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Cheney's Challenge

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, November 22, 2005; 1:33 PM

Recognizing that the White House's trash-talking of its opponents had gotten a bit out of hand, President Bush and Vice President Cheney in the past few days have publicly acknowledged that dissent over the war is not in itself unpatriotic and that the administration's newest nemesis, Congressman John Murtha, is no Michael Moore.

But that doesn't mean that they're backing off.

Cheney yesterday took point in the massive PR blitz aimed at salvaging the administration's reputation. He lashed out at the suggestion that "brave Americans were sent into battle for a deliberate falsehood," calling it "revisionism of the most corrupt and shameless variety" and saying that "it has no place anywhere in American politics."

But he was a bit late: Opinion polls show that fully 55 to 57 percent of Americans believe the Bush administration was intentionally misleading in the run up to war. That kind of mistrust is why the question of the administration's integrity has become absolutely central to modern American politics.

Rather than substantively address any of the allegations against the administration, however, Cheney used a handful of straw-man arguments and dubious assertions to make his point. And he took no questions.

How all this plays with the public will go a long way toward resolving two of Washington's most suspenseful cliffhangers: Can the Bush administration somehow turn things around? And will Cheney be the hero or the goat?

Cheney's Role

Here is the text of Cheney's speech yesterday.

Michael A. Fletcher and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney yesterday accused critics of engaging in 'revisionism of the most corrupt and shameless variety' in the Iraq debate, in a major speech that reflected the uncompromising style that has made him a touchstone for many of the controversies shadowing President Bush.

"In remarks before the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research organization where he once served as a research fellow and a trustee, Cheney said Democratic critics of the war are lying when they say Bush lied about prewar intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq. . . .

"The 19-minute speech cast the vice president in a familiar role: as the no-nonsense purveyor of a Bush administration policy that he was central in developing. Yet Cheney's defiant public image concerns even some White House aides. . . .

"In nearly five years as vice president, Cheney has offered one consistent piece of advice that has shaped -- and now threatens to stymie -- the Bush presidency: Don't get distracted by the hand-wringers and naysayers in Washington."

John King reported for CNN on Cheney's speech: "His task was to try to tone down one element of the Iraq war debate, while escalating the rhetoric in another. . . . The president himself told senior aides he believed it was a mistake to be so personal in the White House rebuttal of Democratic Congressman Jack Murtha. . . .

"One reason the administration does not believe it needs to be so heated in rebutting the view of Congressman Murtha, bringing the troops home within 6 months, is that so few leading Democrats are standing with the Congressman."

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney protested yesterday that he had been misunderstood when he said last week that critics of the White House over Iraq were 'dishonest and reprehensible.'

"What he meant to say, he explained to his former colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute, was that those who question the White House's use of prewar intelligence were not only 'dishonest and reprehensible' but also 'corrupt and shameless.'

"It was about as close as the vice president gets to a retraction."

Milbank notes: "It was a delicate act: Celebrating debate and criticism while declaring that a key element of that debate -- whether the administration exaggerated prewar intelligence about Iraq -- is off-limits. But Cheney achieved it with matter-of-fact indignation."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Cheney decided last week, as the debate was intensifying, to time his speech for maximum impact by giving it on an otherwise quiet Monday, the first day that Congress was out of town on recess and while Mr. Bush was traveling back to Washington from a trip to Asia."

Edwin Chen's story in the Los Angeles Times has a great headline: "Using Olive Branch, Cheney Lashes Foes."

In his story, Chen notes that "Murtha, who last week had noted pointedly that Cheney used deferments to avoid service in Vietnam, amended his own comments, saying on CNN: 'I said that heated, and I feel bad about that actually, because, you know, Dick Cheney -- he was in Congress for 10 years. He really has served this country. And he's been a public servant when he would have been making a lot more money outside.' "

Here is the text of Murtha's interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN. Murtha also said: "Just because the president, just because the White House says there's going to be more terrorism if we withdraw doesn't make it so. He said there's going to be weapons of mass destruction. They said oil was going to pay for it. They said there was an al Qaeda connection. That's not necessarily true. I predict the opposite. I think there will be less terrorism. We've become the target. We're the ones that have become the enemy."

Fact Checking Watch

William Douglas of Knight Ridder Newspapers today maintains his bureau's tradition of consistently pushing back on mischaracterizations in White House speeches, rather than just repeating them.

"Cheney laid out the administration's defense of the war again -- and again conflated the war with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, even though investigative commissions have concluded that there was no connection between them and Saddam Hussein," Douglas writes.

He quotes Cheney:

"(T)hey attacked us on 9/11 here in the homeland, killing 3,000 people. Now they are making a stand in Iraq. . . . '

"Would the United States . . . be better off, or worse off, with Zarqawi, bin Laden and Zawahiri in control of Iraq?'

