The White House's Top Dogs

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, June 22, 2005; 12:51 PM

My completely updated Who's Who in the White House is just out, sort of a companion piece to last week's updated West Wing floor plan.

President Bush has by my count six "top" White House advisers -- in alphabetical order, counselor Dan Bartlett, Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney, policy adviser Michael Gerson, national security adviser Steve Hadley, and political adviser Karl Rove.

But alphabetical order puts Cheney in the middle and Rove at the end, and that just ain't right. So I've created a new uber-category-- "The top two" -- to do honor to the enormous and possibly unprecedented role those gentlemen have in helping Bush make up his mind about things.

My Who's Who includes not only short profiles but, in keeping with the nature of this column, painstakingly winnowed links to highly recommended key stories available on the Web.

And in addition to Bush's six chief advisers, I round out the Who's Who with eight other top aides.

Cheney Gets His Way, Part I

More than three weeks ago, Cheney appeared on the Larry King show on CNN, and made a dramatic assertion about the situation in Iraq: "I think the level of activity that we see today, from a military standpoint, I think will clearly decline. I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency."

Cheney's comment has been widely cited as the most extreme example of White House optimism about Iraq that appears to be unsupported -- in fact, starkly contradicted -- by reports from the ground.

And until yesterday, the White House had -- at times, spectacularly -- dodged the issue of whether or not Cheney's comment reflected an official White House position.

I called attention in Friday's column (scroll down to "A Classic Exchange") to a remarkable back-and-forth between ABC News's Terry Moran and McClellan, in which McClellan repeatedly shook off the question of whether the insurgency is, in the White House's opinion, in its last throes.

At yesterday's briefing, after another slugfest, McClellan finally gave a direct answer: "Yes."

Here's how it came about:

"Q Scott, can we get a clear 'yes' or 'no' answer on whether the President agrees on the Vice President's assessment that the insurgency is in 'its last throes?' Is it a 'yes' or 'no'?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I think I already answered this question the last couple of days.

"Q Is it 'yes' or is it 'no'?

"MR. McCLELLAN: And I've talked about it the last couple of days. If you look -- if you look at the terrorists and the regime elements that are seeking to derail the transition to democracy, they are in a desperate mode, and here's why. Let me walk you through this.

"First of all, I think, to begin with, you ought to go back and look back at the full context of the Vice President's remarks, where he talked about the progress we're making to go after and capture al Qaeda elements that are inside Iraq -- like [insurgent leader Abu Musab] Zarqawi lieutenants. Just last week, we captured one of his top lieutenants, a very dangerous man who is responsible for the killing of a lot of innocent civilians inside Iraq. This was the person who oversaw Zarqawi's Mosul operations. And that was a significant development.

"So I think you have to look at the facts on the ground. And the facts on the ground show that the Iraqi people are making important progress on the political front to build a free and democratic future. The vision of the terrorists is one of chaos and destruction. They really have no vision. Their only alternative is chaos and destruction and the killing of innocent civilians.

"And that's what I talked about yesterday. They, every step of the way, have not been able to stop the progress that the Iraqi people are making on the political front. And they are being defeated and they will be defeated.

"Q So that's a 'yes'?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, I said that. I said that the other day."

And just in case you think that was a verbal slip, here's Karl Rove talking to David Gregory on MSNBC last night:

"GREGORY: The vice president said recently that he thinks the insurgency in Iraq is in its last throes --its final throes, do you agree with that?

"ROVE: We know that when a movement like this, a jihadist movement, a terrorist movement, is most dangerous when it is running out of options. We saw, you saw earlier this year Zarqawi and some of the other leaders of Al Qaeda and its affiliates talk about the dangers and about the struggles that they were in. They were complaining about the circumstances in which they found themselves, pressed by on all sides, by U.S. coalition and Iraqi forces. So I do believe the vice president said it correct: we will find these Jihadists and the Al Qaeda most dangerous when they are at the moment of greatest danger for them."

Cheney Gets His Way, Part II

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush refused to surrender the fight over John R. Bolton's nomination as ambassador to the United Nations yesterday, persuading the Senate GOP leader to soften an earlier statement that it might be futile to keep pressuring Democrats to buckle and allow an up-or-down vote."

And why did Bush do that?

"Two administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Vice President Cheney has made Bolton's nomination a personal priority and lobbied Bush to keep fighting for an up-or-down vote."

Rove Speaks

As I mentioned above, Karl Rove sat down for a (very rare) interview with David Gregory on MSNBC's Hardball last night. Here's a video clip.

