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Watching for Tone

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, January 30, 2006; 1:15 PM

No one in Washington seems to be expecting much new substance from President Bush's State of the Union address tomorrow night. So the big questions have more to do with tone.

Will the speech consist mostly of optimistic swagger -- or will there also be humility about the things that have gone awry?

How much will his characterizations of Iraq, New Orleans, the Medicare prescription drug rollout and warrantless domestic spying comport with the facts on the ground? And will he assertively address the concerns of his critics -- or attack straw-man arguments?

Will he make concrete attempts to reach across the aisle -- or just talk of bipartisanship while pillorying and provoking the Democrats?

Much has been written in the past several weeks about Bush's tentative forays beyond his protective bubble of aides and friendly audiences. Will his speech originate from inside the bubble -- where he has no patience for facts or opinions that contradict his own views -- or from the real world?

There's a lot of stuff in today's White House Briefing column. In addition to all the looking ahead to the State of the Union: The comedic stylings of the president at the exclusive Alfalfa Club dinner Saturday night; an eye-opening Newsweek story on the rear-guard action within Bush's own administration against the assertion of the president's virtually unlimited powers; a wide-ranging CBS News interview; the failure of New Orleans; and much more.

Tonal Options

Kenneth R. Bazinet writes in the New York Daily News: " What President Bush says in his State of the Union address tomorrow night may not be as crucial to his agenda as how he says it, according to sources familiar with the speech.

" 'He needs to demonstrate that he's in command and control and his path is the right one for the country,' said a Bush political adviser.

"Bush's sixth State of the Union speech will be about maintaining relevance during a midterm election year rather than just a traditional attempt to chart a course.

"Bush will try to strike a somewhat conciliatory tone toward Democrats and urge them to pursue bipartisanship, though his critics contend he ignored the opposition party with his appointments to the Supreme Court and his pursuit of a domestic spying program."

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "On the nation's biggest domestic problems, President Bush faces a clear choice as he approaches Tuesday's State of the Union address. He can make a political point. Or he can make progress against the problems. It's probably not possible to do both -- unless Bush wants to radically reconfigure his political strategy. . . .

"At times, the White House seems to welcome Democratic opposition. The greater the disagreement between the parties, the sharper the contrast Bush and GOP candidates can use to energize their core supporters at election time.

"But on crucial issues such as the federal budget deficit, access to healthcare and America's dependence on foreign oil -- all concerns Bush is likely to emphasize Tuesday -- the nation is unlikely to make significant progress unless the parties narrow their differences. The evidence suggests that the best way to confront these problems is to blend ideas each side favors. The political imperative of greater contrast collides with the substantive imperative of more cooperation."

Linda Feldmann writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "The five years of George W. Bush's presidency have been a time of tumult -- the 9/11 attacks, the Afghan and Iraq wars, massive natural disasters, gas and oil shocks -- some of his own doing and some a result of outside forces. Americans have grown more isolationist and concerned about immigration. Five years ago, there was no gay marriage or iPods or 'American Idol.' But of all the changes over which President Bush has presided, the biggest is probably the 'hopelessly polarized country we live in today,' says independent pollster John Zogby."

Where He's Coming From

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "Tuesday's speech, with its massive prime-time audience, may be the most important forum Bush has all year to try to seize the initiative from the Democrats and frame the election season on his terms. But he will be standing in the House as a far less formidable politician than when he stood on the same podium a year ago. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows Bush with a lower approval rating than any postwar president at the start of his sixth year in office -- with the exception of Richard M. Nixon, who was crippled by Watergate. . . .

"The Post-ABC News poll offers a revealing portrait of a restless electorate at the start of the campaign year. By 51 percent to 35 percent, Americans said they preferred to go in the direction outlined by congressional Democrats rather than the direction established by the president. On the eve of last year's State of the Union address, 45 percent said they preferred to follow the path of the president, compared with 39 percent who said they favored the Democrats' course."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "In a stark contrast from last year, when Republican leaders fell in line behind Mr. Bush as he embarked on what would be a losing effort to overhaul Social Security, the president, weakened after a series of setbacks in the past year, now faces a challenge in rallying his own party behind some of his most important initiatives."

Small Bore

Carolyn Lochhead writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Five years of rapidly rising federal spending on everything from the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina to big entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid are driving Bush into an ever-shrinking corner of unpleasant choices. . . .

"This year the president plans to tinker around the edges of health care -- widely acknowledged as the pre-eminent domestic challenge facing the nation -- by expanding tax breaks for health savings accounts, computerizing medical records and allowing national pooling of health insurance.