" . . . A precipitous withdrawal from Iraq would be a victory for the terrorists."

Then Douglas writes: "But the war in Iraq isn't primarily with terrorists. Cheney didn't note that Iraq's insurgency rises primarily from ethnic and sectarian tensions among Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Kurds, rejection of U.S.-led occupation forces, and loyalists to Saddam and his once-dominant Baath Party."

Fletcher and VandeHei also note at the end of their article: "Some observers called into question Cheney's repeated description of the enemy in Iraq as 'terrorists' who are seeking to control that country to establish a base from which they can 'launch attacks and to wage war against governments that do not meet their demands.'

"U.S. intelligence agencies say foreign terrorists represent a minority of the insurgent forces; the vast majority are Iraqis."

Rhetorical Devices

Cheney's speech was full of the rhetorical devices that White House speechwriters are fond of.

There was the straw-man argument:

Cheney: "It is a dangerous illusion to suppose that another retreat by the civilized world would satisfy the appetite of the terrorists and get them to leave us alone."

I haven't heard any war critics make that argument.

There were rhetorical questions:

Cheney: "In light of the commitments our country has made, and given the stated intentions of the enemy, those who advocate a sudden withdrawal from Iraq should answer a few simple questions: Would the United States and other free nations be better off, or worse off, with Zarqawi, bin Laden, and Zawahiri in control of Iraq? Would we be safer, or less safe, with Iraq ruled by men intent on the destruction of our country?"

Those questions presuppose that foreign terrorists, rather than Iraqis, would take over.

Howard Kurtz writes in his washingtonpost.com blog today about the "age-old device in politics, making a personal slam sound more high-minded by attributing it to someone else."

And Kurtz notes that in his remarks in Beijing on Sunday, "Bush used a version of the same technique: 'I heard somebody say, well, maybe so-and-so is not patriotic because they disagree with my position. I totally reject that thought.' Somebody? So-and-so? Who could he be referring to?"

The vice president did the same thing yesterday:

Cheney: "One might also argue that untruthful charges against the Commander-in-Chief have an insidious effect on the war effort itself. I'm unwilling to say that, only because I know the character of the United States Armed Forces -- men and women who are fighting the war on terror in Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other fronts."

Cheney v Bush?

Elisabeth Bumiller wrote in Monday's New York Times: "Is there a rift in their relationship? Or is the couple just drifting apart? Has the senior partner taken the junior partner to the woodshed? And who is the senior partner, anyway? . . .

"Mr. Bush is said to be upset with Mr. Cheney because the vice president promised a fast, rosy finish to the war in Iraq, now a two-and-a-half-year-old conflict, and because of the indictment of the vice president's top aide in a case that has focused on alleged efforts to discredit a war critic.

"For now, the consensus among Republicans close to the White House is that Mr. Bush may well have been angry about the actions of Mr. Cheney's office, and that he has long been aware that the vice president oversold the case on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

"But the same Republicans say that Mr. Bush was as much of a hawk on the war as Mr. Cheney, and that in any case the relationship between them has inevitably changed as Mr. Bush has become more secure after five years in office."

Cheney, of course, is by any standard an unusually powerful vice president. And John Dickerson writes in Slate that he's also been unusually free to pursue his personal ideological agenda because he's not running for president.

"In a traditional political marriage, the vice president would be too nervous about his political future to give such a full-throated endorsement of unpopular policies and kiss-offs to politicians in both parties. . . . GOP politicians would also be quietly telling him to distance himself from Bush. . . .

"Dick Cheney doesn't have to worry about any of that."

The downside? "Cheney has been so extreme in various ways, usually at his president's behest, that he has marginalized himself from being able to reach out to nonbelievers in a useful way. In the end, Dick Cheney's lack of political ambition may have been no better for the administration than if he had spent the past five years trying to position himself to run against Hillary Clinton."

Maybe Bush Didn't Lie -- But Cheney Did?

Richard Cohen writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "[T]he unhinged right wing has now invented the myth that Democratic members of Congress have called President Bush 'a liar' about Iraq. An extensive computer search by myself and a Post researcher can come up with no such accusation. That's prudent. After all, it's not clear if Bush lied about Iraq or was merely the 'useful idiot' of those who did. . . .

"Cheney, for one, is too smart and too calculating not to have known that the envelope was being pushed past the point of verifiable truth. . . .

"[Y]ou would think that Bush himself would wonder about how he's gotten to this place where he looks like such a fool: wrong on the biggest issue of his presidency. He went out there and told the American people things that were not true. Does that mean he lied? Maybe not. Maybe he was just repeating the lies of others."

