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Beats Working

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, August 1, 2006; 1:46 PM

As part of his new media strategy to get out of Washington and reconnect with the voters, President Bush dined with "community leaders" Sunday night in Miami Beach.

Or so the White House wanted you to believe.

In fact, Bush spent the evening at the exclusive Joe's Stone Crabs restaurant talking about sports and movies with a bunch of former Miami Dolphins football players, an actor and the flamboyant host of a raunchy and ribald Spanish-language variety show.

It was only hours after Bush had learned that an Israeli air strike had killed dozens of Lebanese children, a moment for soul-searching if there ever was one.

But what did Bush want to talk about?

Former Dolphin Jim Kiick told Steve Wine of the Associated Press that topics of conversation included movies, the 1972 Dolphins and fellow attendee and former Dolphin Dan Marino's achievements -- but little politics.

Kiick added: "It was a pretty wild feeling to know you're having dinner with the most powerful person in the most powerful country. Usually it costs you $20,000 to get close to the president."

It's not the first time the White House has used a euphemism to describe with whom Bush was meeting as part of his new campaign to, as counselor Dan Bartlett put it, "get a sense of what's on the minds of the people out in the country."

During his recent trip to Chicago, Bush's dinner with "opinion leaders" was actually with business leaders and the mayor. His breakfast, which Bartlett described at the time as being with "leaders in the small business community," was actually with the CEOs of large companies, two of them in the Fortune 500, and one of them being Kraft.

And while Bush evidently was happy to make time in his presidential schedule for small talk and big crab legs, at least two members of the current Dolphins organization turned down his invitation -- because they were too busy.

Miami Dolphins coach Nick Saban and defensive end Jason Taylor told the AP's Wine that their obligations at training camp took priority.

Bush made mention of his evening during his remarks yesterday at the Port of Miami: "This trip is a little different from the last time I spent the night here in Miami," he said, referring to his visit in 2004 for his first debate against Democratic challenger John Kerry.

"Last night Jeb and I had some crabs with members of the 1972 Miami Dolphins, Dan Marino and his really dynamic wife; TV stars -- Andy Garcia, a movie star. We had a fantastic experience. It's a lot better, by the way, than preparing for a presidential debate."

The Guests

Some 24 hours after the dinner in question, the White House finally turned over to the press corps a list of attendees. In addition to the president's brother, Marino and Kiick: Nick Buoniconti, a linebacker on the 1972 Miami Dolphins team and wife Lynn; Garcia and wife Marivi; "Sábado Gigante" television host Mario Kreutzberger, better known as Don Francisco, and wife Teresa Muchnick; Jim Mandich, tight end for the 1972 Dolphins and wife Bonnie.

1972: A Great Year . . . for the Dolphins

What's so special about the 1972 Dolphins? They were the only team ever to have a perfect season in the history of the National Football League. Bush's record isn't quite so good.

And where was Bush himself during that 1972 season? No one really knows.

The 17-game Dolphins winning streak extended from September to December 1972. Bush was suspended from flight status in the Texas Air National Guard in August 1972 after failing to take his required annual flight physical. During that 1972 Dolphins season, he had supposedly transferred to an Alabama guard unit. But available records and recollection of guard members who were there at the time suggest he didn't show up.

Becoming a Theme

Is it possible that Bush just isn't really into the governing part of his job? I raised that question in my May 8 column, Would Bush Rather Be Fishing? , after Bush told a German reporter that the most wonderful moment of his presidency came while he was on vacation, fishing on his private lake.

And then, as I wrote in my July 13 column, Bush the Bystander , Bush in Germany seemed more interested in an upcoming pig roast than in the explosive Middle East situation.

Cavuto's View

Did Fox News anchor (and Republican donor) Neil Cavuto pick up on this during his interview with Bush yesterday? Here's what Cavuto had to say in his commentary afterward: "Sometimes I wonder why anyone would want to be president of the United States.

