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News Between the Lines

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, March 22, 2006; 1:00 PM

At yesterday's press conference, President Bush joked around with reporters, angrily waggled his finger at them, and even called on the redoubtable Helen Thomas for the first time in three years -- but that doesn't mean he actually answered their questions.

Bush made the most news with two offhand, possibly even accidental admissions amid the familiar and increasingly ineffective talking points that took up most of the hour.

When asked if American forces will ever completely leave Iraq, Bush replied: "That, of course, is an objective, and that will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq."

Asked if he still felt he had political capital, he said, almost as an aside: "I'd say I'm spending that capital on the war."

More typically unforthcoming was his non-answer to Washington Post reporter Jim VandeHei's excellent question: "A growing number of Americans are questioning the trustworthiness of you and this White House. Does that concern you?"

Bush just wouldn't say. "I believe that my job is to go out and explain to people what's on my mind," he replied, launching himself on a rambling discourse on war followed by a straw-man attack on unnamed people who don't take al Qaeda seriously.

The best television, by far, came when Bush called on Helen Thomas, the 85-year-old dean of the White House press corps. Bush hadn't called on the former UPI reporter -- now a Hearst columnist and avowed Bush critic -- in three years.

Given the opportunity, Thomas asked the same question she has asked spokesman Scott McClellan countless times: Why did Bush really go to war in Iraq? She then interrupted, contradicted and harrumphed dismissively as Bush hit the familiar talking points he always does.

Here's the transcript and video of the press conference.

The News

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush said Tuesday that U.S. troops would remain in Iraq beyond his presidency, a message that could complicate his effort to reassure an increasingly skittish public that the military deployment is not open-ended. . . .

"The president had not previously stated that the military role would continue beyond the end of his second term, on Jan. 20, 2009, a White House spokesman said."

William Douglas writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Bush's statement flies in the face of U.S. public opinion. A Gallup Poll released Friday found that a clear majority of Americans, 60 percent, think the war isn't worth the costs, 19 percent called for immediately withdrawing U.S. troops, another 35 percent favored a pullout by March 2007 and only 39 percent said troops should remain in Iraq indefinitely."

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "White House officials worried Bush's remarks would be read as saying there would not be significant troop reductions during his presidency. They pointed to comments Sunday by Gen. George W. Casey, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, who said he expected a substantial troop reduction 'certainly over the course of 2006 and into 2007.' "

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush acknowledged yesterday that the war in Iraq is dominating nearly every aspect of his presidency, and he served notice for the first time that he expects the decision on when all U.S. troops come home to fall on his successors. . . .

"Bush did not rule out bringing aboard a veteran Washington operative to help soothe relations with an increasingly restive Republican Congress, a move that aides said may happen soon."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "President Bush said Tuesday that the war in Iraq was eroding his political capital, his starkest admission yet about the costs of the conflict to his presidency, and suggested that American forces would remain in the country until at least 2009. . . .

"Mr. Bush in effect acknowledged that until he could convince increasingly skeptical Americans that the United States was winning the war, Iraq would overshadow everything he did."

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush says he's spending his remaining 'political capital' on the war in Iraq. The trouble is, he may have little left."

Will It Work?

Craig Gordon writes in Newsday that "one of George Bush's biggest assets has always been George Bush, the plain-spoken Texan fixin' to get after the terrorists. His political persona, particularly in 2004, boiled down to: You might not agree with everything he does, but you've got to admire that he knows what he thinks and isn't afraid to act.

"That folksier George Bush hasn't been around much lately, and the White House seemed intent this week on reintroducing him to the public, having him interact with a crowd in Cleveland on Monday and with reporters at the White House yesterday. . . .

"But it's not clear, either, whether that old charm still holds. For some voters, Bush's can-do leadership seems to have gone awry in Iraq and on the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. Some feel his plain talk just isn't the same since no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, making stick-with-me appeals like yesterday's more difficult."

