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Bush Takes Questions

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, December 13, 2005; 1:36 PM

President Bush briefly emerged from his protective bubble yesterday, took a few thorny questions from an unscreened audience and a network anchor, and was more forthcoming than he has been in months. Plus, there's more to come: Two more network interviews this week.

Could this be the sign of a new White House openness? Stay tuned.

Tough Ones From the Audience

Bryan Bender writes in the Boston Globe: "Speaking in the run-up to Iraqi elections, President Bush departed from the largely scripted public events he's used to justify the Iraq war and unexpectedly fielded some tough questions from his audience yesterday, defending his administration's use of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to justify toppling Saddam Hussein and estimating that 30,000 Iraqis have died since the 2003 invasion.

"After his talk to the World Affairs Council in Philadelphia, in which he likened Iraq's political struggles with the setbacks of the early days of American independence, Bush opened the floor to questions -- and found himself facing some skeptics."

Here's the transcript of Bush's speech. As I first reported in my December 6 column , Bush's advance team conspicuously refused to allow questions when he spoke to the Council on Foreign Relations last week.

Press secretary Scott McClellan said yesterday that Bush decided to take questions only hours before the Philadelphia speech began.

The first one made headlines around the world:

"Q Since the inception of the Iraqi war, I'd like to know the approximate total of Iraqis who have been killed. And by Iraqis I include civilians, military, police, insurgents, translators.

"THE PRESIDENT: How many Iraqi citizens have died in this war? I would say 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis. We've lost about 2,140 of our own troops in Iraq."

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "The first person he called on was Didi Goldmark, 63, a former libel lawyer from New Hope, Pa., who asked him how many Iraqis have died in the war. Unlike aides who have been asked that question, Bush gave a direct answer. . . .

"The estimate marked the first time Bush has personally provided an assessment of the Iraqi death toll, a highly sensitive subject that his administration largely avoids discussing at any level, much less from the presidential lectern. Although the Pentagon keeps careful track of Americans killed in Iraq -- now exceeding 2,100 troops -- military officers have said they do not count Iraqi dead. . . .

"Bush moved on to the next question without identifying how he arrived at the figure or how many were killed by U.S. forces and not Iraqi insurgents and foreign militants. Aides later said it was not a government estimate but a reflection of figures in news media reports. Still, Bush offered it without qualification, in effect accepting it as a reasonable approximation. . . .

"Some of the five questions Bush later took from the audience also challenged his assertions. Faeze Woodville, 44, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in Iran and now living in nearby Strafford, Pa., asked why he keeps linking the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to the Iraq war despite no evidence of a direct connection. The president said '9/11 changed my look on foreign policy' and he learned 'that if we see a threat we've got to deal with it.'

"Woodville said in an interview afterward that she felt Bush ducked her question. 'He must think we're morons,' she said. 'There is no link, and he knows it as well as I. And I and others in the audience are insulted that he thinks we don't read, don't think, don't have any opinions.' "

Here's the full text of that exchange:

"Q Mr. President, I would like to know why it is that you and others in your administration keep linking 9/11 to the invasion of Iraq when no respected journalist or Middle Eastern expert confirmed that such a link existed.

"THE PRESIDENT: I appreciate that. 9/11 changed my look on foreign policy. I mean, it said that oceans no longer protect us, that we can't take threats for granted; that if we see a threat, we've got to deal with it. It doesn't have to be militarily, necessarily, but we got to deal with it. We can't -- can't just hope for the best anymore.

"And so the first decision I made, as you know, was to -- was to deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan because they were harboring terrorists. This is where the terrorists planned and plotted. And the second decision -- which was a very difficult decision for me, by the way, and it's one that I -- I didn't take lightly -- was that Saddam Hussein was a threat. He is a declared enemy of the United States; he had used weapons of mass destruction; the entire world thought he had weapons of mass destruction. The United Nations had declared in more than 10 -- I can't remember the exact number of resolutions -- that disclose, or disarm, or face serious consequences. I mean, there was a serious international effort to say to Saddam Hussein, you're a threat. And the 9/11 attacks extenuated that threat, as far as I -- concerned.

"And so we gave Saddam Hussein the chance to disclose or disarm, and he refused. And I made a tough decision. And knowing what I know today, I'd make the decision again. Removing Saddam Hussein makes this world a better place and America a safer country."

