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Olbermann's Special Comments

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, October 6, 2006; 11:56 AM

The traditional media has been slow to come to grips with the American public's distrust and dislike of President Bush -- sentiments clearly reflected in opinion polls dating back well over a year.

Almost alone among the network newscasters, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann is channeling that sensibility. Channeling it -- and amplifying it.

In fact, the increasingly shrill Olbermann is fast becoming the Howard Beale of the anti-Bush era: He's mad as hell, and he's not going to take it anymore.

His newscast-ending "special comment" yesterday was a doozy. Here's the text ; here's the video , from the Crooks and Liars blog.

At issue: The sorts of rhetorical excesses in Bush's campaign speeches recently handled (with kid gloves) by such mainstream journalists as McClatchy's Ron Hutcheson and The Washington Post's Peter Baker -- and on which I've been harping for ages, most recently in my Bush's Imaginary Foes column.

What apparently set off Olbermann in particular was when Bush recently described a vote against his warrantless wiretapping plan as being the same as saying "we don't think we ought to be listening to the conversations of terrorists" -- and when Bush said of the Democratic leadership: "It sounds like they think the best way to protect the American people is -- wait until we're attacked again."

Here's Olbermann yesterday: "The president doesn't just hear what he wants. He hears things that only he can hear.

"It defies belief that this president and his administration could continue to find new unexplored political gutters into which they could wallow. Yet they do.

"It is startling enough that such things could be said out loud by any president of this nation. Rhetorically, it is about an inch short of Mr. Bush accusing Democratic leaders, Democrats, the majority of Americans who disagree with his policies, of treason. . . .

"No Democrat, sir, has ever said anything approaching the suggestion that the best means of self-defense is to 'wait until we're attacked again.'

"No critic, no commentator, no reluctant Republican in the Senate has ever said anything that any responsible person could even have exaggerated into the slander you spoke in Nevada on Monday night, nor the slander you spoke in California on Tuesday, nor the slander you spoke in Arizona on Wednesday . . . nor whatever is next. . . .

"But tonight the stark question we must face is -- why?

"Why has the ferocity of your venom against the Democrats now exceeded the ferocity of your venom against the terrorists?

"Why have you chosen to go down in history as the president who made things up?"

Defending the Comma

AFP reports: "The White House defended U.S. President George W. Bush's description of the 10 months of bloody violence in Iraq since December 2005 elections as 'just a comma.'

"'He is not talking about the war as a comma,' spokesman Tony Snow told reporters after critics pounced on Bush's repeated use of the expression as a sign of callous disregard for the war's death toll.

"'What the president's making the point is, when you look at a history book, the 10-month period is a comma,' he said. 'What he means is that, in the grand sweep of history, 10 months is not an epic.'

"Snow fired back at unnamed critics he accused of trying to 'wrench a statement out of context' to use it as ammunition against Bush 'who is deeply aware of the human costs of war.'

"'Some people have tried to say, 'How dare the president refer to this as a comma? He's being glib about the deaths of Americans.' That's outrageous. And the people who say that know it,' said the spokesman."

Here's the transcript of the briefing.

"Q: The president's statement was open to misinterpretation, let's say. Why did he use it a couple more times after he first did and people reacted --

"MR. SNOW: Because he didn't think he had --

"Q: Why wouldn't he want to avoid any misunderstanding on something so obviously --

"MR. SNOW: Maybe he didn't think that people were going to be -- were going to spend so much time trying to twist it out of context. But I'm pleased to have been able to place it in context."

Bush to Hastert: Keep Up the Good Work

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "A week into a sex scandal involving teenage House pages, President Bush called House Speaker Dennis Hastert on Thursday to thank the embattled Republican leader for how he has handled the situation.

"In a phone call lasting several minutes, Bush expressed support for Hastert, under fire from conservatives unhappy with what he did and didn't do about former Rep. Mark Foley's sexually suggestive messages to teens.

"'The president thanked him for going out and making a clear public statement that said the House leadership takes responsibility and is accountable,' White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said.

"'He said he appreciated that when they got the information, they swiftly took action making clear that Rep. Foley should step down and promptly requested a Department of Justice investigation. And he expressed his support for the speaker,' Perino said."

Tim Russert said on NBC's "Today Show" this morning that White House officials "are very much involved in trying to construct damage control. . . . They are deeply concerned, because if Congress flips to the Democrats, they expect full-throttle hearings on Iraq and other issues."

Jim VandeHei and Michael Abramowitz write in The Washington Post: "The White House and top House Republicans remain deeply nervous that the scandal will hurt them politically, and that additional information will come out contradicting statements by Hastert and others that they were unaware of Foley's sexual messages to underage boys, the lawmakers and officials said.

"For now, they said, it would be politically disastrous for Republicans to oust Hastert because it would be viewed as akin to a public admission of guilt in the scandal, as well as a pre-election victory that would buoy Democrats and help their turnout efforts."

VandeHei and Abramowitz note that Bush's call of support yesterday "comes as a sharp contrast to the administration's handling of the controversy in 2002 over Sen. Trent Lott's comments about then-Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) -- which cost Lott (Miss.) his post as Senate GOP leader. In Lott's case, Bush was quick to nudge him out of power. The president, however, feels deeply indebted to Hastert, who has pushed through his agenda and has quietly provided advice on how to deal with a restive Republican Congress."

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "The final two years of President Bush's term could be bleak for Republicans if the congressional-page scandal roiling Washington ends up costing them control of the House or Senate or even both."

Here's the ever-helpful Tony Snow on the issue at the briefing yesterday, before Bush's call:

"Q: Tony, has the president talked to Speaker Hastert since this whole thing started?

"MR. SNOW: No.

"Q: Has he asked to talk with him?

"MR. SNOW: No. No.

"Q: Why not?

"MR. SNOW: Just hasn't."

And then later:

"Q: Is this a separation of powers issue, Tony, or is this a determined effort to insulate the White House from this whole thing?

MR. SNOW: No, I don't think -- look, this is an issue that everybody cares about, but it's also an issue that -- the House has to figure out what happened; the House is the proper place for investigating the behavior of its members, although the Justice Department does now have an investigation ongoing. But let me also clarify, in case anybody wondered, this is not a White House that orders up investigations, and so we have nothing to do formally or informally with that investigation."

Not a White House that orders up investigations? One reporter came back to that later on:

"Q: You said earlier that this is not a White House that calls for investigations. Can I just ask you to reconsider that in light of the president's comments after the terrorist surveillance program was disclosed, and then after the prison program was disclosed. Didn't the president make it clear that he believes that it's necessary to get to the bottom of these leaks?

"MR. SNOW: Did we make a formal call for an investigation?

"Q: Did the president say from the podium --

"MR. SNOW: Yes, okay. Yes. What I'm saying -- what I'm saying is, that when you deal with an ongoing criminal matter like -- okay, got me. You're right. I revise and extend my remarks. (Laughter.)"

Where's the Bump?

In the latest major polls, Bush's job-approval rating is solidly under 40 percent: At 36, 37 and 38, to be exact.

Pew Research Center : "President Bush's job approval rating stands at 37%, which is unchanged since early September and August. . . .

"Iraq has become the central issue of the midterm elections. There is more dismay about how the U.S. military effort in Iraq is going than at any point since the war began more than three years ago. . . .

"Nearly half of the American public (46%) now believes the war in Iraq has hurt the war on terrorism, which approaches the highest percentage since Pew began asking this question in 2002 (47% in July 2005). By comparison, just 39% say it has helped the war on terrorism."

AP-Ipsos finds Bush's approval rating at 38 percent, with 59 percent disapproving; 42 percent disapproving strongly.

Tony Karon writes for Time: "President Bush's overall approval rating, according to Time's poll, now stands at just 36%, down from 38% in August. . . .

"Only 38% of respondents in the Time poll now support President Bush's decision to invade Iraq, down from 42% three months ago. . . . Almost two-thirds (65%) of respondents disapprove of President Bush's handling of the war, while 54% believe he 'deliberately misled' Americans in making his case for war -- a figure that has increased by 6 points over the past year."

Signing Statement Watch

The Associated Press joins the Boston Globe in covering this important issue, exploring the signing statement Bush issued Wednesday night after most reporters had already filed their stories on the Homeland Security appropriations bill in question.

Leslie Miller writes for the AP: "President Bush, again defying Congress, says he has the power to edit the Homeland Security Department's reports about whether it obeys privacy rules while handling background checks, ID cards and watchlists.

"In the law Bush signed Wednesday, Congress stated no one but the privacy officer could alter, delay or prohibit the mandatory annual report on Homeland Security department activities that affect privacy, including complaints.

"But Bush, in a signing statement attached to the agency's 2007 spending bill, said he will interpret that section 'in a manner consistent with the President's constitutional authority to supervise the unitary executive branch.'"

Why is this a big deal?

As Miller writes: "Privacy advocate Marc Rotenberg said Bush is trying to subvert lawmakers' ability to accurately monitor activities of the executive branch of government.

"'The Homeland Security Department has been setting up watch lists to determine who gets on planes, who gets government jobs, who gets employed,' said Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

"He said the Homeland Security Department has the most significant impact on citizens' privacy of any agency in the federal government."

(Case in point, 60 Minutes is reporting this weekend on a secret list used to screen airline passengers for terrorists, which "includes names of people not likely to cause terror, including the president of Bolivia, people who are dead and names so common, they are shared by thousands of innocent fliers.")

Charlie Savage writes in the Globe: "President Bush this week asserted that he has the executive authority to disobey a new law in which Congress has set minimum qualifications for future heads of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. . . .

"To shield FEMA from cronyism, Congress established new job qualifications for the agency's director in last week's homeland security bill. The law says the president must nominate a candidate who has 'a demonstrated ability in and knowledge of emergency management' and 'not less than five years of executive leadership.'

"Bush signed the homeland-security bill on Wednesday morning. Then, hours later, he issued a signing statement saying he could ignore the new restrictions. Bush maintains that under his interpretation of the Constitution, the FEMA provision interfered with his power to make personnel decisions. . . .

"Bush's signing statement challenged at least three-dozen laws specified in the bill. . . .

"Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine and chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, who has been one of the harshest critics of FEMA's performance during Katrina, yesterday rejected Bush's suggestion that he can bypass the new FEMA laws.

"Responding to questions from the Globe, Collins said there are numerous precedents for Congress establishing qualifications for executive branch positions, ranging from the solicitor general's post to the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. . . .

"Georgetown Law School professor Martin Lederman said Congress clearly has the power to set standards for positions such as the FEMA director, so long as the requirements leave a large enough pool of qualified candidates that the White House has 'ample room for choice.'

"'It's hard to imagine a more modest and reasonable congressional response to the Michael Brown fiasco,' said Lederman, who worked in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel from 1994 to 2002."

Coarsening the Discourse

John F. Harris, the Washington Post's national political editor, recently co-authored a book with ABC News political director Mark Halperin called "The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008."

In today's Post, evidently based on interviews for that book, Harris writes about the coarsening role of new media in American politics -- and the top Republicans who revel in it.

"[Vice President] Cheney said he often starts his day by listening to radio host Don Imus, whose trash-talking style has given him legions of fans and made his show a frequent stop of politicians. Cheney's wife, Lynne, people close to her say, is an avid consumer of Matt Drudge's online Drudge Report, which often either breaks or promotes stories with a salacious angle. . . .

"[White House strategist Karl] Rove said he has benefited on occasion from the new-media echo chamber. When he gave a speech last year saying liberals want to give terrorists understanding and therapy, he delighted when Democrats howled in protest. This guaranteed that the story would stay alive for days. 'I was sort of amused by it because it struck me, well, they're just simply repeating my argument, which was good,' he said. . . .

"Cheney, who said he considers the breakdown of what he called an old media 'monopoly' as among the most favorable trends of his years in politics. He said the change requires politicians to grow a thicker skin. . . .

"'Sometimes it's pretty trashy,' he said of new media's rise. 'But I guess I'd put the proposition that there's more time and opportunity for policy discussions and debate than there used to be.'"

Why Are Gas Prices Going Down?

The Washington Post's Steven Mufson looks at the precipitous fall of gas prices just before the election and asks: "Coincidence? . . .

"Generally, oil experts, executives and traders cite other explanations for the recent steep fall in prices, including the easing of anxieties about possible armed conflict with Iran, the flight of financial speculators, ample oil inventories and softening U.S. demand. Prices, they say, are the results of decisions made by people ranging from pension fund managers and oil executives to traders and ministers from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.

"But the roller coaster in oil prices this year without any supply disruption has fueled conspiracy theories about why gasoline prices went up and why they are coming down now."

Mufson lists four possible ways in which gas prices could be subject to political manipulation and -- notably -- doesn't dismiss any of them out of hand.