Rove provided indications that Bush's new PR blitz to regain support for the war in Iraq may include the implication that criticizing Bush's plan is tantamount to supporting the insurgency.

Gregory asked Rove several times about the dwindling support for the war. Rove's basic answer: "We need to remember, that's part of the goal of the insurgents. Their goal is to weaken our resolve by being so violent and so dangerous and so ugly that they hope that we will turn tail and run. They have misjudged the American people though. And they have certainly misjudged this president."

Social Security Watch

Jackie Calmes writes in the Wall Street Journal: "To break Congress's impasse on his promise to revamp Social Security, President Bush is encouraging conflicting plans from two Republican senators: One would only make the program solvent through future benefit reductions, and another would only create personal retirement accounts for workers.

"At a rare White House luncheon with Republican senators yesterday on a range of subjects, Mr. Bush reiterated his commitment to the twin goals of Social Security solvency and new private accounts, senators said. But with his party divided on the issue -- and politically fretful amid Democratic opposition -- the president is seizing on proposals that fall short of his own aims just to keep his top domestic priority alive in the Republican-led Senate and House."

But maybe there's more to it than that. Maybe it's a clever plot aimed at the Democrats.

Here's Ed Henry on CNN yesterday, speaking first with Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah) and then White House communications director Nicolle Devenish.

Henry: "The entire Republican Conference of Republican senators went over to the White House, had lunch with the president. We're told this is the first time that has happened since the Reagan administration.

"You came out of that meeting saying that the president spoke very favorably about your Social Security reform plan. The key there is that your plan does not include private accounts. This sounds like potentially a major development that the president is speaking favorably about a Republican plan that does not include private accounts.

"SEN. ROBERT BENNETT (R), UTAH: Well, I don't want to get ahead of the story here. The president spoke favorably of the blended indexing, which is the main part of my bill but we didn't specifically say, 'and it's a good thing you're dropping private accounts.' Frankly, that didn't come up.

"Now, he knows I am dropping private accounts from the bill, not because I don't believe in them. I do. I support personal accounts just as the president supports personal accounts. I think they're essential long-term, but so many Democrats have been saying, we won't support anything that has personal accounts, that I decided to separate them, put them in a separate bill, which I will also offer and say, all right, let's see how many supporters we can get for a bill without personal accounts and then we'll have the discussion about personal accounts later."

Then came Devenish.

"HENRY: So, is this a baby step toward the president saying, perhaps, that he can live without private accounts?

"DEVENISH: Yes, the president applauds any member of Congress in the Senate or in the House that leads on this issue, that takes on the challenges facing Social Security. So, I think he's heartened to see increased activity on Capitol Hill, but I think you know as well as anyone that our commitment to personal accounts as a part of a long- term strengthening and modernizing of Social Security is a deeply held conviction and commitment and one that we are sticking to as a best way to solve the system.

"You know what's real important about what happened today is that the Democrats now have an opportunity to walk the walk. They've been talking the talk about considering Social Security reform if it were a bill that didn't include accounts, and I think this puts the ball back in their court and gives them an opportunity to really maybe put their money where their mouth has been. . . .

"I think we need to deal with it all at once, and that's still our strategy and our goal, but what the president did do was applaud Senator Bennett and his political courage in doing something very important, which is putting a bill out there that the Democrats are going to have to weigh in on."

More About the Lunch

VandeHei of The Post also reports that at the lunch, "two GOP senators pressed Bush to better explain [military] recruitment problems and the struggles ahead, said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). The message, Kyl said, was that Bush should 'not let people come to believe this is easier than it is.' Bush said he agreed and told the senators he would meet with three generals this week to get a detailed briefing on progress in Iraq in preparation for a major speech next week."

Has the War Made Us Safer?

Bush has long maintained that the war in Iraq has made America safer because terrorist are being drawn there rather than to the United States. "Our troops are fighting these terrorists in Iraq so you will not have to face them here at home," he says.

But what if in fact Iraq has actually become a breeding ground and training camp for terrorists who could some day attack America?

Douglas Jehl writes in the New York Times: "A new classified assessment by the Central Intelligence Agency says Iraq may prove to be an even more effective training ground for Islamic extremists than Afghanistan was in Al Qaeda's early days, because it is serving as a real-world laboratory for urban combat."

Jehl writes that officials familiar with the report "said it made clear the view that the war in Iraq was likely to produce a dangerous legacy, by dispersing to other countries Iraqi and foreign combatants more adept and better organized than they were before the conflict."

Good Times for Lobbyists

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum writes in The Washington Post: "The number of registered lobbyists in Washington has more than doubled since 2000 to more than 34,750 while the amount that lobbyists charge their new clients has increased by as much as 100 percent. . . .