As blogger Brendan Nyhan points out, Bush probably didn't mean to say that the "9/11 attacks extenuated that threat." Extenuate means "weaken." He probably meant exacerbate.

Regardless, it was the first time I can recall Bush explaining so directly why he connects the two.

Big News Here?

Ken Herman of the Cox News Service -- alone among the reporters covering the speech -- led his story with the one line that I thought just might be the biggest and most inadvertent news of the day.

Herman writes: "President Bush, looking beyond this week's parliamentary elections in Iraq, said regime change will be needed elsewhere in the world before Americans' safety at home can be ensured.

" 'The long run in this war is going to require a change of governments in parts of the world,' Bush told the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, a nonpartisan educational group, on Monday. He didn't name names but noted that Iran and Syria have become obstacles to freedom in 'a tough neighborhood.' "

Critics Pleasantly Surprised

Here's something you don't see every day: Kind words from Bush's traditionally toughest critics.

Tim Grieve writes in Salon that "more often than not, Bush unscripted was a whole lot better than the teleprompted president has been lately. He may not be able to change the way Americans think about Iraq, but more appearances like this one could change the way Americans think about their president. As the New York Times said the other day, Bush should get out more."

The Carpetbagger blogs: "To be sure, this is a pleasantly surprising development. Maybe it's because of the Newsweek cover , or maybe it's because Brian Williams is following Bush around today and they wanted to score some p.r. points, or maybe the Bush gang decided to just take a chance. Whatever the motivation, they're to be congratulated -- allowing the president to hear five questions from regular Americans may seem pretty routine for a president, but for these guys, it's a quite a breakthrough."

Of course, some critics kept at it: Jason Kellet of merlotdemocrats, for instance, was not impressed with Bush's body language while answering the question. He annotates Bush's words this way: "I would say (sigh) (shrug) 30,000, more or less, have died as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence against Iraqis."

Fact Checking Watch

After the last two speeches Bush gave on Iraq, there was plenty of aggressive fact-checking. Yesterday, not so much. I'm sure that mostly had to do with the fact that Bush didn't break a whole lot of new ground, other than adopting the figure of 30,000 dead.

On that count, Oren Dorell writes in USA TODAY: "The White House offered no details about how the 30,000 died, or who killed them.

"Unofficial estimates vary. Bush's number roughly matches an estimate by Iraq Body Count , a research group that uses media accounts to measure civilian deaths. On Monday, that count numbered between 27,383 and 30,892. That is far lower than the count in a 2004 study, published in the medical journal The Lancet, which used a survey of Iraqi households to estimate that about 100,000 Iraqis had died."

But if what Bush said wasn't really new, it's still worth pointing out what he didn't say. For instance, in his talk about the growth of democracy in Iraq, Bush still refuses to acknowledge the significance of a key fact: That most Iraqis oppose the American occupation and that many of the people fighting against it would no longer be fighting us if we left.

Bush's answer to a question about improving the U.S. image abroad didn't acknowledge the role played by the Iraq war and allegations of torture under his watch. The president instead chose to blame image problems on the Arab media and the terrorist propaganda machine.

"Look, I recognize we got an image issue, particularly when you got television stations, Arabic television stations that are constantly just pounding America, creating -- saying America is fighting Islam, Americans can't stand Muslims, this is a war against a religion. And we've got to, obviously, do a better job of reminding people that ours is not a nation that rejects religion; ours is a nation that accepts people of all faith, and that the great strength of America is the capacity for people to worship freely."

The Williams Questions

NBC Anchor Brian Williams held three short interviews with Bush over the course of the day yesterday. Here are the transcripts of part one , part two , and part three .

Williams focused mostly on torture, Hurricane Katrina, Iraq and the bubble.

On Torture

Here's NBC News 's story about Bush's torture answers: "President Bush expressed a no-tolerance stance on the use of torture by the United States in the war on terrorism in an exclusive wide-ranging interview with NBC News anchor Brian Williams, broadcast Monday."

Here's that excerpt:

"Williams: Can you meet John McCain at his definition?

"President Bush: Yes, I'm confident we can. On the other hand, we want to make sure that we're in a position to be able to interrogate without torture. These are people that still want to hurt us, Brian. And the American people expect us to do that which we can do within international law and our own declaration of supporting the premises of international law is what I really meant to say -- to protect us. I mean, if they know something, we need to know it. And we think we can find it without torturing people."

