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Deference Prevails Over Hostility

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, July 20, 2006; 12:40 PM

President Bush made it unscathed through his visit to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People convention this morning, as the audience's deference to his office prevailed over its deep and abiding hostility toward his policies.

Bush's speech was light on substance but full of easy applause lines, and it earned him a polite if less than enthusiastic welcome from the group, with the exception of one persistent heckler.

Notably, Bush did not stick around to take questions.

He did win hearty applause for repeating his support for the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, possibly the only political position he has taken that is resoundingly popular with African Americans.

Bush's appearance at the convention -- ending an unprecedented five-year boycott by a standing president -- is widely credited to his relationship with first-year NAACP President Bruce S. Gordon.

Gordon, a former Verizon senior executive, met with Bush privately three times in three months after the Hurricane Katrina disaster. But what those meetings accomplished isn't exactly clear.

Gordon indulged Bush's penchant for secrecy (see my December 9 column ), and he and the other black leaders who attended those meetings refused to describe in any detail what Bush said -- or what they had told him.

Meanwhile, the administration's Katrina record remains an open wound with the nation's African American community, from the initial disarray and ineptitude that left thousands of low-income black New Orleanians marooned in squalor for days, to its current, big-ticket restoration effort that is nevertheless seen by many as not serving the interests of the city's black community.

One of Bush's many attempts at humor that fell flat may have cut too close to the truth: "I'm an admirer of Bruce Gordon, and we've got a good working relationship," he said. Then he said, laughing: "I don't know if that helps you or hurts you."

Clearly aware of the lackluster response to the stock phrases that typically get rousing applause from friendly audiences, Bush pointed out that he had asked NAACP chairman Julian Bond, a fiery and profoundly anti-Bush orator, for "a few pointers on how to give a speech." But, Bush acknowledged, "It doesn't look like they're taking."

One of Bush's biggest applause lines, this one unintentional, came when he said: "I understand that many African Americans distrust my political party."

After the applause died down, he waggled his finger and asserted: "I consider it a tragedy that the party of Abraham Lincoln let go of its historical ties with the African-American community. For too long, my party wrote off the African-American vote, and many African-Americans wrote off the Republican Party. . . .

"I want to change the relationship."

Voting Rights

Jeff Zeleny writes in the Chicago Tribune: "One day before President Bush addresses the NAACP for the first time during his presidency, two Democratic senators on Wednesday urged those attending the meeting to hold the administration accountable for renewing -- and enforcing -- the Voting Rights Act.

"Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois warned NAACP delegates to be cautious of any civil rights promises Bush offers when speaking to the group Thursday. The senators criticized Republicans for allowing the landmark 1965 voting act to nearly expire and said the Justice Department has failed to aggressively pursue allegations of disenfranchisement.

" 'Don't be bamboozled. Don't buy into it,' Obama said, trying to anticipate Bush's speech, which is expected to touch upon his support for extending the Voting Rights Act. 'It's great if he commits to signing it, but what is critical is the follow-through. You don't just talk the talk, but you also walk the walk.' "

Mike Allen 's new blog for Time notes the White House hasn't ruled out supporting a bill by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), that would give the District of Columbia a vote in the House of Representatives

"A Republican official familiar with White House views on the matter said Bush's aides have indicated they have 'an open mind' about the Davis bill and 'understand that it makes sense to do it, politically -- it's something tangible and doable that would be popular with the African American community.' "

On Poverty

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "Poverty forced its way to the top of President Bush's agenda in the confusing days after Hurricane Katrina battered the Gulf Coast and flooded New Orleans. . . .

"As it happened, poverty's turn in the presidential limelight was brief. Bush has talked little about the issue since the immediate crisis passed, while pursuing policies that his liberal critics say will hurt the poor. . . .

" 'I'll never forget the night the president gave that speech from Jackson Square,' said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), one of the black lawmakers summoned to meet with administration officials in Katrina's hectic aftermath. 'He talked about stamping out poverty. He talked about things that showed the compassionate side of his compassionate conservative stance. Since then, what I've found is that he has been long on conservatism and short on compassion.'

"The number of Americans living in poverty has risen each year Bush has been president, increasing to 37 million in 2004 from 31.6 million in 2000. Overall, 12.7 percent of the nation's population lives in poverty, which for a family of four means an income less than $20,000 a year."

Erik Eckholm writes in the New York Times about "the Bush administration's campaign to fight poverty and aid children by promoting marriage -- an effort that, after years in the pilot stage, is about to get going in earnest this fall and has drawn surprising support from some liberal poverty experts."

The First Veto

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "President Bush on Wednesday rejected legislation to expand federally supported embryonic stem cell research, exercising his first veto while putting himself at odds with many members of his own party and what polls say is a majority of the public. . . .

"In one respect, the veto plays to Mr. Bush's personal strengths, reinforcing the perception that he is someone who makes up his mind and sticks to it, ignoring the polls. But Democrats are determined to make the veto a central theme of their fall election campaigns, hooking it in with another hugely divisive medical issue -- the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case -- to argue that Republicans are beholden to the religious right. . . .

