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President on a Mission

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, August 21, 2006; 2:20 PM

President Bush was on a mission this morning: Trying to stamp out a growing national consensus that things in the Middle East are going from bad to worse, and that it's past time to start bringing the troops home from Iraq.

"If you think it's bad now," Bush said bluntly, "imagine what Iraq would look like if the United States leaves before this government can defend itself and sustain itself. Chaos in Iraq would be very unsettling in the region. . . . Leaving before the job is done would be a disaster, and that's what we're saying."

And while Bush is opposed to any timetable for withdrawal, he clearly has some sense of a timetable for staying. "We're not leaving so long as I'm the president," Bush said. "That would be a huge mistake."

Bush held forth in a press conference called with less than two hours' notice this morning. And whether the topic was Iraq or Lebanon, Bush wasted no time on nuance or details that might have distracted from his central message. Here's the transcript .

Pretty much regardless of what he was asked, Bush had the same answer: That anything short of his policies is tantamount to surrendering to terrorists and would be disastrous.

Bush seemed much happier reframing the questions than answering them.

"And the question facing this country is, will -- do we, one, understand the threat to America? In other words, do we understand that a failed -- failed states in the Middle East are a direct threat to our country's security? And secondly, will we continue to stay engaged in helping reformers, in working to advance liberty, to defeat an ideology that doesn't believe in freedom?" he asked.

Repeatedly asked if he was frustrated by the lack of progress in Iraq -- "why wouldn't you be frustrated" was how NBC's Kelly O'Donnell put it -- Bush eventually acknowledged: "Sometimes I'm frustrated."

Then he added: "And our question is: Do we have the capacity and the desire to spread peace by confronting these terrorists and supporting those who want to live in liberty? That's the question. And my answer to that question is: We must. We owe it to future generations to do so."


"These aren't joyous times," Bush said, reflecting on the situation in Iraq. "These are challenging times. And they're difficult times. And they're straining the -- the psyche of our country. I understand that."

And yet Bush found plenty of time to poke fun at members of the press corps.

The prime object of his teasing was seersucker-clad Cox News Service reporter Ken Herman, who has covered Bush since they both worked in Texas.

But Herman returned the favor with a grilling:

"A lot of the consequences you mentioned for pulling out seem like maybe they never would have been there if we hadn't gone in. How do you square all of that?" Herman asked, when his turn came around.

Bush: "I square it because imagine a world in which you had Saddam Hussein, who had the capacity to make a weapon of mass destruction, who was paying suiciders to kill innocent life, who had relations with Zarqawi. Imagine what the world would be like with him in power. The idea is to try to help change the Middle East. . . .

"You know, I've heard this theory about, you know, everything was just fine until we arrived and -- you know, the stir-up-the-hornet's- nest theory. It just doesn't hold water, as far as I'm concerned. The terrorists attacked us and killed 3,000 of our citizens before we started the freedom agenda in the Middle East. They were. . . . "

Herman: "What did Iraq have to do with that?"

Bush: "What did Iraq have to do with what?"

Herman: "The attacks upon the World Trade Center?"

Bush: "Nothing. Except for it's part of -- and nobody's ever suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attack. Iraq was a -- Iraq -- the lesson of September the 11th is: Take threats before they fully materialize, Ken. . . .

"I fully believe it was the right decision to remove Saddam Hussein, and I fully believe the world is better off without him. Now the question is: How do we succeed in Iraq?"

The Elephants in the Room

Amazingly enough, the White House press corps didn't ask a single question about what I would argue are the two most critical issues for Bush to address these days: The fact that the American public doesn't trust him anymore, and the fact that the courts keep on finding that he's seized more executive power than the Constitution allows.

A majority of Americans routinely say Bush is not trustworthy. In particular, his assertions about the Middle East frequently raise questions about his ability to acknowledge reality when things don't turn out the way he intended.

And just last week, a federal judge struck down Bush's warrantless domestic wiretapping program, scolding him for taking the law into his own hands in a way that was more appropriate for a king. That of course came on the heels of a devastating Supreme Court ruling on June 29 striking down his military tribunals for terror suspects.