"Along with preserving his first-term tax cuts, all are small-bore projects to sustain his legacy of an 'ownership society,' which he said is one of the things 'I would like to be remembered for.' "

Ron Hutcheson writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "While White House aides want to avoid any suggestion that Bush has run out of ideas, they have made little effort to pump up Tuesday's speech."

Here's press secretary Scott McClellan at Friday's briefing: "This is more of a visionary and directional speech than it is a laundry list of proposals. So it's more thematic in nature is what he'll be talking about. . . . The President is optimistic about our future and confident about the path we are charting to make our country safer and stronger and better."

Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes in the Baltimore Sun: "President Bush often says he didn't come to Washington to avoid big battles on difficult issues. But as he readies his State of the Union address, Bush has pared his once-lofty wish list to a narrower one designed to boost his party's fortunes in this year's elections and show he can deliver on promises. . . .

"Bush might seek to rally support, analysts suggest, by returning to a favorite tactic of his political advisers: invoking public fears about terrorism in a post-Sept. 11 age and asserting that he will stop at nothing to protect Americans from further attacks.

"The strategy has been central to Bush's recent efforts to defend the NSA eavesdropping program -- which targets some communications inside the United States -- against accusations by lawmakers in both parties that it is illegal. Surveys show that voters are more likely to embrace the program if they see it as crucial to protecting them, and the State of the Union address is a high-profile chance for Bush to press that case."

How the Sausage Is Made

Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times sits down with William McGurn, the director of White House speechwriting.

"The president does not write his own speeches, but he does aggressively revise, day after day after day. 'He edits, re-edits, re-edits and re-edits,' Mr. McGurn said.

"The drafts are sent out for comment to senior staff members, who slip in pet programs on the chance that they will get a mention in the biggest speech of the year -- in Washington, the equivalent of a World Series home run. 'For a lot of people, this is their shot in the sun,' Mr. McGurn said. The result, in his view, is oratory larded with what Mr. Bush calls 'cram-ins.' "

But "overall, Mr. McGurn said, the speech will be more thematic and less specific than the typical State of the Union address, with a shorter list of programs in a year when Congress will be focused on midterm elections, not on pushing divisive legislation.

"From the beginning, Mr. Bush's orders were that the speech be 'visionary'."

What's the Point?

Lewis L. Gould writes in The Washington Post's Outlook section: "It is time to end the meaningless annual ritual of the State of the Union address. What began as a yearly survey of the nation's condition has deteriorated into a frivolous moment of political theater and continuous campaigning.

"On Tuesday night, President Bush, like his recent predecessors, will play his part in the gaudy spectacle of ballyhoo and hype that the State of the Union has become. From a Rocky-style entrance of the president through a gantlet of applauding solons to the introduction of mini-celebrities carefully situated in the gallery, the prime-time extravaganza will have all the spontaneity of -- and about as much meaning as -- a televised Hollywood awards ceremony.

"More like an acceptance speech at a national convention than a candid review of the nation's situation at the outset of a new year, the State of the Union has evolved into a semi-imperial speech from the throne."

At the Alfalfa Club

Founded in 1913, the Alfalfa Club was named for the legume whose roots would "do anything for a drink" and has absolutely no other purpose than to throw a really big, exclusive, no-press-allowed party once a year where people from both political parties tell jokes to show they're all friends.

The Washington Post's DeNeen L. Brown got a hold of excerpts of Bush's speech to the club Saturday night. Here are some of them:

"There are a number of Bushes present. My dad, Ole 41, is with us. A little earlier as we were getting ready, Dad was talking to Jeb, Marvin and me. Surrounded by his sons, he got a little choked up. Amidst the tears, he said, 'Boys, this evening would be perfect if only your new brother Bill Clinton could've been here.' . . .

"It's always good to see Vice President Cheney. Lynne and Laura were out of town recently, so I called up Dick and said, 'Why don't we go to a movie?' He said, 'Great idea, let's go to a cowboy movie.'

"Yep, finally went to see 'Brokeback Mountain.' Let me tell you. Whooo-eee.

"Dick sat through the movie, didn't say a word. We come out, after a while. He says . . . 'Nice horses.' I said, 'Yep.' Then he became real quiet again and kind of serious.

"I knew something was on his mind. Finally he turned to me and said . . .

" 'You don't suppose the Lone Ranger and Tont. . . . ' "

On the Abramoff scandal. "By the way, one of the things that surprised me about the Abramoff scandal is how much money some of the Indian tribes have. In fact, it wasn't until tonight that I learned that Warren Buffett and David Rockefeller are Chippewas."