Holly Rosenkrantz and Richard Keil write for Bloomberg: "The president may be doing as much harm as good for his case before the public with such statements, according to Anthony Cordesman, a specialist on military affairs and the Middle East at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

" 'When he explains the risks he acts like a leader, but he is giving false assurances and it creates distrust,' said Cordesman, who has backed the goal of creating a democratic government in Iraq in the past."

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "After months of speechmaking on his three-pillared strategy for success -- development of a stable democratic government in Iraq, redevelopment of the nation's economy and the training of an Iraqi military and police force able to withstand the insurgency -- the president clearly has not convinced a majority of Americans."

Straw Man Watch

Frank James writes in Chicago Tribune's Washington blog: "The press conference once again showed the president's fondness for the old debater's trick of setting up straw men and knocking them down, the result being that you look like you've demolished your opponents' ridiculous argument."

In the long non-answer to VandeHei's question about his credibility, Bush spoke at some length about what he called the "totalitarian movement that is willing to spread its propaganda through death and destruction, to spread its philosophy."

BUSH: "Now, some in this country don't -- I can understand -- that don't view the enemy that way. I guess they kind of view it as an isolated group of people that occasionally kill. I just don't see it that way. . . . I take them really seriously, and I think everybody in government should take them seriously and respond accordingly."

James writes: "I've listened in Washington to many critics of the president's prosecution of the war on terror for several years now. Not once have I heard any of them minimize the threat represented by al Qaeda or its shadowy allies. . . .

"It's not an understanding of al Qaeda's aims that critics, including some Republicans, differ with the president on but the correct response. . . .

"So a follow-up question to ask the president is, does he really believe that his critics have dismissed the threat from al Qaeda, in which case what evidence has the White House staff found to support this? When have critics said al Qaeda and like-minded terrorists 'are an isolated group of people that occasionally kill?' "

President Punchy

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post about Bush's sparring with the press corps: "He accused New York Times correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller of sleeping through his speech Monday in Cleveland. After USA Today's David Jackson interrupted a Bush non-answer, the president queried: 'Now, what is your follow-up yell?'

"And he made a show of reading from his stage directions. Rambling his way through a question about interest rates, Bush paused to confess, 'I'm kind of stalling for time here.' Checking his seating chart before calling on a questioner, he confided, 'They've told me what to say.' . . .

"Whether it's the strain of the office, the weight of international crises, or simply his old Delta Kappa Epsilon roots showing, Bush has been President Punchy of late. . . .

"Asked about his lost 'political capital' by Gerstenzang, Bush replied that he had just listed a series of accomplishments, offering, 'I'd be glad to repeat them if you like.' Bumiller waved her hand to indicate such a recitation would be unnecessary. 'Please,' Bush responded, 'no hand gestures.' "

Not Optimistic, Just Optimistic

Bush repeatedly insisted that he is not optimistic -- just hopeful. Because there's no alternative.

"I see progress. I've heard people say, oh, he's just kind of optimistic for the sake of optimism. Well, look, I believe we're going to succeed. . . .

"And so I would say, yes, I'm optimistic about being able to achieve a victory, but I'm also realistic. I fully understand the consequences of this war. I understand people's lives are being lost. But I also understand the consequences of not achieving our objective by leaving too early. Iraq would become a place of instability, a place from which the enemy can plot, plan and attack.

"I believe that they want to hurt us again. And, therefore, I know we need to stay on the offense against this enemy. They've declared Iraq to be the central front and, therefore, we've got to make sure we win that. And I believe we will."

Bush v. Thomas

Here's video of the Bush-Thomas back-and-forth, from the Crooks and Liars blog.

Bush surprised everyone in the room when he called on Thomas, ostensibly to reward her for her well-received performance as Hillary Clinton at the recent Gridiron Club dinner. (Thomas played Clinton as Scarlett O'Hara and sang: "All I want is a plantation, Big White House paid by taxation. A Hil'ry coronation, Oh, wouldn't it be loverly.")

Bush: "Helen. After that brilliant performance at the Gridiron, I am -- (laughter.)

"Q You're going to be sorry. (Laughter.)

"THE PRESIDENT: Well, then, let me take it back. (Laughter.)

