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American Idle

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, July 28, 2006; 12:36 PM

President Bush takes a break this afternoon from the Middle-East-in-flames, job-approval-in-the-toilet White House doldrums when he welcomes some genuinely popular people into the Oval Office.

Yes, Taylor Hicks and the nine other American Idol finalists are coming to visit the president today.

Unless British Prime Minister Tony Blair (also visiting today) somehow gets Bush to abandon his laissez-faire approach to Lebanon, the Idol visit is likely to be the story -- or at least the image -- of the day here.

Jim Puzzanghera writes for the Los Angeles Times: "It's not as if the blockbuster Fox show needs more publicity. The season's finale drew 36.38 million viewers, behind only the Super Bowl and the Academy Awards this year, and its 10 top performers are in the midst of a summer concert tour.

"But Bush could use a ratings boost -- for months, polls have consistently shown fewer than four in 10 Americans approve of his job performance."

Puzzanghera also notes: "Although the president is following a time-honored tradition of hosting popular champions at the White House, the juxtaposition with world events could strike some as a bit jarring. Earlier in the day, Bush will meet with British Prime Minister Tony Blair to discuss the battle between Israel and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militants, and the continuing sectarian violence in Baghdad."

David Jackson writes in USA Today: "Visiting with the most recent stars of the Fox TV show is the latest example of Bush being a regular guy, exuding a down-home style that has been both a blessing and curse to the president.

"His aides say Bush likes to show a lighter side, taking the edge off weighty matters that come with his job. Some critics, though, say some of these moments demonstrate a lack of seriousness. . . .

"Wayne Fields, director of American culture studies at Washington University in St. Louis, said these moments help Bush relate to average Americans.

" 'The problem,' he added, 'is that in times of real crisis, people begin to think maybe you need somebody who is extraordinary.' "

Here is USA Today's Bush-as-regular-guy photo gallery .

Norah O'Donnell reported for NBC this morning that "presidents have long sought a little star quality."

She also showed a clip of Jay Leno previewing the visit: "That's pretty cool. Imagine: Awkward Southern guy who nobody ever thought could win anything, sitting down with -- the American Idol, Taylor Hicks!"

Nobody Listening

The visit of the Idols will certainly get Bush a lot more attention than his listless and familiar speech on the economy to the National Association of Manufacturers yesterday.

Almost nobody even bothered to write about it.

Henry J. Pulizzi noted on the Wall Street Journal online that "at a time when polls suggest continuing pessimism over the direction of the economy, the speech contained no new initiatives, sticking with the White House's long-held economic game plan."

I found the speech notable -- for a new joke. Talking about his opposition to the estate tax, which Republicans prefer calling the "death tax," Bush joked: "That's called 'taxation without respiration.' "

The phrase, according to my research, was coined by conservative pundit Paul Gigot back in 1993, but it was new for Bush.

In fact, Bush almost made huge news, announcing that "it looks like we're on track to balance our budget by 2008." But the White House transcribers qualified that phrase with a "[sic]*" and a footnote explaining that what the president meant to say was "cut the deficit in half by 2008."

On Lebanon

Bush got a little more attention yesterday when he spoke briefly about the Middle East, even though he didn't say anything substantively new.

Reuters reports that Bush "said on Thursday he wanted an end to the conflict in southern Lebanon as soon as possible but that he did not want a 'fake peace' that would only delay fighting.

"Bush's comments, made during a picture-taking session with Romanian President Traian Basescu, reflected the U.S. position that Washington wants a 'sustainable' ceasefire that addresses the threat of Hizbollah in Lebanon instead of an immediate ceasefire."

As Bush sits back and lets Israel go about its business, however, signs are growing that his approach is backfiring.

Neil McFarquhar writes in the New York Times: "At the onset of the Lebanese crisis, Arab governments, starting with Saudi Arabia, slammed Hezbollah for recklessly provoking a war, providing what the United States and Israel took as a wink and a nod to continue the fight.

"Now, with hundreds of Lebanese dead and Hezbollah holding out against the vaunted Israeli military for more than two weeks, the tide of public opinion across the Arab world is surging behind the organization, transforming the Shiite group's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, into a folk hero and forcing a change in official statements."

Snow on the Ropes

White House spokesman Tony Snow often dodges questions by accusing reporters of playing "what if." At yesterday's briefing , he got a taste of his own medicine.

One of the most unsupported reasons the White House has given for opposing a cease-fire in Lebanon is its insistence that Hezbollah would not honor it. Hence, the following maddening exchange yesterday:

"Q [Y]ou just said a moment ago that it would be -- it would not be an enforceable cease-fire. How do you know until you have a cease-fire? Why not get a cease-fire, and then if Hezbollah does not follow it, the world community sees that they're to blame.

"MR. SNOW: In other words, why not -- because we are -- because what you're asking for is a PR move rather than a strategic move. The question of why not --

"Q Why would it be PR if people are not dying?

