The Politics of Distraction

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, September 27, 2005; 1:19 PM

President Bush yesterday called for Americans to cope with gasoline shortfalls by cutting down on their driving. And he continued to push for increased military authority in national disasters.

What do these two campaigns have in common? They're both red herrings, to some extent -- distractions in the wake of the shockingly botched government response to Hurricane Katrina.

Consider this, for instance: There is no gasoline shortfall.

And a broad range of experts agree that putting the military into a position to enforce martial law is not only unnecessary, it's dangerous. The Pentagon itself opposes the idea. And under existing rules, the president has ample discretion to send troops in to help disaster victims already -- discretion that he chose not to use for Katrina, but used amply for Rita.

One fair test of how seriously Bush takes his new energy conservation kick will be whether he exercises any self-restraint. But don't expect cardigans or thermostat-lowering in this White House.

Bush's gas-guzzling motorcade was whizzing all over town yesterday -- and today he flies off in his fuel-gulping 747 for his seventh trip to the Gulf Coast since Katrina struck a month ago.

A Call for Conservation

Hurricane Rita had less impact than expected on oil and gas production. And the Bush administration has consistently opposed calls for conservation in the past. So why now? It's not at all clear.

Here is the text of Bush's remarks about energy yesterday morning.

David Leonhardt, Jad Mouawad and David E. Sanger write in the New York Times: "With fears mounting that high energy costs will crimp economic growth, President Bush called on Americans yesterday to conserve gasoline by driving less. He also issued a directive for all federal agencies to cut their own energy use and to encourage employees to use public transportation. . . .

"Mr. Bush's comments, while similar to remarks he made shortly after the disruption from Hurricane Katrina pushed gasoline prices sharply higher, were particularly notable because the administration has long emphasized new production over conservation. It has also opted not to impose higher mileage standards on automakers.

"In 2001, Vice President Dick Cheney said, 'Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it cannot be the basis of a sound energy policy.' Also that year, Ari Fleischer, then Mr. Bush's press secretary, responded to a question about reducing American energy consumption by saying 'that's a big no.'

" 'The president believes that it's an American way of life,' Mr. Fleischer said.

"Mr. Bush, speaking yesterday after he was briefed at the Energy Department, did not use the dour tone or cardigan-wearing imagery that proved politically deadly for Jimmy Carter during the oil crisis of the 1970's. Nor did Mr. Bush propose new policies to encourage conservation. But he was more explicit than in the past that Americans should cut back."

Warren Vieth and Richard Simon write in the Los Angeles Times: "Bush said Monday that everyone had a role to play in responding to the back-to-back storms, which have hampered offshore oil production, refinery operations and fuel distribution in the Gulf Coast region.

" 'We can all pitch in . . . by being better conservers of energy,' Bush said after hearing a briefing at the Energy Department. 'I mean, people just need to recognize that the storms have caused disruption and that if they're able to maybe not drive . . . on a trip that's not essential, that would be helpful.' "

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press that Bush is on the move today. First stop: A briefing on hurricane damage in the port city of Beaumont, Texas.

"After his meeting in Beaumont, Bush was to get an aerial tour of the Texas-Louisiana border area where Rita blew ashore, then meet with Louisiana officials in Lake Charles, La. . . .

"The White House also will be looking at ways to conserve, press secretary Scott McClellan said, although that didn't include curtailing the president's travel plans."

Pickler notes one flaw in the argument that Bush's travel is essential.

"Bush returned Sunday from a three-day trip in which he stopped in four cities that have been a base for government response to the storm. As he has in most of his previous trips to the areas hit by the hurricanes, Bush spent most of the time in meetings with state and local officials--many of them reporting by videoconference.

"On Saturday, in a visit to the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs, Colo., some of Bush's briefers were linked from the White House situation room steps from the Oval Office.

"Still, McClellan said it is important that the president get a firsthand look at emergency operations and lift the spirits of workers there."

What's the Big Deal Anyway?

