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What the President Meant to Say

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, February 2, 2006; 12:42 PM

The most memorable portion of President Bush's otherwise largely forgettable State of the Union address Tuesday night was his call for America to break its addiction to oil from the Middle East.

But it turns out maybe we should forget that, too.

Kevin G. Hall writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "One day after President Bush vowed to reduce America's dependence on Middle East oil by cutting imports from there 75 percent by 2025, his energy secretary and national economic adviser said Wednesday that the president didn't mean it literally.

"What the president meant, they said in a conference call with reporters, was that alternative fuels could displace an amount of oil imports equivalent to most of what America is expected to import from the Middle East in 2025. . . .

"Asked why the president used the words 'the Middle East' when he didn't really mean them, one administration official said Bush wanted to dramatize the issue in a way that 'every American sitting out there listening to the speech understands.' The official spoke only on condition of anonymity because he feared that his remarks might get him in trouble."

H. Josef Hebert writes for the Associated Press that Bodman and Hubbard "struggled Wednesday in an attempt to explain what Bush had meant by 'replacing' Middle East oil. . . .

"On Wednesday, Hubbard and Bodman acknowledged that Persian Gulf oil may, in fact, not be replaced at all, even if overall oil imports were to drop because of the increased availability of alternative motor fuels."

Here is the text of Bodman and Hubbard's briefing.

Troubles Ahead

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "The energy proposals set out on Tuesday by President Bush quickly ran into obstacles on Wednesday, showing how difficult it will be to take even the limited steps he supports to reduce the nation's reliance on foreign oil. . . .

"Democrats said Mr. Bush had opposed foreign oil reduction targets in last year's energy bill, and Republicans questioned the practicality of relying on ethanol and other alternatives.

"Scientifically, researchers said ethanol and other alternative fuels were still years away from widespread commercial use.

"Economically, energy analysts said Mr. Bush's goal of reducing Mideast oil imports would have little practical benefit because oil was traded in world markets and its price was determined by global supply and demand, rather than bought from one country by another."

Defending Big Oil

And just in case you thought Bush, himself an oil man by profession, had suddenly turned all populist on the issue: Never fear. High oil prices have taken an enormous toll on working Americans while contributing to world-record profits for the oil companies. But Bush doesn't see a problem there.

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush defended the huge profits of Exxon Mobil Corp. Wednesday, saying they are simply the result of the marketplace and that consumers socked with soaring energy costs should not expect price breaks. . . .

"Early this week, Exxon reported record profits of $10.71 billion for the fourth quarter and $36.13 billion for the year -- the largest of any U.S. company. While some politicians raised furious objections, Bush had a different reaction.

" 'There is a marketplace in American society,' he said."

In a short interview with the Associated Press on Air Force One yesterday morning -- several hours before Bodman and Hubbard's briefing -- Bush offered an even "more ambitious hope than in his State of the Union speech for cutting imports from the volatile Mideast," Hunt writes.

" 'I believe in a relatively quick period of time, within my lifetime, we'll be able to reduce if not end dependence on Middle Eastern oil by this new technology' of converting corn, wood, grasses and other products into ethanol, he said."

Here are excerpts from the interview.

Guzzler Watch

Kenneth R. Bazinet writes in the New York Daily News to remind us that "President Bush is one of the biggest gas guzzlers in the country and his first stop to sell the idea of breaking the nation's oil addiction burned up thousands of gallons of jet fuel and hundreds of gallons of gasoline."

Reuters Interview

Bush also sat down for a short interview with Reuters.

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush said yesterday the United States would defend Israel militarily if necessary against Iran, a statement that appeared to be his most explicit commitment to Israel's defense. . . .

"The White House played down Bush's comments, saying they are in line with previous remarks and do not represent new policy. But examples provided by the White House were not as explicit, with Bush publicly saying he was 'committed to the security of Israel as a vibrant Jewish state' or 'committed to the safety of Israel.' "

Steve Holland writes for Reuters: "President Bush on Wednesday called for overhauling the way lobbyists do business in Washington in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal. . . .

"Bush, in an interview with Reuters aboard Air Force One while en route from Washington to Nashville a day after his annual State of the Union address, said, 'We've got to examine what laws are necessary to prevent people from, you know, taking advantage of the system.' . . .

"Bush said, 'In terms of political consequences, I think a close scrutiny will show that people in both parties have been involved in lobbying, being lobbied and therefore people in both parties must come up with the solution. That's why last night I praised people in both parties for working on a solution.' "

Both parties do get lobbied, of course, but the Abramoff scandal -- which has already resulted in the indictment of one White House aide, former chief procurement officer David Safavian -- revolves exclusively around influence-peddling allegations involving Republicans.

