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The Captive President

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, February 8, 2006; 1:18 PM

President Bush almost never hears criticism to his face. Certainly not in public.

But yesterday, at the widely-watched funeral of civil rights icon Coretta Scott King, a fidgety president had no choice but to sit quietly and listen as several speakers reproached him for not having learned the lessons that King and her martyred husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., spent their lives teaching.

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with King's husband, opened his eulogy with this question: "How marvelous presidents and governors come to mourn and praise, but in the morning, will words become deeds that meet needs?"

Then he read a poem about King: "She extended Martin's message against poverty, racism and war. She deplored the terror inflicted by our smart bombs on missions way afar. We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there. But Coretta knew and we knew that there are weapons of misdirection right down here. Millions without health insurance. Poverty abounds. For war billions more but no more for the poor."

Former President Jimmy Carter, who has emerged as one of Bush's harshest scolds, called attention to the "secret government wiretapping" of Rev. King, in what the cheering audience recognized as a reference to the current domestic spying controversy.

Carter added: "The struggle for equal rights is not over. We only have to recall the color of the faces of those in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, those who are most devastated by Katrina to know that there are not yet equal opportunities for all Americans."

Bush and his aides are known for going to great lengths to avoid such public confrontations.

Bush has broken with presidential tradition by boycotting the annual NAACP convention. After his administration came under fire for its bungling response to Hurricane Katrina, Bush reached out to black leaders -- but only in closed-door meetings cloaked in secrecy. (See my December 9 and December 22 columns.)

And while Bush trumpets his new-found closeness with former President Bill Clinton, who never criticizes him to his face, he has until now scrupulously avoided giving Carter any opportunity to lecture him about morality.

So it was truly an unprecedented moment for the president.

But was it appropriate to take advantage of Bush's attempt to reach out to the African-American community to publicly berate him? Bush, after all, changed his schedule to attend and deliver his own gracious, if bland, tribute .

"I've come today to offer the sympathy of our entire nation at the passing of a woman who worked to make our nation whole," Bush said, before sitting down and getting his ears boxed.

A debate about the more political eulogies is raging across the blogosphere and the talk shows today.

The Coverage

Richard Fausset and Peter Wallsten write in the Los Angeles Times: "A day of eulogizing Coretta Scott King turned into a rare, in-person rebuke of President Bush, with a succession of civil rights and political leaders assailing White House policies as evidence that the dream of social and racial equality pursued by King and her slain husband was far from reality.

"Bush and his wife, Laura, sat on stage as more than 10,000 cheered suggestions from several speakers that the 1960s civil rights movement led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. -- and fostered by his widow since his assassination -- remains alive and that its goals have not been fully realized. They cited the debates in Washington over the war in Iraq, the recovery from Hurricane Katrina and government eavesdropping. . . .

"The president and his wife watched as the sanctuary at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church near Atlanta filled with raucous cheers for their White House predecessors, Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton -- a reminder that five years into his term, Bush and the Republican Party have not found the acceptance across black America that GOP strategists had hoped."

Glenn Thrush writes in Newsday: "Bush knew he would face a less-than-adoring reception at the memorial, but seemed surprised by the level of antipathy his presence provoked.

"The president and his father shook their heads as the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with King's husband, decried the diversion of domestic spending to the Iraq war."

Helen Kennedy writes in the New York Daily News: "President Bush changed his schedule at the last minute to attend Coretta Scott King's funeral. It might have been a mistake.

"Not only was he overshadowed by the Bill and Hillary show, but several speakers, including former President Jimmy Carter, aimed sharply pointed darts at the commander in chief as he sat squirming on the dais. . . .

"Bush, who rarely hears criticism to his face, wore a tight grin as he sat behind Lowery. When Lowery finished, however, Bush shook his hand with a big smile."

Andrew Ward writes in the Financial Times of "several speakers making veiled and in some cases open criticism of the Bush administration from a podium situated feet from where the president sat.

"Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin recalled how Mrs [King] had spoken out against 'the senselessness of war' with a voice that was heard 'from the tin rooftops of Soweto to the bomb shelters of Baghdad'."

Shaila Dewan and Elisabeth Bumiller write in the New York Times: "Of the four presidents, Mr. Clinton was the obvious favorite of the crowd. A huge cheer went up as he reached the open area near Mrs. King's coffin, and the crowd gave him a thunderous standing ovation when he approached the microphone with his wife, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton."

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post that Bush's presence "took on added significance because it marks the latest step in the administration's effort to repair its frayed relations with many black civil rights and political leaders. . . .

"Bush all but ignored many black civil rights and political leaders during his first four years in office. Instead, he focused on building inroads to African American leaders through the pastors of black evangelical churches and business leaders who were not identified with the traditional civil rights agenda."

Bill Torpy and Maria Saporta write in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "Afterward, Lowery said, 'My remarks were spiritual,' adding that he was speaking from Matthew 25. '[Bush] must have known when he came into King Country he would hear the word of the Lord,' Lowery said."

Torpy and Saporta note that at Monday's less-watched service, "The Rev. Jesse Jackson questioned why Bush would attend. 'I'm not sure the pharaoh went to Moses' funeral,' Jackson said. 'Mr. Bush, honor Dr. King. Feed the hungry in the Katrina zone. Remember the homeless and helpless.' "

The Debate

A New York Post editorial this morning lashes out at Carter, saying his "disgraceful performance yesterday at Coretta Scott King's funeral marks him as the most shameless" president of the 20th century.

As for Lowery's comments, the Post writes: "To be sure, Mrs. King probably would have agreed with the sentiments -- though she was far too gracious to openly insult a president of the United States to his face."

Chris Matthews hosted a discussion on the politics of the funeral on MSNBC's Hardball last night:

"CYNTHIA TUCKER, ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION: Well, it was certainly greeted with controversy and consternation from some quarters. We heard from readers, both white and African-Americans, who were upset that the Reverend Lowery introduced what they believed were patently political partisan remarks in what should have been a eulogy.

"However, let's remember that Coretta Scott King was a political figure herself and she was an anti-war figure. She was perhaps an anti-war figure even before her husband was and when he protested the war in Vietnam, she was right there by his side. Besides that, when you get that many presidents, former presidents, and aspiring presidents on stage, you've got to expect politics.

"MATTHEWS: Well, Colbert, what do you think?

"COLBERT KING, THE WASHINGTON POST: Well, as Cynthia said, you had not only had four presidents there, you had two rows of members of Congress. You had a mega-church, you had mega-preachers. This was -- I'm at an age now where I go to more funerals than weddings. This wasn't a funeral, this was a speaking. And that's what you had. . . .

"And in this case, Jimmy Carter was vintage Jimmy Carter. He took a shot at George Bush and he took a shot at him on the question of wiretaps, because he mentioned the wiretapping. . . .

"MATTHEWS: . . . Kate. What do you make of this day? Was this the Democratic convention or a funeral? What was it?

"KATE O'BEIRNE, NATIONAL REVIEW: Both were completely inappropriate. Just because politicians are present and they're present as former presidents, they're representing the country. President Bush explained he's there on behalf of all Americans.

"It's not a convention or a campaign event, just because former presidents are there. It's a funeral. It's completely inappropriate for both Reverend Lowery to have made the remarks he did, and for former President Jimmy Carter to do what he did, which is a cheap, political shot. Liberals don't seem to be able to keep politics away from funerals. . . .

"MATTHEWS: Was there something inaccurate in what they said, either he or Dr. Lowery?

"O'BEIRNE: It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if they were reading factual material to make a cheap political point. It totally is contrary to the spirit and we're not talking about Coretta Scott King and the incredible legacy of the Kings and her incredibly dignified life, which this runs counter to, I might add. We're talking about these two political characters.

