A Very Slight Change in the Script

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, August 23, 2005; 1:24 PM

President Bush's visit to Utah yesterday offered a great example of the White House's version of highly stylized Japanese Kabuki theater.

Although the speech Bush gave was largely an amalgam of previous addresses, White House reporters were urged to note the extraordinary significance of the president -- for the first time anyone can remember -- actually acknowledging the number of soldiers who have died in Iraq.

Yes, after months of painstakingly avoiding specific mention of the extent of American casualties in the war, Bush somewhat startlingly had this to say yesterday:

"We have lost 1,864 members of our Armed Forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and 223 in Operation Enduring Freedom. Each of these men and women left grieving families and loved ones back home. Each of these heroes left a legacy that will allow generations of their fellow Americans to enjoy the blessings of liberty. And each of these Americans have brought the hope of freedom to millions who have not known it."

Here's the text of the speech, given to a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Salt Lake City.

Bush's tone was matter-of-fact. He didn't spend a lot of time expressing his sympathy for the dead or their families. His speech included no new plans to stem the loss. In fact, Bush went on to invoke the dead soldiers as reason to stay the course in Iraq -- a policy that will inevitably create many more of them:

"We owe them something. We will finish the task that they gave their lives for. We will honor their sacrifice by staying on the offensive against the terrorists, and building strong allies in Afghanistan and Iraq that will help us win and fight -- fight and win the war on terror."

Bush critics have never suggested that the president was literally not aware of the number of dead -- after all, it's in the paper every morning.

But in this era of meticulous, artful and deliberate crafting of each and every presidential pronouncement, the unprecedented insertion of hard numbers obviously was meant to signify something.

And indeed, after the speech, White House officials spun it as hugely significant evidence that -- in spite of his refusal to meet with grieving mother Cindy Sheehan -- the president is sensitive to the sacrifices imposed by his policies.

Today's Coverage

Mike Allen and Sam Coates write in The Washington Post: "President Bush acknowledged the human toll of the Iraq war in blunt numerical terms on Monday, a gesture that advisers said was aimed in part at deflecting criticism that he is not sensitive to the sacrifices imposed by his policies.

"Breaking with the previous White House approach of putting little public emphasis on fatalities, Bush said the nation has 'lost 1,864 members of our armed forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and 223 in Operation Enduring Freedom' in Afghanistan. . . .

"Bush's aides said they have no illusion about quieting the demonstrators in Crawford, but they said the address was aimed at convincing a 'broader audience in the country' that 'this president recognizes the hardship of war and the sacrifices that are being made,' as one senior official put it."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush made no mention of Cindy Sheehan, the mother of an American soldier slain in Iraq who has staged a protest outside the president's ranch and inspired antiwar vigils across the country. But Mr. Bush, in citing specific numbers of Americans killed . . . appeared to acknowledge to protesters that he understood the human cost of the battles. . . .

"Ms. Sheehan's supporters followed Mr. Bush to Salt Lake City, where more than 1,000 people staged an antiwar protest in Pioneer Park, not far from the Salt Palace Convention Center where Mr. Bush was speaking. A main speaker was Celeste Zappala of Philadelphia, a co-founder of the antiwar group Gold Star Families for Peace and the mother of a son who died in Iraq.

"In a telephone interview after the protest, Ms. Zappala said she disagreed with the president's view that the way to honor the Americans killed in Iraq was to continue to fight.

" 'It pains me to hear that more people should die because those people have died,' said Ms. Zappala. 'That makes no sense. We can honor them by having an intelligent, honest policy.' "

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Speaking Monday to a friendly audience at the annual convention of Veterans of Foreign Wars, Bush offered a rare presidential tally of the fallen U.S. soldiers in Iraq -- more than 1,800 at the time of his appearance.

"Bush did not mention Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a slain soldier who has led the protests near his Texas vacation property. But his reference to the dead troops and their grieving families was an apparent acknowledgment that Sheehan and other parents allied with her have proven to be formidable foes in the battle for public opinion. . . .

"Further illustrating the conundrum for the administration, the death toll in Iraq had risen by the end of the day, surpassing the number Bush gave by at least five."

Not Lowering Expectations

There had been some speculation that the White House would start lowering expectations for success in Iraq, but yesterday's speech was a far cry from that.

