Funny Lines From the 'Straight Man'

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, May 23, 2005; 12:09 PM

Having dispatched his better half on a tension-filled public-relations tour of the Middle East, President Bush put on his tuxedo and went stag to the White House News Photographers' Association annual dinner Saturday night at the Ritz Carlton.

He was, however, equipped with a humorous speech that emulated the one delivered by the first lady three weeks ago at the White House correspondents dinner -- at least when it came to mocking himself, his parents and his staff.

Introducing himself as "Laura Bush's straight man," Bush narrated a slide show of photographs. I'm told the video will be on the C-SPAN.org Web site later today. Among the highlights:

A shot of White House political guru Karl Rove holding aloft a large sign that said "Free Kittens" -- which Bush said is the new strategy for selling Social Security.

A series of photos of the president taking a tumble from his mountain bike after, as he told it, exclaiming, "John McCain said what?"

A shot of a row of photographers lying on the floor shooting something unseen at ankle length, to which Bush remarked that everyone is getting too obsessed with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's boots.

The Associated Press reports: "Many of Bush's photos were of White House photographers assuming various odd positions to get just the right angle -- including one lying on the grass for what appeared to be an up close and personal view of dog Barney's rear."

Julie Mason of the Houston Chronicle filed the night's pool report and made the event sound like a breath of fresh air compared to the stuffy correspondents dinner.

For instance, Mason noted "the general intimacy and conviviality of the evening (friendly shouting, including at the pool)."

Mason also wrote: "A photo of former spokesman Ari Fleischer laughing at photographers brought from Bush an observation that Fleischer is now 'making up excuses in the private sector.'. . . .

"He praised the association for their float in the inaugural parade - a flatbed crammed with shooters - but asked why they couldn't spend a few bucks on bunting.

"The president's presentation closed with an animation of Vice President Cheney riding a Segway across America, to the tune of 'He's a Rebel.' " Presidents don't normally attend the photographers' association dinner. But Bush may have been making up for -- and possibly even recycling material from -- the Radio and Television Correspondents Association dinner in April, which he had to skip at the last minute to attend the pope's funeral.

As you may recall, Bush's narrated slide show at last year's radio and television dinner was considerably more controversial. It featured a series of photos showing the president in awkward positions -- on his knees, looking behind draperies and moving furniture in the Oval Office -- accompanied by such comments as "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere," "Nope, no weapons over there!" and "Maybe under here?" (See Paul Farhi's story in The Post last year.) Here's a Reuters photo of the impish president on Saturday night.

Free Kittens Watch

For the record, this is not the first time that notorious cut-up Karl Rove has been associated with free kittens.

Newsweek reported in November about the compulsory upbeat mood in Air Force One during the last weekend before the election.

"Karen Hughes was determined to show the president as cheerful, happy, joking, no matter what. Aides told reporters that the president was cracking jokes and wearing a funny shirt that said bowling for Bush. . . . Rove somewhere found a sign that said free kittens, and hung it in the conference room of Air Force One."

Memo Watch

Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post that when it comes to claims that Saddam Hussein possessed nuclear, chemical and biological weapons or programs, "it appears that even before the war many senior intelligence officials in the government had doubts about the case being trumpeted in public by the president and his senior advisers.

"The question of prewar intelligence has been thrust back into the public eye with the disclosure of a secret British memo showing that, eight months before the March 2003 start of the war, a senior British intelligence official reported to Prime Minister Tony Blair that U.S. intelligence was being shaped to support a policy of invading Iraq.

"Moreover, a close reading of the recent 600-page report by the president's commission on intelligence, and the previous report by the Senate panel, shows that as war approached, many U.S. intelligence analysts were internally questioning almost every major piece of prewar intelligence about Hussein's alleged weapons programs."

I wrote at length about the memo in last Tuesday's column, suggesting that in spite of the mainstream media's initial reticence to write about it, it raises a lot of questions that haven't been fully answered.

Via the Daily Kos blog, I see that the New York Times's new public editor, Byron Calame, weighed in on the topic even before his formal investiture.

Calame wrote Friday that "it appears that key editors simply were slow to recognize that the minutes of a high-powered meeting on a life-and-death issue -- their authenticity undisputed -- probably needed to be assessed in some fashion for readers. Even if the editors decided it was old news that Mr. Bush had decided in July 2002 to attack Iraq or that the minutes didn't provide solid evidence that the administration was manipulating intelligence, I think Times readers deserved to know that earlier than today's article."

Welcome to the Middle East, Mrs. Bush

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "First lady Laura Bush witnessed some of the passions of the Middle East on Sunday, as armed Israeli security forces held back protesters during a religiously and politically charged visit to two of the world's holiest sites.

