Photo Op Bites Back

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, October 11, 2005; 1:15 PM

It was such a lovely photo op -- President Bush and his wife joining the volunteers building a house in Louisiana. The perfect backdrop for an upbeat interview, live on NBC's Today Show.

But then Matt Lauer had to go and pull back the curtain and ask: Isn't this all just an empty photo op?

What ensued was an unusually testy interview, with Bush waving off more questions than he answered, chiding Lauer for quoting too many Democrats in his windups and making it clear that he would have been much happier fielding questions about the charitable nature of the American people than about politics.

Here's the text ; here's the video .

"Q So much more visibility on your part, President Bush, following Hurricane Rita and, as I mentioned, the eight trips to the region, as compared to what was seen as a slow and inefficient federal response after Hurricane Katrina. Is this one of those situations where you're trying to get a second chance to make a good first impression?"

"PRESIDENT BUSH: I do my job as best I can. One of the things that we do is we respond to crisis. And as I told the people, if I didn't respond well enough, we're going to learn the lessons. If there's any mistakes made at the federal level, I, of course, accept responsibility for them. . . .

"Q I talked to a prominent Democrat in Louisiana who has said that this type of appearance, while it's great to see you guys rolling up your sleeves and grabbing a hammer and helping with this piece of wall here, that it's a photo op, and they want to see a plan on paper, your plan to rebuild this region. Do you have that kind of a plan?

"THE PRESIDENT: Well, Matt, you see, I don't think Washington ought to dictate to New Orleans how to rebuild. I guess we have a different philosophy than whoever the prominent Democrat was you spoke to. Last night, Laura and had dinner with Mayor Nagin and a group of distinguished New Orleans citizens from all walks of life. And my message to them was, we will support the plan that you develop.

"The point is, is that it comes from the local folks. And I recognize there's an attitude in Washington that says, we know better than the local people. That's just not the attitude I have."

Later, after Lauer began quoting another Democrat who has criticized the lack of a forgiveness clause in the administration's loan package for hurricane recovery, Bush interrupted and said, only half-jokingly: "You're quoting a lot of Democrats today, Matt, that's interesting."

Bush kept trying to turn the interview into more of a feel-good session. "I think our job is to elevate this whole process out of normal politics," he said.

When Lauer asked whether that was really possible, Bush shot back: "It depends on who asks the questions, I guess."

Did Bush at least make news when he said he was looking to local governments to make the key decisions about rebuilding? Not likely. It sounded to me more like an unresponsive answer to the pleas by those government officials for more and better-managed federal aid.

As Peter Whoriskey writes in today's Washington Post: "At a meeting Monday afternoon, the group of civic leaders chosen to lead rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina discussed shortfalls in the federal government's relief program.

"Some said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was not acting efficiently enough to provide temporary housing for workers.

"Some seemed exasperated that too few federal contracts were being won by local companies.

"And some complained that the Army Corps of Engineers is not building the levees to withstand the worst of hurricanes, and that that might be keeping people out of the city, too."

It was precisely those officials who met with Bush last night, over a dinner of gumbo, grilled red fish, rib eye steak, herb roasted chicken and barbecue shrimp, behind the closed doors of a fancy New Orleans restaurant.

Agence France Presse reports: "White House spokesman Trent Duffy said it was an 'open exchange' with the local officials that covered problems associated with housing, insurance and repairing the city's system of ruptured levees.

'The American people have their arms out. We want you to know that a lot of people care,' Bush told the officials, according to his spokesman."

Also in Today's Interview

After several questions about hurricane relief, Lauer turned to some of the other issues bedeviling the president.

"Q While I have you here and while you don't have a hammer in your hand, can I ask you - well, you have it in your belt - (laughter) - about some things going on in Washington?


"Q A lot of criticism coming for your nominee to the Supreme Court, Harriet Miers, from conservatives - people like Trent Lott and Pat Buchanan and George Will and Bill Kristol. Were you taken off-guard a little bit, caught by surprise by the amount of criticism you're getting for Judge Miers?

