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Signs of Change

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, March 23, 2006; 12:39 PM

As it becomes more evident that the country is simply tuning out President Bush's shopworn talking points on Iraq, there are increasing signs that the White House is considering a change in approach -- in the form of new blood and a new script.

At his Tuesday press conference, Bush fueled rumors of a staff change when he was asked if he intends to bring in an old Washington hand to supplement or replace the loyal aides who have guided him until now.

"Well, I'm not going to announce it right now," he said.

Adam Nagourney and Elisabeth Bumiller write in the New York Times: "President Bush's suggestion on Tuesday that he may add a new senior figure to his White House team raised questions about the future of two of his closest and most powerful aides, Andrew H. Card Jr. and Karl Rove, as they struggle to put Mr. Bush's White House back on course. . . .

"In a brief interview, Mr. Rove dismissed the notion that he was fatigued or had lost his touch.

" 'We're all energized,' Mr. Rove said. 'Whether we're on our game or not -- I'm an idiot one day and a genius the next -- that's the way it is. You can't pay attention to that.' . . .

"One person who met Mr. Rove said he attributed Mr. Bush's problems more to external events, in particular Hurricane Katrina and Iraq, than to anything the White House did wrong."

Here's an irresistible Rove anecdote: "At a party at the British Embassy when Mr. Bush and Mr. Card were on their way to India, Mr. Rove was asked by a group of guests how things were going.

" 'Everybody's away, so I'm running the country,' Mr. Rove replied, playing off his caricature as an all-powerful behind-the-scenes puppet master."

Meanwhile, Newsweek's Howard Fineman suggests that with the current "global war on terror" script bombing, White House image makers are tuning a new script in which the president reprises his role as an American hero by declaring war on faint-hearted Democrats and the unpatriotic media.

"The revamped story line is WATITH (the 'war against terrorists inside the homeland')" and Bush's "enemies will be different: not just the terrorists themselves, but also [faint-hearted] lovers of legalistic niceties that get in the way of investigations and MSM news organizations that focus obsessively on explosions and mayhem in Iraq, even as they print or broadcast classified information and ask nasty, argumentative questions at hastily called press conferences. . . .

"It takes some chutzpah to do this rewrite," writes Fineman.

It also takes a resistance to the facts on the ground.

As Cam Simpson writes in Chicago Tribune's Washington blog, "Repeated suggestions by the White House and friendly commentators that the news media's selective displays of terrorist attacks in Iraq are warping American public opinion" are belied by the U.S. State Department's own recent Country Report on Human Rights Practices for Iraq .

Simpson offers some excerpts:

-- "Insurgents and terrorists killed thousands of citizens . . . . Using intimidation and violence, they kidnapped and killed government officials and workers, common citizens, party activists participating in the electoral process, civil society activists, members of security forces, and members of the armed forces, as well as foreigners."

-- "Bombings, executions, killings, kidnappings, shootings, and intimidation were a daily occurrence throughout all regions and sectors of society. An illustrative list of these attacks, even a highly selective one, could scarcely reflect the broad dimension of the violence."

Simpson concludes: "In other words, this report, just two weeks old, contradicts the very raison d'Ítre of the current White House public relations campaign on Iraq -- to convince Americans that the 'reality' in Iraq is far better than the constant stream of bad news they see on their televisions every night.

"If anything, the State Department's candid assessments would seem to indicate that things might be far worse than the press is currently able to report, given the fact that journalists are hampered by the same violence racking everyone else in the nation."

But one sign of how the new script might play -- at least among Bush's historical base -- came during Bush's talk yesterday in West Virginia, when a woman in the audience complained that "it seems that our major media networks don't want to portray the good" news from Iraq. Her question drew a standing ovation.

Is Anyone Listening?

Here's the transcript of Bush's talk in West Virginia yesterday.

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek: "Some GOP officials privately question whether Bush's media push is helping or hurting. . . . 'Every time the White House puts out a story that the president will be talking about the war and the new strategy behind it, it's the same speech,' says the GOP aide, who declined to be named while criticizing the White House. 'This is like their eighth time they've rolled out this process, and it's had no impact beyond lower poll numbers.' "

Yesterday's speech was billed by the White House as one in a news series of major speeches on the strategy for victory in Iraq.

But in a telling move, The Washington Post didn't even write a story about it. (Though Bush's response to a question about the case of an Afghan man who could be prosecuted and even put to death for converting to Christianity did make it into Pamela Constable 's story on that subject.)

Other news organizations cobbled together some news for their (maybe-no-longer) obligatory stories.

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "President Bush took his campaign to convince Americans that the United States is winning the war in Iraq to a former country music concert hall here on Wednesday and declared to applause, 'If I didn't think we'd succeed, I'd pull our troops out.' "

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush publicly pressured the quarreling Iraqi political factions Wednesday to put aside their differences and establish a government.