"KING: Of course, that legacy was non-violence. And you can't come to a funeral where you eulogize Coretta Scott King and not talk about non- violence, and the presence of violence in the world.

"You can't come to a celebration of the life of Coretta Scott King and [not] talk about civil liberties and the infringement on her civil liberties by her own government. You cannot do that and be true to the King family.

"O'BEIRNE: The other speakers did it. The other speakers did it and they were also respectful of her memory and her legacy and they did not make it about them or politics."

Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin called the Democratic behavior "ungodly."

Matt Margolis of Blogs for Bush wrote: "I'm not sure what I was watching today . . . a funeral for Coretta Scott King, or a Bush-bashing festival. . . .

"No, Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream has not been fulfilled -- but for different reasons [than] a lot of people think. . . . Many who claim to be supporting his dream are working so hard to destroy it."

Liberal Daily Kos blogger SusanG responds: "Here we have a woman who spent her lifetime speaking out, marching, lending her name to causes and fighting injustice with integrity in every breath she took. Her husband died for speaking out and she continued to do the same. Am I really to assume she would 'tut tut' at the heartfelt and sometimes raucous, sometimes tear-inducing funeral we witnessed today?"

Abramoff Watch

Jeanne Cummings writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The scandal surrounding disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff has shaken up Capitol Hill. But it still poses significant problems for the Bush White House.

"A court hearing scheduled later this month may bring fresh attention to the case of former White House aide David Safavian, who is charged with lying in connection with a golf trip Mr. Abramoff arranged. Justice Department officials haven't closed their review of actions by former Interior Department official J. Steven Griles, who disputes claims that he favored Abramoff clients, such as Native American tribes involved in casinos. Calls for the White House to release photos of Mr. Abramoff with the president -- and details of his contacts with presidential aides including Karl Rove -- haven't abated."

David Hammer writes for the Associated Press: "A White House aide who was once chief of staff to House Majority Leader John Boehner helped plan a 1996 trip to the Northern Mariana Islands that was organized by fallen lobbyist Jack Abramoff, billing records from Abramoff's firm show.

"Barry Jackson, now chief deputy to White House adviser Karl Rove, accepted an invitation to travel to the island of Saipan in April 1996 but later decided not to go, White House spokeswoman Erin Healy said Tuesday."

Cheney Watch

Steve Holland writes for Reuters: "Vice President Dick Cheney on Tuesday resisted bipartisan appeals for changes in a hotly disputed warrantless eavesdropping program, saying he believed 'we have all the legal authority we need.'

"Democrats and some Republicans have urged the Bush administration to work with Congress to revise a law already on the books in order to end questions about whether the spy program, initiated after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, was constitutional."

Here's the transcript of Cheney's interview with PBS's Jim Lehrer (ending Cheney's month-long streak of only talking to conservative talk-show hosts.)

Said Cheney about the eavesdropping: "The biggest problem we've got right now, frankly, I think is all the public discussion about it. I think we have in fact probably done serious damage to our long-term capabilities in this area because it was printed first in The New York Times and subsequently because there have been succeeding stories about it."

Cheney refused to discuss "operational details" but at the same time insisted: "This has been one of the most important sources of intelligence we've had during the global war on terror. It's not an accident that we haven't been struck in the last four years."

Lehrer did not ask some of the obvious follow-up questions, such as: Why should the public believe you? Do you really think terrorists didn't think we were listening in on their phone calls before now?

A few other excerpts:

"LEHRER: You drew a lot of heat and ridicule when you said eight months ago, insurgency is in its last throes. You regret having said that?

"VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: No. . . . I think about when we look back and get some historical perspective on this period, I'll believe that the period we were in through 2005 was in fact a turning point, that putting in place a democratic government in Iraq was the, sort of the cornerstone, if you will, of victory against the insurgency."

Lehrer did get Cheney to acknowledge that the White House didn't anticipate the insurgency.

"JIM LEHRER: Why didn't we anticipate it?

"VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: Well, you can't anticipate everything."