" 'We're trying to take advantage of the fact that Republicans control the House, the Senate and the White House,' said John D. Hassell, director of government affairs at Hewlett-Packard. 'There is an opportunity here for the business community to make its case and be successful.' "

Message to the Baptists

Peter Smith writes in the Louisville Courier-Journal: "The alliance between President Bush and conservative Christians was fully evident yesterday when he spoke by satellite to thousands of Southern Baptists and received numerous ovations.

"In what has become an annual event, Bush spoke of his agreement on social issues with the Southern Baptist Convention, which is holding its annual meeting in Nashville. He advocated an agenda that included a federal amendment banning same-sex marriage, a ban on a procedure that critics call partial-birth abortion and an expansion of government funding of faith-based social programs."

Here's the text of his 13-minute speech.

North Korea Watch

Former U.S. ambassador to South Korea Donald Gregg and Don Oberdorfer , a former Post diplomatic correspondent, write in a Washington Post op-ed today about a previously undisclosed message from North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to President Bush in November 2002, offering to resolve the nuclear issue between the two countries.

"We took the message to senior officials at the White House and State Department and urged the administration to follow up on Kim's initiative," they write. "Then deep in secret planning and a campaign of public persuasion for the invasion of Iraq, the administration spurned engagement with North Korea."

Supremes Watch

Jan Crawford Greenburg writes in the Chicago Tribune: "Stepping up preparations for the possible retirement of Chief Justice William Rehnquist -- perhaps as early as next week -- the White House has narrowed its list to a handful of federal appeals court judges and has conducted interviews with leading contenders, a senior administration official said Tuesday.

"Senior White House officials and Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales have interviewed top candidates and briefed President Bush, but the president has not made a decision, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. . . .

"In addition to Gonzales, senior adviser Karl Rove and White House Counsel Harriet Miers have been central to the interview process."

Off to Vietnam

Kenneth R. Bazinet writes in the New York Daily News: "President Bush, who came under fire during his reelection campaign for avoiding military service in Southeast Asia, is finally going to Vietnam.

"Bush accepted an invite yesterday from Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, who made history by becoming the first postwar leader from the Communist nation to visit the White House."

Bush will attend a Pacific Rim economic summit in 2006.

How was Khai's reception at the White House yesterday? Muted, says David E. Sanger in the New York Times. Conciliatory, says Paul Richter in the Los Angeles Times.

Here's the transcript of the public part.

Welcome to Bernanke

Caren Bohan writes for Reuters: "President Bush, working to sharpen the focus of his domestic policy message on the economy, on Tuesday welcomed former Federal Reserve policymaker Ben Bernanke to the role of White House chief economist, praising him as a 'talented and visionary thinker.'"

Here's the transcript of the remarks.

Today's Calendar

Bush and the press corps (warned they needed to wear sturdy leather boots for the occasion) trekked out to the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant in Lusby, Md., today, for a tour and a familiar-sounding talk about domestic policy.

ABC News's The Note reports that at this morning's gaggle, Scott McClellan indicated the president would deliver a new speech with a broader economic agenda. That was enough to get CNN to broadcast the whole thing live. But listening with half an ear this morning, I didn't notice anything I hadn't heard before. More tomorrow.

Denver Three Watch

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank shadowed the Denver Three on their trip to Washington today. "Individually, they are ordinary citizens and political unknowns. But collectively, they are the Denver Three -- a political sensation in Colorado that is causing agita to a White House that has bested far more sophisticated foes.

"The Denver Three's quest: to learn the identity of the 'Mystery Man' who, impersonating a Secret Service agent, forcibly removed them from a taxpayer-funded Social Security event with President Bush three months ago because of a 'No More Blood for Oil' bumper sticker on one of their cars."

They tried to deliver a letter to the White House, but no dice.

Cell Phone Watch

The Names & Faces column in The Washington Post chronicles how ringing cell phones plagued two White House events yesterday, to Bush's great consternation.

Any Bushes in Harm's Way?

From yesterday's briefing:

"Q Is the President concerned about the recruitment being down in his home country, he can't get -- you know, some day you may give a war and no one will come? And, also, the second part of the question, is there any member of the Bush clan who is in the military service now, that you know of?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I'd have to go check; that's a pretty large clan, as you --

"Q Would you do that?

"MR. McCLELLAN: -- as you referred to. In terms of -- and certainly there are members of the family that have served and served very admirably in the Armed Forces.

"Q I'm not talking about the past, I'm talking about now."

© 2005 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive