How Bush Made the Call

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, July 20, 2005; 2:24 PM

Up until yesterday, things were not looking so good at the White House. A full-scale crisis over Karl Rove's involvement in the leak of a CIA operative's identity appeared to be thriving in a climate of increasingly mistrustful and disapproving public opinion.

But yesterday, the White House pulled itself off the ropes, by staging the kind of grand political theater that only the president of the United States can really carry off.

This is where the Bush White House flourishes: Where it has complete control of the message -- where it sets the agenda, controls the content, masterminds the timing, flummoxes the media and boxes in its critics.

In nominating U.S. Court of Appeals Judge John G. Roberts Jr. for the Supreme Court last night, President Bush used his most bully of pulpits to refocus the nation's attention -- on his terms. And by choosing a nominee less likely than some of the others he was considering to inflame Democrats -- at least right away -- he dominated the news cycle almost without any opposition.

Here is the text of Bush's prime-time announcement, followed by remarks from Roberts. It took place in the White House's Cross Hall, the corridor which runs across the center of the state floor between the East Room and State Dining Room.

It looks to me, from my research, like it was the first time that a president has made such an announcement on evening television in more than 30 years -- since President Richard Nixon nominated William Rehnquist as an associate justice in 1971. Typically, presidents have introduced their nominees during the day, either in the White House briefing room or the Rose Garden -- and typically they have taken a few questions from the press, which Bush most certainly did not.

This morning, Bush met again with Roberts, then paraded him through the Rose Garden. Here's the text of Bush's remarks. This time there were reporters around, but the two men took no questions, and ignored the ones shouted at them as they walked back to the Oval Office.

Bush also had a few words about his nomination in a speech on homeland security in Baltimore today.

Even for those trying to get an insight into the timing of yesterday's decision -- wondering, for instance, how significant a factor the Rove controversy was, or wondering if the White House was behind yesterday's highly infectious rumor that Bush had picked a more moderate woman instead -- there was no place to turn but the White House.

The Tick Tock

Shortly before Bush's announcement, press secretary Scott McClellan and counselor Dan Bartlett generously spoon fed a compelling "tick tock" to the press corps. Here's the text.

It is full of fascinating, if one-sided, details of how Bush arrived at his decision.

It turns out that after an initial round of winnowing, Bush took information on 11 possible nominees with him on his trip to Europe two weeks ago. By last week, he and his aides had narrowed the list to five. And those five were invited to the White House for meetings on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Here's Bartlett: "The [meeting] with Judge Roberts was -- had some other logistical hurdles. He was actually teaching a class in London with the -- an international trade class in London. He had to cancel his class Friday and today and has been shuttling back and forth across the pond to have these meetings. So I can only imagine he's a bit jet lagged, but in great spirits and obviously honored for -- with this -- with this awesome responsibility and looks forward to the process."

Bush spoke to Roberts for an hour, and found "a person he felt that not only had a sharp legal mind, but also had the type of character and judgment that he was looking for in a candidate for office," Bartlett said.

"[H]e wanted to be in a comfortable environment in the Residence. The sitting areas up on the personal residence floor of the White House, really right outside of where the President and Mrs. Bush -- in their most intimate quarters. And Barney and Beazley are -- they're laying at their feet, and they're having -- and they were able to have a great conversation both at a personal level, as well as -- and professional. It was professional. And I'm not going to be able to get into the details of the questions, but it was wide-ranging."

McClellan said Bush "essentially had made his decision" by Monday night. "There were a couple of issues that still needed to be addressed, and those were, essentially, by this morning. And so a final decision was really made this morning by the President, and the President began talking to the Vice President and some of his senior staff during that -- after this morning time period.

"Then the President had his meeting with [Australian] Prime Minister [John] Howard, and they had the press availability. Following that, the President and Prime Minister Howard were joined by their spouses, Mrs. Howard and Mrs. Bush. And they headed upstairs to have lunch in the Residence. And this was a little bit before 12:30 p.m. when they headed upstairs. And then at approximately 12:35 p.m., the President stepped out of the lunch to call Judge Roberts and offer him the nomination.

"The President returned to the lunch after that conversation. And this is a quote from the President, he told those that were gathered there, Prime Minister and Mrs. Howard and Mrs. Bush. The President said, 'I just offered the job to a great, smart, 50-year-old lawyer who has agreed to serve on the bench.' And then a short time ago, about 7:00 p.m., the President and Mrs. Bush were joined by Judge Roberts and his wife over in the Residence for dinner. And I think it was a little bit after 7:30 p.m. when the President made some outreach calls to members of the Senate. The President called Senators Frist, Specter, Reid, and Leahy -- I believe in that order -- and informed them of his decision. And that's a quick overview of the tick-tock."

But What Did They Talk About?

One of the huge advantages that President Bush has, of course, is that he was presumably able to ask Roberts all sorts of questions in private that Roberts has never answered in public. Bartlett waved off questions about that last night -- though he didn't deny it, either.

"Q Can you say if the President raised issues in the interviews about issues that come before the Court, issues like abortion or same-sex marriage, or did he deliberately avoid those?

"MR. BARTLETT: Well, Mark, he has been very clear that he was not going to have a litmus test on the issues that you mentioned, that it was important that a judge who was going -- potentially going to have to be ruling on those very issues to not be opining on them before hand. That's one thing the President has been proud about is that he has not imposed a litmus test and we would hope that others would do the same.

"Obviously, in a confirmation process, people can ask any question they want, but I think as Justice Ginsberg and others have proven, the appropriate action for them to take is to not answer those type of questions. And, as I said, the President doesn't have a litmus test."

Bartlett on the Timing

"Q Dan, did the timing of this announcement today have anything at all to do with all the intense focus on Karl Rove and the leak investigation?

"MR. BARTLETT: I'm glad you -- I omitted discussing that, and I appreciate you giving me the opportunity to talk about that. They recess next Friday, the Senate does. If you don't get all your stuff done -- packets of material have to get up there, consultations. We have 16 members of the Judiciary Committee alone, other leadership, other members of the Senate, courtesy visits. You just think about logistically getting the nominee in this tight time period. If we would have waited until the last two days of the month or so, we would have not have been able to officially get his name into the process, which then would allow for hearings on the back end, which is obviously a topic we'll be consulting with the Senate on, when those will take place.

"So this was driven by that clock. We were backing up decision-making based on that. We had a window in which the President -- we decided more than two weeks ago, three weeks ago -- in which the President would make a decision. That window was roughly this weekend, this past weekend -- Saturday, Sunday -- through Wednesday of this week. He made the decision today. It falls right in that window that we had set out weeks before."

On Not Picking a Woman

"Q Dan, can you tell us the President's thinking on ignoring his wife's advice? (Laughter.)

"Q He's in trouble, right? (Laughter.)

"MR. BARTLETT: Absolutely not. Mrs. Bush is spending time with the nominee right now. And she shares the President's view that he is extremely qualified.

"Q Is there a sofa bed in the Oval Office? (Laughter.)"

A Deliberate Feint?

During a brief press availability on Monday, Bush wouldn't say much about where he was in the nomination process, but he did say this: "I will sit down with some and talk to them face-to-face, those who I have not known already."

That turned out not to be true.

"Q Dan, Monday the President said, I will be interviewing people. Well, he looked like he was done by Monday. Can you explain that?

"MR. BARTLETT: Well, I'll have to go back and look at that. Like I said, there's follow-up conversations with people, whether it was done by staff, as well. He might have been talking in the collective --

"Q Did he plan to interview more people on Monday? Or was he just throwing us off the scent? I mean, he definitely spoke in the future tense -- I will be interviewing people; some of them I don't -- the ones I don't know.

"MR. BARTLETT: Well, he definitely interviewed people that he hadn't known. I think -- like I said, these people were having -- there was follow-up conversations being had with these people. And so I think that's what his intention of his comments were."

Cheney's Role?

What about the vice president's role?

"MR. BARTLETT: Oh, well, obviously, the Vice President is one of the key advisors for him. I'm not going to be able to divulge recommendations that any of the top advisors made to the President. But the Vice President is somebody who has been involved in this process from the outset. The President, obviously, appreciates his wise counsel. And he gave wise counsel in this respect, as well. But I'm not going to get into specific recommendations that anybody on the White House staff, or the position the Vice President made. . . .

"Q Could you say if Vice President Cheney met with Mr. Roberts prior to the President meeting with him?

"MR. BARTLETT: He's been -- I'm not going to -- like I said, but safe to say the Vice President has been very involved in this process from the outset. I mean, and the President is always appreciative of his participation and his advice."

The Coverage

For all the latest reaction, a look at what other papers are saying, and much more, washingtonpost.com's Supreme Court blog is running around the clock.

Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post this morning: "Bush introduced his choice for the nation's 109th justice in a prime-time East Room ceremony broadcast live on national television after a dramatic day of shifting speculation that captivated Washington. . . .