"MR. SNOW: No, no, no, wrong. Again, Hezbollah is firing, what, 150, 200 rockets a day. Do you seriously believe they're going to stop if somebody in Rome says there's going to be a cease-fire?

"Q Nobody knows until you do it, right?

"MR. SNOW: No, no, no, don't play 'what if.' That is naive, Ed, it's naive.

"Q You're playing 'what if' by saying it's not enforceable. You don't know that. Nobody knows that.

"MR. SNOW: Yes, we do. Yes, we do. Yes, we do."

Later, asked if he saw a danger in the United States and Israel getting isolated in terms of world opinion, Snow said the greater danger was in the U.S. looking ineffective and losing credibility.

The Value of Talking

In Wednesday's column , I noted one refutation of Snow's insistence last week that the track record of diplomacy with Syria "stinks."

Today, former Clinton secretary of state Warren Christopher writes in The Washington Post that "Syria may well be a critical participant in any cease-fire arrangement, just as it was in 1993 and 1996."

Christopher writes that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's " 'permanent' and 'sustainable' solution to the root causes of the conflict . . . is achievable, if at all, only after protracted negotiations involving multiple parties. In the meantime, civilians will continue to die, precious infrastructure will continue to be destroyed and the fragile Lebanese democracy will continue to erode.

"My own experience in the region underlies my belief that in the short term we should focus our efforts on stopping the killing."

And Thomas L. Friedman writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required): "The world hates George Bush more than any U.S. president in my lifetime. He is radioactive -- and so caught up in his own ideological bubble that he is incapable of imagining or forging alternative strategies."

Poodle Watch

Ewen MacAskill, Simon Tisdall and Michael White write in the Guardian: "Tony Blair will press George Bush today to support 'as a matter of urgency' a ceasefire in Lebanon as part of a UN security council resolution next week, according to Downing Street sources.

"At a White House meeting, the prime minister will express his concern that pro-western Arab governments are 'getting squeezed' by the crisis and the longer it continues, the more squeezed they will be, giving militants a boost. The private view from No 10 is that the US is 'prevaricating' over the resolution and allowing the conflict to run on too long."

Alan Cowell writes in the New York Times: "When Prime Minister Tony Blair visits Washington on Friday, he will find himself in a familiar position -- a statesman abroad, and assailed at home as what his harshest critics call America's 'poodle.' . . .

"In an opinion survey in The Guardian on Tuesday, a majority of Britons polled said he should show more independence from the United States -- mimicking the 'Love Actually' moment from the movie of that name starring Hugh Grant as a British prime minister who breaks publicly with an American president."

And here, courtesy of IMDB.com, is that moment:

"Press Conference Reporter: Mr. President, has it been a good visit?

"The President: Very satisfactory indeed. We got what we came for and our special relationship is still very special.

"Press Conference Reporter: Prime Minister?

"Prime Minister: I love that word 'relationship'. Covers all manner of sins, doesn't it? I fear that this has become a bad relationship. A relationship based on the President taking exactly what he wants and casually ignoring all those things that really matter to, erm . . . Britain. We may be a small country but we're a great one, too. The country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter. David Beckham's right foot. David Beckham's left foot, come to that. And a friend who bullies us is no longer a friend. And since bullies only respond to strength, from now onward, I will be prepared to be much stronger. And the President should be prepared for that."

Torture Watch

R. Jeffrey Smith writes in The Washington Post: "An obscure law approved by a Republican-controlled Congress a decade ago has made the Bush administration nervous that officials and troops involved in handling detainee matters might be accused of committing war crimes, and prosecuted at some point in U.S. courts. . . .

"Since the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, hundreds of service members deployed to Iraq have been accused by the Army of mistreating detainees, and at least 35 detainees have died in military or CIA custody, according to a tally kept by Human Rights First. The military has asserted these were all aberrant acts by troops ignoring their orders.

"Defense attorneys for many of those accused of involvement have alleged that their clients were pursuing policies of rough treatment set by officials in Washington. That claim is amplified in a 53-page Human Rights Watch report this week that quoted interrogators at three bases in Iraq as saying that abuse was part of regular, authorized procedures."

Smith also provides some fascinating context regarding Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England's July 7 memorandum ordering all military departments to certify that their actions in the fight with al-Qaeda comply with Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions.

"England's memo was not sent to other agencies for review. Two White House officials heavily involved in past policymaking on detainee treatment matters, counsel Harriet Miers and [Vice President Cheney's chief of staff David S.] Addington, told friends later that they had not been briefed before its release and were unhappy about its language, according to an informed source."

Secret Prisons Watch

Peter Capella reports for AFP: "The UN Human Rights Committee has called on the United States to immediately abolish all secret detention facilities, in a report raising deep concerns about the conduct of the 'war on terror'."