Lehrer asked Cheney about Bush's assertion that the United States is "addicted to oil." Cheney couldn't bring himself to say "addicted."

"VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: Well, we clearly depend very heavily on it. "

Lehrer also asked about the charge that there is a "competence problem in the Bush administration, having to do with misjudging the insurgency, the Katrina thing, which we haven't even discussed, the prescription -- Medicare prescription drug program not functioning properly . . . there's a long list of things. . . .

"VICE PRESIDENT DICK CHENEY: I think we are good managers. We don't always get it right, but we've got plenty of critics out there to make sure that when we get it wrong, they let us know about it."

Domestic Spying Watch

Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "A House Republican whose subcommittee oversees the National Security Agency broke ranks with the White House on Tuesday and called for a full Congressional inquiry into the Bush administration's domestic eavesdropping program."

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post about "one of the most significant apparent contradictions in the administration's defense of the spying program, under which the National Security Agency intercepts some calls to and from the United States and contacts overseas."

That contradiction: If Bush really has the constitutional authority to order wiretaps on U.S. citizens and residents without court approval, then why stop at international calls?

James Bovard writes in a Los Angeles Times opinion column: "President Bush and Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales insist that the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping of American citizens is a necessary 'terrorist surveillance program.' And polls show that most Americans support permitting the government to tap the phone calls and e-mails of those considered 'suspicious.'

"But what exactly does that mean? A close look suggests that the feds' definition of a 'suspected terrorist' may not meet the laugh test."

Bovard provides several examples, including this one: "In the mass roundup of more than 1,200 people shortly after 9/11, for example, it took very little for a Muslim or Arab illegal immigrant to be considered a 'suspected terrorist,' according to a 2003 report by the Justice Department's inspector general."

Appointee Watch

Andrew C. Revken writes in the New York Times: "George C. Deutsch, the young presidential appointee at NASA who told public affairs workers to limit reporters' access to a top climate scientist and told a Web designer to add the word 'theory' at every mention of the Big Bang, resigned yesterday, agency officials said.

"Mr. Deutsch's resignation came on the same day that officials at Texas A&M University confirmed that he did not graduate from there, as his résumé on file at the agency asserted."

Laura Bush Watch

Antonella Ciancio writes for Reuters: "Anti-capitalist protesters vowed on Tuesday to mount street demonstrations at the Winter Olympics and try to disrupt U.S. First Lady Laura Bush's visit to the host Italian city."

The first lady leaves today for Italy. Tomorrow, she meets with Pope Benedict XVI and has lunch with Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi. On Friday, she speaks to troops at Aviano Air Force Base before visiting American athletes and attending the Olympics opening ceremony.

Valerie Plame Watch

Media Matters , the liberal media watchdog Web site, raises an interesting point about Time Magazine's coverage of the Valerie Plame affair.

Back in this October 2003 story, the magazine reported: "White House spokesman Scott McClellan said accusations of Rove's peddling information are 'ridiculous.' Says McClellan: 'There is simply no truth to that suggestion.'"

It is now clear that several reporters and editors at Time knew very well that McClellan's statement was false.

Media Matters writes: "But despite that knowledge, they participated in the publication of an article containing that quote, with no indication that it was untrue. They participated in the publication of that article, which, in reporting that 'Rove was initially accused by Wilson of being the man behind the leak,' implied that Rove was no longer under suspicion -- even though they all knew that Rove was, in fact, [Matt] Cooper's source."

Is there any excuse for a news organization to print a statement that they know is untrue, without at least trying to clue their readers into the truth? That seems to defeat the central purpose of journalism.

So what should Time have done? One option might have been to go to Rove and say: We know McClellan isn't telling the truth. You either need to tell us the truth, on the record, or tell him the truth.

What if Rove had refused? One option might have been to go to McClellan and tell him that they had reason to think his statement was not accurate.

And if McClellan brushed them off? They should have stopped at nothing until they found a way to report what they knew to be the truth.

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