And finally: "You know, you can't please some people no matter what you do. Half the time, they say I'm isolated and don't listen. Then when I do listen, they say I need a warrant."

Palace Revolt

Daniel Klaidman, Stuart Taylor Jr. and Evan Thomas write in a major Newsweek story about former deputy attorney general James Comey and the secret but intense rebellion of a small coterie of Bush administration lawyers.

"These Justice Department lawyers, backed by their intrepid boss Comey, had stood up to the hard-liners, centered in the office of the vice president, who wanted to give the president virtually unlimited powers in the war on terror. Demanding that the White House stop using what they saw as farfetched rationales for riding rough-shod over the law and the Constitution, [they] fought to bring government spying and interrogation methods within the law. They did so at their peril; ostracized, some were denied promotions, while others left for more comfortable climes in private law firms and academia. Some went so far as to line up private lawyers in 2004, anticipating that the president's eavesdropping program would draw scrutiny from Congress, if not prosecutors. These government attorneys did not always succeed, but their efforts went a long way toward vindicating the principle of a nation of laws and not men. . . .

"The chief opponent of the rebels, though by no means the only one, was an equally obscure, but immensely powerful, lawyer-bureaucrat. Intense, workaholic (even by insane White House standards), David Addington, formerly counsel, now chief of staff to the vice president, is a righteous, ascetic public servant."

Klaidman, Taylor and Thomas connect the Oval Office to Abu Ghraib thusly: Bush and Cheney backed Addington; Addington directed the drafting of memos that authorized coercive interrogation methods; those memos led to the "grotesque images of Iraqis being humiliated by poorly trained and sadistic American prison guards, not to mention prisoners who have been brutalized and in some cases killed by interrogators in Afghanistan and elsewhere."

CBS Interview

Here's the transcript of Bush's interview on Friday with CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer.

Finally an answer of sorts to this question: "Do you believe that there is anything that a president cannot do, if he considers it necessary, in an emergency like this?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: That's a -- that's a great question. You know, one of the -- yeah, I don't think a president can tort -- get -- can order torture, for example. I don't think a president can order the assassination of a leader of another country with which we're not at war. Yes, there are clear red lines, and -- it -- you -- you -- you just asked a very interesting constitutional question."

Bush brushed off criticisms of the Medicare prescription drug rollout: "We are working through the glitches," he said.

Deborah Orin writes in the New York Post: "President Bush jokingly referred to Bill Clinton as 'my new brother' as he talked about the friendly relations between Clinton and his dad, in an interview aired yesterday.

" 'I check in with Bill Clinton occasionally to see how he's doing,' Bush revealed to CBS anchor Bob Schieffer on 'Face the Nation.'

" 'He says things that make it obvious to me that we're kind of, you know, on the same wavelength with the job of the presidency.' . . .

"The president described Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) as a 'formidable' 2008 White House candidate in a part of the interview released Friday night in which Bush imagined a line of succession that could go 'Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton.' "

New Orleans Watch

Spencer S. Hsu writes in The Washington Post: "Nearly five months after Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans, President Bush's lofty promises to rebuild the Gulf Coast have been frustrated by bureaucratic failures and competing priorities, a review of events since the hurricane shows.

"While the administration can claim some clear progress, Bush's ringing call from New Orleans's Jackson Square on Sept. 15 to 'do what it takes' to make the city rise from the waters has not been matched by action, critics at multiple levels of government say, resulting in a record that is largely incomplete as Bush heads into next week's State of the Union address. . . .

"New strains emerged this week when Bush aides rejected a plan by Rep. Richard H. Baker (R-La.) to set up a government corporation that would buy back the mortgages of storm-damaged homes around New Orleans. Instead, the government limited the use of $6.2 billion in grants to the rebuilding of 20,000 homes destroyed outside federally insured flood zones."

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "Now -- suddenly -- the administration has switched directions. Early last week White House officials told Mr. Baker and other Louisiana politicians not only that they refused to support the development corporation he proposed but that they'd asked congressional leaders to cancel planned hearings on the Baker bill. At his news conference last week, Mr. Bush claimed, strangely, that 'the plan for Louisiana hasn't come forward yet.' Was he misinformed or deliberately misleading?"

Domestic Spying Watch

Hope Yen writes for the Associated Press: "A Republican member of the Senate Intelligence Committee said Sunday that President Bush has more explaining to do on his domestic spy program and cast doubt on the administration's assertion of broad executive power.

