Facing the Facts

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washigntonpost.com
Monday, June 6, 2005; 12:39 PM

To hear President Bush tell it, his second term is going just great.

There's progress in Iraq, the economy is booming, people are coming around on Social Security, and anything that's gone wrong is an isolated incident being blown out of proportion by the media.

But the facts are starting to cause him more difficulty.

Bush's View of Iraq

Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post: "President Bush's portrayal of a wilting insurgency in Iraq at a time of escalating violence and insecurity throughout the country is reviving the debate over the administration's Iraq strategy and the accuracy of its upbeat claims.

"While Bush and Vice President Cheney offer optimistic assessments of the situation, a fresh wave of car bombings and other attacks killed 80 U.S. soldiers and more than 700 Iraqis last month alone and prompted Iraqi leaders to appeal to the administration for greater help. Privately, some administration officials have concluded the violence will not subside through this year.

"The disconnect between Rose Garden optimism and Baghdad pessimism, according to government officials and independent analysts, stems not only from Bush's focus on tentative signs of long-term progress but also from the shrinking range of policy options available to him if he is wrong. Having set out on a course of trying to stand up a new constitutional, elected government with the security firepower to defend itself, Bush finds himself locked into a strategy that, even if it proves successful, foreshadows many more deadly months to come first, analysts said."

Democrats and even some Republicans are increasingly casting scorn on the president's public assessments, VandeHei and Baker write.

Often on the vanguard, Comedy Central's Jon Stewart addressed the issue on a Friday segment titled "The Sunshine Boys."

After playing clips of Bush and Cheney praising all the progress in Iraq, Stewart concluded: "OK, here's the truth: It's not that they live in a world that doesn't really exist. It's that they really don't actually know what the word 'progress' means. They think it's something bad."

Another Perception Gap

Reuters reports: "President Bush said on Saturday that the U.S. economic expansion was solid, with thriving small-business and factory sectors, despite a report showing weak payroll growth. . . .

"Bush did not mention Friday's report from the Labor Department showing U.S. employers added only 78,000 workers to their payrolls in May, the weakest job growth in nearly two years."

And as Richard Keil wrote for Bloomberg last week, public-opinion surveys show widespread dissatisfaction with the economy and pessimism about the future.

"The gap between the perceptions of Bush and many economists on one side, and the public on the other, has high stakes for the president. Bush is holding firm to his economic policies of tax cuts, free trade and putting more of the burden for retirement security and health on individuals; meanwhile, even some of his fellow Republicans in Congress are starting to heed voter anxiety over the economy.

Here's the text of Bush's radio address on Saturday. "Good morning," it starts. "America's economy is on the right track."

Friday Night Document Dump

Josh White and Dan Eggen write in Saturday's Washington Post: "The U.S. military released new details yesterday about five confirmed cases of U.S. personnel mishandling the Koran at the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, acknowledging that soldiers and interrogators kicked the Muslim holy book, got copies wet, stood on a Koran during an interrogation and inadvertently sprayed urine on another copy."

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press that "the White House downplayed the issue," despite having a strong reaction to an earlier Newsweek story.

" 'It is unfortunate that some have chosen to take out of context a few isolated incidents by a few individuals,' presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said in a statement."

"Joe Lockhart, former press secretary for President Clinton, said that when a news organization -- such as Newsweek -- makes a factual mistake, White House officials are tempted to try to discredit the entire story.

" 'I think on this issue, they fell into a trap,' Lockhart said. 'They saw a way to push back on a damaging story by making it look like it was just out-of-control journalists, and now they've had to admit that it has happened.'

"McClellan's statements after the Newsweek report left an impression that no desecration at all had occurred at Guantanamo, Lockhart said.

" 'While the news organization got an example wrong, they got the practice right," he said. "I think certainly the public is within their right, in this case, to believe they were misled."

Speaking of Downplaying

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "The White House on Friday played down a report in which U.N. weapons inspectors documented additional materials missing from weapons sites in Iraq.

"White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the Bush administration had taken steps to ensure sites were secured, and he suggested it was doubtful the looted material was being used to boost other countries' weapons programs.

"In a report to the U.N. Security Council, acting chief weapons inspector Demetrius Perricos said that satellite imagery experts had determined that material that could be used to make biological or chemical weapons and banned long-range missiles had been removed from 109 sites, up from 90 reported in March."

OAS Watch

After a long weekend at his Crawford ranch, President Bush speaks at a meeting of the Organization of American States in Fort Lauderdale today.

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice set the stage yesterday.

"Rice urged the OAS to 'strengthen democracy where it is weak' and to 'support democracy where it is threatened.' But a U.S. proposal to empower the OAS to monitor democratic trends, as a way to head off problems, got a lukewarm reception, with some countries believing it would invite U.S. meddling.

"Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has emerged as a nettlesome foe of the Bush administration, denounced the idea Sunday on his weekly radio program, accusing the United States of trying to impose a 'global dictatorship' and forcing its will on the region."