"We will accept nothing less than total victory over the terrorists and their hateful ideology," Bush said.

Bush hadn't used the phrase "total victory" in the context of terror since lastOctober.


For one of the most obvious examples yet of how the White House is trying to frame the debate over the war in Iraq -- casting any opponent of the war as weak, cowardly and unpatriotic -- check out this response from spokesman Trent Duffy to a reporter's question in yesterday's abbreviated press gaggle:

"Q Is the White House concerned about the protests that are planned in Salt Lake City today?

"MR. DUFFY: The President addressed that directly. He can understand that people don't share his view that we must win the war on terror, and we cannot retreat and cut and run from terrorists, but he just has a different view."

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Nina J. Easton and Susan Milligan write in the Boston Globe: "Facing sagging public opinion polls and an increasingly spirited antiwar movement, the Bush administration and its allies this week launched a broad public relations offensive, with a presidential defense of the war -- including an acknowledgment of the conflict's mounting death toll -- and a caravan of supportive military families carrying their message to the Bush ranch in Texas. . . .

"Meanwhile, the Pentagon is increasing media access to soldiers in the field in an attempt to highlight their successes in Iraq. Administration officials fear that the deadly insurgency and reports of US deaths have overshadowed the progress made on the ground."

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune that "once again, a wartime president facing declining public support for the war is invoking 'the lessons of Sept. 11.' "

Iraq's Constitutional Problems

Yesterday's messy and controversial partially blown deadline by Iraqi political leaders to agree on a proposed constitution also required some careful White House spinning.

Bumiller writes: "Mr. Bush's speech appeared intended to capitalize on good news, the drafting of an Iraqi constitution. In his remarks, delivered as Iraqis were negotiating against a deadline, Mr. Bush hailed the constitution as a 'landmark event' in the Middle East. Hours after his address, Iraqi negotiators announced they had only a partial draft and were seeking more time. . . .

"After the Baghdad deadline and the president's speech, with major issues still unresolved in the constitution, the White House nonetheless issued a positive statement, calling the work in Baghdad 'impressive' and 'another step forward.'

Anne Gearan writes for the Associated Press: "With public support eroding for a war with no front lines and no end in sight, the Bush administration has prodded and pleaded and back-room arm-twisted for a deal.

"Iraqi leaders embarrassed Bush by blowing a second deadline Monday to complete the charter, a critical first step toward political stability and independence in Iraq and a marker on the path to an eventual U.S. exit. . . .

" 'Our military strategy is straightforward: As Iraqis stand up, Americans will stand down,' Bush said during a speech to veterans Monday, before the midnight deadline expired without a working charter.

"It's a line he uses often, and it applies to the Bush administration's goals for Iraq's political future as well. On both counts, however, Bush's meaning is imprecise."

White House counselor Dan Bartlett was on CNN talking to Miles O'Brien this morning.

O'Brien asked: "I'd like to hear from you here right now how democratic, how free does Iraq need [to be] to justify the tremendous costs -- the bloodshed and just the financial cost as well -- for taxpayers? It does come with a great toll."

Bartlett: "Absolutely. And it's a very necessary toll that we do finish the job in Iraq. It's critical to our national security. The document that's being produced there is one that will reflect the wants and desires of eight-and-a-half million Iraqis who voted in January. The Iraqi people themselves, Miles, will be the ultimate determination as to whether it lives up to their standards. . . .

"Is it going to be a perfect document? Absolutely not, Miles. Our own constitution wasn't perfect when we passed it. We are continuing making amendments to our own constitution. It's a dynamic process, Miles. But it's a critical process that is recognizing the hopes and aspirations of the Iraqi people, and that's something the American people can be proud of."

Camp Casey Watch

Jamie Stengle writes for the Associated Press: "U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee visited the anti-war inspired 'Camp Casey' near President Bush's ranch on Monday, lending support and words of encouragement to several families whose loved ones died in Iraq. . . .

"Across from 'Camp Casey,' about eight people were gathered at 'Camp George' in support of the president. Parrish Stevens, of Indiana, said people need to know all of the positive things that are happening in Iraq because of the troops -- such as hospitals opening and children attending school. Stevens is on break as a contractor in Iraq."

