By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, April 24, 2006; 12:39 PM
Even as skittish White House aides brace for another wave of staffing shuffles this week, the bar is being dramatically raised on what sort of personnel move would be needed to actually turn things around for the Bush presidency.
A major newspaper and one of the most pro-Bush voices in punditry are now suggesting that nothing short of removing Vice President Cheney really stands a chance.
The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "If President Bush hopes the 'shake-up' of his administration initiated last week will re-energize his listless presidency, he's bound to be disappointed. A far more audacious makeover is needed -- one that sends Vice President Dick Cheney into early retirement."
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld should also go, the Times writes. "Bush has acknowledged that he has spent much of his political capital on Iraq, and the way to replenish the reserves is to replace the officials most associated with the overreaching that led to the tragedy in Iraq -- and with the administration's broader disdain for diplomacy."
Sarah Baxter writes in the Sunday Times of London: "Republicans are urging President George W Bush to dump Dick Cheney as vice-president and replace him with Condoleezza Rice if he is serious about presenting a new face to the jaded American public.
"They believe that only the sacrifice of one or more of the big beasts of the jungle, such as Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, will convince voters that Bush understands the need for a fresh start. . . .
"Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard magazine and author of Rebel in Chief, a sympathetic new biography of Bush, said: 'There are going to have to be sweeping personnel changes if people are going to take a second look at the Bush presidency.'
"The best scenario, Barnes added, would be for Bush to announce that 'Dick Cheney will be around as an outside adviser and I can call him on the phone, but I'd like to anoint somebody who I think will be the next leader of the United States.' "
Meanwhile, the normally all-but-invisible Cheney was in full public view on Friday during the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao -- and photographers captured images of a vice president who looked uninterested at best.
Jim Bourg of Reuters caught Cheney in a protocol violation, putting on his sunglasses for the arrival ceremony. Later, during the Oval Office meeting of the two presidents, Tim Sloan of AFP shot Cheney looking for all the world like he was sound asleep -- although White House aides apparently insisted he was just looking at his notes.
Baxter, of the Sunday Times, called attention to Cheney's apparent somnolence, then drily noted: "It has often been said that he would cite medical reasons should he ever resign."Shuffle Watch
Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times of "fear and moaning in the West Wing these days," as "no one is sure who is in and who is out. Aides say they are on edge, and [new Chief of Staff Joshua] Bolten has promised more housecleaning this week, after Mr. Bush returns from a trip to California. . . .
"The White House has never been a cozy place to work, but under this President Bush, who hates change and who has rarely been able to dismiss anyone, it became something of a sinecure."
No more. Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write in Newsweek: "Nervous aides, who knew Bolten wasn't done yet, began listening for random applause coming from West Wing offices, especially during senior staff meetings. 'It could be a clue' that someone was headed out the door, says a White House aide who didn't want to be named talking about the new boss. 'It's really weird right now,' says another senior White House official who likewise asked for anonymity. 'People are worried about their jobs.' "A Thousand Days
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. writes in a Washington Post opinion piece: "The Hundred Days is indelibly associated with Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the Thousand Days with John F. Kennedy. But as of this week, a thousand days remain of President Bush's last term -- days filled with ominous preparations for and dark rumors of a preventive war against Iran. . . .
"There is no more dangerous thing for a democracy than a foreign policy based on presidential preventive war."
Sean Wilentz writes in Rolling Stone: "George W. Bush's presidency appears headed for colossal historical disgrace. Barring a cataclysmic event on the order of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, after which the public might rally around the White House once again, there seems to be little the administration can do to avoid being ranked on the lowest tier of U.S. presidents. And that may be the best-case scenario. Many historians are now wondering whether Bush, in fact, will be remembered as the very worst president in all of American history."
Former Nixon White House counsel John W. Dean writes on Findlaw.com: "If anyone doubts that Bush, Cheney, Rove and their confidants are planning an 'October Surprise' to prevent the Republicans from losing control of Congress, then he or she has not been observing this presidency very closely. . . .
"One possibility is that Dick Cheney will resign as Vice President for 'health reasons,' and become a senior counselor to the president. And Bush will name a new vice president - a choice geared to increase his popularity, as well as someone electable in 2008. It would give his sinking administration a new face, and new life."
Another possibility, Dean writes: "Bush may mount a unilateral attack on Iran's nuclear facilities - hoping to rev up his popularity."The Five-Point Plan
Mike Allen writes in Time: "The marker that is uppermost in the minds of Bush's inner circle is Nov. 7, when Republicans could lose control of the House and even the Senate. 'If we don't keep Congress, there won't be a legacy,' said a presidential adviser. 'The legacy will be investigations and fights over Executive privilege' with newly empowered Democrats. . . .
"Friends and colleagues of Bolten told Time about an informal, five-point 'recovery plan' for Bush that is aimed at pushing him up slightly in opinion polls and reassuring Republican activists, whose disaffection could cost him dearly in November."
The Bolten plan, writes Allen, includes tough talk on Iran, visibly beefing up law enforcement at the Mexican border, an extension of rate cuts for stock dividends and capital gains, continued courting of the press and -- get this -- bragging more.