Nobody asked about executive power. The closest any reporter came to raising the credibility issue was Martha Raddatz of ABC News, who asked: "You keep saying that you don't want to leave, but is your strategy to win working?"

Bush replied: "If I didn't think it would work, I would change -- our commanders would recommend changing the strategy. They believe it'll work."

But the evidence suggests it isn't working. And nobody asked Bush the critical follow-up questions: You say we have to stay and get the job done, rather than leave. But what if staying isn't getting the job done either?

Briefing Room Follies

The White House announced Bush's 10 a.m. press conference at 8:13 a.m. The timing was ideal if the goal was to have the press corps at a disadvantage. Most reporters -- and newsrooms -- are not even remotely functional that early on Monday mornings.

And it was quite the surprise. The White House's 8 a.m. morning update to reporters stated that Bush had "no public events."

This was Bush's first solo news conference since July 7 in Chicago, and it was held in the temporary briefing room in a building across the street from the White House. The regular briefing room, just a few yards from the Oval Office, is being renovated.

At the end of the briefing, Bush cheerfully assured reporters they would return.

"Absolutely you're coming back. Coming back to the bosom of the White House." Bush said. "I'm looking forward to hugging you when you come back, everybody."

False Dichotomies

Bush's response last week to the court ruling striking down his warrantless domestic surveillance program was not exactly nuanced.

It boiled down to: Are you with the enemy, or with me?

Here's the text of brief comments from Camp David.

"This country of ours is at war, and we must give those whose responsibility it is to protect the United States the tools necessary to protect this country in a time of war," he said.

"I made my position clear about this war on terror. And by the way, the enemy made their position clear yet again when we were able to stop them. And I -- the American people expect us to protect them, and therefore I put this program in place. We believe -- strongly believe it's constitutional.

"And if al Qaeda is calling in to the United States, we want to know why they're calling. And so I made my position clear. It would be interesting to see what other policymakers -- how other policymakers react."

There was no explanation of why he felt that following established law -- or asking Congress for new laws -- was too onerous.

And his supposed curiosity about how other policymakers would react was entirely disingenuous.

As Jonathan Weisman reported in Saturday's Washington Post: "Minutes later, under the headline ' Dems Rejoice ,' the Republican National Committee illuminated those reactions, releasing the statements of eight Democrats -- including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the 2004 presidential nominee -- all heralding the decision as a rebuke to the president."

White House political guru Karl Rove believes the best defense is a good offense, and as Weisman writes: "Republicans appeared ready to make Taylor's decision on wiretapping the 2006 equivalent of a Massachusetts judge's legalization of same-sex marriage in 2004: a rallying cry for the Republican base. . . .

"But with polls showing Republican voters more divided on security issues than Democrats are, it was unclear whether the strategy would work. . . .

" 'There is no consensus that Republicans are better on terrorism than the Democrats, as once was clearly the case,' said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press."

And here's an incredible irony: "Republicans have done such a good job framing the invasion of Iraq as part of a 'war on terror' that bad news from Baghdad is casting doubts on the anti-terrorism effort, Kohut said."

Book-Reading Competition?

Kenneth T. Walsh writes in U.S. News: "President Bush now wants it known that he is a man of letters. In fact, Bush has entered a book-reading competition with Karl Rove, his political adviser. White House aides say the president has read 60 books so far this year (while the brainy Rove, to Bush's competitive delight, has racked up only 50)."

Walsh even publishes a sampling of Bush's ostensible reading list.

Walsh writes that "portraying Bush as a voracious reader is part of an ongoing White House campaign to restore what a senior adviser calls 'gravitas' to the Bush persona. He certainly needs something."

Bush may indeed need something, but a gullible press corps shouldn't let itself be played for chumps.

If White House spokesmen are actually expecting anyone to believe that Bush has read 50 books this year -- if this is actually part of a PR offensive -- then it's incumbent on them to prove it. Does anyone seriously believe Bush has done more than riffle the pages, if that?

