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Bush's Plea for Attention

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, October 11, 2006; 11:18 AM

Trying to seize back the microphone, President Bush today holds another surprise press conference, this time having given reporters less than two hours notice to present themselves at the West Wing driveway for the stroll over to the Rose Garden.

Regardless of the questions he is asked, Bush is sure to talk tough on North Korea, remind people of the danger of terrorism, and most likely try to connect the two.

As I've been chronicling over the last week or so, Bush has been having a devil of a time making anyone pay much attention to him of late. The Congressional page-sex scandal has sidelined him more than at any time in recent memory. His poll numbers are dismal. And Bob Woodward's latest book has finally convinced establishment Washington that he has a serious credibility problem.

The goal of today's press conference is to make sure that stories like this one, by Ken Herman of Cox News Service, don't become the norm. Herman writes: "At the worst possible time -- with pivotal congressional elections a month away -- an administration that thrives on controlling the message has lost control of it."

I'll be Live Online at 1 p.m. ET to talk about the press conference.

The Summit That Didn't Matter

Yesterday's White House "summit" on school violence was a much tamer and lamer attempt to reclaim some headlines. It was all choreography, no substance.

Here's the transcript of the portions Bush attended.

Dana Milbank of The Washington Post cuts right to the heart of the problem: "President Bush has always been a disciplined man, but yesterday he set a new standard for self-control: He moderated an hour-long discussion about the rash of school shootings in the past week without once mentioning the word 'guns.' . . .

"This was no misfire. The White House, hastily arranging yesterday's forum to react to shootings over the past fortnight at schools in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Wisconsin and Missouri, neglected to invite any gun-control advocates. . . .

"The Bush administration has for years been known for its use of human props to make its points: middle-class 'tax families' to pitch for tax cuts, victims of Saddam Hussein's torture to pitch for the Iraq war, and friendly partisans to pitch soft questions at 'Ask President Bush' sessions. The technique is not new; Bill Clinton did much the same when hosting events about race.

"Still, yesterday's forum was unusual. While experts dispute how much blame to place on children's access to guns, even the invited guests found it a bit odd to banish the topic entirely from a school-violence forum."

Milbank notes one amusing exchange: "[Attorney General Alberto] Gonzales advised Bush that one panelist said metal detectors send 'the wrong message about what we think of our kids.'

"'I happen to agree,' Bush said. 'But what do I know?'

"'Yes, sir,' Gonzales replied, drawing chuckles from those in the crowd who thought he was agreeing with the 'what do I know' quip."

Milbank notes that Bush "labeled the violence 'inexplissible,' apparently merging 'inexplicable' and 'inexpressible.' And he had to guide the discussion away from one panelist's remark about 'computer predators' -- a dangerous topic during the Mark Foley scandal."

John Aloysius Farrell writes in the Denver Post: "President Bush said he wanted Tuesday's White House conference on school safety to produce a concrete plan of action. But tangible solutions like the use of metal detectors or a ban on assault weapons were rejected and eclipsed by testaments to the power of love."

The Violence Policy Center issued this statement yesterday: "The fact that guns are not on today's agenda only confirms what was already obvious: The Bush Administration is in complete denial regarding the catalytic role that guns play in school violence. How is it even possible to have a discussion about preventing school shootings without talking about guns? . . .

"[T]he Bush Administration continues to allow the gun lobby to extract its 'price of freedom' for unfettered access to firearms: an endless string of bloody school shootings."

CBS News reports: "William Lassiter, manager of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence, questioned the Bush's administration attempt to cut $347 million in school-safety grants for states this year. Bush's budget says the program is ineffective.

"The White House says that beyond those state grants, the government spends larger amounts on successful school safety programs through its education, justice and health agencies."

Richard Pyle wrote for the Associated Press on Sunday: "President Bush and Republican lawmakers should restore funding for a federal program that put security officers in school hallways to guard against violent students and intruders, a congressman said Sunday.

"Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., said the COPS in Schools program, set up after the Columbine High School massacre of 12 students and a teacher in Littleton, Colo., in 1999, over the past four years was reduced by Congress from $160 million annually to $5 million and then was phased out."

Talk About Tax Cuts

The White House also wanted the press corps to write about tax cuts yesterday, and Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press obliged -- with a twist.

"President Bush portrayed Democrats on Tuesday as the party of big spending and high taxes, aiming to give increasingly endangered Republicans an edge in a midterm election debate dominated recently by congressional scandal and overseas crises," Loven wrote.

But here's the twist: "The degree to which the White House is struggling to regain control over the political conversation was demonstrated Tuesday when Bush aides distributed excerpts of the president's tough-on-Democrats speech before he landed in Georgia. Unlike previous administrations, the Bush White House keeps tight control over the president's speeches, usually handing out only the most significant ones in advance and even then only a few minutes beforehand.

"On Tuesday, though, the parts of Bush's remarks that went after Democrats on taxes were given to the reporters traveling with the president on Air Force One and also, to maximize their exposure, disseminated by e-mail to hundreds more on the White House press list."

Here's the text as delivered.