Eric Umansky writes in Slate's Today's Papers: "It's a bit hard to understand why the LAT and NYT think the president's comments are lead-worthy. As the NYT itself reminds, a few days after Katrina, the president said just about the same thing: 'Don't buy gas if you don't need it.' And, rhetoric aside, on neither occasion did the president offer specific proposals for lowering oil consumption.'

The Washington Post, incidentally, mentioned Bush's call for conservation deep inside a Justin Blum story on page D3 -- although the story led The Post's Web site for most of the day.

One Blogger's View

Liberal Washington Monthly blogger Kevin Drum has this analysis of Bush's remarks:

"First, he talks about conservation but asks only that people 'pitch in.' He is unwilling to propose any serious government action to reduce oil use.

"Second, he talks about environmental restrictions disliked by the energy industry. On this score, unlike the first, he is happy to propose government action.

"Third, at the end of a discussion directed solely at oil use, he suggests that nuclear power is part of the answer, seemingly oblivious to the fact that nuclear power is a source of electricity, an industry that uses virtually no oil. Increased use of nuclear power would have no effect on oil consumption at all.

"So there you have it. An instinctive aversion to using government power when it's opposed by the [oil] industry, even though conservation measures could have a big impact on oil use; an almost palpable eagerness to use any excuse to strip away environmental rules the energy industry dislikes; and a bland ignorance of basic energy policy that would embarrass a high school student."

Not Exactly Clear

Bush, who is not known for his strict adherence to grammar when speaking extemporaneously, was unusually unquotable yesterday.

Here's a topic Bush knows a lot about: Oil. But his remarks were full of fragment sentences, as well as small-bore statistics and industry lingo.

Blogger Holden blisteringly calls attention to some of the harder-to-follow passages.

Motorcade Watch

Mark Silva of the Chicago Tribune was yesterday's pool reporter, and he faithfully tracked Bush's fuel consumption.

"For the day's procession to the Energy Department to assess the nation's energy resources: Two armored limousines, three stretch utility vans, six black SUVs and a partridge-like medical truck.

"But no stop-and-go fuel consumption here: A very fast motorcade blew through all traffic lights south and across the Tidal Basin, then east on Independence to the east side entrance of the great cement-walled hall of Energy."

Silva noted that Bush had his hand over his heart as he assured the audience: "Gasoline prices obviously are on our mind."

Last night, Bush headed to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's home on swanky Kalorama Road for a farewell dinner for Gen. Richard Myers, who is retiring as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"This motorcade was marginally shorter in the SUV category -- five, than the one that traveled to the Energy Department today, with six SUVs. But it was longer in vans, four tonight, compared with three this morning. Two limos, of course," Silva wrote.

As for the Military

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "President Bush said Monday that he and Congress should immediately begin discussing whether to amend federal law so the military could take responsibility right away in natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

"While Mr. Bush had raised the idea before, his comments, at an appearance at the Energy Department, were his first explicit remarks about changing the 127-year-old law that restricts the role of federal troops when they act on American soil. . . .

"Many Pentagon officials have expressed concern about broadening the military's responsibilities to include what would, in effect, be police work, along with its combat role. They argue that it would require very different training, equipment and force levels. . . .

"At a news briefing later, Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said the administration was looking at 'automatic triggers' that could start that federal response.

"It was not clear how those triggers would work, or if the president would have to sign off on the mobilization, as he does when National Guard troops are federalized."

Here is the text of McClellan's briefing.

Cindy Sheehan Watch

Jennifer C. Kerr writes for the Associated Press: "Cindy Sheehan, the California mother who became a leader of the anti-war movement after her son died in Iraq, was arrested Monday along with hundreds of others protesting outside the White House.

"Sheehan, carrying a photo of her son in his Army uniform, rallied with other protesters in a park across the street from the White House and then marched to the gate of the executive mansion to request a meeting with President Bush.

"The protesters later sat down on the pedestrian walkway in front of the White House-- knowing they would be arrested--and began singing and chanting 'Stop the war now!'"