Hurricane Watch, Part I

Spencer S. Hsu and Amy Goldstein write in The Washington Post: "Responsibility for the government's bungled response to Hurricane Katrina extends widely but begins at the top of the Bush administration, which failed before the storm to name a White House, homeland security or other senior aide to take command of disaster relief, congressional investigators reported yesterday. . . .

" 'A single individual -- directly responsible and accountable to the president of the United States -- should be dedicated to act as the central focal point to lead and coordinate the overall federal response,' [Government Accountability Office] chief David M. Walker said, summarizing the preliminary findings of 30 pending Katrina-related studies. . . .

"Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who asked Walker to report to a House investigation whose work is due to be completed on Feb. 15, said Bush aides including Vice President Cheney, Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and homeland security adviser Frances Fragos Townsend 'were just not prepared for a storm of this magnitude.' "

Lara Jakes Jordan writes for the Associated Press: "The White House had no clear chain of command in place, investigators with the Government Accountability Office said, laying much of the blame on President Bush for not designating a single official to coordinate federal decision-making for the Aug. 29 storm. Bush has accepted responsibility for the government's halting response, but for the most part then-FEMA Director Michael Brown, who quit days after the hurricane hit, has been the public face of the failures."

Here is the GAO's preliminary report .

Hurricane Watch, Part II

Anne Rochell Konigsmark writes for USA Today: "Many Gulf Coast residents spent Wednesday angrily counting the words President Bush devoted to their storm-battered region in his State of the Union speech.

"The tally: Bush addressed 165 of his 5,300 words to disaster recovery in the Gulf, and he never used the word 'Katrina.'

" 'I waited until the bitter end,' Dottie Tabor, a New Orleans retiree, said as she bought food at a city market. 'There was not enough at all about New Orleans, and he promised a lot when he was down here.' "

Missing E-mails

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald is raising the possibility that records sought in the CIA leak investigation could be missing because of an e-mail archiving problem at the White House.

"The prosecutor in the criminal case against Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff said in a Jan. 23 letter that not all e-mail was archived in 2003, the year the Bush administration exposed the identity of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame."

Here's Wolf Blitzer on CNN yesterday with legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

"BLITZER: [W]hen I hear a story like this, it hearkens back, I remember, of course, some of those missing tapes during Watergate and the Nixon White House that evidence may have been destroyed. This may be totally, totally overreaching. There may be a simple explanation, but the fact that the prosecutor writes this letter saying what happened to this -- to these e-mails, that raises certain questions.

"TOOBIN: And certainly the Iran-Contra affair was based almost entirely on electronic messages, so-called prof notes sent between Oliver North and colleagues. They have been crucial evidence in all White House investigations. What happened to them? A lot of things get destroyed in the normal course of business. Why were the normal procedures not followed? As you point out, could be completely innocent. But we just don't know."

The news first broke yesterday, at the end of an article by James Gordon Meek in the New York Daily News.

"CIA leak prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald collected 10,000 pages of documents - including the most sensitive terrorism memos in the U.S. government - from Vice President Cheney's office, he said in court papers released yesterday.

"Without serving any warrants in his probe of who outed CIA officer Valerie Plame, Fitzgerald even obtained censored copies of the President's Daily Brief, the supersecret CIA threat memo for President Bush.

"Now Lewis (Scooter) Libby, Cheney's disgraced former chief aide, is asking a court to force Fitzgerald to fork over all the documents to fight charges of perjury and lying to the FBI."

It was in that context that Meek reported: "Fitzgerald, who is fighting Libby's request, said in a letter to Libby's lawyers that many e-mails from Cheney's office at the time of the Plame leak in 2003 have been deleted contrary to White House policy."

Also yesterday, Neil A. Lewis wrote in the New York Times: "Lawyers for I. Lewis Libby Jr., the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, offered a detailed outline on Tuesday of Mr. Libby's likely defense to charges that he lied about his role in exposing the identity of a C.I.A. operative.

"In papers filed in federal court, the lawyers strongly suggested they would argue that if Mr. Libby's statements to investigators were untrue, it was a case of innocent confusion or faulty memory because of his preoccupation with weightier national security matters at the time."

Domestic Spying Watch

Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "The Bush administration is rebuffing requests from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee for its classified legal opinions on President Bush's domestic spying program, setting up a confrontation in advance of a hearing scheduled for next week, administration and Congressional officials said Wednesday."

Charlie Savage writes in the Boston Globe; "Legal specialists yesterday questioned the accuracy of President Bush's sweeping contentions about the legality of his domestic spying program, particularly his assertion in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday that 'previous presidents have used the same constitutional authority I have.' "

The "legal specialists said yesterday that wiretaps ordered by previous presidents were put in place before warrants were required for investigations involving national security. Since Congress passed the law requiring warrants in 1978, no president but Bush has defied it, specialists said."

Straw Man Watch, Part I

The New York Times editorial board writes: "President Bush is not giving up the battle over domestic spying. He's fighting it with an army of straw men and a fleet of red herrings. . . .

