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Not Lame Yet?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, February 27, 2006; 12:15 PM

Now that the White House has twisted and squirmed and wheedled its way out of an imminent conflict with Congress over the proposed ports takeover, the question is whether this delays or even derails the Bush-as-lame-duck narrative sweeping the media this weekend.

Ducking a Bullet

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration said yesterday that it has accepted a proposal from a Dubai maritime company to conduct a 45-day review of the national security implications of the company's plans to take control of significant operations at six U.S. ports.

"The announcement by Dubai Ports World, brokered by the White House and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), appears to satisfy the demands of many members of Congress, who had threatened to force a security review if the administration would not conduct one."

But, as David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "The request will leave President Bush in the politically delicate position of having to personally approve or disapprove the takeover."

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "The White House got a gift in the ports security debate, a chance for the president to sidestep a battle with members of his own party and to tone down bipartisan criticism of the deal. . . .

"The president's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said as late as Friday that the administration would not reconsider its approval. . . .

"But behind the scenes, the administration took part in discussions that would give the administration a way to save face. If the company was taking the initiative and would submit to further review, the hope was that congressional critics would be quieted and the president would not have to take on a fight with a well-positioned Congress or appear that he was giving in to their demands."

Bush on the Ropes

Janet Hook writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Republicans' raucous rebellion against the White House on a port management deal has proved to be a crucial juncture in George W. Bush's presidency, signaling how dramatically his vise-like grip on the GOP has been loosened in his second term. . . .

"A key question is whether the port imbroglio is an episode that will pass without lasting political effect or whether it will permanently damage Bush's position in the party, especially among the conservative base that sparked the opposition to the deal.

"Panicked lawmakers fear that Bush, with no reelection bid facing him, was insensitive to the port decision's political risks and that Democrats now have an election-year opportunity to portray themselves as tougher in fighting terrorism than the president and his allies."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "Though the tensions were somewhat defused Sunday when the company agreed to a 45-day national security review, the problem continues to exact a steep political price from Mr. Bush, exposing divisions between the White House and Congressional Republicans in a critical election year and further weakening a president already reeling from a series of setbacks, from Hurricane Katrina to the war in Iraq."

About Those Antennae

Karen Tumulty writes in Time: "The closest thing to a working political antenna at the White House these days may be the one on Dan Bartlett's car radio. Congressional anger over President George W. Bush's decision to allow a Dubai-owned company to operate terminals at major U.S. ports had been at a low boil for days before the White House got its first inkling of the furor: Bartlett, the presidential counselor, happened to tune in to conservative talk-show host Michael Savage on the way home from work."

Tumulty writes that the late and initially defiant White House response "has hastened the declaration of independence toward which Republicans have been edging for months. 'This is the tipping point,' said a House leadership strategist. 'No longer will Republicans sit idle when they have a difference with the President.' A senior Senate aide spoke even more bluntly: 'It's every man for himself.' "

Columnist Joe Klein writes, also in Time: " 'The media are wondering what ever happened to the Bushies' political antennae,' a prominent Republican told me. 'They don't have antennae. They just have a transmitter -- and the party is beginning to tune them out.' "

Ann McFeatters writes for Scripps Howard News Service: "The administration of this seemingly amiable man -- certainly voters thought him more likeable than John Kerry or Al Gore -- has begun to represent government at its worst: uncaring, incompetent, bureaucratic, unresponsive and full of hot air and quixotic rules.

"People want -- and need -- to believe that their leaders are competent. This White House is making that more difficult with every passing week."

A Lame-Duck Agenda?

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush has been buffeted by one calamity after another. Try what he may, he just can't seem to find traction for his second-term agenda."

In fact, Tumulty ends her piece in Time with this astonishing paragraph: "White House officials, recognizing the likelihood that Republicans on Capitol Hill will go their own way, say they have designed an agenda that relies on Congress for very little in this election year. Instead, they say, the President will deploy his bully pulpit for such issues as overhauling the entitlement programs -- Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- that eat up half the budget and could balloon as baby boomers retire. By judiciously asserting his influence, Bush believes he can set 'an agenda that our party and, one would hope, the country can unite behind,' White House communications director Nicolle Wallace said. But the flap over port security, coming after the controversy over Vice President Dick Cheney's handling of his accidental shooting of a hunting companion, shows that the White House will have to sharpen its game to regain even that much ground. An Administration official said Bush's aides realize that they'll be taking more Republican shots 'every year that we're closer to being done.' But in the end, the wounds that hurt the most may be the ones that are self-inflicted."

Loss of Firepower

Kenneth T. Walsh writes in U.S. News: " 'Where is Cheney? Where is Card? Where is Rove?' asks a senior Republican, referring to the vice president, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove. 'They don't have the credibility they used to have, so they are lying low. The White House needs more firepower.' . . .

"As with the controversy over the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, insiders say Bush today resents anyone raising questions about his effectiveness in protecting national security.