"Sen. Chuck Hagel said he is looking forward to congressional hearings on the legal justification for the secretive National Security Agency program. He remains unconvinced that Bush could allow the program without fully consulting with the courts or Congress."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "A bit over a week ago, President Bush and his men promised to provide the legal, constitutional and moral justifications for the sort of warrantless spying on Americans that has been illegal for nearly 30 years. Instead, we got the familiar mix of political spin, clumsy historical misinformation, contemptuous dismissals of civil liberties concerns, cynical attempts to paint dissents as anti-American and pro-terrorist, and a couple of big, dangerous lies.

"The first was that the domestic spying program is carefully aimed only at people who are actively working with Al Qaeda, when actually it has violated the rights of countless innocent Americans. And the second was that the Bush team could have prevented the 9/11 attacks if only they had thought of eavesdropping without a warrant."

On that first point, the Times points out: "Bush officials have said the surveillance is tightly focused only on contacts between people in this country and Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Vice President Dick Cheney claimed it saved thousands of lives by preventing attacks. But reporting in this paper has shown that the National Security Agency swept up vast quantities of e-mail messages and telephone calls and used computer searches to generate thousands of leads. F.B.I. officials said virtually all of these led to dead ends or to innocent Americans."

The Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board writes: "Through history, tyranny has not always foamed at the mouth. In the beginning, it often wears an earnest, sincere face. Eventually, though, it begins to harp incessantly about threats and enemies; it comes to treat dissent as treason, and civil liberty as an unwise luxury.

"Our nation's founders had lived through such a sequence of tyranny. That's why they were at pains to fashion elaborate checks on the chief executive's power; they saw power's innate tendency to view whatever it wants to do as just, necessary, and subject to no outside control."

Abramoff Watch

Greg Stohr writes for Bloomberg: "Three Republican lawmakers called on President George W. Bush to disclose all contacts between administration members and Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist who pleaded guilty to conspiring to corrupt public officials."

Audrey Hudson writes in the Washington Times: "Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff visited the White House on at least a half-dozen social occasions, including Hanukkah celebrations, receptions and one meeting with President Bush that included 20 other participants.

"Abramoff never lobbied or attempted to influence Mr. Bush on behalf of his clients, said a source familiar with the visits, but did have his picture taken with the president, as did hundreds of other visitors attending those events over a four-year period.

"The meeting with Mr. Bush included some policy discussions ''that were not relevant' to any of Abramoff's clients, the source said, but it focused on the audience's asking the president questions.

" 'The White House is making too much of a mystery out of this and needs to release the dates, times, details and photos of the visits,' the source said. 'It's not like [Abramoff and Mr. Bush] were plotting to overthrow Iraq.' "

Son of Downing Street?

Marie Woolf writes in the Independent: "Tony Blair knew that George Bush was only 'going through the motions' of offering support for a second UN resolution in the run-up to the Iraq war, it was claimed last night. . . .

"At a meeting between Mr Blair and Mr Bush at the White House on 31 January 2003, Mr Blair urged the President to try to obtain a second UN resolution giving specific backing for the war. Mr Bush gave qualified support for going down the UN route. But, according to The Mail on Sunday , President Bush was only going through the motions -- and, the paper adds: 'Mr Blair not only knew it, but went along with it.' "

Meet Stephen J. Hadley

The Washington Post's Peter Baker gets several long interviews with national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley and concludes: "In a town populated by people nursing grandiose views of their own importance and scheming for greater glory, Hadley still thinks of himself as a staff man. He sits at the pinnacle of power, but articulates no sweeping personal vision of the world and has made a point of staying in the shadows. . . .

"In his year as President Bush's right hand on foreign policy, Hadley has deliberately let his predecessor and former boss, Condoleezza Rice, take the lead now that she is secretary of state. He has lunch with her in the West Wing every Saturday and slips her policy ideas to propose herself. Even now, many in Washington joke that Rice has two deputies -- the deputy secretary of state and Hadley."

Revolt of the Photographers

Joe Strupp writes in Editor and Publisher: "While the practice of providing news organizations with staged photos of events involving the president goes back decades, veteran shooters at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue say it has become almost a regular occurrence with the Bush Administration. A review of Associated Press archives found that during the entire eight years of the Clinton administration, only 100 handout photos of events were released to the press. During the first five years of Bush's presidency, more than 500 have been distributed.

"The key is that each of these events were closed to news photographers. . . .

" 'They average about two per week,' said Susan Walsh, an AP photojournalist and president of the White House News Photographers Association, after directing that review. 'The White House staff photographer's role is to document the president. They have now crossed the line and become public relations photographers for the administration.' . . .

" 'Would anyone on the word side take a press release and regurgitate it verbatim and publish it in the newspaper as legitimate news,' she asked. 'Of course not.' "

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