"As a successor to O'Connor, a centrist-conservative who cast the swing vote for years, Roberts is expected to move the court further to the right, but legal experts do not consider him among the most ideological of the candidates Bush considered. . . .

"Some Republican strategists said the nomination could help the White House divert attention from the Rove scandal and reinvigorate Bush's political prospects."

News Analyses

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "With the nomination Tuesday of John G. Roberts Jr. to the Supreme Court, President Bush reaffirmed his commitment to a bold-stroke presidency -- but also signaled an uncharacteristic interest in reducing his exposure to political risk. . . .

"The selection could offer Bush an opportunity to maximize his chance of a relatively smooth confirmation while minimizing the danger of either conservative disaffection or scorched-earth Democratic opposition."

Charles Babington and Mike Allen write in The Washington Post: "A filibuster is the Democrats' only sure-fire way to block a nominee, but their ability to deploy the parliamentary tactic is hampered by a May agreement among 14 lawmakers who say filibusters must be reserved for 'extraordinary circumstances.' President Bush and his aides phoned or met with most Senate Democrats in recent weeks, which could undermine an argument used before by Democrats that he failed to consult with the minority party."

Adam Nagourney writes in the New York Times: "With his nomination of Judge John G. Roberts, President Bush moved Tuesday to plant the conservative imprint on the Supreme Court that has been a central aim of his presidency, but with a member of the Washington legal establishment designed to frustrate any Democratic effort to block Mr. Bush's replacement for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. . . .

"As often is the case with Mr. Bush, the decision appears almost obvious in retrospect: a choice that is at least good enough for conservatives, who hailed the nomination with a barrage of favorable reaction that went out even before Mr. Bush appeared in the East Room on Tuesday evening, yet someone who is genial and enigmatic enough to confound Democrats as they head into what they had long expected to be a difficult battle."

Deborah Orin writes in the New York Post: "President Bush went for a conservative who can really change the Supreme Court -- instead of making a symbolic gesture by tapping a woman or the first-ever Latino. . . .

"Last night, it was clear Democrats were struggling and divided over the Roberts nomination while Republicans were happy and united -- an ideal outcome for the White House."

But Is He Mainstream?

Remember that in Bush's Saturday radio address, he said this: "My nominee will be a fair-minded individual who represents the mainstream of American law and American values."

Poll Watch

So is this change of topic enough to turn the tide of public disapproval and increasing skepticism?

A new poll from the Pew Research Center holds some dire news for the White House.

Will Lester writes for the Associated Press: "Americans have growing doubts about President Bush's honesty and his effectiveness, according to a poll taken at a time people are uneasy with the war in Iraq, uncertain about the economy and nervous about the terrorist threat.

"Half of those in the poll taken by the Pew Research Center, 49 percent, said they believe the president is trustworthy, while almost as many, 46 percent said he is not. Bush was at 62 percent on this measure in a September 2003 Pew poll and at 56 percent in a Gallup poll in April. One of Bush's strong suits throughout his presidency has been the perception by a majority of people that he is honest."

According to the Pew poll, only about half of the American public is paying close attention to news reports that Rove may have leaked classified information about a CIA agent. But 39 percent of the public and a solid majority of those closely following the reports (58 percent) believe that Rove should resign his position.

The poll gives Bush a 44 percent approval rating, with 48 percent disapproving.

And more Americans favor a nominee for the Supreme Court who will keep the court as it is now (40 percent), rather than someone who will make the court more conservative (27 percent), or more liberal (24 percent.) Asked to provide one-word descriptions of Bush, the top ten words that came to respondents' minds were: Honest, incompetent, arrogant, good, integrity, determined, liar, stupid, idiot, strong.

Compared to five months ago, the words "leader" and "fair" dropped out of the top ten, while "stupid" and "determined" made it in.

The Timing

Howard Kurtz writes on washingtonpost.com this morning: "A prime-time announcement that bamboozles the press, draws a bigger television audience, knocks Karl Rove off the front page and limits the time for reporters to dig up controversial information?

"Not a bad night's work.

"As interesting as Bush's pick of the not-so-much-buzzed-about John Roberts -- which will dominate newspapers, magazines, television and blogs for the next two months, or at least until the next missing white woman -- is the choreography. . . .

"By choosing to unveil his nominee at 9, Bush not only threw the media establishment into a tizzy, he also broke the news right on deadline for East Coast newspapers and after the network newscasts. He cut through 'the filter,' as he calls the media, preventing -- or at least delaying -- journalists from researching long pieces picking apart his choice. The president also guaranteed himself a bigger audience than with a morning announcement (even if some would have preferred the scheduled 'Big Brother 6' and 'I Want to Be a Hilton')."