" 'He's angry that he's being challenged, and it's affecting his judgment again,' says a Republican strategist who advised a previous GOP president."

Bubble Watch

Dick Polman unleashes a big exploration of the Bush bubble in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "Bubble talk continues today, as controversy rages over the administration's nod to a deal that puts six U.S. ports under the management of a firm owned by an Arab nation that has struggled with terrorism issues. The White House says Bush didn't know about the deal in advance. Most important, nobody working the deal at the White House seemed attuned to political reality: the danger that such a deal, in an election year, might expose congressional Republicans to the visceral charge that their party might be soft on terrorism.

"And more bubble talk is likely in the days ahead, as the gap between Bush's Iraq rhetoric and Iraq reality threatens to widen further. Last Friday, Bush delivered another speech extolling Iraq's 'liberation' and its 'incredible progress' toward democracy -- at the same time that government officials, speaking anonymously, warned of 'a descent into civil war,' while Reuel Marc Gerecht, a think-tank hawk in Washington, described the political landscape in Iraq as 'very, very, very bad.' . . .

" 'Bush operates inside a shell,' says historian Robert Dallek, author of a lauded two-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. 'He and Johnson are similar, if you look at Iraq and Vietnam. Johnson got locked into a position on his war, and he couldn't let go of it. And of course, this was ruinous for his presidency. Bush is similarly very stubborn and single-minded -- "I don't accept criticism, I can't be wrong." ' "

Who Blinked?

Elisabeth J. Beardsley writes in the Louisville Courier-Journal about how the White House got Frist to back down from his public rebellion last week: "Speaking to reporters before headlining a GOP fundraiser in Lexington, Frist, a Tennessee Republican, said his initial trepidation about the deal has waned in recent days as his staff received intelligence briefings."

But whatever anyone else calls it, Ken Herman of Cox News Service calls it a White House U-turn: "In record time -- that could foreshadow battles to come for a weakened president -- the White House this week went from chest-thumping veto threat to let's slow down and let Congress have a look.

"About 48 hours after the president vowed to used his first-ever veto to kill congressional efforts to ditch or delay the deal that would put a state-owned Arab company in charge of managing six U.S. ports, the White House blinked."

Pick Your Metaphor

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times that Bush "is stewing in a pot he brought to boil. . . .

"President Bush may not like the arguments that critics are raising against the Dubai company attempting to take over cargo and cruise operations at ports in six U.S. cities. But he should recognize them. The arguments marshaled against Bush closely echoed the ones he deployed to defend the Iraq war. . . .

"At the core of Bush's case for invading Iraq was the contention that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks changed the burden of proof in evaluating potential threats. Bush justified the war, despite inconclusive intelligence about whether Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, largely on the grounds that after Sept. 11, waiting for definitive evidence of danger was itself too risky. . . .

"That sort of argument, which revolves around the fear of things that might someday occur, is inherently difficult to refute."

Scooter Libby Watch

Carol D. Leonnig writes in The Washington Post on Saturday: "Vice President Cheney's former top aide is not entitled to know the identity of an anonymous administration official who revealed information about CIA operative Valerie Plame to two journalists, a federal judge ruled in a hearing yesterday.

"To defend himself against criminal charges, however, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby does have the right to copies of all the classified notes he took as Cheney's chief of staff from spring 2003 to spring 2004, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton said. Libby sought the notes to refresh his memory about matters he was handling while discussing Plame with reporters and when questioned by investigators about those conversations."

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times that "the federal judge hearing Mr. Libby's case seemed markedly skeptical to a second request that the defense also be given the highly classified documents known as the President's Daily Brief for a similar period. The judge, Reggie B. Walton, suggested that the requests for those documents by Mr. Libby's lawyers might 'sabotage' the case against him. . . .

"Mr. Fitzgerald said Friday that he would readily agree that Mr. Libby had an important job and dealt with weighty matters. But he said that the presidential briefs would provide far more detail than Mr. Libby needed to make that argument.

"Further, he said, in July 2003 when Mr. Libby had conversations with three reporters, he was 'deeply involved' in dealing with the issue of Ms. Wilson and her husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV."

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Lawyers for I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby said Friday that they soon planned to subpoena reporters and news organizations, and a federal judge set the stage for a showdown in late April on whether the media would have to comply with the subpoenas in order to afford the former White House aide a fair trial."

And Toni Locy writes for the Associated Press: "The defense was told that the White House had recently located and turned over about 250 pages of e-mails from the vice president's office. Fitzgerald, in a letter last month to the defense, had cautioned Libby's lawyers that some e-mails might be missing because the White House's archiving system had failed."

India and Pakistan

National security adviser Stephen Hadley laid out the itinerary for Bush's trip, in great detail, in a briefing on Friday. And USA Today has a primer on the trip.

I'll have much more tomorrow or Wednesday.