The Denver Three

The ACLU has filed a lawsuit on behalf of two of the "Denver Three."

Karen E. Crummy writes in the Denver Post: "The White House has violated the First Amendment by repeatedly excluding Americans from public, presidential 'town halls' when their views differ from those held by President Bush, according to a federal lawsuit filed in Colorado today by the American Civil Liberties Union.

"Denver residents Leslie Weise, 40, and Alex Young, 26, allege that they were unlawfully removed by White House event staffers at a March 21 town hall discussion with the president because of a 'no more blood for oil' bumper sticker on their car.

"Although the two had tickets to the event discussing Social Security and had no intention of disrupting it, they were removed because the White House has 'set a policy of prohibiting anyone from attending this public event if they held a viewpoint other than that held by the president,' according to the suit."

Kirk Johnson writes in the New York Times: "The suit, filed in Federal District Court by lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union, could transform what had been a public-relations thorn for the Bush administration into a legal thicket. A.C.L.U. lawyers said they would pursue in particular the question of who gave orders to workers at the event, held March 21 at the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum in Denver."

Here's the ACLU complaint .

No Exit

The metaphorical value of this sequence of images continues to captivate White House watchers everywhere.

As Ken Herman wrote for Cox News Service from Beijing: "In the broad collection of President Bush's gaffes and ungraceful moments, this one may become known as the 'no exit strategy' media conference.

"Much to his surprise, the doors he tried to use as he ducked a follow-up question after wrapping up the session were locked.

"He pulled a few times and then said, jokingly, 'I was trying to escape. It didn't work.'

"Bush stood at a sort of mock attention in the hotel area set up for the media conference, and was bailed out when aide Blake Gottesman peeked out from behind screens set up at the back of the room and motioned Bush to head that way.

"The president then successfully completed his exit, heading out the same way he came in."

Bush's grimace as he encountered the locked doors made newspapers everywhere.

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column today: "As visual metaphors go, it was a lavishly gilded lily of an image, a hanging curveball across the plate, a George Tenet-style slam-dunk: A weary President Bush, trying to escape a news conference in Beijing on Sunday, strides away from the microphone to a pair of locked doors, which he pulls and tugs in vain. No exit, the image screamed. No way out. Of course, George Bush will inevitably get out of the mess he has made -- he leaves office in three years and two months, not that anyone's counting. But the rest of us will be left with his handiwork: crushing national debt, rising economic inequality, a poisoned political atmosphere and, oh, yes, the war in Iraq. We're the ones trapped in the dark with no exit sign in sight."

Turkey Watch

President Bush's only public event today, before he flies off to Crawford for Thanksgiving, is the annual pardoning of two Thanksgiving turkeys.

The White House Web site asked the public to help name the critters.

White House Briefing readers had some ideas of their own.

I had originally suggested Karl and Scooter. Among the other suggestions: Official A and Mr. X; Mr. and Ms. Run Amok; Brownie and Turdblossom.

Meanwhile, Johanna Neuman writes in the Los Angeles Times that "unlike the turkeys granted reprieves from the chopping block over the last 15 years, this year's bird will not be sent to Frying Pan Park, an animal farm in the Washington suburbs, to gobble to its heart's content for the rest of its days. This afternoon, minutes after being spared, the 35-pound presidential turkey -- along with a back-up bird -- is going to Disneyland. On United Flight 197. First class."

Neuman writes that this change in plans may the result of "a letter-writing campaign sponsored by People for the Ethical Treatment for Animals, along with some reports in the media, decrying the fate that befell the pardoned birds in the past. We sent a letter to President Bush early last week, as we have for the last five years in a row, asking him to send the birds to a better environment than Frying Pan Park, where they shiver in a 10-by-10 shed with no mental or physical stimulation and tend to die within six months,' said Bruce Friedrich, director of vegan campaigns for PETA. 'Really, the pardon for the last 15 years has been more like a death sentence.' . . .

"But this being Washington, conspiracy theories have popped up about the real motive behind the destination change. With the White House referring all questions to the federation and the federation not returning calls, PETA is sure the president wants to fend off any more negative publicity. 'He's dodging Turkeygate,' Friedrich said."

Mongolia Watch

David Sanger writes in the New York Times: "If you are an American president in need of just a few hours of temporary political asylum -- no debate about Iraq, no Chinese leaders resisting the American agenda and plenty of adulation -- here is an approach: Come to the endless steppes that Ghengis Khan made famous. . . .

"Gone from Mr. Bush's face was the let's-get-on-with-it look he had at Gigkakuji, the famed temple he visited in Kyoto, Japan. He talked with the warriors and stepped around camels and yaks to make his way into a quite luxurious ger. Sitting by a wood-burning stove, he chatted with a family of herders. . . .