Ron Hutcheson writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers with another perspective: "The President's critics say Bush has overlooked problems in his own backyard while focusing on Iraq and the war against terrorism."

Bush and Women

Julie Mason writes in the Houston Chronicle: "In his last two news conferences, Bush fielded more than 30 questions, but called on just two female reporters, although many were present with their hands up. . . .

"There is no shortage of female correspondents at the White House, including ones from larger news organizations. It is also true, however, that most of the top correspondents assigned to cover the past two presidential news conferences were men.

"Still, since coming to the White House, Bush has not had the comfortable, bantering relationship with women in the news corps that he enjoys with some men. He does not bestow nicknames on female correspondents or engage in witty repartee as he does with their male counterparts."

Resolute or Stubborn?

In some ways, that's the seminal question about the Bush presidency. I've been dogging it since soon after my column started. See, for instance, my Feb. 9, 2004 column , entitled "Resolute or Stubborn?"

In this week's U.S. News and World Report, Kenneth T. Walsh reports on the latest: "Now, even some Republicans are arguing (privately, of course) that Bush is stubborn and arrogant. 'His act is wearing thin,' says a top-drawer GOP adviser who is influential in Washington and on Capitol Hill. 'It's always "I'm right. You're wrong." ' Bush needs to respect other points of view, especially from those within his own party, says the adviser. 'I don't mind people having convictions, but there is another side to every argument.' "

Bush Nixes Torture for al-Libbi

Sadaqat Jan reports for the Associated Press: "Pakistan has handed over to the United States senior al-Qaida suspect Abu Farraj al-Libbi, who was wanted for two assassination attempts against President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, an official said Monday. . . .

"Some officials have described al-Libbi as al-Qaida's No. 3 leader, after Osama bin Laden and Egyptian surgeon Ayman al-Zawahri. However, he does not appear on the FBI list of the world's most-wanted terrorists, and his exact role in al-Qaida is murky."

In the unusually revealing interview with board members of the Radio-Television News Directors Association that I wrote about in Friday's column , Bush ruled out torturing al-Libbi, although he described it as "an interesting ethical dilemma."

The full quote: "I tell you an interesting ethical dilemma that the President has to deal with. And that is, if you're in my shoes, and you thought Abu Farraj al-Libbi had planned an attack on America, would you use any means necessary to get the information from him? And the decision I have made is 'No, we will not.' And let's just pray he doesn't have that information. And when I told the American people we're not torturing, we're not torturing. But try that on for an interesting ethical dilemma as the President of the United States."

About That Interview

Incidentally, I wrote on Friday that, after a lot of Googling, I had concluded that most of the news directors in attendance had not reported on their quite unique session with the president.

Barbara Cochran, the association's president, called later to say that several board members did in fact go on air with reports after the interview -- those reports just never, apparently, made it onto the Internet. A sobering reminder of how little local broadcast news is surfable.


Timothy J. Burger writes for Time magazine: "A new White House memo excludes CIA director Porter Goss from National Security Council meetings The biggest changes in Washington often come about with just a few strokes of the pen. And so a dry, one-page internal memo quietly issued by the White House is being viewed as a kind of eulogy for the once mighty Central Intelligence Agency. After nearly 60 years at the pinnacle of American intelligence -- and at the elbow of Presidents -- the CIA director is no longer automatically welcome at the President's National Security Council (NSC) meetings. John Negroponte, the new director of National Intelligence, has taken his chair."

Plane Watch

Apparently, protocols call for the president to be notified immediately of a possibly hijacked jetliner over the ocean -- although not of a small plane three miles out from the White House.

William Roberts writes for Bloomberg: "President George W. Bush was notified at his Crawford, Texas ranch that a U.S.-bound Virgin Atlantic flight had been diverted over the ocean after authorities received what turned out to be a false hijacking alert, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

"Bush was clearing brush when he was notified following procedures put into place after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, McClellan told reporters. 'We had officials, senior staff that was here with the president, including the deputy chief of staff and the president's military aide, that participated in various calls regarding the situation as well,' McClellan said.

"Bush wasn't immediately alerted May 11 when a small private plane strayed into restricted airspace over Washington, D.C., triggering an evacuation of the White House, Capitol and Supreme Court. Bush, who was bicycling at a Maryland wildlife research center outside Washington that day, was told by Secret Service agents about the intrusion only after he ended his ride."

Blair and Africa

Celia W. Dugger writes in the New York Times: "A powerful consensus is building for a doubling of aid to Africa among the world's heavyweight donors, except the United States, a divide that is likely to come into sharp relief this week when Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain arrives in Washington to meet with President Bush."

Ben Hall and Fiona Harvey write in the Financial Times: "When Tony Blair meets President George W. Bush in Washington tomorrow, he will again be under pressure to spend some of the political capital he accumulated over the Iraq war to secure backing for British initiatives.

"The prime minister needs US support to achieve progress on climate change and a programme of aid and debt relief for Africa, the twin priorities of Britain's presidency of the G8 group of the world's seven richest nations and Russia this year."