"Q I'd like to ask you, Mr. President, your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is, why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, from your Cabinet -- your Cabinet officers, intelligence people, and so forth -- what was your real reason? You have said it wasn't oil -- quest for oil, it hasn't been Israel, or anything else. What was it?

"THE PRESIDENT: I think your premise -- in all due respect to your question and to you as a lifelong journalist -- is that -- I didn't want war. To assume I wanted war is just flat wrong, Helen, in all due respect --

"Q Everything --

"THE PRESIDENT: Hold on for a second, please.

"Q -- everything I've heard --

"THE PRESIDENT: Excuse me, excuse me. No President wants war. Everything you may have heard is that, but it's just simply not true. My attitude about the defense of this country changed on September the 11th. We -- when we got attacked, I vowed then and there to use every asset at my disposal to protect the American people. Our foreign policy changed on that day, Helen. You know, we used to think we were secure because of oceans and previous diplomacy. But we realized on September the 11th, 2001, that killers could destroy innocent life. And I'm never going to forget it. And I'm never going to forget the vow I made to the American people that we will do everything in our power to protect our people.

"Part of that meant to make sure that we didn't allow people to provide safe haven to an enemy. And that's why I went into Iraq -- hold on for a second --

"Q They didn't do anything to you, or to our country.

"THE PRESIDENT: Look -- excuse me for a second, please. Excuse me for a second. They did. The Taliban provided safe haven for al Qaeda. That's where al Qaeda trained --

"Q I'm talking about Iraq --

"THE PRESIDENT: Helen, excuse me. That's where -- Afghanistan provided safe haven for al Qaeda. That's where they trained. That's where they plotted. That's where they planned the attacks that killed thousands of innocent Americans.

"I also saw a threat in Iraq. I was hoping to solve this problem diplomatically. That's why I went to the Security Council; that's why it was important to pass 1441, which was unanimously passed. And the world said, disarm, disclose, or face serious consequences --

"Q -- go to war --

"THE PRESIDENT: -- and therefore, we worked with the world, we worked to make sure that Saddam Hussein heard the message of the world. And when he chose to deny inspectors, when he chose not to disclose, then I had the difficult decision to make to remove him. And we did, and the world is safer for it. . . .

"Q Thank you.

"THE PRESIDENT: You're welcome. (Laughter.) I didn't really regret it. I kind of semi-regretted it. (Laughter.)"

More From Helen Thomas

Derek McGinty writes for WUSA-TV: "Helen Thomas has been a reporter long enough to cover nine presidents. But she doesn't like the war in Iraq and doesn't apologize for that.

" 'No ties to al Qaeda, no weapons of mass destruction, what is this?' the 85-year-old asked Bush. . . .

"Some may call it opinionated, others may say it was disrespectful. But Thomas says somebody had to ask.

"So was there too much of Helen Thomas in that question?

" 'Why? Give me a reason for why we are there. It should be on your mind, too. It should be on every American's mind,' Thomas said in an interview Tuesday.

"Asked if there's a balancing act between showing respect for the office and holding politicians accountable, Thomas said: 'I don't know what you mean by balancing. I think I'm polite. I say Mr. President. I say thank you. I think they should answer the questions. And I think if we don't have the nerve to ask the question, then the question is gone. And these people should always have to explain what they do.'"

Thomas also spoke with Wolf Blitzer on CNN.

"BLITZER: You did say in January of 2003, this is the worst president ever. He is the worst president in all of American history.

"THOMAS: I never said that on the record. But it certainly got out.

"BLITZER: It got out.

"THOMAS: Yes. I think that there's room for improvement.

"BLITZER: You can't really blame him if you are calling him the worst president for saying I'm not going to call on you?

"THOMAS: I agree with you. I wasn't surprised that he didn't call on me. . . .

"BLITZER: Did you talk to him privately or something? Did you meet him?

"THOMAS: No, not really. But I sort of felt bad for the things that I had said that were not supposed to be seen. I sort of apologized.

"BLITZER: You did? So he called on you today.