"I know there are a lot of cool things that come with the job -- a very easy commute, a very cool plane and never having to worry about traffic -- but looking at President Bush today -- and I mean this with the greatest of respect -- it just struck me again: the guy is aging. . . .

"The job just takes it out of you -- all those critics, all those jokes, all those barbs and all those worries."

Cavuto's interview with Bush was, mercifully, not a repeat of his one from a year ago. As I wrote in my June 9, 2005, column, The Foxnewsified Interview , Cavuto avoided tough issues such as the war in Iraq, favoring questions about such things as the Michael Jackson trial.

This time around, Cavuto was at least topical, if not going for the jugular.

Cavuto: "Are -- are you amazed, Mr. President, in light of all the turbulence in the Middle East, the ongoing Iraq war, threats from Iran, threats from Syria, threats from Hugo Chavez, that the economy has been doing extremely well? The markets have held up extremely well.

"BUSH: Yes.

"CAVUTO: Americans are still buying. McDonald's numbers have never been higher. So, they're still eating.


"CAVUTO: So, what -- what's going on?

"BUSH: I think the entrepreneurial spirit is strong."

Toward the end, Cavuto asked Bush if the nation had forgotten about the dangers of a terrorist attack.

Here's part of Bush's long reply: "I have got two big issues, Neil, as we go into the future. One is to remind people we're still at war, but have them comfortable with the fact that the government's doing everything we can to protect them; and, two, to remind people that the terrorist activities of a Hezbollah or an Al Qaeda or a militant Hamas, are all linked, that they may not be coordinating together, but they have this kind of same attitude and same desire to stop the advance of democracy, that a long-term peace for America will come when liberty is unleashed in the Middle East, and a policy that had excused tyranny in the past simply didn't work."

Briefing Room Follies

Holly Bailey writes for Newsweek: "It's probably the dream of every president: to banish the press corps from the West Wing. This week the Bush team will do it for real, kicking reporters out of the White House for a long-overdue rehab of the press briefing room and workspace. Immortalized on TV and in movies as the glamorous place to be, the briefing room is, in reality, a dump with broken chairs, torn carpeting, dangling wires and a musty smell that's especially pungent in the summertime. . . .

"When President George W. Bush returns to D.C. from his Texas vacation, Press Secretary Tony Snow will brief reporters at Jackson Place, across the street from the White House, where the press corps will work until the rehab is complete. But like many dealings between the administration and the press, the move has been eyed with suspicion by reporters, who worry the renovation is a ruse to get them out of the White House for good. Snow has pledged that reporters will be welcomed back, but an ever-expanding construction timeline has heightened worries. The rehab was first timed at just a month but now is slated for at least nine months, leaving reporters out of the White House until next May -- an eternity to reporters already concerned about access to Bush and his aides."

Steve Holland writes for Reuters: "The old briefing room is officially unplugged on Friday. A proper send-off is being prepared for Wednesday with former presidential press secretaries in attendance."

John D. McKinnon writes in the Wall Street Journal: "Earlier this year, Fox News talk show host Tony Snow was hired as press secretary. Next up: a renovation of the briefing room, likely with a video wall that could display everything from 'flags waving in the breeze [to] detailed charts and graphs,' according to a senior White House official working on the project. . . .

"Both the planned video capabilities and Mr. Snow's hiring appear to be part of a subtle but sweeping effort by administration officials to deliver their message directly to the public, particularly through video. . . .

"The Bush administration has taken the practice of managing its official message to new levels -- for example, by providing packaged video stories to local TV news shows, as well as paying conservative columnists for positive coverage -- a practice the president since has criticized. On the campaign trail and in many public events, President Bush has used backdrops with vivid images or repeated slogans to reinforce the words of his speeches. . . .

"Some media observers say the moves to upgrade the White House briefing reflect a focus on minimizing or circumventing criticism of the Bush administration in the place where it has been most concentrated -- the dingy and often unruly press briefing room."

Vacation Watch

Thomas M. DeFrank and Kenneth R. Bazinet write in the New York Daily News: "On Thursday, President Bush heads to his Prairie Chapel Ranch in Crawford, Texas, due to return Aug. 14.