Cheney and DeLay

Jo Becker and Brian Faler write in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration is standing by embattled House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) and is making its support known in the most convincing way possible -- with cold cash. Vice President Cheney will appear on the congressman's behalf at a Sept. 16 luncheon in Houston, according to a letter DeLay sent supporters announcing the event. Two tickets, a photo with Cheney, nice seats and something called a 'VVIP' reception are going for $12,600. 'Sponsors' can get in for $8,400, but won't get priority seating. 'Friends' can get one seat and entry to a 'VIP' reception -- one V only -- for $2,100."

Halliburton Watch

Griff Witte writes in The Washington Post: "A former worker for a Halliburton Co. subsidiary faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of as much as $1.25 million after pleading guilty late last week to taking kickbacks in Iraq in a scheme that defrauded the U.S. government, court records show.

"It marks the second case this year of a Halliburton worker facing criminal charges in connection with the company's work in Iraq. . . .

"Halliburton is the Pentagon's largest contractor in Iraq. Its work has come under scrutiny in part because Vice President Cheney was the firm's chief executive between 1995 and 2000. Halliburton and the Pentagon deny the firm receives favorable treatment."

Mountain Biker or Not?

As a mountain biker, President Bush isn't all that, writes a blogging mountain-biking zealot.

Blogger Cannonball doesn't dispute that Bush is physically fit. But it's easy to make the case that no one can keep up with him when no one's allowed to pass, he points out.

And more to the point, Cannonball says there is no evidence that Bush has ever ridden his nubby-tired bike on the kind of rugged trails that truly define the sport.

He explained in an e-mail: "Photos and accounts of [Bush's] rides most often mention paved trails or wide, comfortable graded gravel roads. Singletrack is just that, basically a narrow thread of trail, akin to a hiking trail. For mountain bikers, singletrack is the ideal, the holy grail. It offers the toughest technical challenges and also returns the greatest rewards. No mountain biker is complete without riding singletrack."

As it happens, the test of Bush's true mountain-biking credentials could come as early as today. Bush is spending the day at Idaho's brand-new Tamarack Resort, where mountain bikers "can look forward to big-time fun riding Tamarack's 12 miles of sinewy singletrack, rising to the technical trials of our Challenge Park or catching big air in our Jump Park." There's also a chairlift up 7,700 feet to a peak from which mountain bikers can either a) "take a relaxing, scenic route down" or b) "test their skills on more technical, single track trails like Stage Fright and Stage Right."

In my column last Wednesday I bet on b. Now I'm not so sure.

Meanwhile, Sports Illustrated has another glowing story about Bush's biking prowess. Austin Murphy writes that he was one of a small group of reporters summoned "urgently" by the White House to ride with the president a week ago.

He confirms the no-passing rule.

"You know, if I wasn't leading, I'd be following," Murphy quotes Bush as saying, "and I don't like to do that. And secondly, a person may go a little faster than I want to go, you know?"

Murphy also includes in his story some examples of the comic stylings of Cox News reporter Ken Herman, goading a fellow rider trying to pump up a flat tire: "I think this may have been the work of terrorists," Herman said. "If you don't ride, the terrorists win. . . . Better finish that here, because the president insists there is no inflation."

Murphy writes that he had a chance to ride at Bush's side for a while, but adds: "I was careful not to monopolize him. Not all the journos in our group were as mindful. Two in particular (they know who they are) had no qualms about Bogarting the co-pilot's seat for 20 minutes at a time."

Bush Light Bulb Joke

Variations spreading all over the Internet:

"How many members of the Bush administration does it take to change a light bulb?


"1. One to deny that a light bulb needs to be changed;

"2. One to attack the patriotism of anyone who says the light bulb needs to be changed;

"3. One to blame Clinton for burning out the light bulb;

"4. One to tell the nations of the world that they are either for changing the light bulb or for eternal darkness;

"5. One to give a billion dollar no-bid contract to Halliburton for the new light bulb;

"6. One to arrange a photograph of Bush, dressed as a janitor, standing on a step ladder under the banner 'Bulb Accomplished';

"7. One administration insider to resign and in detail reveal how Bush was literally 'in the dark' the whole time;

"8. One to viciously smear No. 7;

"9. One surrogate to campaign on TV and at rallies on how George Bush has had a strong light-bulb-changing policy all along;

"10. And finally, one to confuse Americans about the difference between screwing a light bulb and screwing the country."

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