Peter Johnson writes in USA Today: "Meet the Press host Tim Russert told anchor Brian Williams on NBC Nightly News that every Republican he had talked to on Tuesday said, 'Thank God the White House is changing the subject.'

"And '9 o'clock at night is the perfect time if you want to control a big chunk of the news cycle,' said ABC News executive Paul Slavin. . . .

"The timing 'certainly illustrates that one of the great powers of the presidency is the power to change the subject,' Court TV News anchor Fred Graham said. 'Bush was back on his heels over Karl Rove, and this announcement wipes Rove off the front pages, for a time.' "

Making a Mockery of the Press

It's been said by some media critics that Bush has made a mockery of the White House press corps.

But in yesterday's noontime press availability with Australian Prime Minister John Howard, he literally made a mockery out of their questions.

Taking just two questions from American reporters, one from each major wire service, Bush was first asked by the Associated Press's Jennifer Loven where he stood on his Supreme Court nomination. Keep in mind that less than an hour later, the White House press office sent out word that Bush would announce his decision later that night on prime-time television.

But Bush is not known for actually giving substantive, responsive answers -- and this time, his answer was almost shockingly unvarnished.

After trotting out a few well-worn phrases ideal for stalling -- "I'm comfortable with where we are in the process," and "I have thought about a variety of people" -- Bush stopped himself and blurted out: "I'm trying to figure out what else I can say that you -- I didn't say yesterday that sounds profound to you without -- without actually answering your question."

Later, asked by Caren Bohan of Reuters whether any of his aides have offered to resign, and what constitutes a firing offense, Bush didn't even make a go of it.

"You know, I appreciate you bringing that up," he said, which was so baldly untrue that the room burst into laughter. "My answer really hasn't changed from 24 hours ago. It's the same answer. Now, I'll be glad to answer another question if you've got one."

Then he ducked that one, too.

Plame/Novak Watch

Barry Schweid writes for the Associated Press with more news about the State Department memo that has apparently caught the attention of prosecutors.

"The memo has become a key piece of evidence in the CIA leak investigation because it could have been the way someone in the White House learned -- and then leaked -- the information that Wilson's wife worked for the CIA and played a role in sending him on the mission. . . .

"The memo said Wilson's wife worked for the CIA and suggested her husband go to Niger because he had contacts there and had served as an American diplomat in Africa. However, the official said the memo did not say she worked undercover for the spy agency nor did it identify her as Valerie Plame, which was her maiden name and cover name at the CIA."

Once again amorphously citing sources with knowledge of the investigation, Murray Waas writes in the American Prospect about Rove's apparent failure, during his first interview with the FBI, to mention that he had ever discussed Plame with Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper. (See yesterday's column for more.) Waas writes: "The omission by Rove created doubt for federal investigators, almost from the inception of their criminal probe into who leaked Plame's name to columnist Robert Novak, as to whether Rove was withholding crucial information from them, and perhaps even misleading or lying to them, the sources said.

"Also leading to the early skepticism of Rove's accounts was the claim that although he first heard that Plame worked for the CIA from a journalist, he said could not recall the name of the journalist. Later, the sources said, Rove wavered even further, saying he was not sure at all where he first heard the information."

Karen Hughes Watch

Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post: "The U.S. public diplomacy team is starting to take shape. Dina Habib Powell , a former White House personnel director, was sworn in Monday as assistant secretary of state for educational and cultural affairs. Powell is expected to be a major player in yet another major effort to improve the U.S. image abroad.

"Former White House counselor Karen P. Hughes is coming back to town for a hearing Friday on her nomination to be undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. . . .

"Liza Wright , who's been working in the White House personnel shop since 2003 and before that worked in an executive search company, is moving up to replace Dina Powell as head of personnel."

Bandar Bush Watch

Dominic Evans writes for Reuters: "Saudi Arabia's veteran envoy to Washington Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a former fighter pilot who built close ties to several U.S. presidents, has resigned for personal reasons, the Saudi government said on Wednesday. . . .

"The prince earned the nickname 'Bandar Bush' because of his close friendship with President Bush and later with his son, President Bush."

Late Night Humor

David Letterman: "You folks following the scandal with Karl Rove? Earlier today, President Bush says that he doesn't want to act too quickly. And does not want to act before he has all of the facts. And I was thinking, 'Jeez, this doesn't sound like the President Bush I know.' "

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