David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt write in the New York Times: "Mr. McCain, the nation's most famous former prisoner of war, has been pressing for the restrictions, which the Senate has approved, to be adopted in intense three-way negotiations with the House and the Bush administration as Congress prepares to wrap up its work for the year.

"Mr. Bush's remarks hinted at what appear to be the White House objectives in the talks that started with Vice President Dick Cheney's demand that intelligence agents be exempted from Mr. McCain's measure. For Mr. Cheney, this is also part of a broader struggle with Congress to reassert presidential authority. . . .

"After a stinging defeat in the Senate in October on Mr. McCain's measure, the White House turned to Mr. Bush's national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, who has been negotiating narrower language that would give some legal protection to covert operatives if they were caught going beyond the murky boundaries of acceptable interrogation techniques."

But it really is all just "hints" until Bush clearly defines what he means by torture.

Reuters , incidentally, reports: "A former top adviser to President George W. Bush on Iraq policy said on Monday there are instances when torture may be appropriate.

"Commenting on an issue that has roiled Washington and affected the U.S. image abroad, Robert Blackwill, who was deputy national security adviser during Bush's first term, said:

" 'Of course torture should not be widespread and of course there should be extraordinarily stringent top-down requirements in this respect. But never? . . . I wouldn't say never.' "

On Katrina

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "President Bush said Monday that the failures of the government in responding to Hurricane Katrina had nothing to do with race or class and repeated his promise to rebuild the Gulf Coast and New Orleans in particular.

"Asked in an interview with NBC News whether the response would have been the same had the destruction occurred on Nantucket or in Chicago or Houston, Mr. Bush said he was aware of criticism that the government acted slowly because he was a racist, and he said such criticism was absolutely wrong."

The full quote from the interview transcript:

"Somebody I heard -- you know, a couple of people said -- you know, said, 'Bush didn't respond because of race, because he's a racist.' That is absolutely wrong. And I reject that. Frankly, that's the kind of thing that -- you can call me anything you want -- but do not call me a racist. Secondly, this storm hit all up and down. It hit New Orleans. It hit down in Mississippi too. And people should not forget the damage done in Mississippi."

The Bubble

I wrote about Williams' initial questions about Bush's life in the bubble in yesterday's column . Later in the day, he asked even more.

Williams: "Once and for all -- and I know you've had some fun with members of the press on this subject -- how much television news do you watch? How much do you read the morning papers, news magazines? How much do you see in an average week?"

Bush: "I don't see a lot of the news. Every morning I look at the newspaper. I can't say I've read every single article in the newspaper. But I definitely know what's in the news. Occasionally, I watch television. I don't want to hurt your feelings, but it's occasionally. I'm working at that point, as are you. But I'm very aware of what's in the news. I'm aware because I see clips. I see summaries. I have people on my staff that walk in every morning and say, 'This is what's -- this is how I see it. This is what's brewing today,' on both the domestic and international side. Frankly, it is probably part of my own fault for needling people, but it's a myth to think I don't know what's going on. And it's a myth to think that I'm not aware that there is opinions that don't agree with mine. Because I'm fully aware of that. . . .

"I read the newspaper. I mean, I can tell you what the headlines are. I must confess, if I think the story is, like, not a fair appraisal, I'll move on. But I know what the story's about."

Protest Watch

Washington Times reporter Joe Curl wrote in his pool report that Bush encountered protesters when he left the speechin Philadelphia. "By the time Bush left in his motorcade at 12:50, the crowd of protesters had grown substantially. A huge 'Boooo!' echoed in the road beneath Independence Hall as he drove by. By the time the pool vans reached the site, many were offering a one-fingered salute to the Commander in Chief (but they were clearly not saying 'You're No. 1!')."

Williams asked about that, too:

"Williams: OK, as we drove up to the hotel in Philadelphia today, there were protesters outside. And they were yelling shame. Do you see them and hear them from your limousine?

"President Bush: Sure.

"Williams: Does it matter to you? Does it register?