"He's also expected to enjoy other short summer getaways, but when Bush was riding high in the polls, he routinely holed up at his central Texas ranch for at least a month. . . .

"But last summer's five-week Crawford hiatus was what one former Bush aide calls 'the vacation from hell, where nothing went right.' Bush was stalked by anti-war 'peace mom' Cindy Sheehan, who camped near the ranch demanding a meeting to discuss the death of her soldier son in Iraq. . . .

"Many of Bush's closest friends and political aides believe he has never recovered from the perception that the federal government bungled hurricane recovery operations. As a result, 'He doesn't want to be at the ranch for the [first] anniversary of Katrina,' a Bush aide told the Daily News."

The Rest of the Miami Trip

Peter Baker and Robin Wright write in The Washington Post, from Miami: "The Middle East crisis ended up swamping Bush's two-day trip here to talk about domestic issues and collect money for the fall congressional campaign. He had breakfast with local business leaders, visited the National Hurricane Center, delivered an economic speech, took a boat tour of the Port of Miami, gave a series of interviews and headlined a Republican fundraiser at an exclusive Coral Gables estate. . . .

"Aides decided not to cancel the trip despite the dramatic developments in the Middle East because they view it as unhealthy to allow the presidency to be consumed by a single issue. But the contrast at times appeared jarring. Bush shared a crab dinner Sunday night with actor Andy Garcia, Miami Dolphins legend Dan Marino and other former football players. And a White House handout on Monday's events was headlined 'A Day in Miami,' giving the impression of a relaxed summer jaunt."

Here are Bush's remarks about the entrepreneurial spirit and the Middle East at a Cuban restaurant; his speech about the economy and the Middle East at the Port of Miami, and his comments on port security and the Middle East.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "As the peak of the tropical storm season approaches, President Bush sought to assure the nation on Monday that his administration had learned the lessons of Hurricane Katrina and was ready to handle another epic natural disaster.

"But Mr. Bush sent the message with pictures, not words.

"In a daylong visit to Miami that the White House said was intended to spotlight 'economic growth and hurricane preparedness,' Mr. Bush visited the National Hurricane Center, chatting in front of the cameras with scientists who track tropical storms but not taking any questions.

"In remarks to reporters and in a separate speech at the Port of Miami, the president made no formal mention of storm preparations, leaving it to the new director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, R. David Paulison , and the White House press secretary, Tony Snow, to convey the readiness message."

CNN port-security enthusiast Lou Dobbs was less than impressed with the whole thing: "President Bush today decided to go to Miami, where today he pushed his plan for so-called comprehensive immigration reform at the Port of Miami, where Dubai Ports World continues to run critical port operations. And during his speech, President Bush said almost nothing about the astonishing breakdown in security at our ports around the country."

The Putney Interview

Here is video of Bush's interview with WPLG-TV reporter Michael Putney .

Putney asked about the possibility of U.S. involvement in a multi-national force in southern Lebanon.

Bush: "I think most nations would not see us involved. I think most people understand that we're committed elsewhere."

Bush on not advocating an immediate cease-fire: "I think all of us, including the Israelis, would like to see the violence, you know, stop. On the other hand, there's still rockets being fired by Hezbollah into Israel, and Israel is still, you know, moving troops. So it's a moment where, I believe, we have an opportunity for the U.N. to begin to quiet things down, so long as we address the root cause. And the root cause is terrorist activities, sponsored by the way by Iran and encouraged by Syria, that uses the chaos in the area to advance their political agenda."

Putney: "It doesn't appear to many experts, and I don't pretend to be one, that there can be any durable lasting cease-fire in the area if Syria is not brought in and made a player. But your administration refuses to talk to Syria."

Bush: "That's actually not true. We have talked to Syria. [Former secretary of state] Colin Powell talked to Syria. [Powell's former deputy] Dick Armitage has talked to Syria. We've got a counsel that's there in Damascus. Syria knows. Syria understands our position. And our position is stop harboring terrorists, stop promoting militant Hamas, that we don't want you in Lebanon. We made our position very clear, and they know our position."

