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Bush Meets Blacks Behind Closed Doors

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, December 9, 2005; 5:36 PM

After five years of frosty relations between the White House and the NAACP, the civil rights organization's new president, Bruce S. Gordon, has met with President Bush twice in the past three months -- and at the second meeting, just this week, he brought eight other black leaders with him.

The continued, widespread anger in the African American community about Bush's lackluster response to Hurricane Katrina is certainly one factor in the White House's new outreach effort.

But another factor is Gordon himself, a former Verizon senior executive, who is apparently willing to indulge Bush in his passion for secrecy.

Gordon and his colleagues have spoken in only the most general terms about what transpired during their closed-door meetings with the president.

Doesn't the public deserve to know more? Though eclipsed by the war in Iraq, Bush's response to Katrina and his antipathy towards traditional civil rights causes are two of the bigger stories of his presidency.

And here is a president who is known to avoid dissent in private as much as possible -- and eschew it completely in public -- actually meeting face to face with some of his most indignant critics. Did the leaders give Bush an earful, and how did he respond? We just don't know.

Kelly Brewington writes in the Baltimore Sun: "Some national civil rights leaders say this week's private meeting with President Bush offers hope for an end to frosty relations, but others insist an hourlong talk is no guarantee that the Republican White House will become responsive to their agendas. . . .

"Wednesday's meeting brought together senior White House staff with nine black leaders, including: National Urban League President and Chief Executive Marc Morial; Donna Brazile, a Democratic political consultant; Rep. Melvin Watt, a North Carolina Democrat and head of the Congressional Black Caucus; and Dorothy Height, president emerita of the National Council of Negro Women. . . .

" 'I think this is going to be helpful for the NAACP and the White House, no doubt about it,' said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, who did not attend this week's meeting but was involved in conversations leading up to it. . . .

" 'Don't get me wrong, if you put this on the scale of a love relationship, it's not quite dating, let alone engagement or marriage,' Cummings said. 'But I think it's an opportunity to talk. And I think that's probably a good thing.'

"Others argued that little would come of the meeting, saying they doubt any civil rights leader could sway an administration that has not made civil rights a priority."

For instance, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who was not invited to the White House, complained that such an important meeting should not be secretive.

"'You can't have a private meeting about a public agenda in the White House,' he said in an interview yesterday."

In a little-noticed C-Span interview with Brian Lamb last month, Gordon spoke a bit about his first secret meeting with Bush, which came on September 26. It was about an hour long, and most of it was just between Gordon and Bush -- with no aides.

"LAMB: You didn't talk about that meeting, why not?

"GORDON: I didn't need to. It was not a publicity stunt. It was not something that, in my opinion, we needed to publicize. I think early on the president and I just needed to see whether we could find some common ground.

"He obviously had a bad feeling about the NAACP. And candidly, the NAACP has had a bad feeling about him. And my sense is this. When you have a 96-year-old civil rights organization, the oldest and largest civil rights organization in the country, and you've got the president of the United States, just because of those two organizations, the administration and the NAACP, there ought to be dialogue. There ought to be access. There ought to be two-way communications. . . .

"And I think that we, particularly with the backdrop of Katrina, because that's what we had -- you know, that's -- frankly, most of our conversation was Katrina-centric. So with that as a basis for conversation, I think that we did uncover the opportunities to find common ground that we should pursue. . . .

"He was very direct, as was I. He was very willing to put his emotions on the table. It was an emotional discussion, both sides. . . .

"LAMB: Was he angry?

"GORDON: He was angry about some things, yes. That's OK. You know, if you're angry and you put it out on the table, better to do that than the other way around. You know, I'm angry about things, once again, I'm coming -- that meeting, which was actually on the 23rd, came three weeks approximately after Katrina.

"And any American, in my opinion, but certainly any black American in this country who wasn't feeling angry about what happened in the Gulf, you know, needs to see whether they have blood flowing in their veins."

An NAACP press release after Wednesday's meeting was intentionally vague, simply saying that the discussion "went beyond Hurricane Katrina to include reauthorization and restoration of the Voting Rights Act and judicial nominations" and that Bush was accompanied by senior adviser Karl Rove, Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and domestic policy adviser Claude Allen.

Press Secretary Scott McClellan was asked about the meeting at his Wednesday briefing :

Q: "Is it more so about lessons learned, or is it into concrete details of solutions --

"MR. McCLELLAN: Actually, this is a meeting -- the President has met with African American leaders on a frequent basis, and this was a meeting that was set up mutually -- in a mutual way. I think that everybody who helped set up this meeting agreed that we'd keep it a private discussion. And if there's anything else to add after it, I'll be glad to do that. I'll be attending the meeting here shortly, if I can get out of this room in time.

"Q Well, why private when it's been so public, all the problems that have happened --

"MR. McCLELLAN: Because a lot of times you can discuss shared priorities and how to move forward on those better in a quiet way. And I think the decision was just made that this would be a private discussion."

Fitzgerald Watch

Carol D. Leonnig and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "A special prosecutor questioned Time magazine reporter Viveca Novak under oath yesterday about a conversation she had with the attorney for presidential adviser Karl Rove that has become part of the CIA leak investigation, according to a top editor at the magazine.

"In another twist, the lawyer, Robert D. Luskin, was deposed on the same issue last Friday, a source close to the case said."

What's is Rove's vulnerability here? In case you've forgotten: "For more than a year after the investigation began, Rove failed to reveal to the FBI and the grand jury that he had privately told another reporter for Time, Matthew Cooper, about the CIA role of undercover operative Valerie Plame."

David Johnston writes in the New York Times: "Jim Kelly, Time's managing editor, said Ms. Novak's account of her testimony, in a deposition, would appear in the magazine on Monday."

Politics and the Troops

Greg Kelly of Fox News is pursuing a story no one else seems to want to touch. On Tuesday, he filed this report: "Twice last month in speeches to military audiences, the president attacked Democrats and fired back at their accusations that pre-war intelligence was manipulated by his administration. . . .

"The attacks against critics at military settings may have put troops in the awkward position of undermining their own regulations. A Department of Defense directive doesn't allow service members in uniform to attend 'partisan political events.' . . .

"Several members of the military told FOX News that Bush is inviting the troops to take sides in a partisan debate in his speeches.

" 'This is a very bad sign,' said retired Marine Gen. Joseph Hoar, who led Central Command in the early 1990s and is an administration critic. 'This is the sort of thing that you find in other countries where the military and political, certain political parties are aligned.' "

Kelly apparently isn't done with the story. Here he is asking a question at yesterday's press briefing :

"Q Scott, this is going back a little bit, but we've received some complaints from soldiers, both former and current, about the Tobyhanna speech and the Elmendorf, Alaska speech. They cite their own regulations that say U.S. soldiers cannot participate in partisan political activity. But when the President attacked Democrats, they are -- they feel like they were put in the position where they're supporting a democratic cause in uniform. Does the President feel --

"MR. McCLELLAN: Who said that? I think the President was talking as Commander-in-Chief to our troops and talking to them about the war that we're engaged in.

"Q Well, he was talking about Democrats, as well. 'Some Democrats who voted to authorize use of force are now rewriting the past.' He said, 'It is irresponsible Democrats --

"MR. McCLELLAN: That's true.

"Q -- 'claim we misled them.'

"MR. McCLELLAN: Now, I notice -- now, I notice they're not making those same claims recently.

"Q Well, nevertheless, does the President feel like it's appropriate to inject the troops into what is, I think, quite clearly a partisan debate?

"MR. McCLELLAN: No, I disagree. The President is the Commander-in-Chief. No one has been more involved in this war on terrorism than our troops and their families. And our troops understand the importance of the mission."

Here are the transcripts of Bush's remarks at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska on November 14; and Tobyhanna Army Depot in Pennsylvania, on November 11. At the air force base, for example, Bush said that "some Democrats who voted to authorize the use of force are now rewriting the past. They are playing politics with this issue and they are sending mixed signals to our troops and the enemy."

Anatomy of an Assertion

Douglas Jehl writes in the New York Times: "The Bush administration based a crucial prewar assertion about ties between Iraq and Al Qaeda on detailed statements made by a prisoner while in Egyptian custody who later said he had fabricated them to escape harsh treatment, according to current and former government officials. . . .

"The fact that [Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi] recanted after the American invasion of Iraq and that intelligence based on his remarks was withdrawn by the C.I.A. in March 2004 has been public for more than a year. But American officials had not previously acknowledged either that Mr. Libi made the false statements in foreign custody or that Mr. Libi contended that his statements had been coerced. . . .

"In statements before the war, and without mentioning him by name, President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Colin L. Powell, then the secretary of state, and other officials repeatedly cited the information provided by Mr. Libi as 'credible' evidence that Iraq was training Qaeda members in the use of explosives and illicit weapons. Among the first and most prominent assertions was one by Mr. Bush, who said in a major speech in Cincinnati in October 2002 that 'we've learned that Iraq has trained Al Qaeda members in bomb making and poisons and gases.'"

About Victory

Peter Grier writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "If there is one word the White House wants the American public to associate with the war in Iraq, it is probably 'victory.' President Bush said it 11 times Wednesday in his speech on rebuilding Iraq - following victory's 15 mentions in his address on the training of Iraqi forces last week.

"From the administration's point of view, the benefits of this rhetorical approach are obvious. As a theme, victory is positive, even uplifting. It might serve to counter any public impression that the US is stuck in an Iraqi morass. . . .

"But by being so forceful about complete victory the administration may have raised public expectations for a crisp, clear ending to the US experience in Iraq - an ending that may not occur during Bush's presidency, if ever."

Rumsfeld Watch

Will Dunham writes for Reuters: "U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the craftsman of U.S. Iraq war strategy and a magnet for criticism, said on Thursday he had no plans to retire from the post more than 2-1/2 years into the conflict.

" 'Those reports have been flying around since about four months after I assumed my post in 2001,' Rumsfeld, 73, told reporters on Capitol Hill when asked about a New York Daily News report that White House officials are telling associates they expect him to quit early next year."

In that New York Daily News story, Thomas M. DeFrank and Kenneth R. Bazinet wrote: "Rumsfeld's deputy, Gordon England, is the inside contender to replace him, but there's also speculation that Sen. Joe Lieberman - a Democrat who ran against Bush-Cheney in the 2000 election - might become top guy at the Pentagon. . . .

"The Daily News has learned that the White House considered Lieberman for the UN ambassador's job last year before giving the post to John Bolton, a Bush adviser said."

Chris Matthews had DeFrank and Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank on his MSNBC show last night:

"MATTHEWS: Is Rumsfeld in trouble?

"MILBANK: Well, he should be by any normal standard, but I think as Tom correctly points out, that this president is not one to push somebody out when he is in a difficult spot, that's why they are just waiting for something to make a little bit of a turn here, whereby he could be eased out."

Bush the Cash Magnet

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "Slumping poll numbers and rebellion in Republican ranks have been tormenting President Bush for months. But he is still welcomed with open arms -- and checkbooks -- when he comes to town with a promise to raise campaign cash for GOP candidates."

For instance, Bush can expect a warm embrace from [Rep. Mark Kennedy, a Republican running for the Senate in independent-minded Minnesota] today, when Bush headlines a lunch event at the Hilton Minneapolis Hotel expected to raise $1 million."

But no Bush for you, if you buck his leadership: "A top White House aide, who would not speak on the record while discussing internal strategizing, said it is difficult for Bush to campaign for Republicans such as Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R-R.I.) who opposed his policies. The White House sent Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. to raise money for Chafee -- but it is unlikely Bush will work for Chafee personally."

CFR Redux

I wrote in my Tuesday column that Bush's upcoming appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations would not include the traditional question and answer session.

Peter Baker wrote in The Washington Post that only a few hundred members of the council showed up Wednesday morning and that "empty chairs were removed from the back of the ballroom before Bush arrived."

Judd Legum writes in the liberal Think Progress blog that the council sent out a desperate plea late Tuesday by e-mail, asking people who were planning on coming to bring a friend.

Legum concludes: "Apparently, most people aren't that excited about being used as a presidential prop. This may explain why Bush has preferred giving his speeches in front of military audiences, who are required to attend."

Mike Wallace's Questions

Suzanne C. Ryan interviews 87-year-old former "60 Minutes" anchor Mike Wallace:

"Q. President George W. Bush has declined to be interviewed by you. What would you ask him if you had the chance?

"A. What in the world prepared you to be the commander in chief of the largest superpower in the world? In your background, Mr. President, you apparently were incurious. You didn't want to travel. You knew very little about the military . . . The governor of Texas doesn't have the kind of power that some governors have . . . Why do you think they nominated you? . . . Do you think that has anything to do with the fact that the country is so [expletive] up?"

Attack of the Nobel Laureates

President Bush seems to be getting no love from the Nobel crowd. First, literature prize recipient Harold Pinter called for Bush's to be convicted of war crimes. (See yesterday's column .)

Now Mattias Karen writes for the Associated Press: "Two American Nobel Prize winners said yesterday they are worried about President Bush's attitude toward science and accused his administration of ignoring important research findings."

The Straight Dope

So this is how we find out? In a gossip column?

Lloyd Grove writes in the New York Daily News: "The Bush administration seems finally ready to admit that it was wrong about Iraq - privately, anyway.

" 'Syriana' writer-director Stephen Gaghan had an off-the-record lunch yesterday in Washington with White House officials who, he says, acknowledged that the U.S. occupation has gone from bad to worse.

" 'They think we're in a disastrous state of affairs in Iraq and that there was no plan for the aftermath,' the 40-year-old Oscar-winner revealed to Lowdown. 'They're the people who provide the talking points, and they said they were guilty of hubris at the highest level, that kind of stuff.' "

A Day in the Life

Hillary Profita of CBS's Public Eye blog spent Wednesday shadowing White House correspondent John Roberts.

Profita learned all about the daily gaggle: "No one expects the morning gaggle to offer anything new, just some informal agenda setting," she writes. Although: "'Sometimes Scott pulls the pin on a smoke bomb, throws it and starts stonewalling,' said Roberts."

Then it was on to the briefing. "The briefing is 'at times tense and heated depending on the ebb and flow of the day,' he said later. Reporters' relationships with McClellan are typically 'collegial' but 'not friendly,' Roberts said. . . .

"'If Scott actually answered a question' during the briefing, 'I might fall off my chair,' Roberts joked to me afterwards."

Robert's task for the day: "separating the new stuff from the boilerplate" then adding a "reality check."

Here is the the finished product .

Online Humor

The Onion , a satirical publication, writes: "Telephone logs recorded by the National Security Agency and obtained by Congress as part of an ongoing investigation suggest that the vice president may have used the Oval Office intercom system to address President Bush at crucial moments, giving categorical directives in a voice the president believed to be that of God.

"While journalists and presidential historians had long noted Bush's deep faith and Cheney's powerful influence in the White House, few had drawn a direct correlation between the two until Tuesday, when transcripts of meetings that took place in March and April of 2002 became available."

Media Criticism

The mainstream media's emerging tenacity, it seems, is only emboldening the press critics to pile on the criticism even more, with the White House press corps as the prime target.

Sydney H. Schanberg writes in his Village Voice Press Clips column: "Every time I try to wrap my mind around President Bush's Iraq war and his associated war against the press, I come back to the lies the president and his courtiers have endlessly told. And to how they conned and cowed much of the press into being their early accomplices."

Press critic Jay Rosen returns to blogging after a hiatus with a post titled "Grokking Woodward:" "Watergate wasn't broken by reporters who had entree to the inner corridors of power. It was two guys on the Metro Desk. The experienced White House reporters didn't think much of the story. Nor did they get wind of the extraordinary abuses of power that were going on at the time. . . .

"And so [Woodward] will not be the reporter who uncovers what I see as the untold story in Washington these days. Not the missing weapons of mass destruction, or misleading the country into war, or bungling the job in Iraq, or getting D's and F's in protecting the country from another day like 09/11, but something larger: the retreat from empiricism throughout the government (so that the general who tells you how many troops you'll need is forced into retirement), and the emergence of a President who is not to be questioned (as when Bush spoke to the Council on Foreign Relations this week: no questions permitted.)"

Michael Massing writes in the New York Review of Books that "there is much talk about the need to get back to the basic responsibility of reporters, to expose wrongdoing and the failures of the political system. In recent weeks, journalists have been asking more pointed questions at press conferences, attempting to investigate cronyism and corruption in the White House and Congress, and doing more to document the plight of people without jobs or a place to live."

But he bemoans the "structural problems that keep the press from fulfilling its responsibilities to serve as a witness to injustice and a watchdog over the powerful. To some extent, these problems consist of professional practices and proclivities that inhibit reporting -- a reliance on 'access,' an excessive striving for 'balance,' an uncritical fascination with celebrities. . . . Finally, and most significantly, there's the political climate in which journalists work. Today's political pressures too often breed in journalists a tendency toward self-censorship, toward shying away from the pursuit of truths that might prove unpopular, whether with official authorities or the public."

Massing writes that the "fear of bias, and of appearing unbalanced, acts as a powerful sedative on American journalists -- one whose effect has been magnified by the incessant attacks of conservative bloggers and radio talk-show hosts. One reason journalists performed so poorly in the months before the Iraq war was that there were few Democrats willing to criticize the Bush administration on the record; without such cover, journalists feared they would be branded as hostile to the President and labeled as 'liberal' by conservative commentators."

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