Detainee Watch

The Post's R. Jeffrey Smith takes us through the White House's draft bill detailing procedures the administration is considering for bringing to trial those it captures in the war on terrorism, including some stark diversions from regular trial procedures.

Groupthink Lives

You may recall that "groupthink" was the villain at the heart of the White House's own investigation into intelligence failures in the run-up to the war in Iraq. (See my April 1, 2005, column .)

Mark Mazzetti writes in the New York Times about a new bipartisan report by the House Intelligence Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight. The subcommittee "concluded that one of the primary reasons for the intelligence failures before the Iraq war -- a 'groupthink' among analysts across the spying community -- had yet to be seriously addressed and that intelligence analysis remained clustered around just 10 percent of the available data.

" 'Judging from the analysis presented in the briefings the committee has received on various topics over the past year,' the report stated, lawmakers were 'concerned that the analytical community is still too risk-adverse and subject to groupthink.' "

Voting Rights Signing

Hamil R. Harris and Michael Abramowitz write in The Washington Post: "Joined by stalwarts of the civil rights movement, President Bush yesterday signed into law a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act, the historic legislation that opened the ballot box to millions of blacks across the South in the 1960s. . . .

"Bush signed the bill with considerable fanfare on the White House's South Lawn, joined by civil rights leaders who often have been at odds with his administration. They included NAACP Board Chairman Julian Bond, Jesse L. Jackson and Al Sharpton."

Here's the text of Bush's speech. Bush noted the presence of many of the attendees, including the Rev. Joseph Lowery, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

"Reverend Lowery, it's good to see you again, sir -- (applause) -- fortunately I got the mic this time. (Laughter.)"

Bush of course was recalling the Feb. 7 funeral of civil rights icon Coretta Scott King, when the fidgety president had no choice but to sit quietly and listen as several speakers reproached him for not having learned the lessons that King and her martyred husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., spent their lives teaching.

Lowery was particular scorching. He read a poem about King: "She deplored the terror inflicted by our smart bombs on missions way afar. We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there. But Coretta knew and we knew that there are weapons of misdirection right down here. Millions without health insurance. Poverty abounds. For war billions more but no more for the poor."

For more, see my Feb. 8 column .

Yesterday's event made for some great pictures. Here's an Associated Press photo of Karl Rove yukking it up with Jackson and Sharpton.

Mark Silva blogs for the Chicago Tribune: "The signing ceremony attracted at least one official not widely known as a champion of voting rights: Rep. Katherine Harris, the Florida Republican who served as elected secretary of state in Florida during the 2000 presidential election and attempted to stop a recount of the vote in South Florida when Democrat Al Gore challenged his 537-vote loss to Bush in the Sunshine State."

First Lady's Pet Project Ailing

James Glanz writes in the New York Times: "The United States is dropping Bechtel, the American construction giant, from a project to build a high-tech children's hospital in the southern Iraqi city of Basra after the project fell nearly a year behind schedule and exceeded its expected cost by as much as 150 percent.

"Called the Basra Children's Hospital, the project has been consistently championed by the first lady, Laura Bush, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and was designed to house sophisticated equipment for treating childhood cancer."

Krugman Watch

Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column (subscription required) about the Bush administration's remarkable success at rewriting history:

"First, if the facts fail to support the administration position on an issue -- stem cells, global warming, tax cuts, income inequality, Iraq -- officials refuse to acknowledge the facts. . . .

"Meanwhile, apparatchiks in the media spread disinformation. It's hard to imagine what the world looks like to the large number of Americans who get their news by watching Fox and listening to Rush Limbaugh, but I get a pretty good sense from my mailbag."

And finally: "The climate of media intimidation that prevailed for several years after 9/11, which made news organizations very cautious about reporting facts that put the administration in a bad light, has abated. But it's not entirely gone."


Speaking of Krugman, blogger Brad Delong describes the fascinating history of Shrillblog , a Krugman-inspired, boutique Bush-hating blog that is home to the "Ancient, Hermetic, and Occult Order of the Shrill -- those who have been driven into shrill unholy madness by the mendacity, incompetence, malevolence, and disconnection from reality of George W. Bush and his administration."


I closed yesterday's column with an item from West Virginia's Charleston Gazette , reporting that Bush did not actually drink any of the lemonade that he bought at a lemonade stand that had been relocated by the Secret Service to make a nice photo op after he attended a nearby fundraiser.

Today, Dave Gustafson of the Gazette corrects himself and reports: "President Bush does appear to take a sip of lemonade during his photo-op stop Wednesday with U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., at a Charleston girl's lemonade stand."

The sip is visible at the very end of the video of the event shot by the Associated Press.

"Bush appears to take a quick sip as he reaches for a writing implement. He quickly hands the drink away," Gustafson writes.

"President Bill Clinton famously said he didn't inhale, but the White House did not respond to a query about whether Bush swallowed."

Froomkin on the Radio

I'll be on Washington Post Radio today, shortly after 2 p.m.

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