" 'It's time for a government to get stood up,' he said in the latest of a series of appearances bolstering his Iraq policy. 'There's time for the elected representatives -- or those who represent the voters, the political parties -- to come together and form a unity government. That's what the people want. Otherwise, they wouldn't have gone to the polls, would they have?' "

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Whether he's before a friendly West Virginia audience, a Cleveland club proud of its interrogation skills or a White House news conference, President Bush is drawing on his plainspoken manner in freewheeling venues to defend his Iraq strategy. . . .

"In Wheeling on Wednesday, the fifth day in a row Bush devoted his remarks to Iraq, the president bantered with the locals, his shoulders bouncing up and down as they do when he's pleased with his own jokes. Then he brought down the house with his trademark I-won't-back-down pledge."

Kenneth R. Bazinet writes in the New York Daily News: "For a fourth straight day, President Bush tried yesterday to sell the Iraq war as winnable, but critics wonder if he's focusing too much on public relations and not enough on foreign policy."

The Daily Straw Man

From Bush's speech, talking about terrorists: "Now, I understand some say, well, maybe they're just isolated kind of people that are angry and took out their anger with an attack. That's not how I view them."

Question for the White House: Can you name one political leader who has said any such thing? I didn't think so.

Speaking of straw men, Joe Strupp writes in Editor and Publisher that Jennifer Loven 's Associated Press story about Bush's extensive and generally unchallenged use of straw-man arguments has caused a bit of a stir among conservative media critics.

"But an AP spokesman says editors want more of these types of wire stories."

As well they should. I've been writing about Bush's predilection for straw-man arguments almost ever since I launched this column. One of the first pieces I linked to on the topic was this excellent Dana Milbank column from June 2004.

He Understands

From Bush's speech yesterday:

"Listen, I understand war is controversial, and I'm going to talk about the war. But America has got to appreciate what it means to wear the uniform today, and honor those who have volunteered to keep this country strong. . . .

"And so I'm pleased with the progress, but I fully understand there's a lot more work to be done. . . .

"Now the fundamental question is: Can we win in Iraq? And that's what I want to talk about. First of all, you got to understand that I fully understand there is deep concern among the American people about whether or not we can win. And I can understand why people are concerned. . . .

"There may be an argument about tactics and whether or not we should have done it in the first place; I understand that. . . .

"I understand a lot of people don't agree, and that's fine, that's fine. But they've got to understand, at least in my case, that I'm making my decisions based upon what I think is right, and that making decisions that are the kind that I make, for example, got to be based upon a set of principles that won't change. People got to understand that."

And my favorite: "And I can understand people saying, man, it's all going to -- it's not working out."

So Much for the Tough Questions

It was mostly softballs from the audience yesterday, right from the get-go:

"Q Mr. President, I have a son that's special forces in Iraq. And I have another son -- (applause.) I have another son that's in the Army. He left college to join the Army. He's out in Hawaii. He's got the good duty right now. (Laughter.) But I thank God that you're our Commander-in-Chief. And I wouldn't want my boys -- (applause.)

"THE PRESIDENT: Okay, thanks.

"Q Again, I thank God you're our Commander-in-Chief. You're a man for our times. And I'm supporter of yours. And I think it's good that you come out and tell your story. And I think you need to keep doing more of it, and tell the story and the history of all this. And God bless you. And I thank you for your service."

When Will The Troops Come Home?

Agence France Presse reports: "The White House downplayed President George W. Bush's suggestion that US troops would still be in Iraq when his term ends in January 2009. . .

"The president did not mean that a strong military presence would . . . remain nearly six years after the US-led invasion, but merely was addressing a theoretical question about when the troops will be withdrawn, McClellan told reporters."

Here's the text of McClellan's gaggle yesterday: "I think some of the coverage also seemed to leave the impression with readers or viewers that the President was saying that there will be large or significant numbers of troops in Iraq after he leaves office, and that's not what the question was. The question was will there be zero -- when will there be zero or no American troops in Iraq. So he was referring to that specific question."

Torture Watch

Eric Schmitt writes in the New York Times: "With the conviction on Tuesday of an Army dog handler, the military has now tried and found guilty another low-ranking soldier in connection with the pattern of abuses that first surfaced two years ago at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

"But once again, an attempt by defense lawyers to point a finger of responsibility at higher-ranking officers failed in the latest case to convince a military jury that ultimate responsibility for the abuses lay farther up the chain of command."

The New York Times editorial board writes: "We've seen this sorry pattern for nearly two years now, since the Abu Ghraib horrors first shocked the world: President Bush has clung to the fiction that the abuse of prisoners was just the work of a few rotten apples, despite report after report after report demonstrating that it was organized and systematic, and flowed from policies written by top officials in his administration. . . .

"Mr. Bush has refused to hold himself or any of his top political appointees accountable for those catastrophic errors. Indeed, he has promoted many of them. And this is not an isolated problem. It's just one example, among many, of how this president's men run no risk of being blamed for anything that happens, not matter how egregious."