"THE PRESIDENT: Well, you know, I made a decision to put somebody on the Court who hadn't been a part of what they call the judicial monastery. In other words -- I listened, by the way, to people in the Senate who suggested, why don't you get somebody from the outside. And I figured that people are going to kind of question whether or not it made sense to bring somebody from outside the Court.

"I would remind those, one, that Harriet is an extraordinary, accomplished woman who has done a lot. As a matter of fact, she has consistently ranked as one of the top 50 women lawyers in the United States, that she has broken the glass ceiling. She has served as a great example. She is a brilliant person. And that just because she hasn't served on the bench doesn't mean that she can't be a great Supreme Court Justice."

There was also a question about Karl Rove:

"Q Your political guru, Karl Rove, is set to - or scheduled to testify before a grand jury for the fourth time this coming week, it seems, looking into the leak of a CIA agent's name. You've said if someone on your staff had anything to do with that leak, you'll take care of that person. Has Karl Rove looked you in the eye, Mr. President, and said 'I, in no way, bent or broke the rules, or the law, when it comes to this case'?

"THE PRESIDENT: Matt, I've also consistently said I'm not going to talk about the case; it's under review. So I'm not going to talk about it. Thank you for asking, but - on the other hand, the prosecutor has made it clear - and made it clear - that he doesn't want anybody speculating or talking about the case, so I'm not going to talk about it. "

Flashback to Another Testy Interview

It was more than a year ago when plucky Irish TV reporter Carole Coleman mixed it up with a clearly peeved Bush in a one-on-one interview .

"Testy, Testy, Testy," I wrote in my June 25, 2004 column -- with follow-ups on June 28 and July 1 .

Well, in this weekend's Sunday Times, Coleman herself revisits her ten minutes with Bush and writes that at one point she felt like slapping him.

It's an extraordinarily revealing piece, exposing the manipulation and choreography behind a Bush interview.

There was the pre-interview coaching:

One White House official "suggested that I ask the president about the yellow suit the taoiseach had worn the previous week at the G8 Summit on Sea Island in Georgia. I laughed loudly and then stopped to study his face for signs that he was joking -- but he didn't appear to be. 'The president has a good comment on that,' he said."

And the pre-interview bribery:

"I'm sure I continued smiling, but I was stunned. What I understood from this was that if I pleased the White House with my questioning of the president, I would get to interview the first lady."

There was her decision to ignore the rules:

"Reporters often begin a big interview by asking a soft question -- to let the subject warm up before getting into the substance of the topic at hand. This was how I had initially intended to begin with Bush, but as I mentally rehearsed the likely scenario, I felt that too much time could be consumed by his first probable answer, praising Ireland and looking forward to his visit. We could, I had calculated, be into the third minute before even getting to the controversial topics. I decided to ditch the cordial introduction."

There was her decision to interrupt, repeatedly:

" 'But Mr President,' I interrupted again, 'the world is a more dangerous place today. I don't know whether you can see that or not.' "

Then there was the recognition that there was really nothing much she could do:

"I was now beginning to feel shut out of this event. He had the floor and he wasn't letting me dance. My blood was boiling to such a point that I felt like slapping him. But I was dealing with the president of the United States; and he was too far away anyway. I suppose I had been naive to think that he was making himself available to me so I could spar with him or plumb the depths of his thought processes. Sitting there, I knew that I was nobody special and that this was just another opportunity for the president to repeat his mantra."

After the interview, there was the immediate blowback:

"Is that how you do it in Ireland -- interrupting people all the time?" Bush asked her.

"I froze. He was not happy with me and was letting me know it.

" 'Yes,' I stuttered, determined to maintain my own half-smile."

And then response from an angry White House aide:

" 'You were given an opportunity to interview the leader of the free world and you blew it,' she began. . . .

" 'You were more vicious than any of the White House press corps or even some of them up on Capitol Hill. . . . The president leads the interview,' she said.

" 'I don't agree,' I replied, my initial worry now turning to frustration. 'It's the journalist's job to lead the interview.' . . .

"A man's voice then came on the line. . . . 'And, it goes without saying, you can forget about the interview with Laura Bush.' "

Back Again -- and Live Online Tomorrow

I'm back, after a vacation during which I had very little contact with the news. Did anything much happen?

I guess I have some catching up to do.