"THOMAS: Very nice of him to call on me.

"BLITZER: And you asked him a tough question. Did you accept his answer? Namely that he didn't come into the presidency believing he was going to go to war against Saddam Hussein. But after 9/11, his world view changed?

"THOMAS: It doesn't parse. Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. It was secular, it was not tied to al Qaeda. I think he wanted to go into Iraq. He had all the neoconservatives advising at the top of their agenda for the Project for a New American Century. First Iraq then Iran then Syria. And so forth.

"BLITZER: So you believe even before 9/11 he wanted to take out Saddam Hussein?

"THOMAS: Oh, I think it's very clear. You couldn't sit in that press room day after day. Every time, every time it was mentioned by Ari Fleischer or Scott, they would say in one breath, 9/11, Saddam Hussein. 9/11, Saddam Hussein. I don't blame the American people for thinking there was a tie.

"BLITZER: So you didn't accept his answer today? You think that he was still spinning? Is that what you were suggesting?

"THOMAS: It wasn't that. I think he -- maybe in his own mind he didn't. But I think that everybody knows. Everybody who was in the know knows that Iraq was on target. It was on the radar screen from the moment he came into office. Treasury Secretary said it. People in CIA say it and so forth. Nothing would deter him. It was a very big goal."

Fact Check

Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Dick Polman writes in his blog: "Bush defenders complain all the time that the mainstream media 'bashes' the president too much. I would argue, however, that the media's role is to hold any president accountable for what he says, and when he says things that are contradicted by the record, it's our job to point it out.

"So let's compare Bush's Monday claim to the factual record."

For instance, Polman takes on Bush's insistence that he didn't want war. That "is contradicted by the factual record," Polman writes.

" Time magazine reported in March 2003 that one year before the war, Bush had poked his head into a White House room and told three senators, '(Expletive) Saddam, we're taking him out.' And on July 23, 2002, long before Bush went to the United Nations, his British allies met with him and subsequently wrote, in the now-famous Downing Street memos, that Bush 'had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided.' Neither the Time anecdote, nor the British memos, have been disputed by the White House."

Opinions Watch

Michael Goodwin writes in the New York Daily News: "If President Bush's press conference yesterday carried a title, it would be 'Freewheelin'.' He careened all over the emotional highway -- forceful, animated and impassioned one minute, jocular, testy and exasperated the next. At some points during the hour-long give-and-take, he was at his resolute best, at other moments, he looked goofy and punch-drunk. If you like roller coasters, you had to love the ride.

"That's how the juiced President looked and sounded, but here's what matters: Will it work? Will his energized effort boost sagging support for Iraq, and for his presidency?

"Probably not."

John Nichols writes in the Nation: "Tossed a softball question during Tuesday morning's press conference about whether he should be censured for ordering warrantless wiretapping of phone conversations 'during a time of war,' President Bush fell back on the lie that Americans must surrender liberties -- and the rule of law, itself -- in order to be made safe from terrorism."

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "President Bush should hold more news conferences. In his hour-long exchange with reporters at the White House yesterday, he was considerably more effective in explaining and defending his commitment to the war in Iraq than in the three carefully worded speeches he has delivered in the past week."

Where the Grants Flow

Thomas B. Edsall writes in The Washington Post: "Millions of dollars in taxpayer funds have flowed to groups that support President Bush's agenda on abortion and other social issues.

"Under the auspices of its religion-based initiatives and other federal programs, the administration has funneled at least $157 million in grants to organizations run by political and ideological allies, according to federal grant documents and interviews."

First Lady Watch

Richard Johnson writes in the New York Post: "First Lady Laura Bush gave birth to twin daughters Jenna and Barbara only after taking powerful fertility drugs, according to a major new book. In 'Laura Bush: An Intimate Portrait of the First Lady' (Random House), best-selling author Ronald Kessler reports that, after trying for more than three years to have children after she married George W. Bush, Laura took clomiphene citrate, which induces ovulation and helps increase egg production and often leads to multiple births.

"Kessler also writes that Laura occasionally sneaks a cigarette with friends."

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