Speaking of Syria

Former president Jimmy Carter writes in a Washington Post op-ed today: "A major impediment to progress is Washington's strange policy that dialogue on controversial issues will be extended only as a reward for subservient behavior and will be withheld from those who reject U.S. assertions. Direct engagement with the Palestine Liberation Organization or the Palestinian Authority and the government in Damascus will be necessary if secure negotiated settlements are to be achieved. Failure to address the issues and leaders involved risks the creation of an arc of even greater instability running from Jerusalem through Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran."

And when you've lost Bob Schieffer, have you lost Middle America?

Schieffer writes for CBSNews.com: "Here's my question about the events of last week. Why aren't we talking to Syria?"

More Middle East News

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the president's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, discussed the next steps over dinner at the White House on Monday."

Baker and Wright write in The Post that Rice had planned to go to New York for a Security Council debate. She "told reporters on her plane she would 'push very hard' to win passage of a cease-fire by week's end. 'It's time,' she said. But after her dinner with Bush, an administration official said it was no longer clear whether Rice would go after all."

John M. Broder writes in the New York Times: "White House officials said they believed that the president was not yet facing serious erosion of domestic political support for his approach to the Middle East, but that they hoped the administration's diplomacy would bear fruit over the next few days.

"If the White House seemed shaken on Sunday, by Monday it had turned back forcefully to the line it had held since the crisis began nearly three weeks ago."

The Context

Michael Hirsch writes for Newsweek.com: "For Bush and [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld, the key to a successful anti-terror policy lay in being seen as the 'strong horse.' . . .

"Now Rumsfeld and Bush, by pre-emptively launching a war, have undercut that lesson. Until recent events, the American and Israeli armies were generally judged the most advanced in the world. In the Arab world they were seen as all but invulnerable. Today the failures of those armies against Islamist guerrillas in Iraq and Lebanon have conveyed the very opposite of the message Bush wanted to send. If the current situation continues, with America bogged down in Iraq and Israel mired in its fight against Hizbullah, then the presumption of U.S-Israeli military invincibility -- which has kept Arab extremists in place for decades -- will be exposed as a myth. That could embolden Islamist radicals for a long time to come. Unless he is prepared to spend a lot more on his military, defense analysts say, the president who so badly wanted to project strength will be remembered mainly for projecting weakness."

Signing Statements Watch

Walter Dellinger wrote in a New York Times op-ed yesterday that the American Bar Association task force on presidential signing statements (see my July 24 column ) "misdiagnoses the problem. " The problem is not signing statements in and of themselves, it's how Bush uses them.

Dellinger and seven other legal scholars , all of whom have served in the Office of Legal Counsel, expand on that point in the Georgetown Law Faculty blog.

Among their critiques: "[I]n this Administration nonenforcement appears to be a strategy of first resort, not last. . . . Many of the objections are written in such general and opaque terms . . . that it is impossible to know just what they mean," and "[t]he extremely broad theories of the Commander-in-Chief Clause and the 'unitary executive' that underlie many of the signing statements and other distorted statutory constructions."

Criminal Offenses?

Justin Rood of the TPM Muckraker blog reports: "The Bush administration may have broken over two dozen federal laws and regulations -- some of them multiple times -- according to an unreleased report from the House Judiciary Committee Democrats.

"'The misconduct I have found is not only serious, but widespread,' reads a draft summary of the report by Ranking Member John Conyers (D-MI)."

Scooter Libby Watch

Toni Locy writes for the Associated Press: "Former White House aide I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby wants a memory expert to explain how he -- and prosecution witnesses -- may have different recollections of their conversations about a CIA officer's identity."

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m., eager to hear from you.

Presidential Stumble

This Associated Press photo montage shows Bush stumbling, recovering his footing, and making faces while walking off Air Force One yesterday afternoon.

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