I didn't even realize Bush had held his first press conference since May until I read about it in the International Herald Tribune on the plane home yesterday.

I caught dribs and drabs of the often toxic reaction to the Harriet Miers nomination, and saw an occasional headline about Judith Miller, Karl Rove and the gang.

And unless I dreamt it, I'm pretty sure I caught a clip of Bush on CNN International actually criticizing Osama Bin Laden for being a child of wealth and privilege who sends young people to their deaths but never offers to go along with the ride.

Did that really happen? Yup. Here's that speech . Did anyone else notice that?

Anyway, I'm reading like crazy and will even be Live Online tomorrow at 1, hopefully able to answer at least some of your questions.

Plame Watch

Some of the latest, top stories:

Adam Entous writes for Reuters: "A New York Times reporter has given investigators notes from a conversation she had with a top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney weeks earlier than was previously known, suggesting White House involvement started well before the outing of a CIA operative, legal sources said.

"Times reporter Judith Miller discovered the notes -- about a June 2003 conversation she had with Cheney's chief of staff, Lewis 'Scooter' Libby -- after her testimony before the grand jury last week, the sources said on Friday. She turned the notes over to federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald and is expected to meet him again next Tuesday, the sources said. . . .

"Miller's notes could help Fitzgerald show a long-running and orchestrated campaign to discredit Wilson, which could help form the basis for a conspiracy charge."

David Johnston writes in the New York Times on Saturday: "The prosecutor in the C.I.A. leak case is exploring a range of possible crimes, lawyers in the case say, suggesting that the investigation has moved well beyond its initial focus on whether anyone in the Bush administration illegally disclosed the identity of a C.I.A. operative.

"In recent days, the prosecutor, Patrick J. Fitzgerald, has accelerated the pace of his inquiry in an apparent effort to conclude the case before the grand jury's term expires on Oct. 28. Mr. Fitzgerald has indicated to several lawyers that he might be preparing to bring charges, but he has not yet made a decision."

Carol D. Leonnig and Jim VandeHei write in Friday's Washington Post: "A source close to Rove said Bush's chief political adviser and his legal team are now genuinely concerned he could face charges. But, the source said, his lawyers are hoping that Fitzgerald's warning of the chance of indictment is simply the move of a conservative, by-the-book prosecutor wrapping up a high-profile investigation. . . .

"It is highly unusual for a person who has any risk of being indicted in a white-collar case to offer to go before the grand jury, say veteran defense lawyers and former prosecutors. But the rare exceptions, they say, are almost always high-profile figures and politicians. Public figures can expect that an indictment will end their careers, and that refusing to cooperate in an investigation could do the same, criminal lawyers said."

John D. McKinnon writes in the Wall Street Journal: "Among the problems besetting the White House, the CIA leak investigation appears most threatening. That is because one of those under scrutiny, deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, is far more than merely the strategist behind President Bush's campaign victories.

"Mr. Rove is the administration's indispensable man, the connective tissue between the policies and constituencies needed to win elections and govern. . . .

"The evolution of Mr. Bush's statements on the CIA leak case indicate how loath he is to lose the man he has described as his political 'architect.' Early on in the controversy over the disclosure of Ms. Plame's identity, the president vowed to fire anyone involved. Later, after testimony implicating Mr. Rove became public, Mr. Bush expressed a looser standard, saying he would remove aides who committed crimes. Last week, amid speculation that Mr. Rove might face charges from special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, Mr. Bush wouldn't say whether he would remove an aide under indictment."

Michael Isikoff writes in Newsweek: "The White House's handling of a potentially crucial e-mail sent by senior aide Karl Rove two years ago set off a chain of events that has led special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald to summon Rove for a fourth grand jury appearance this week. . . .

"[L]awyers close to the case, who asked not to be identified because it's ongoing, say Fitzgerald appears to be focusing in part on discrepancies in testimony between Rove and Time reporter Matt Cooper about their conversation of July 11, 2003."

Murray Waas writes for the National Journal: "White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove personally assured President Bush in the early fall of 2003 that he had not disclosed to anyone in the press that Valerie Plame, the wife of an administration critic, was a CIA employee, according to legal sources with firsthand knowledge of the accounts that both Rove and Bush independently provided to federal prosecutors. . . .