"The veto, and Congress' failure to override it, were landmark moments in Bush's presidency that testified to the extent and limits of his sway halfway through his second term. Republican defections on the issue underscored the weakening hold Bush has on his party.

"But a president in his final years still holds veto power, which allowed Bush with a stroke of a pen to leave a significant mark on American science and research ethics, shaping the flow of federal dollars that are a cornerstone of U.S. science."

Janet Hook writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The most remarkable thing about Bush's decision may not be that he vetoed this particular bill, as he had repeatedly threatened to do. More significant may be that it took so long in his presidency before he vetoed anything. . . .

"Many Republicans say Bush's extraordinarily long veto-free period is a tribute to how far the GOP-controlled Congress has gone to accommodate him -- authorizing the war in Iraq, giving him almost every tax cut he proposed, meeting his overall budget targets.

"But many conservatives, frustrated by the run-up in federal spending in recent years, say it also is a tribute to how unwilling Bush has been to confront Congress on its big-spending ways."

Here's Bush's veto message . Here's the text of the speech he delivered on the subject to an supportive crowd in the East Room, including several children born from frozen embryos.

Bush's announcement of the veto -- opposed by an overwhelming majority of the public -- was nevertheless literally greeted by hoots and hollers from the audience.

How does that play? On an issue where opposition is so widespread how does it come off for him to be surrounded solely by sycophants? Well, in this case, they'll probably just remember all those adorable kids.

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "The White House sought to showcase the children rather than the veto itself, which Bush had signed out of sight of cameras and reporters. . . .

"One toddler sitting on stage kept lifting his baby blue blanket over his face and trying to play peak-a-boo with two men sitting in the front row -- White House chief of staff Josh Bolten and presidential adviser Karl Rove. . . .

"When Bush talked about the challenge to 'harness the power of science' without violating the dignity of human life, one child in the audience let out a scream."

That's not to mention the one sweetheart who seemed to give Bush the finger .

Historic Moment

Reporters wanted some details about the historic moment itself, but no dice.

Spokesman Tony Snow explained: "Here's how it works -- because I know a lot of you have questions. There will be no photographers, no ceremony. What the President will do is, in his office, he will sign a veto message, he will hand it to a clerk, who will convey to a clerk of the House, and then you go through the formalities of announcing a message from the President and, at some point, the House will vote on the veto.

"Q Is there a reason why he's not having photographers in, at least?

"MR. SNOW: Because he doesn't feel it's appropriate. He's signing a veto.

"Q Is that true of all vetoes? I mean, he's never vetoed anything.

"MR. SNOW: Well, then I guess we don't have a precedent, do we? (Laughter.)"

Editorial Watch

The Los Angeles Times : "In 5-1/2 years as president, George W. Bush has seen more than 1,100 bills cross his desk. Some were good pieces of law. Some were shortsighted and silly, and many flat-out contradicted the president's own stated values, especially in the areas of fiscal prudence and free trade. He held his nose and signed them anyway.

"On Wednesday, after the longest veto-free streak since Thomas Jefferson, Bush wiped the cobwebs from his veto pen and finally wielded a president's most potent legislative weapon. To which there can only be two responses: It's about time -- and he shouldn't have."

The Raleigh News and Observer : "The president's position is that destruction of an embryo equates, morally, to the murder of a human being. Yet an embryo leaves no one grieving or dependent when it is no longer viable. An embryo can only fulfill its potential to become a human being if the right circumstances occur. For want of those circumstances, gazillions of human eggs and sperm never become human beings in nature. As a practical matter, the embryos available to researchers are fertility clinic discards destined for destruction one way or the other.

"Our society should do everything possible to preserve lives that have already begun. Toward that end, stem cell research holds magnificent promise. Congress was right to expand that research with federal support, and it would be right to override the president's veto."

The Kansas City Star : "President Bush kept his veto pen dry when Congress ran up the federal debt with runaway spending on road projects, unnecessary farm subsidies and other wasteful gifts to special interests.

"It's unfortunate and telling that he chose to use his veto prerogative, for the first time, to obstruct potentially life-saving medical research."

Reality Bites

Reality is finally driving a wedge in the hitherto unshakeable support by congressional Republicans for Bush's every utterance about the war Iraq.

Jonathan Weisman and Anushka Asthana write in The Washington Post: "Faced with almost daily reports of sectarian carnage in Iraq, congressional Republicans are shifting their message on the war from speaking optimistically of progress to acknowledging the difficulty of the mission and pointing up mistakes in planning and execution. . . .

"Rank-and file Republicans who once adamantly backed the administration on the war are moving to a two-stage new message, according to some lawmakers. First, Republicans are making it clear to constituents they do not agree with every decision the president has made on Iraq. Then they boil the argument down to two choices: staying and fighting or conceding defeat to a vicious enemy.

"The shift is subtle, but Republican lawmakers acknowledge that it is no longer tenable to say the news media are ignoring the good news in Iraq and painting an unfair picture of the war."