Petula Dvorak writes in The Washington Post that about 370 antiwar demonstrators in all were arrested.

Sheehan herself writes on Huffingtonpost.com: "We all know by now why George won't meet with parents of the soldiers he has killed who disagree with him. First of all, he hates it when people disagree with him. I am not so sure he hates it as much as he is in denial that it even happens. Secondly, he is a coward who arrogantly refuses to meet with the people who pay his salary. Maybe the next time one of us is asked by our bosses to have a performance review, or we are going to be written up for a workplace infraction, we should refuse to go and talk to our bosses citing the fact that the President doesn't have to. The third reason why he won't talk to us is that he knows there is no Noble Cause for the invasion and continued occupation of Iraq. It is a question that has no true answer."

Good Question

White House Briefing readers have lots of good questions. Here's one from George Sievers: "You quote in [Monday's] column : 'In view of the growing costs of Gulf Coast hurricanes, White House Budget Director Joshua Bolten said the president has asked him "to examine the rest of the budget . . . to see where we can tighten our belt," a quest that may lead to cuts in federal benefit programs.'

"The allusion is that cuts in such programs as Medicare and Medicade may result. When it was suggested that taxes be raised to help pay for hurricane relief, President Bush claimed it would 'harm economic growth.'

"Will some reporter ask President Bush why raising taxes (or not making the tax cuts permanent) on those already well off, harms economic growth; but why do cuts to benefit programs for the less fortunate, not harm the economy?"

Supreme Court Watch

Tom Brune writes in Newsday: "With the Senate debate under way on the confirmation of John G. Roberts as chief justice, President George W. Bush must now weigh how big a battle he is willing to fight over his nominee to fill a second vacancy on the Supreme Court.

"Bush is expected to announce his choice to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a moderate whose successor could push the court to the right, soon after the Senate votes to confirm Roberts on tomorrow or Thursday. . . .

"As his post-hurricane popularity remains depressed, some experts suggest he might want to avoid a fight over the court, while others say a fight could bolster his base.

"In response to a question yesterday about his search, Bush said he had interviewed 'people from all walks of life' and that 'diversity is one of the strengths of our country.' "

Halliburton Watch

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post that the feeding frenzy over Bush's spending proposals begins: "Would-be government contractors were meeting in the Hart Senate Office Building to figure out how to get a share of the money. A 'Katrina Reconstruction Summit,' hosted by Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) and sponsored by Halliburton, among others, brought some 200 lobbyists, corporate representatives and government staffers to a room overlooking the Capitol for a five-hour conference that included time for a 'networking break' and advice on 'opportunities for private sector involvement.' "

Karl Rove Watch

The Dallas Morning News reports: "White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove is slated as the special guest at an Oct. 5 fundraiser for the Dallas County Republican Party.

"The event will be at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Dallas, with top donors asked to give $1,500.

"Give up the cash and you'll get your photo taken with the man credited as the architect of President Bush's successful campaigns for the White House."

Extreme Public Relations

Faye Fiore writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Facing criticism that he appeared disengaged from the disaster wrought by Hurricane Katrina, President Bush has been looking for opportunities to show his concern. But the White House will take the effort a step further today, venturing into untested waters by putting the nation's first lady on reality television.

"Laura Bush will travel to storm-damaged Biloxi, Miss., to film a spot on the feel-good, wish-granting hit 'Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.' Mrs. Bush sought to be on the program because she shares the 'same principles' that the producers hold, her press secretary said."

In this episode, a convoy of trucks stocked with everything from mattresses to pants will arrive at a shelter.

"It's not clear exactly what Mrs. Bush will do -- reality shows are unscripted, after all -- but Tom Forman, executive producer and creator, said he is hoping that she'll just pitch in and help unload.

" 'I think we say, 'Mrs. Bush, the stuff is over here, the people are over there, could you grab the other end of that mattress?' Forman said. Press secretary Susan Whitson envisioned something closer to her handing out clothing and thanking volunteers."

Fiore writes that it was the White House that contacted the show -- not the other way around.

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