Rove, the president's political adviser who has assumed a broader co-ordinating role, including overseeing economic policy. . . .

"The White House inner circle is widely acknowledged to consist of very smart people. But they are not economists and do not have financial market backgrounds. Some current and former administration officials worry that when the decisions are taken, there is often no economist in the room."

Plame Watch

Investigative reporter Murray Waas writes in his blog: "Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez has sent a letter to the House Intelligence Committee denying a request by nine committee Democrats seeking information about the Valerie Plame case. . . .

"In the letter, Gonzalez asserted that the Justice Department would not provide any information to members of Congress as long as a criminal investigation of the Plame matter was still ongoing."

Gonzales of course wouldn't know anything about it himself, at least not officially. He recused himself from the investigation shortly after being sworn in, since he had been involved in the case as White House legal counsel and testified before the grand jury himself.

Advice to the Press Corps

Garrett M. Graff writes in his FishbowlDC blog about CNN President Jon Klein's keynote address to the National Association of Broadcasters' convention in Las Vegas on Tuesday.

Among other things, Klein berated the White House Correspondents Association for staying out of the business of credentialing members of the White House press corps, even after the Jeff Gannon affair.

"When a fake reporter infiltrates the White House press corps, who suffers most? The White House? No, the press corps. Because it's another reason for the public not to believe what they see and hear. It turns 'The Gaggle' into a gag. And a bad one at that.

"I have a modest proposal for The White House Correspondents Association, whose annual black-tie gala I eagerly await next week: cancel the gala, and instead spend that time and energy creating standards -- and enforcing them -- for those who would call themselves White House correspondents."

Briefing Room Renovation

Correspondents association president Ron Hutcheson sent out a letter to the membership yesterday, updating them on administration plans to remodel the White House press area.

"First, deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin has offered his assurances that we will continue to have the same space we use today. The idea is to improve the existing space, not shrink it or move us out. He also made it clear in a meeting on Tuesday that the press corps will have a lot of influence in the timing and the scope of the work."

The plan now is for a major upgrade starting in July -- at which point the press would relocate to the White House conference center at 726 Jackson Place.

The Wonkette blog has the full text of the letter.

Denver Three Update

P. Solomon Banda writes for the Associated Press: "A lawyer for three activists removed from one of President Bush's town hall events said Thursday that the Secret Service has opened a criminal probe into whether the man who escorted them from the hall was impersonating an agent.

"The man was dressed in a dark suit and wore an earpiece when he escorted the three from the March 21 event. The Secret Service has said it has determined the man was not one of its agents, but a staff member with the host committee."

Smokies Visit Canceled, But Trip Goes On

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush canceled an Earth Day visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Friday because of bad weather.

"White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the threat of hail and thunder storms would keep the president from visiting the park, but Air Force One still will make a brief stop at the airport in Townsend, Tenn., where Bush will make remarks on Earth Day.

"Bush then plans to fly on to Texas, where he will spend the weekend at his ranch and then host Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Monday."

The White House had promised a photo op of Bush doing some restoration work at the park.

" 'I'm looking forward to getting my hands dirty,' Bush, who spends hours during his down time clearing brush on his Texas ranch, told young people awarded for their environmental work at the White House on Thursday. "Looking forward to getting outside of Washington." I need to ask CBS News's Mark Knoller, who keeps track of such things: How many days has Bush spent entirely in Washington lately? Because it's not a lot.

Negroponte in the Oval

Katherine Shrader writes for the Associated Press: "Just 45 minutes after winning easy Senate approval, the incoming national intelligence director, John Negroponte, walked into the Oval Office to be sworn in."

The unusually prompt White House ceremony was captured by White House photographers.

Energy Bill Watch

Justin Blum writes in The Washington Post that the energy bill passed by the House yesterday "focuses on conventional sources of energy and provides relatively little for conservation and alternative forms of energy."

Doesn't sound like what Bush has been talking about lately, does it?

"The House provided far more tax breaks to the oil and natural gas industry and less to alternative energy and efficiency than President Bush had proposed. Even so, the president believes the overall bill is 'largely consistent' with what he is seeking, spokesman Scott McClellan said."

Poll Watch

Will Lester writes for the Associated Press: "The president gets low marks from the public for his handling of energy problems, with 62 percent saying they disapprove. When he first took office, people were more inclined to say he would handle energy problems effectively." That's from a new AP/Ipsos poll.

Gallup reports: "Half of all Americans, up from 38 percent four years ago, now say Bush is doing a poor job of protecting the nation's environment, but nearly 4 in 10 (39 percent) still say he is doing a good job."

Home Is Where the Blind Trust Is

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune with more about how Bush's official home address -- at least according to his tax return -- is a post office box in Chicago.

"This is the downtown post office box of Northern Trust Corp., the Chicago-based, multinational holding company that manages hundreds of billions of dollars invested by clients -- including the president," Silva writes.

"Sticklers for detail might notice that instructions for Internal Revenue Service Form 1040 explain how taxpayers should list their addresses.

" 'If you have a P.O. Box, see Page 16,' the 1040 form advises. Page 16 is pretty clear: 'Enter your box number only if your post office does not deliver mail to your home.'

"Yet the IRS maintains the president's papers are in order."

Bush's legal residence, of course, is in Texas, which has no state income tax.

Spring Garden Tour

The annual White House Spring Garden Tour is this weekend.

If you can't make it, check out this hot new White House video: Barney and Miss Beazley's Spring Garden Tour.

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