Writes Allen: "White House officials who track coverage of Bush in media markets around the country said he garnered his best publicity in months from a tour to promote enrollment in Medicare's new prescription-drug plan. So they are planning a more focused and consistent effort to talk about the program's successes after months of press reports on start-up difficulties. Bolten's plan also calls for more happy talk about the economy. With gas prices a heavy drain on Bush's popularity, his aides want to trumpet the lofty stock market and stable inflation and interest rates. They also plan to highlight any glimmer of success in Iraq, especially the formation of a new government, in an effort to balance the negative impression voters get from continued signs of an incubating civil war."Miers Stays -- for Now
Lame duck press secretary Scott McClellan, who generally avoids speculation about personnel moves, minced no words on Friday in slapping down that morning's story by Elisabeth Bumiller and Jim Rutenberg . They reported that Bolten had raised the possibility of firing Harriet E. Miers from her job as White House counsel.
At Friday's gaggle , McClellan said: "First of all, I think Harriet Miers is a valued and trusted advisor. Secondly, Josh Bolten told the senior staff that the story is not accurate. Josh is not considering any such action, and more importantly, it's not something that is under consideration by the President."Another Spy Speaks
On CBS News's 60 Minutes last night, former top CIA official Tyler Drumheller told correspondent Ed Bradley the real failure in the run-up to war in Iraq was not in the intelligence community but in the White House.
"Drumheller was the CIA's top man in Europe, the head of covert operations there, until he retired a year ago. He says he saw firsthand how the White House promoted intelligence it liked and ignored intelligence it didn't.
" 'The idea of going after Iraq was U.S. policy. It was going to happen one way or the other,' says Drumheller."
For example, Drumheller said that Naji Sabri, Iraq's foreign minister, had made a deal to reveal Iraq's military secrets to the CIA.
"According to Drumheller, CIA Director George Tenet delivered the news about the Iraqi foreign minister at a high-level meeting at the White House, including the president, the vice president and Secretary of State Rice.
"At that meeting, Drumheller says, 'They were enthusiastic because they said, they were excited that we had a high-level penetration of Iraqis.' "
That changed completely when Sabri said Saddam had no active weapons of mass destruction programs.
Said Drumheller: "The group that was dealing with preparation for the Iraq war came back and said they're no longer interested. . . . And we said, 'Well, what about the intel?' And they said, 'Well, this isn't about intel anymore. This is about regime change.' "
Drumheller's view is reminiscent of last month's Foreign Affairs article by a fellow former CIA official, Paul R. Pillar . He wrote: "It has become clear that official intelligence was not relied on in making even the most significant national security decisions, that intelligence was misused publicly to justify decisions already made, that damaging ill will developed between policymakers and intelligence officers, and that the intelligence community's own work was politicized."The White House (Non) Response
CBS reports that the White House declined a request for an interview for their story. Presidential counselor Dan Bartlett wrote: "The President's convictions about Saddam Hussein's possession of WMD were based on the collective judgment of the intelligence community at that time. Bipartisan investigations . . . found no evidence of political pressure to influence the pre-war intelligence assessments of Iraq's weapons programs."
But the issue is not whether the White House influenced the intelligence assessments. The issue is whether the White House knowingly cherry-picked the intelligence to make a misleading case for war. And the evidence continues to mount that it did.
The White House-chartered Silberman-Robb commission did report that it found no overt signs of White House pressure on the intelligence community to change their intelligence findings. (See my March 31, 2005 and April 1, 2005 columns.)
But the commission overtly avoided the question of whether the findings were politicized: "There is a separate issue of how policymakers used the intelligence they were given and how they reflected it in their presentations to Congress and the public. That issue is not within our charter and we therefore did not consider it nor do we express a view on it."
Similarly, the Senate intelligence committee chose to put that issue off until after the election -- and it's still not clear how they intend to address it.
But how is it possible that neither investigation even alluded to the evidence that the White House cherry-picked and politicized the intelligence?
Blogger Josh Marshall called Drumheller and found out he was interviewed by the White House commission three times.
"Did he tell them everything he revealed on tonight's 60 Minutes segment. Absolutely.
"Drumheller was also interviewed twice by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (the Roberts Committee) but apparently only after they released their summer 2004 report.
"Now, quite a few of us have been arguing for almost two years now that those reports were fundamentally dishonest in the story they told about why we were so badly misled in the lead up to war. The fact that none of Drumheller's story managed to find its way into those reports, I think, speaks volumes about the agenda that the writers of those reports were pursuing."Leak Watch
Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post: "Key Democratic legislators yesterday joined Republicans in saying they do not condone the alleged leaking of classified information that led to last week's firing of a veteran CIA officer. But they questioned whether a double standard exists that lets the White House give reporters secretly declassified information for political purposes."The Graph That Roared
It's often said that you never know where you're going to find a front-page story in The Washington Post. Well, here's a corollary: You never know where you're going to find the biggest news in a front-page story.