Jess Bravin writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The Bush administration will bar statements made under torture from its Guantanamo Bay military courts, reversing a White House decision in July that could have allowed such evidence to convict suspected terrorists held at the U.S. naval base in Cuba. . . .

"Some policy makers . . . had been urging a ban on the use of evidence from torture. . . .

"Others, including David Addington, then counsel and now chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, and Pentagon General Counsel William J. Haynes II, successfully opposed such a rule, arguing that commission members themselves should be free to decide how to deal with evidence allegedly gained through torture, officials said."

Domestic Spying Watch

Katherine Shrader writes for the Associated Press: "A vocal Republican critic of the Bush administration's eavesdropping program will preside over Senate efforts to write the program into law, but he was pessimistic Wednesday that the White House wanted to listen.

" 'They want to do just as they please, for as long as they can get away with it,' Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said in an interview with The Associated Press. 'I think what is going on now without congressional intervention or judicial intervention is just plain wrong.' "

The Philadelphia Daily News editorial board writes: "In an attempt to rein in the Bush administration and its cowboy tactics with the illegal wiretapping of Americans making calls overseas, various Republicans are floating proposed legislation that would make the president's actions legal. . . .

"Rather than trying to fix a law that wasn't broken until Bush decided to break it, Congress should be considering censuring the president. Otherwise the message from Congress to future presidents will be break any law you want."

The Risks of Ownership

Brendan Murray writes for Bloomberg: "President George W. Bush has tried to sell Americans on an 'ownership society' that would create more wealth -- and more Republicans in the process. The stock market hasn't accommodated.

"The Standard & Poor's 500 Index -- the benchmark for American equities -- is down 2.8 percent since Bush took office five years and two months ago. That's the worst performance during the same stage of any two-term administration in the past half century except that of Richard M. Nixon.

"The market's performance is undermining a central goal of White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, Bush's chief political adviser. Borrowing from Margaret Thatcher's privatization push in the U.K. in the 1980s, Rove's theory is that if more Americans make their own financial decisions and the last vestiges of a welfare state are dismantled, a culture of ownership will spring up. The ranks of Republican voters, the idea goes, will swell along with it.

" 'The ownership society looked very attractive on paper,' said Jacob Hacker, a political science professor at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. 'But once you flesh out the changes, people become very concerned because they are already fearful that their economic security is slipping away.' "

Bush Family Watch

Walter F. Roche Jr. writes in the Los Angeles Times: "As President Bush embarks on a new effort to shore up public support for the war in Iraq, an uncle of the commander in chief is collecting $2.7 million in cash and stock from the recent sale of a company that profited from the war.

"A report filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission shows that William H.T. Bush collected just under $1.9 million in cash plus stock valued at more than $800,000 from the sale of Engineered Support Systems Inc. to DRS Technologies of New Jersey."

His company experienced record growth as a result of expanded U.S. military contracts, some awarded on a no-bid basis.

Cynthia Leonor Garza writes in the Houston Chronicle: "Former first lady Barbara Bush donated an undisclosed amount of money to the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund with specific instructions that the money be spent with an educational software company owned by her son Neil."

Jean Becker, former president George H.W. Bush's chief of staff, told Garza: "Mrs. Bush is obviously an enthusiastic supporter of her son. She is genuinely supportive of his program" and "honestly felt this would be a great way to help the (evacuee) students."

The Scare

Del Quentin Wilber and Henri E. Cauvin write in The Washington Post: "A French citizen was arrested on disorderly conduct charges yesterday after he threw a bundle of papers over a gate of the White House, forcing police to call in the bomb squad, seal the area and close off Lafayette Square, authorities said."

A Veto Record

Richard Benedetto writes in USA Today: "President Bush today becomes the longest-sitting president since Thomas Jefferson not to exercise his veto, surpassing James Monroe.

"Monroe was in office 1,888 days before he vetoed his first bill on May 4, 1822, a measure to impose a toll on the first federal highway. Jefferson never exercised his veto during two terms in 1801-09.

"Today is Bush's 1,889th day in office, and no veto is in sight. As of Wednesday, Congress had sent him 1,091 bills. He signed them all."

Late Night Anger

Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) was on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart last night, talking about his censure resolution. Crooks and Liars has the video.

Feingold: "I was taught that it's the Congress that makes the laws and the president is supposed to sign them and he's supposed to enforce them. He's not just supposed to make them up. And on this illegal wiretapping, he apparently just decided that he didn't like things the way there were, and made up his own law. I don't think we can let him get away with that. So I think it's a pretty mild step to say, by resolution, Mr. President, you did the wrong thing. How about admitting it, and maybe apologizing?"

Stewart, in conclusion: "This feels like some attempt at accountability, and that's what I really like about it. Because it seems like the worse you screw up, with these guys, the bigger the trophy they give you."

Froomkin Watch

I'll be off tomorrow. (If you're at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy event at the National Press Club, look for me.) The column will resume on Monday.

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