'White House Reporter Syndrome'

Blame the victim?

Katharine Q. Seelye , writing in the New York Times, blames the "theater of the absurd" that is the modern White House press briefing not on spokesman Scott McClellan's refusal to give a direct answer to even the simplest question -- but on the fact that the briefings are televised. And, oh yes, on the troubled, preening reporters who make up the White House press corps.

Seelye writes: "By its nature, the relationship between the White House and the press has historically held an inherent tension. And many say it has been eroding since the Vietnam War and Watergate, when reporters had reason to distrust everything the White House said and made a scandalous 'gate' out of every murky act.

"But today, those on both sides say, the relationship has deteriorated further, exacerbated by the live briefings."

There's a brief defense of the craft: " 'This is the punching-bag beat of American journalism,' said David E. Sanger, who has covered the Bush administration since its inception for The New York Times. 'And the White House itself has been skillful at diverting tough questions by changing the subject to its battles with the media.' "

And, astonishingly enough, Seelye puts forth a psychological explanation for all this.

"Renana Brooks, a clinical psychologist practicing in Washington who said she had counseled several White House correspondents, said the past few years had given rise to 'White House reporter syndrome,' in which competitive high achievers feel restricted and controlled and become emotionally isolated from others who are not steeped in the same experience.

"She said the syndrome was evident in the Cheney case, which she described as an inconsequential event that produced an outsize feeding frenzy. She said some reporters used the occasion to compensate for not having pressed harder before the Iraq war.

" 'It's like any post-traumatic stress,' she said, 'like when someone dies and you think you could have saved them.' "

Et Tu, Mom?

Speaking of McClellan, Ken Herman reports for Cox News Service that even McClellan's mom has joined the chorus of GOP critics on the ports deal

" 'Our roads, our bridges, our seaports, our airports and our border crossings are vital to our economy and prime targets for terrorists,' said Carole Keeton Strayhorn, Texas comptroller, couching it in home-state terms but jumping on the political bandwagon opposing the ports deal. 'Why take the chance and let a private or public foreign operation control vital Texas infrastructure and property?' "

Bush on ABC

ABC News reports: " 'World News Tonight' anchorwoman Elizabeth Vargas will sit down for an exclusive interview with President Bush . . . on Tuesday, Feb. 28, at the White House."

This should be interesting. Will Vargas, in this defining interview (for her), ask Bush tough well-researched questions, interrupt him if he filibusters, and follow up if he doesn't answer?

Or will she just offer up a list of predictable questions that he can swat away without making any news?

I somehow doubt she'll take my advice from Feb. 3: "It seems to me the trick would be for the next news outlet that gets a sit-down with the president to devote an entire interview -- a la Oprah v. Frey -- to the issue of credibility. And to be prepared with quotes and clips -- a la Stewart -- to force Bush to directly address the various inconsistent, misleading, or outright false statements that have peppered his presidency."

But maybe she will deal with some of the same issues you guys came up with.

Role Models, Good and Bad

Sometimes, interviews with foreign television reporters can be surprisingly tough. Remember Irish television correspondent Carole Coleman 's interview with Bush in the summer of 2004? (Note to Elizabeth Vargas: Watch it.)

But Bush's interview Friday with India's state-run television network Doordarshan was not exactly in the same league. A few excerpts:

"Q Now about trade and commerce, which we are mentioning. Well, in your Asia Society speech -- I attended, I heard it, was a spectacular speech you made.

"THE PRESIDENT: Thank you."

And later:

"Q While preparing to visit India, and political negotiations, have you discussed with Mrs. Bush how to negotiate hot Indian curry?"

Bike Accident, Redux

Murd MacLeod writes in the Scotsman on Sunday on a newly-released police report on Bush's bicycle accident in Scotland in July: "He may be the most powerful man in the world, but proof has emerged that President George Bush cannot ride a bike, wave and speak at the same time."

Biking Togs Watch

Houston Chronicle White House correspondent Julie Mason writes in her pool report on Sunday: "The president went to church this morning. It was really cold out, and it seems like the pool might be getting closer to confirming that he actually wears his biking clothes under his suit, because a certain 'bulkiness' about his person was remarked on by photographers. And there was the usual lightning-speed costume change back at the White House."

Here are a bunch of wire photos . Judge for yourself. Bush did head out for a ride at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Reserve just a little while later.

Strategery Watch

Internet gossip king Matt Drudge reports on excerpts from a new book about the Bush White House from Bill Sammon, a former Washington Times correspondent who recently jumped ship to the Washington Examiner.

Writes Drudge: "President Bush and his top strategist, Karl Rove, say Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton will be tough to beat in the Democratic presidential primaries of 2008 -- but not in the general election!"

From the book 's inside flap: "Strategery chronicles the perpetually 'misunderestimated' president as he vanquishes John Kerry and then embarks on a breathtakingly audacious second-term agenda."

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