"Sources close to the Fitzgerald investigation say that Rove's personal assurances to the president and his initial interview with the FBI are central to whether the grand jury might charge Rove with making false statements to investigators or with obstruction of justice."

Rove's attorney, Robert Luskin, "asserted that any misstatements that his client might have made to the president, the FBI, or other public officials, were not purposeful and were due to incomplete records and faulty memories," Waas wrote.

The President's Lawyer

Ralph Blumenthal and Simon Romero write in the New York Times: "'You are the best governor ever - deserving of great respect,' Harriet E. Miers wrote to George W. Bush days after his 51st birthday in July 1997. She also found him 'cool,' said he and his wife, Laura, were 'the greatest!' and told him: 'Keep up the great work. Texas is blessed.'

"Ms. Miers, President Bush's personal lawyer and his selection for a Supreme Court seat, emerges as an unabashed fan in more than 2,000 pages of official correspondence and personal notes made public on Monday by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission in response to open-records requests. . . .

"The documents, including many minutes of meetings of the Texas Lottery Commission, which Ms. Miers headed, shed little light on her legal thinking, but underscore her ties to Mr. Bush. Because of their closeness and her lack of a judicial record, some critics have dismissed Ms. Miers as a crony unworthy of nomination to the court but for her confidential service as the president's lawyer.

"Others question whether their bond could undermine the separation of powers of the executive and judicial branches."

Nancy Gibbs writes in Time: "The driving force was chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr., who took over the vetting role. 'This is something that Andy and the President cooked up,' the adviser told TIME. 'Andy knew it would appeal to the President because he loves appointing his own people and being supersecret and stealthy about it.'

"Relations between Rove and Card have always been strained, and this adviser said the nomination has reignited the tension. Another Republican involved said it reflected Bush's isolation. 'Somebody just like her should have told him, 'Mr. President, no. This is a mistake.' But he picked the picker, so there was no one there to tell him no.' "

What Did Rove Tell Dobson?

David D. Kirkpatrick writes in the New York Times: "Senator Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and several Democrats on the committee said Sunday that they were considering calling the evangelical conservative James C. Dobson to testify on what he has been told about Harriet E. Miers, the president's Supreme Court nominee. . . .

"Mr. Dobson, the influential founder of the conservative evangelical group Focus on the Family, has said he is supporting Ms. Miers's nomination in part because of something he has been told but cannot divulge. He has not disclosed the source of the information, but he has acknowledged speaking with Karl Rove, President Bush's top political adviser, about the president's pick before it was announced."

Meanwhile, an alert reader e-mails me to note that in this morning's broadcast , Dobson said that he has gotten Rove's permission to discuss their conversation and will do so on tomorrow's show.

"That conversation that I had with Karl Rove was leaked to the media by one of my close friends, for reasons that I have not yet figured out," Dobson complained. "Now it has become something of a national obsession."

About That Catching Up

Here are a few stories that helped me get up to speed:

Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote in the New York Times on Sunday: "The conservative uproar over Ms. Miers underscores how difficult it has been for Mr. Bush to pull his own party together as he faces a variety of problems on other fronts: his administration's response to Hurricane Katrina; a leak investigation involving his chief political adviser, Karl Rove; the indictment of Representative Tom DeLay of Texas, who was the House majority leader; and, most recently, the decision by a top Justice Department nominee to withdraw amid questions over his ties to a Republican lobbyist accused of fraud.

"Only a week ago, Republicans were saying they looked forward to a new Supreme Court nominee because it would give them something to rally around, providing a welcome distraction from the Bush administration's problems. But the nomination of Ms. Miers only served to roil a party that is already divided over domestic matters like Social Security and how to pay to rebuild the Gulf Coast.

"Now, having alienated his conservative backers, Mr. Bush must go forward on the Miers nomination alone, without the help of many of the advocates who led the charge for the last nominee, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr."

And here's a David S. Broder op-ed from Sunday's Washington Post: "Three front-page stories on a single day last week testified to the unraveling of the Bush presidency." Here are stories one , two and three .

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