The e-mailed excerpt was so partisan that it made me wonder: Is there any distinction between the Republican National Committee press office and the White House's?

You might expect e-mails from the latter to have some tenuous connection to governing -- leaving the overt politicking to the former. But that is apparently no longer the case.

Economy Watch

Michael Abramowitz and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post: "The president will step up his efforts to tout the economy at a White House event Wednesday, when officials said he will announce that he has met his target of cutting the deficit in half over five years -- three years ahead of schedule. . . .

"One reason the goal was achieved is that the bar was set low. As the economy improved, the $521 billion deficit never materialized, and the government ended 2004 with a $412 billion deficit. Moreover, Bush's policies, including the tax cuts and war spending, helped wipe out the surplus that his administration inherited from the Clinton administration in 2001; Democrats point out that the government was supposed to be running a $300 billion surplus this past year, so in effect, they say, there has been a downward swing of more than half a trillion dollars. . . .

"White House officials hailed the improving short-term budget picture as a vindication of President Bush's tax-cutting agenda, though the long-term prospects are considerably bleaker, given the escalating costs of health-care and retirement programs and, in the view of many economists, the red ink produced by tax cuts."

Let's review a few basics: The fact that tax cuts were followed by increased revenue does not justify the causal relationship that Bush and others have attempted to assert. Even the administration's own economists grudgingly concede that the tax cuts did not pay for themselves. And the elephant in the room, so to speak, is that Bush's huge deficits (compared to Clinton's surpluses) were caused by the government spending way more than it took in. Bush's tax cuts, mostly for the wealthy, will have to be paid back by future generations.

North Korea Watch

As with many other foreign policy issues these days, the debate over what to do about North Korea inevitably turns to how things got so bad in the first place.

Did the Clinton approach amount to failed appeasement, as the White House would have you believe? Or did it in fact succeed in containing a threat that was then unleashed by Bush's reversal of U.S. policy?

Anne Gearan writes for the Associated Press: "North Korea's apparent nuclear weapons test may bear out the warnings of Bush administration hard-liners that the reclusive regime can never be trusted, but it also forces an examination of whether the silent treatment those same hard-liners have given North Korea for years has backfired. . . .

"[T]he Bush administration is under growing bipartisan pressure to try a version of the Clinton approach and engage North Korea directly. Some U.S. allies have also suggested that the United States has little to lose and potentially much to gain from sitting down alone with the North. . . .

"'Bilateral talks' is State Department speak for old-fashioned one-on-one diplomacy, and it is a plum that the Bush White House has recently withheld not only from North Korea but also from what it considers thuggish regimes in Iran and Syria.

"Drawing a bright line against engagement with bad guys has the value of purity. But it also leaves little room to negotiate -- there is no fallback position and any shifting of position, as the U.S. did earlier this year on Iran, risks being painted as capitulation."

Former Clinton defense secretary William J. Perry writes in a Washington Post op-ed: "North Korea's declared nuclear bomb test... demonstrates the total failure of the Bush administration's policy toward that country. For almost six years this policy has been a strange combination of harsh rhetoric and inaction."

Jimmy Carter writes in a New York Times op-ed: "Washington's pledge of no direct talks could be finessed through secret discussions with a trusted emissary like former Secretary of State Jim Baker, who earlier this week said, 'It's not appeasement to talk to your enemies.'"

Christopher Dickey writes in his Newsweek column that the Bush administration has been "so obsessed with its glorious fight against evil that it failed to contain the burgeoning dangers in the real world all around us."

Who Cares What Bush Says?

Alice Miles writes in an op-ed for the Times of London that "the 43rd President of the United States of America has squandered the political authority of a great country. Never mind whether world leaders still feel the need to check in with the US; ordinary people no longer expect from Washington international leadership of any use. So spent is the authority of the United States that even a foreign affairs ingénue such as myself recognises that there is little constructive it can do any more. So it doesn't really matter what the President thinks."

Oversight (Non) Watch

Charles Babington of The Washington Post interviews Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution and Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, authors of the new book, "The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track."

Babington: "Congress is meant to check and balance the other branches, especially the executive. How have members' attitudes changed in recent years about Congress's institutional role?

"MANN: It is striking, the extent to which the Republican majority in Congress deferred to the president in the face of one of the most aggressive and ambitious assertions of executive authority in American history. . . . They are now paying a political price for the policy consequences of their inattention. In Iraq, for example, it has meant flawed planning, poor implementation and no midcourse corrections."

How Many Dead?

David Brown writes in The Washington Post: "A team of American and Iraqi epidemiologists estimates that 655,000 more people have died in Iraq since coalition forces arrived in March 2003 than would have died if the invasion had not occurred....

"It is more than 20 times the estimate of 30,000 civilian deaths that President Bush gave in a speech in December."

Swift Kick

The Associated Press reported on Sunday: "The Navy lawyer who led a successful Supreme Court challenge of the Bush administration's military tribunals for Guantanamo detainees has been passed over for promotion and will have to leave the military.

"Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift, 44, will retire in March or April under the military's 'up or out' promotion system."