(Although it does give credence to the theory that the reason Bush recently -- allegedly -- read Albert Camus's "The Stranger" was because it's short.)

Renouncing the President

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post that Bush can no longer rely on "once-friendly voices in the conservative media to stand by his side, as some columnists and television commentators lose faith in his leadership and lose heart in the war in Iraq. . . .

"Bush aides were bothered by a George F. Will column last week mocking neoconservative desires to transform the Middle East. . . .

"The White House responded with a 2,432-word rebuttal -- three times as long as the column -- e-mailed to supporters and journalists."

But nothing may have been as upsetting to the White House as conservative MSNBC host Joe Scarborough's 10-minute segment last week called "IS BUSH AN 'IDIOT'?" Here's the video .

Writes Baker: "In a later telephone interview, Scarborough said he aired the segment because he kept hearing even fellow Republicans questioning Bush's capacity and leadership, particularly in Iraq. Like others, he said, he supported the war but now thinks it is time to find a way to get out. 'A lot of conservatives are saying, "Enough's enough," ' he said. Asked about the reaction to his program, he said, 'The White House is not happy about it.' "

Rove Watch

Susan Page, David Jackson and Richard Benedetto profile Karl Rove in USA Today: "Some Republicans see him as their best hope for heading off disaster in November. . . .

"At stake is more than Rove's reputation as a canny tactician. A Democratic takeover of the House or Senate would not only jeopardize President Bush's ability to pass legislation but also enable Democrats to launch the sort of inquiries and subpoenas that Republicans used to bedevil the Clinton White House. Losing control of Congress would undercut Rove's vision of building a durable Republican majority. . . .

"While Rove doesn't advise Republican candidates to distance themselves from Bush -- quite the opposite -- he does sometimes urge them to change the subject, to concentrate on attacking the vulnerabilities of the Democratic candidate who is on the ballot rather than on defending the president."

The authors also note: "Remarkably, Rove has become one of the GOP's leading fundraisers -- far eclipsing any previous White House staffer in that role. In the past 18 months, according to Republican Party records, he has headlined at least 70 fundraising events and raised $9.66 million."

W. Gardner Selby reports in the Austin American-Statesman on Rove's fundraiser in the Texas capital over the weekend: "After protesters allied with anti-war demonstrator Cindy Sheehan rushed the ballroom doors and scuffled with police, senior White House adviser Karl Rove roused Republicans Saturday in Austin by suggesting that a strong economy and President Bush's course abroad will lead GOP candidates to November wins.

"Saying Democrats are pro-taxation, pro-spending and wrongly committed to cutting and running from Iraq, the chief White House political adviser said: 'We are right, and they are wrong.'

"One protester managed to slip inside the event, which attracted more than 300 guests and raised an estimated $250,000 for the Associated Republicans of Texas.

"Shouting objections, including 'men and women are dying,' the woman was escorted from the ballroom of the Renaissance Austin Hotel.

"Laughter came after Rove said: 'I don't question the patriotism of our critics. Many are hard-working public servants who are doing the best they can. Some of them are people looking for a free meal.'

"Rove also posed an unanswered query to Pat Robbins, the GOP group's executive director: 'Pat, did you get her check before she left?' "

Cheney Watch

Mark Silva blogged for the Chicago Tribune on Saturday: "Don't expect to hear much out of Vice President Dick Cheney's private fundraiser for Sen. John McCain of Arizona today at a private residence near the vice president's home in Jackson, Wyo. It's a closed-door affair, like another fundraiser where Cheney will appear next week in Cincinnati.

"But do expect to hear plenty from the vice president on Aug. 28, when he addresses the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Reno, and the next day, when he hosts a 'rally with the troops' at Nebraska's Offutt Air Force Base -- the home of the U.S. Strategic Command, and the place where President Bush paused after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, before returning to Washington, D.C., that evening. And do expect to hear plenty about the war on terror. Cheney -- who already logged 85 appearances for candidates and his party for the '06 election cycle before today's event -- is making the war a mainstay of his campaign for Republicans as strong on national defense, against anti-war Democrats, whom Cheney accuses of 'defeatism.' "

Blair Watch

Simon Walters writes in the Daily Mail: "The alliance between George Bush and Tony Blair is in danger after it was revealed that the Prime Minister believes the President has 'let him down badly' over the Middle East crisis.