The Push for Global Democracy

Tyler Marshall writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush's ambitious vision of global democratic reform has begun to dominate the administration's foreign affairs agenda, in some cases pushing aside urgent international issues.

"So far, the president's plan has been driven mainly by high-level rhetoric, symbolic gestures and a handful of modestly funded development programs. But collectively, this mix has started to shift the focus in relations with key nations."

Hadley the Nice

Have we ever had a lower-profile national security adviser?

Sonni Efron writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush's new national security advisor has made a career out of being the perfect right-hand man to a series of powerful Washington conservatives.

"Now the self-effacing Stephen J. Hadley, often described as one of the nicest guys in Washington, is doing one of toughest jobs in the U.S. government. . . .

"[N]o one in Washington seems to have a nasty word to say about Hadley -- even off the record.

"Some even ask: Is Hadley too nice?"

After all, a big part of his job is to protect the president from misinformation and prevent undue influence from dogmatists.

And, as Effron writes, "administration critics worry that Hadley could be too deferential to his former bosses -- Rice, now secretary of State, and Cheney -- to keep them from dominating all decision-making."

The Bush Tax Cuts

David Cay Johnston writes in the New York Times with some startling figures about how Bush administration tax cuts "stand to widen the gap between the hyper-rich and the rest of America.

"President Bush said during the third election debate last October that most of the tax cuts went to low- and middle-income Americans. In fact, most -- 53 percent -- will go to people with incomes in the top 10 percent over the first 15 years of the cuts, which began in 2001 and would have to be reauthorized in 2010. And more than 15 percent will go just to the top 0.1 percent, [or] 145,000 taxpayers."

First Lady's First Scuffle

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times about Laura Bush's first experience with controversy.

"[T]wo weeks ago, the first lady was on a good-will trip in the Middle East when she stepped into one of the Bush administration's trickiest problems -- pushing for democracy in the region without angering strategic allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, both of them far from democratic."

Amnesty Amnesia

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "After the human rights group issued a report late last month calling the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 'the gulag of our times,' top officials raced to condemn Amnesty. . . .

"Funny -- these officials had a different view of Amnesty when it was criticizing other countries."

The Cancelled Briefing

Julia Duin writes in the Washington Times: "A conservative Catholic magazine and think tank that advertised a 'White House briefing' in exchange for a hefty contribution was forced to cancel the event yesterday after the White House suddenly backed out of the deal.

"Crisis magazine and its affiliated think tank, the Morley Institute for Church and Culture, had advertised Monday's seventh annual 36-hole Lazarus Golf Tournament benefit at the Bull Run Country Club in Haymarket, Va., as including a White House briefing the next day. . . .

"After being questioned by The Washington Times yesterday afternoon about the briefing, White House officials quickly canceled the event.

" 'The inclusion of a White House briefing on a fundraising letter is wholly inappropriate,' spokesman Trent Duffy said later."

Disassembly Required

It's a Bushism that keeps on giving.

Responding to a question about Amnesty International's criticism of human rights violations in American detention facilities, Bush said at last week's press conference :

"It seemed like to me they based some of their decisions on the word of -- and the allegations -- by people who were held in detention, people who hate America, people that had been trained in some instances to disassemble -- that means not tell the truth."

Many outlets reported the gaffe.

But the Brad Blog was outraged that several news outlets "found it appropriate to clean up after Bush's Tuesday Rose Garden Press Conference for him."

They simply changed the word to what Bush meant to say.

In a story headlined "Vocabulator in chief," the Chicago Tribune's Mark Silva addressed the president's disassembling of the English language -- and his own decision to clean up Bush's quote the day before.

"Sometimes, President Bush approaches the English language like a new bicycle or toy wagon: Some assembly required. . . .

"To some of his critics, the ever-expanding catalog of 'Bushisms' is no laughing matter.

"Karen Murphy of Lansdowne, Pa., and many other readers took exception with this reporter's decision to spell dissemble correctly in an account of Bush's news conference this week.

" 'If it were more of a truly "honest" mistake, i.e., someone misspeaking when you know they really know the difference, I would have agreed with your choice,' Murphy wrote. 'But of course, that isn't the case with the master dissembler, who really knows how to disassemble working public policy or institutions, other countries, governments, etc.' "

Columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. took a dig: "The word Bush was looking for there was 'dissemble,' but never mind, we'll disassemble the president's remarks in a moment."

Village Voice media critic Sydney H. Schanberg posted an item titled "Thesaurus Rex: The President's War Against Words," in which he wrote that "in many ways and to many people, this malapropism was not amusing. That's because they know -- and they know Bush knows --- that he and his advisers told many untruths and wild exaggerations to get the American public to support his desire to invade Iraq."

White House Briefing reader Regan Carver noted that the word of the day on dictionary.com on the day of the press conference, was -- you guessed it -- dissemble.

And not surprisingly, Jon Stewart weighed in as well. He showed the now-famous clip, froze on Bush's face, and concluded: "Actually, Mr. President, 'dissemble' means to not tell the truth. 'Disassemble' is -- well, it's what we did to Iraq."

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