"The man who once power-walked through Red Square in less than 10 minutes actually lingered. Then, reluctantly, four and a half hours after he landed, Mr. Bush boarded his plane and lifted off -- taking him back to the questions at home about how his presidency can regain its footing amid new debates on the Iraq war."

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "With this unlikely stop, Bush showed he would go almost anywhere to enlist or retain partners in his shrinking coalition of the willing. The president received a warm welcome here, days after the South Korean government embarrassed him during his visit by announcing the withdrawal of one-third of its forces from Iraq."

Christopher Cooper writes in the Wall Street Journal: "President Bush once again touted his war policy, hailing the 'stunning transformation' of Iraq. Nearly as stunning was an overseas audience that offered not a single catcall -- and instead broke into the kind of rhythmic applause often heard at rock concerts. . . .

"Mr. Bush wasn't able to avoid was a sip of the local specialty -- fermented mare's milk -- even though he's a teetotaler."

Incidentally, according to the e-mongol.com Web site, fermented mare's milk has an alcoholic content of about three percent.

Libby Watch

James Sterngold writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, who is charged with obstructing justice and lying in the CIA leak case, has hired a leading expert in using classified information in criminal trials, giving an early hint of his possible defense strategy."

Carol D. Leonnig and Jim VandeHei wrote in The Washington Post on Saturday: "The prosecutor in the CIA leak case said yesterday that he plans to present evidence to another federal grand jury, signaling a new and potentially significant turn in the investigation into the unmasking of CIA operative Valerie Plame."

And they noted: "In anticipation of a lengthy and expensive court fight, a number of Republican former senators, former ambassadors and fundraisers are planning to raise $250,000 each and a total of $5 million for Libby's legal fund, according to people familiar with the plan. In a private conversation earlier this week, Republicans such as former ambassadors Melvin Sembler and Howard Leach promised to raise at least $250,000. Former senators Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) and Alan K. Simpson (Wyo.) and former congressman Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.) are also part of the fundraising campaign, the sources said."

Rove Watch

Michael Isikoff and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek: "Deputy White House chief of staff Karl Rove recently took out a $100,000 line of credit from Wells Fargo Bank, according to real-estate records obtained by Newsweek. The loan is secured by Rove's vacation home in Rosemary Beach in the Florida Panhandle worth more than $1 million, according to his most recent financial disclosure. Rove signed the loan papers on Oct. 22 -- just nine days after he testified before the grand jury for the fourth time. A White House spokeswoman said Rove's new line of credit is 'unrelated' to his legal expenses. But any Rove legal debts -- which won't have to be publicly disclosed until next year -- could bring attention to his relationship with Patton Boggs, the D.C. powerhouse lobbying firm, where his lawyer in the leak case, Robert Luskin, is a partner. Lobbying records show Patton Boggs represents a battery of foreign governments, corporations and others with interests before the government."

Woodward on Larry King

Speaking with CNN's Larry King yesterday, Washington Post assistant managing editor Bob Woodward said he spoke to his high-level source about Valerie Plame a week to 10 days before New York Times reporter Judith Miller's June 23, 2003 meeting with Libby.

While divulging little new, Woodward did give some more insight into how he feels about the case:

"The good news in all of this is when it all comes out, and hopefully it will come out, people will see how casual and offhand this was," he said.

"Remember, the investigation and the allegations that people have printed about this story is that there's some vast conspiracy to slime Joe Wilson and his wife, really attack him in an ugly way that is outside of the boundaries of political hardball.

"The evidence I had firsthand, small piece of the puzzle I acknowledge, is that that was not the case."

Bush vs. the Bureaucracy

David E. Rosenbaum writes in the New York Times that the "consensus in political and academic circles" is that that "this administration seems more willing than its recent predecessors to bypass the bureaucracy to put its mark on government. . . .

"The administration seems to be influenced, at least in part, by an innate mistrust of the civil service and the intelligence establishment, which many Republicans believe to be Democratic in outlook."

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m.

Blair Watch

Kevin Maguire and Andy Lines write in the British tabloid, the Daily Mirror: "President Bush planned to bomb Arab TV station al-Jazeera in friendly Qatar, a 'Top Secret' No 10 memo reveals.

"But he was talked out of it at a White House summit by Tony Blair, who said it would provoke a worldwide backlash.

"A source said: 'There's no doubt what Bush wanted, and no doubt Blair didn't want him to do it.' Al-Jazeera is accused by the US of fuelling the Iraqi insurgency. . . .

"A Government official suggested that the Bush threat had been 'humorous, not serious'.

"But another source declared: 'Bush was deadly serious, as was Blair. That much is absolutely clear from the language used by both men.' "

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