In R. Jeffrey Smith and Dafna Linzer's 's front-pager in Sunday's Post on the firing of the CIA officer, the biggest news arguably comes in the second-to-last paragraph:
"The White House also has recently barraged the agency with questions about the political affiliations of some of its senior intelligence officers, according to intelligence officials."
Why do they want to know? What are they being told? What do they intend to do with such information? Have we gotten to a point where there are two different kinds of intelligence: Democratic and Republican? So many questions.
The Nation's David Corn was among several bloggers who read all the way to the end.Protesters Block Bush
In what was the first time in my recollection that Bush's plans have had to change due to protesters, the San Jose Mercury News reports that on Friday, "President Bush's visit to Stanford University's Hoover Institution was quickly moved to another location after more than 1,000 protesters converged around the Hoover tower."
Amit Arora of the Stanford Daily has all the details.Learning from Larry, Moe and Curly
Janet Hook writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Just when it looked like the political climate couldn't get worse for President Bush and the Republican Party, more storms have gathered.
"This month's abrupt rise in gas prices is fueling new worries about the party's prospects in the fall elections, which have been roiled by controversy over GOP policies on immigration, the federal budget and Iraq. . . .
"The situation may call for Bush to step in and demand more party unity from Republican lawmakers, who have increasingly kept their distance from the White House as the president's agenda and poll numbers have flagged.
" 'The president has to be like Moe Howard: At some point in every 'Three Stooges' short, Moe slaps both Curly and Larry and says, 'Get to work,' " said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. 'There's a window of opportunity to get things done, but the window is getting smaller every day.' "Into the Belly of the Beast
Bush travels to Orange County in Southern California today to try to build support for his immigration policies.
Orange County famously votes Republican -- but nevertheless may turn out to be a very poor choice of location for a speech on that topic.
Having worked in Orange County as a reporter for six years, I can tell you that it is one of the most deeply polarized counties in America. Forged in large part by white flight from Los Angeles, followed by a huge tide of new immigrants into its urban core, Orange County is home to virulent anti-immigrant feelings on one side and a growing immigration rights movement on the other. That leaves little room for supporters of Bush's compromise stance.
Christopher Goffard and Jean Pasco write in the Los Angeles Times: "Bush's decision to speak here might prove an embarrassing miscalculation, said John J. Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College who used to live in Orange County and worked for the national GOP.
" 'I'm not sure they had their O.C. antennae up,' he said of White House schedulers. 'They don't realize how complicated this issue is. It's possible this is a Daniel-in-the-lions'-den moment, but that's not really characteristic of this administration.' "Succeeding McClellan
David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times that "after nearly seven years of covering the White House, stretched over two administrations, four press secretaries, endless hours tinkering with the fractured hinge supporting the New York Times seat in the second row and hundreds of questions that have resulted in artful and artless evasive answers, I have come to a few conclusions.
"One is that the press secretary is not likely to return as a major force on the White House stage anytime soon. The second is that the daily briefings now have less to do with covering the White House than ever, and their value is diminishing every year. At some point between Monica and the missing W.M.D., the sparring came to obscure the imparting of information about how and why decisions were made."
On his CNN media show, Howard Kurtz talked to CNN's John Roberts. "I hope if anything happens in this transition to a new press secretary is that they make a decision to actually tell the media something at the daily briefing," Roberts said.
Kurtz: "[P]ast presidential spokesmen like for example Marlin Fitzwater or Mike McCurry were also very helpful away from the cameras, what people didn't see on television. In my experience, Scott McClellan very polite, always called back, but didn't say much more in background than he would at the podium."
Roberts: "No, no, he never did. And even when you would go in and you would see him in his office, every once in a while you might get a little bit more detail about some of the things that they were talking about, but he was very close held with the information. But I think the reason was is because this president came into the White House with the idea that he didn't want to use the national media. He wanted to talk past the national media. He wanted to reach out directly to the people. All the time forgetting that in order to get to the people, you've got to go through the national media, or at least the local media, you know, in regional markets. So I think that that was all part of their strategy. It's the mushroom principle. It's keep them in the dark and feed them manure."The Adversarial Press?
David Carr writes in the New York Times about the political message of this year's Pulitzer Prizes.
"Some observers on the press side saw the awards as a recognition that the split between the government and the press, which many thought had been papered over during the first Bush administration, had widened again.
" 'I think that there is a renewed recognition that the relationship with government is fundamentally adversarial,' said William L. Israel, a professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. 'I have not seen the kind of unanimity from the Pulitzer board for some time. Over and over, they endorsed work that held the government to account.' . . .
"In the fight over government prerogative versus the people's right to know, there are those who think the current administration may have overplayed its hand. Everyone knows the government needs to keep secrets, but reporters and editors have argued that there are times when that need is superseded by the public's right to know exactly what is going on behind the veil. . . .
"Since the beginning of his presidency, Mr. Bush has made it clear that he does not buy the industry's widely held conceit that it serves as a proxy for the American people. That, he has suggested over the course of his two terms, is his job.
"The national press seems to be saying otherwise."