"One of the oddest moments in Mr. Bush's defense of domestic spying came when he told his audience in Nashville, 'If I was trying to pull a fast one on the American people, why did I brief Congress?' He did not mention that some lawmakers protested the spying at the briefings, or that they found them inadequate. The audience members who laughed and applauded Mr. Bush's version of the truth may have forgot that he said he briefed Congress fully on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We know how that turned out."

At the Grand Ole Opry

Robert Pear writes in the New York Times: "From the stage of the Grand Ole Opry House here, Mr. Bush delivered a reprise of his State of the Union address. But he was more folksy, more personal and more impassioned in setting forth his vision of the United States' place in the world, epitomized on posters plastered around the hall: 'Americans win when America leads.'

"Mr. Bush was fired up, full of determination in talking about Iraq and foreign policy. By contrast, when he turned to domestic policy, he rambled at times, then rushed through a list of proposals on health care, immigration, science education and energy conservation. . . .

"The president appeared to draw strength from the enthusiastic crowd, which included thousands of people invited to the event by local civic, business and political groups. He was scheduled to speak for 35 minutes but talked for more than an hour, and was frequently interrupted by thunderous applause."

As I wrote in yesterday's column , some reporters saw signs in Tuesday's speech that Bush was newly willing to acknowledge the anxious state of the American public. I suggested that might have been an overreaction based on a pre-speech pep talk for journalists from White House counselor Dan Bartlett.

Yesterday, an unscripted Bush made some more awkward steps in that direction.

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Bush's speech, delivered to a supportive audience in the vast Grand Ole Opry House, suggested he was facing a new challenge: justifying his broad optimism, even as he recognizes that increasing numbers of Americans, as measured by multiple public opinion polls, have deep worries about the progress of the war, the future of the economy and the direction in which he is leading the country."

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush said Wednesday he understands why the nation he has led for five years has become more anxious, and he urged people to have confidence in him.

"Bush maintained his optimistic message. . . . But in a rare acknowledgment of the troubled times on his watch, he tried to show empathy with the public's worries.

" 'People are uncertain, in spite of our strong union, because of war, and I understand that,' Bush said."

Here's the transcript .

Bush himself raised the question that he recognized as "dear to the hearts of many people."

"How long will we be in Iraq? And the answer is this -- it's a security aspect. And that is that if people want to be free, and if 11 million people chose to vote, the question on people's mind is, is there a willingness for the Iraqis to defend their own freedom. And I will tell you, the answer we have seen, our commanders on the ground have seen, is, absolutely. Absolutely. There is great bravery amongst these Iraqi soldiers. Our job is to convert their desire to protect their new democracy into effective forces. And that's what we're doing."

He wrapped up the answer seven paragraphs later, saying it's up to the commanders on the ground.

Greenspan's Rebuff

Brody Mullins and Jackie Calmes write in the Wall Street Journal that just a few days before his State of the Union speech, Bush tried -- and failed -- to woo Alan Greenspan to head a bipartisan commission on controlling the exploding costs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Straw Man Watch, Part II

Andrew J. Bacevich writes in a Los Angeles Times opinion column: "In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Bush worked himself into a lather about the dangers of 'retreating within our borders.' His speech bulged with ominous references to ostensibly resurgent isolationists hankering to 'tie our hands' and leave 'an assaulted world to fend for itself.' Turning inward, the president cautioned, would provide 'false comfort' because isolationism inevitably 'ends in danger and decline.'

"But who exactly are these isolationists eager to pull up the drawbridges? What party do they control? What influential journals of opinion do they publish? Who are their leaders? Which foundations bankroll this isolationist cause?

"The president provided no such details, and for good reason: They do not exist. Indeed, in present-day American politics, isolationism does not exist. It is a fiction, a fabrication and a smear imported from another era."

Sheehan Watch

Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press: "Capitol Police dropped a charge of unlawful conduct against anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan on Wednesday and apologized for ejecting her and a congressman's wife from President Bush's State of the Union address for wearing T-shirts with war messages."

Manimal Watch

Jacob Weisberg writes in Slate: "This year's pandering nadir came during the brief passage on bioethics, when George Bush called for legislation banning the creation of 'human-animal hybrids.' In Washington, there is a lobby for everything except apparently mermaids and centaurs."

Via Wonkette , you can now buy a human-animal hybrid T-shirt at humananimalhybrid.net .

But via Kevin Drum , blogger and biology professor PZ Myers explains that doing such things as inserting human genes into mice can be the key to developing valuable treatments.

Of Bush, Myers writes: "He's trusting that everyone will think he is banning monstrous crimes against nature, but what he's really doing is targeting the weak and the ill, blocking useful avenues of research that are specifically designed to help us understand human afflictions."

Cartoon Watch

Slate compiles the best State of the Union cartoons

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