"In one of the most tense situations she has experienced as first lady, Bush encountered Israelis protesting the U.S. imprisonment of a convicted Israeli spy, Jonathan Pollard, and several Muslims angrily denouncing her visit to the Dome of the Rock, a revered Muslim holy site."

At the dome, VandeHei writes that "several Muslim men stormed toward the first lady, one shouting, 'You are not welcome here!' Israeli police officers locked arms to hold back not only the angry men but also the Israeli press. An Israeli SWAT team was called in to help protect her, and Bush was whisked into a limo. 'As you can tell from our day here, this is a place of emotion, everywhere we went,' she said later.

Suzanne Malveaux reported on CNN yesterday that "it really was a frightening and chaotic scene with the First Lady. . . .

"I grabbed the sleeve of a Secret Service agent who pulled me into the mosque beside the First Lady.

"Inside, there was a group of women who were praying -- clearly agitated, irritated by our presence.

"She got a quick tour inside but much of the action took place after she left the mosque. That is when the crowd began to gather. It began to grow and surround the First Lady.

"Secret Service got very, very close to her, and then Israeli security linked arm-in-arm to try to establish a second barrier as she started to leave the mosque, a very tense -- a little boy, I saw, ran up to the First Lady, and Israeli security drew his gun on that little boy. The little boy went running away. They continued down to the motorcade and was whisked away."

Today, the first lady is insisting it was all no big deal.

Adam Entous writes for Reuters: "U.S. first lady Laura Bush on Monday brushed aside protests by Jews and Muslims during her visit to the Holy Land, saying the protests did not undercut the efforts of her tour to promote goodwill.

"'We all know this is a place of very high tensions and high emotions, and you can understand why,' she told reporters after touring the 12th-century Church of the Resurrection outside Jerusalem before flying out to Cairo.

"She denied being caught off guard by protesters who jostled and harangued her on Sunday at holy sites in Jerusalem's walled Old City."

This morning, she taped network interviews with CNN, ABC, NBC and CBS in front of the pyramids in Egypt.

On Saturday, Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker wrote in The Washington Post: "These days, the Bush administration increasingly is turning to one of its most popular envoys to the nation and to the outside world. From late-night comedienne to international goodwill ambassador, Laura Bush has emerged from the first-term bubble of the East Wing to carve out a more prominent role in her husband's second term, finding an independent voice that at times has even diverged somewhat from the official White House line."

The President and the Filibuster

Did President Bush really promise Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid that he'd stay out of the filibuster fight?

Apparently so.

Next question: Is he really living up to that promise, just because he hasn't personally said anything about it? Because Vice President Cheney and other top White House aides are reportedly heavily involved in Capitol Hill arm-twisting.

Edwin Chen and Warren Vieth write in the Los Angeles Times about this amazing scene:

"As a White House meeting was breaking up recently, a chipper President Bush sidled up to Vice President Dick Cheney and Vermont Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, who had just discovered a mutual interest in .50 caliber handguns."

Let me just stop right there. The last time I heard anything about those two talking to each other, it wasn't exactly fit for virgin ears.

OK. Back to Chen and Vieth:

"'Guess what we have in common,' Leahy said to Bush.

"'What -- you're both bald?' Bush quipped.

"Leahy, a liberal Democrat, saw that Bush was in good humor, and he sensed an opening. He pleaded with Bush to help resolve the bitterly partisan Senate impasse over his judicial nominations.

" 'We can settle this in an hour,' Leahy said, citing three other leading senators he thought could work together on an agreement. But Bush wouldn't hear of it, the lawmaker said.

" 'Well, I hope you keep working on it, but I told [Reid] I was going to stay out of it,' the president said, referring to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada."

But as Chen and Vieth write: "Behind the scenes, however, the White House has become an active player. As recently as Tuesday, the vice president met privately with Republican senators to make the administration's case for holding up-or-down votes on its judicial nominees. Tim Goeglein, the White House public liaison, regularly participates in conference calls and strategy sessions with outside groups seeking to pressure wavering GOP senators.

"Other White House aides have been involved, such as Candi Wolff, head of the congressional liaison office, who last week shepherded Texas Supreme Court Justice Priscilla R. Owen and California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown around Capitol Hill for meetings and photo opportunities. Brown and Owen are the most visible of Bush's judicial nominees who were blocked by filibusters in the last Congress."

Ron Hutcheson writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "All presidents seek power, but President Bush is setting a new standard with his efforts to consolidate and expand presidential authority.

"He may be on the verge of his biggest victory yet as the Senate debates whether to change its rules for dealing with judicial nominations. A decision to bar Senate filibusters - unlimited debate - against judicial nominees effectively would give Bush a free hand in picking judges. It also would reduce the inherent power of every senator, and the Senate itself, to exert leverage against any president.