"President Bush: I think after awhile you kind of get used to it. It's part of the job. It is -- you know, it's -- part of living in a democracy. They're frankly smaller than they used to be, but that doesn't mean there's not intensity out there. I've made some very difficult positions. I fully understand people not liking war. I fully understand people wanting, you know, feeling that, you know, that I'm making progress. I mean, I can see that. And, on the other hand, I know we're making progress. We're winning. And it's my job to continue to try to reassure them that we are winning and the stakes are worth it. But yes, I'm fully aware of the discontent and the protests."

Grumblings Among the Press Corps

Blogger Wonkette writes: "The White House correspondents will get feted at the White House later this week, but all the sliced ham and swing bands in the world can't make them any less surly. It's a sucky job, someone has to do it, and it sucks even more someone [when] sweeps in for a stunt-casting moment of glory, like Brian Williams did today. . . .

"[A]ccording to our cranky eyewitness, Williams skipped 'the rigorous Secret Service sweep ('hands out, turn around, cough') that other trip-takers enjoyed in the luggage lounge by Gate 2' and 'did not sit with the other White House press corps cretins in the pod by the kitchen.' "

Suggested Questions

ABC News's The Note offered some advice yesterday to Williams -- or Brit Hume of Fox News, who they say has the next Bush interview.

Citing "the First Rule of Interviewing Presidents: don't ask anything for which the staff has prepared him" the Note suggested these questions, among others:

* "I know you don't read polls, Mr. President, but did anyone mention to you the new ABC News/Time survey of Iraqis ?"

* "Has 2005 been the best year of your presidency? (If not, where would you rank it among the 5?)"

* "Are the stories about your snapping at aides true?"

* "Democrats say every family worth eight million in assets should be exempt from inheritance or death taxes but that families with more than 8 million in assets should have to pay taxes. What's wrong with that position?"

* "What is your definition of torture?"

* "How much does a liter of Diet Coke cost?"

Poll Watch

Taegan Goddard's Political Wire reports: "A new Cook Political Report/RT Strategies national poll 'confirms that President Bush's job approval plunge that began earlier this year has bottomed out and he has regained at least some lost ground.' The survey shows that 42% approved the overall job Bush is doing, up a point from three weeks ago, with 55% disapproving.

"Key takeaway: 'Until the President starts gaining ground among independents, it's hard to see him getting back into the high forties again.' "

Susan Page has more on the poll I mentioned yesterday. She writes in USA Today: "President Bush's job approval rating, on a long slide since his re-election last year, rebounded from historic lows in a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll taken this weekend. . . .

"Bush's standing remains lower than that of any president in his second term since World War II except Richard Nixon.

"Even so, Bush's political situation seems to have stabilized after a perilous autumn. Three other national polls released in the past three weeks put his rating on the rise to 41% or 42%. A Gallup Poll taken Dec. 5-8 measured it at 43%.

"In the USA TODAY survey, Bush's rating by independents jumped by 10 points, compared with a month earlier, to 38% from 28%."

Here are the complete poll results .

How Was It For You?

The Guardian writes: "Five years ago today Al Gore phoned George Bush to formally concede the presidency. Since then the United States has suffered its worst ever terrorist attack, become embroiled in a disastrous foreign war and bungled the response to a natural catastrophe. So what is the Bush legacy after half a decade? Is he a ruthless Machiavellian or a bumbling puppet? A devout idealist or a cynical opportunist? A disaster or a mild disappointment? Here, six top American commentators - from the left and the right - deliver their verdicts."

Here's part of what Howell Raines, the former editor of the New York Times, had to say: "At this point, the policy legacy of George Bush seems defined by three disparate disasters: Iraq in foreign affairs, Katrina in social welfare, and corporate influence over tax, budget and regulatory decisions. As a short-term political consequence, we may avoid another dim-witted Bush in the White House. But what the Bush dynasty has done to presidential campaign science - the protocols by which Americans elect presidents in the modern era - amounts to a political legacy that could haunt the republic for years to come."

Here's the view from R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr., the founder and editor-in-chief of the American Spectator: "One thing is certain. He will leave the White House with many Americans furious with him, much as Truman did. Most of those who seethed at Truman were Republicans from the Old Order, with a few conservative Democrats along for the wrathful ride. Those who seethe at Bush are from America's present Old Order - to wit, Democrats, who have been steadily losing power nationwide and who now hold power mainly in the media and the universities."

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