"A senior Downing Street source said that, privately, Mr Blair broadly agrees with John Prescott, who said Mr Bush's record on the issue was 'crap'. . . .

" 'We have been banging on at them for three years about the need to address the Palestinian problem but they just won't engage,' said a senior Government insider. 'That is one of the reasons there is such a mess now.' "

The Times of London also notes Blair's frustration, but Greg Hurst writes that Blair "has won the agreement of President Bush for another push to revive the Middle East peace process, despite widespread dismay at America's reluctance to follow through past initiatives.

"The Prime Minister, who returns from holiday this week, plans to make the quest for a viable Palestinian state a priority for his remaining period in office and is ready to act as an international progress chaser if talks can be resumed."

Katrina Anniversary

Christopher Lee and Anushka Asthana write in The Washington Post: "Nearly one year after Hurricane Katrina punched into the Gulf Coast, much damage remains, both in the shattered homes that litter parts of New Orleans and in the battered reputation of government institutions, a new survey shows. . . .

"Although President Bush pledged on Sept. 15 in a nationally televised address from Jackson Square to rebuild New Orleans, 70 percent of those surveyed said most individuals still have not gotten the help they need with housing, health care and restoring their lives. Fifty-six percent said the federal government has not done enough to help state and local governments restore services in the affected areas and 30 percent said it has."

Matt Crenson writes for the Associated Press: "Nearly half of New Orleans was still under water when President Bush stood in the Crescent City's historic Jackson Square and swore he would 'do what it takes' to rebuild the communities and lives that had been laid to waste two weeks before by Hurricane Katrina.

" 'Our goal is to get the work done quickly,' the president said.

"He promised to spend federal money wisely and accountably. And he vowed to address the poverty exposed by the government's inadequate Katrina response 'with bold action.'

"A year after the storm, the federal government has proven slow and unreliable in keeping the president's promises.

" 'This is not something that is going to be able to be accomplished in 365 days,' White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. 'The president has set the federal government on the course to fulfill its obligations.'"

Bush himself echoed that position this morning: "I went to New Orleans, in Jackson Square, and made a commitment that we would help the people there recover. I also want the people down there to understand that it's going to take a while to recover."

Kristin Jensen writes for Bloomberg: "Bush said last month the U.S. government has committed more than $110 billion to the recovery of the Gulf Coast, declaring 'we've got a plan' for the hurricane-battered region.

"Almost a year after Hurricane Katrina struck, progress on that plan is hard to discern in New Orleans."

Filmmaker Spike Lee was on CNN this morning, promoting his movie, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts .

"The person who is responsible for all this is Bush, and [Secretary of Homeland Defense Michael] Chertoff," Lee said. Lee apparently shows plenty of clips of the president.

"I mean, it's funny. I don't have -- that's why we didn't have to put any narration in because we just let people hang themselves," Lee said.

Stepping in Macaca

Ken Herman blogged on Friday for Cox News Service about Bush's upcoming fundraiser for Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), "who has spent much of this week apologizing for a racially insensitive comment caught on camera by his opponent's campaign. . . .

"Bush will be the star attraction . . . Wednesday at an Allen event at the Alexandria, Virginia home of Ed Gillespie, former Republican National Committee chairman."


Robert Yoon reports for CNN: "By granting absolution to a convicted moonshiner, George W. Bush also earned the unique distinction of becoming the first president to pardon a cast member of the 1972 Academy Award-nominated movie 'Deliverance.' "

Cartoon Humor

Stuart Carlson on hereditary kings; Jeff Danziger on the Commander-in-Something; Mike Luckovich on Katrina; Nick Anderson on the middle ground; Tony Auth on the White Palace.

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