"This is but the latest example of Bush's drive to boost White House power vis-a-vis other institutional rivals."

The Christian Left

President Bush's commencement speech at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich, on Saturday ended up serving as a reminder that there are lots of very religious Christians -- even evangelicals -- who don't support his policies.

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "Calvin College, a small evangelical school in the strategic Republican stronghold of Grand Rapids, Michigan, seemed a perfect stop this past Saturday for the president's message. Or so thought Karl Rove, the White House political chief, who two months ago effectively bumped Calvin's scheduled commencement speaker when he asked that Bush be invited instead.

"But events at Calvin did not transpire as smoothly as Rove might have liked. A number of students, faculty and alumni objected so strongly to the president's visit that by last Friday nearly 800 of them had signed a letter of protest that appeared as a full-page ad in The Grand Rapids Press. . . .

"At first glance, it seemed as if a mainstay of Bush's base, the Christian right, had risen up against him. At second glance, the reality was more complex. The protests at Calvin showed that Bush's evangelical base was not monolithic, and underscored the small but growing voice of the Christian left."

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Sarah Page, a graduating senior from Chicago who pinned one of the red, white and blue protest buttons to her black robe, said she supported Bush's decision to come to the college, 'but I don't want people to think that being Christian means you have to be Republican.' "

Bush told the local congressman, Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.), that the protesters didn't faze him.

"'It doesn't bother me,' the president said, according Ehlers, who joined Bush on Air Force One for a ride back to his district. 'It happens all the time.' "

Here's the text of the commencement address.

Saddle Up

A Bush aide was spotted carrying a hand-tooled saddle aboard Air Force One after the commencement address.

Steven Hepker of the Jackson (Mich.) Citizen Patriot reports on the two artisans who made the saddle as a gift for the president.

The Karzai Visit

Agence France Presse reports: "President George W. Bush and Afghan President Hamid Karzai meet at the White House Monday with Afghanistan's worsening security situation and the torture of Afghans in US custody likely to dominate talks."

After a meeting in the Oval Office, they are taking questions jointly in the East Room.

Two New York Times reports are heightening tensions: One from Friday on the Army's criminal investigation into the December 2002 deaths of two Afghans at Bagram, and one from Sunday about State Department concerns over Karzai's record on poppy-eradication.

Yesterday CNN's Wolf Blitzer interviewed Karzai, who offered a preview of how he can express frustration while still being deferential. Asked about the Bagram report, Karzai replied:

"This is simply, simply not acceptable. We are angry about this. We want justice. We want the people responsible for this sort of brutal behavior punished and tried and made public.

"At the same time, I must say, that while we condemn this, we tell Afghans, we tell the rest of the world, that the behavior of one or two soldiers or interrogators must not reflect on the United States or on the U.S. people. There are bad people everywhere. There are bad officers. There are bad people on duty everywhere."

About That Plane Scare

Douglas MacKinnon writes in The Washington Post's Outlook section: "Wouldn't you want to know instantly that your spouse and others close to you were in danger? And second, wouldn't you create a whole new category of 'smoke-coming-out-of-your-ears angry' if you found out that the authorities had deliberately kept this information from you? . . .

"I have to believe that George W. Bush, as a loving husband and a patriotic American, was more than a little angry at some of the individuals who were deciding, for him, what was best for him, his family and the country he runs."

Stem Cells

Peter Baker writes in the Saturday Washington Post: "President Bush vowed yesterday to veto legislation intended to ease the restrictions he imposed on stem cell research in 2001, setting up a potentially divisive battle with Congress over the morality of modern science."

The comments came in a Friday photo-op.

Meet J.D. Crouch

Peter Baker profiles J.D. Crouch II, Bush's new deputy national security adviser, in The Washington Post this morning.

"The little-known saber-rattling professor at a Missouri university now reports to work on the second floor of the West Wing. As the second-ranking official at the National Security Council, he serves as principal backup to national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley and plays an influential role in the interagency deputies committees that develop administration foreign policy."

Baker writes that Crouch "does not repudiate his past views so much as place them in context. Age, he says, brings more nuance to the understanding of foreign affairs."

Commander Koo-Koo-Bananas?

Julie Mason writes in the Houston Chronicle: "Homer Simpson, that cultural icon beloved of all men younger than 45, last week coined a new nickname for Bush that lit the blogs up like Christmas lights. Will it stick?

"In a rant about son Bart getting kicked out of school again, Homer despaired of finding another school to take him.

"'Yeah, and if you get kicked out of that one, you're going straight in the Army, where you'll be sent straight to America's latest military quagmire,' Homer railed. 'Where will it be? North Korea? Iran? Anything's possible with Commander Koo-Koo-Bananas in charge!' "

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