From a New York Times editorial this morning: "With his defense of Mr. Hamdan and his testimony before Congress starting in July 2003, Commander Swift did as much as any single individual to expose the awful wrongs of Guantánamo Bay and Mr. Bush's lawless military commissions. It was a valuable public service and a brave act of conscience, and his treatment is deeply troubling. . . .

"The law creating military tribunals for terror suspects, passed by Congress in a pre-election panic, leaves enormous room for the continued abuse of prisoners and for the continued detention of scores of men who committed no crime. If their military lawyers are afraid to represent them vigorously, their hopes for justice dim even further."

Olbermann Watch

MSNBC's Keith Olberman on the military commissions bill and the death of Habeas Corpus:

"[T]he president said it was urgent that Congress send him this bill as quickly as possible, not for the politics of next month's elections, but for America. . . .

"He has not signed it yet, almost two weeks later because, of course, he has been swamped by a series of campaign swings at which he has made up quotes from unnamed Democratic leaders and because when he is actually at work he's been signing so many other important bills, such as the Credit Rating Agency Reform Act, the Third Higher Education Extension Act, ratification requests for extradition treaties with Malta, Estonia, and Latvia; his proclamation of German-American Day, the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Act; and his proclamation of Leif Erickson Day.

"Still, getting the Military Commission's Act to the president so he could immediately mull it over for two weeks was so important, some members of Congress did not even read the bill before voting on it. Thus, as some of its minutia escaped scrutiny.

"One bit of trivia that caught our eye was the elimination of habeas corpus, which apparently use to be the right of anyone who's tossed in prison to appear in court and say 'Hey, why am in prison?'"

And just why hasn't Bush signed the bill yet? Is he waiting for the best moment, politically? Or maybe it's taking Vice President Cheney's staff this long to compose the appropriate signing statement.

Rove Watch

Alexander Bolton writes in The Hill: "White House politico Karl Rove, whose legacy as a strategist hinges on Republicans' fate at the polls on Nov. 7, has raised more than $12 million for GOP candidates this election cycle.

"The total is remarkable for a White House staffer, more than any aide has been known to raise before, and confirms Rove's place among the most celebrated strategists in American political history."

But Bolton writes that some political experts don't think Rove's prospects are rosy.

"'Rove has lost the golden touch: he didn't deliver on Social Security reform and the president's party has an uphill battle in this midterm. He's going to be lucky if this doesn't become a debacle for this party,' said Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University who said Rove's legacy is at stake. 'If they lose control of one or both chambers, nobody is going to think Rove is such a genius.'"

Joshua Green , writing in New York Magazine, also sees signs of Rove's downfall: "Today he is confronting the very real possibility that for all his endeavors, he could wind up as the architect of a crushing defeat.

"The story of what went wrong for the Republicans is largely the story of what went wrong for Rove--it is Washington's Icarus tale, repeated again and again throughout the decades, of brilliance gradually succumbing to hubris. It first took shape in Rove in the early days of the second term, when he claimed a victory trophy of sorts: an official title that recognized him as not just the White House political guru but the policy chief as well.

"As the philosopher-boss of Bush's second term, Rove put policy at the service of politics to a degree that has hastened his own downfall and the president's."

Helen Thomas Watch

Ann McFeatters profiles Helen Thomas in Ms. Magazine: "'I respect the office of the presidency,' [Thomas] says, 'but I never worship at the shrines of our public servants. They owe us the truth. They owe us peace. America should never be a country that starts wars; Iraq has reminded Americans of that. We do not have the right to attack anyone we think is a potential enemy.

"'The Washington press corps has the privilege of asking the president of the United States what he is doing and why,' she continues. 'We don't go into journalism to be popular. It is our job to seek the truth and put constant pressure on our leaders until we get answers. We threw in the towel after 9/11. But I think--I hope--we're more skeptical now. The press is coming out of its coma.'"

Poll Story, Revisited

Reader Paul Popejoy e-mailed me about yesterday's column : "I noticed that the article you mentioned by David Broder and Dan Balz said, 'President Bush's approval rating, which rose to 42 percent in September after an anti-terrorism offensive marking the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, registered 39 percent in the latest poll.'

"What anti-terrorism offensive?

"Did they mean, 'public relations offensive'? The difference between 'anti-terrorism' and 'public relations' to me is that the former goes after terrorists while leaving Americans alone, while the latter goes after Americans while leaving terrorists alone. By my definition, it was 'public relations' not 'anti-terrorism.'"

British Humor

Monty Python member Terry Jones writes in The Guardian:

"Dear President Bush,

"I write to you in my capacity as secretary of the World League of Despots.

"It is with great pleasure that I am finally able to extend an official invitation to you to join our ranks. . . .

"[Y]our unstinting efforts to make torture an internationally accepted aspect of human life have surpassed everything we could have ever hoped for. I don't think there is a single member of the league who could have imagined, six short years ago, that our activities in tormenting our fellow creatures would once again be recognised as acceptable, civilised behaviour, as it once was in the middle ages.

"Despite these achievements, we had, until now, felt unable to extend our invitation to you because you had been unable to fulfil one of our basic requirements: the ability to carry out arbitrary arrests, imprisonment without trial, secret torture and executions at will."

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