Case in point: Mark Fischenich wrote in the Mankato (Minn.) Free Press yesterday that Minnesota Republican "Congressman Gil Gutknecht found the situation in Iraq more bleak than he anticipated during a weekend visit to the war zone, and said a partial withdrawal of some American troops might be wise.

"Gutknecht, a strong supporter of the war since it began in March of 2003, told reporters in a telephone conference call Tuesday that American forces appear to have no operational control of much of Baghdad."

And just how is that reality?

Frank James blogs for the Chicago Tribune: "Well, the situation in Iraq is either looking up or the American effort to produce a viable democracy is going to hell in a handbasket, depending on whom you'd rather believe.

"The Republican National Committee emailed an upbeat list of what it calls ' Iraq Facts .' . . . It's essentially a collection of newspaper clips of items meant to show progress in Iraq, things like oil output going up in the south Iraq and small swaths of Iraq being turned over by U.S. forces to their Iraqi security counterparts.

"But then there is the competing view of Anthony Cordesman , the no-nonsense analyst with Center for Strategic and International Studies. Today he released an analysis of what he views as a clearly deteriorating situation in Iraq."

And from Iraq itself, Borzou Daragahi wrote in the Los Angeles Times yesterday: "Retaliatory massacres by gunmen and bombers linked to rival Muslim sects have left more than 130 people dead across Iraq over the last two days, the latest casualties of what some politicians now are calling an undeclared civil war. . . .

"Since the beginning of May, attacks by Sunni Arab and Shiite Muslims have claimed the lives of more than 6,000 Iraqi civilians, according to a United Nations study and Iraqi police reports. . . .

"U.S. and Iraqi government leaders have argued that the 150,000-strong foreign troop presence has kept the country from descending into full-scale civil war. But many Iraqi officials fear the threshold has been crossed."

In Tuesday's New York Times, Edward Wong and Dexter Filkins showed how U.S. soldiers may be getting caught in the middle of that civil war: "As sectarian violence soars, many Sunni Arab political and religious leaders once staunchly opposed to the American presence here are now saying they need American troops to protect them from the rampages of Shiite militias and Shiite-run government forces."

Cheney Rears His Head?

Jonathan Weisman and Michael Abramowitz write in The Washington Post: "Top White House officials took a harder line yesterday on a new system to try terrorism suspects, telling Republican senators that President Bush will soon formally propose a tribunal structure with only minor changes from the military commissions that were ruled unconstitutional last month."

Our Allies Against Us

Robin Wright and Colum Lynch write in The Washington Post: "The United States faces growing tensions with allies over its support of Israel's military campaign to cripple Hezbollah, amid calls for a cease-fire to help with the mounting humanitarian crisis.

"European allies are particularly alarmed about the disproportionately high civilian death toll in Lebanon. They are also concerned that the U.S. position will increase tensions between the Islamic world and the West by fueling militants, playing into the rhetoric of Osama bin Laden and adding to the problems of the U.S.-led coalition force in Iraq."

William Douglas and John Walcott write for McClatchy Newspapers: "The White House's inaction on the Israeli-Hezbollah and Israeli-Palestinian issues . . . is consistent with its belief that the goal of American Mideast policy shouldn't be keeping the peace but transforming the region by destabilizing, defeating or overthrowing groups and regimes that practice or support terrorism and are hostile to Israel.

" 'That's the big idea that was behind the invasion of Iraq, it's the reason they won't talk to Syria or Iran or Hamas, and now it's the reason they're giving the Israelis time and space to try to destroy Hezbollah,' said a veteran U.S. diplomat who agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity because 'if you print my name, it'll be the end of my career.'

"The trouble with the policy is 'it won't work,' said the official. That view was shared by a half-dozen other current and former foreign policy and intelligence officials, all of whom requested anonymity for the same reason."

White House Salary List

My very own 2006 White House staff and salary list is finally available, ranked by salary , sorted in alphabetical order ; or sorted by title . You can also compare it to my 2005 , 2004 and 2003 lists to see who's come and gone, and how folks at the top of the scale have gotten raises year after year -- while the bottom of the scale remains solidly stuck at $30,000 a year.

Much was made last week of Stuart G. Baker's job title: Director of Lessons Learned. But it turns out his job is neither some sort of namby-pamby new agey thing, nor a stealth White House inspector general position telling everyone what they're doing wrong.

Instead, the title is an outgrowth of the White House's " Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned " report. And Baker, a detailee from the Department of Homeland Security who worked on that report, is now charged with coordinating the response to the report's recommendations.

Poll Watch

The Wall Street Journal reports: "President Bush's job-approval ratings have changed little from June, according to a recent Harris Interactive poll.

"Of 1,002 U.S. adults surveyed in a telephone poll, 34% said Mr. Bush is doing an 'excellent or pretty good' job as president, up a tick from 33% in June. By comparison, 65% of Americans said Mr. Bush is doing an 'only fair or poor' job, down from 67% last month."

Here's a chart of the downward slide over time.

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