North Korea Watch

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "The Bush administration is developing an extensive list of possible new sanctions against North Korea in the event that it carries through with its threat to conduct a nuclear test, senior officials said Thursday. . . .

"Many of the sanctions have been considered before, as part of a long-running argument within the Bush administration over the best way to deal with North Korea. After a series of emergency meetings, including one on Tuesday at the White House, officials on each side of that debate said a nuclear test would end the argument about whether the United States should emphasize rewards or penalties."

Iraq Watch

Greg Miller writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee accused the Bush administration Thursday of suppressing a classified intelligence report that paints a 'grim' picture of the situation in Iraq.

"Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) sent a letter to CIA Director Michael V. Hayden requesting the release of the report and charging that the agency was withholding the information out of political considerations, which she said was demoralizing to the agency's workforce."

CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano, however, said "it's wrong to suggest that the White House is preventing dissemination of analysis on Iraq."

Education Watch

Theola Labbé writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush visited a high-performing charter school in Northeast Washington yesterday to call for changes to the No Child Left Behind education law that he said would help teachers raise student performance and give more choice to parents whose children attend failing schools. . . .

"The law, scheduled to be reauthorized by Congress next year, has been hotly debated. Critics charge that it focuses too much on test-taking and does not provide enough funding to address the underlying social and academic factors that affect the quality of education."

Here is the transcript of his remarks.

James Gerstenzang and Joel Havemann write in the Los Angeles Times: "In the first of six reports on No Child Left Behind, the Education Department's inspector general found the selection of reading curricula to be rife with conflict of interest -- persons with financial stakes in reading programs are deciding which programs states can use."

No Bush Left Behind

And Business Week Online reports: "Across the country, some teachers complain that President George W. Bush's makeover of public education promotes 'teaching to the test.' The president's younger brother Neil takes a different tack: He's selling to the test. The No Child Left Behind Act compels schools to prove students' mastery of certain facts by means of standardized exams. Pressure to perform has energized the $1.9 billion-a-year instructional software industry.

"Now, after five years of development and backing by investors like Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal and onetime junk-bond king Michael R. Milken, Neil Bush aims to roll his high-tech teacher's helpers into classrooms nationwide."

Powell's Wife Says He Was Used

Corky Siemaszko writes in the New York Daily News: "Colin Powell fought the Viet Cong, but he was no match for the Bush administration hard-liners who 'used' his prestige to sell the Iraq war to the American people, his wife says.

"In 'Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell,' Powell's wife, Alma, says the former secretary of state was 'callously used to promote a war she wished had never happened,' author Karen DeYoung writes.

"'They needed him to do it because they knew people would believe him,' she told DeYoung, an editor at the Washington Post."

Elder Bush Bashes New York Times

Charlie Gibson interviewed the first President Bush on ABC. Gibson asked how he feels about the attacks on his son.

Bush 41: "I'm not saying it doesn't go with the territory. But you know there's a lotta Bush-bashing, there's a lotta people out there that have nothing good to say about it. I'd hate to single out a newspaper for example but, I can't remember the New York Times ever writing anything positive about our son. And every, we all know that it's a very liberal paper and all of that. But it's, Barbara says, 'Why do you read it, why do you sit in here complaining all morning?' I say I just wanna get it out of the way. And, but it hurts far worse when, when your son is criticized than when I used to be."

Snow Hawks Siding

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times about how Iowa radio listeners have been hearing White House press secretary Tony Snow hawk "the home products of Nu-Vu Windows and Siding, in an advertisement he recorded back when he was a Fox News radio host who regularly plugged his local and national sponsors.

"Unbeknown to Mr. Snow, who moved to the White House last spring, the spot, which he recorded about three years ago, was running recently on radio station WHO-AM in Des Moines.

"Mr. Snow found out about it Monday when O. Kay Henderson, the news director of another outlet, Radio Iowa, called the White House to make sure she was not hearing things before writing about it on her blog ."

Late Night Humor

Blogger Atrios has video of Comedy Central's Jon Stewart discussing Bush's low job approval ratings.

Stewart: "Really, there are two possible reasons for these lower approval ratings. One: The president is doing a very bad job. Or, two -- and much more likely -- we don't understand what his job is. Even though, this president has tried very, very hard to tell us."

Stewart then highlights the different ways Bush has described his job over time.

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