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Is Any Subject Safe?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, October 12, 2006; 1:20 PM

President Bush tried to change the subject yesterday, away from the Mark Foley congressional-page scandal and the general Republican pre-mid-term meltdown.

But no topic is safe these days. And Bush apparently has very little new to say.

The president spent just over an hour parrying questions from the press in the Rose Garden.

On North Korea, rather than coming off as an assertive leader, Bush spoke meekly about what has so far been a failed and listless diplomatic effort. On Iraq, his rhetoric was familiar and unlikely to stanch the loss of public support for the war. Even his formerly dependable warnings about threats to the nation's security lacked authority amid the growing doubts about whether his approach to the war on terror is working.

Here is the transcript of the news conference.

Small Success

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey writes for Newsweek: "In what could be his final press conference before the highly anticipated midterm elections, Bush on Wednesday went before reporters at the White House where he tried to regain some element of political momentum -- or, at the very least, reclaim a little relevancy in a news cycle that has proven beyond his control in recent weeks."

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "In an election year that is looking increasingly dire for Republicans, Wednesday brought the White House at least one triumph: President Bush was able to set aside talk about former Rep. Mark Foley, the congressional page program and the ethics inquiry into what leaders knew and when they knew it. . . .

"Despite the challenges Bush faces with North Korea and Iraq, Republicans welcomed the change of topic."

In fact, Wallsten writes: "White House officials say Bush will be highly visible for the rest of the campaign.

"'You're going to see a whole lot of the president,' Press Secretary Tony Snow said. 'He has got the ability to talk about the things that ultimately serve as the key issues in 99 out of 100 election cycles -- which are peace and prosperity.'

"Democrats said Wednesday that Bush could change the subject all he wanted, but that it wouldn't help the GOP overcome public opposition to the party's policies. They said that such opposition was more solid now than in any election since Bush took office."

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post that for all his attempts at bonhomie, Bush couldn't have liked the questions he was hearing.

"It's dicey for a president to hold a news conference when his support is below 40 percent and there is little good news to share. . . .

"North Korea is exploding, Iraq is imploding, and congressional Republicans are self-destructing. Reporters weren't about to let the president forget about that. . . .

"Pressed to defend his foreign policy, Bush instead cited the 'stakes' involved in the Middle East and North Korea -- 13 times.

"'I understand the stakes,' Bush announced. 'I'm going to repeat them one more time. As a matter of fact, I'm going to spend a lot of time repeating the stakes.'

"He made good on that promise. Five times he said 'the stakes are high,' occasionally adding that 'the stakes are really high' and even that, 'as a matter of fact, they couldn't be higher.'"

What Did He Say That Was New?

Not much.

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "Despite setbacks on North Korea and Iraq, President Bush vowed yesterday to stick with his policies on both crises, praising Chinese condemnation of North Korea's apparent nuclear test and citing progress in helping the fledgling Iraqi government stand on its own."

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush unapologetically defended his approach to North Korea's nuclear weapons program Wednesday, pledging he would not change course despite contentions that Pyongyang's apparent atomic test proved the failure of his nearly six years of effort."


One of the most startling aspects of yesterday's press conference was Bush's inability to draw a "red line" for North Korea, beyond which its behavior would presumably draw a military response. Just the day before (see this Warren Hoge and Sheryl Gay Stolberg story in the New York Times) signs were that Bush was, not unreasonably, sending the message that the "red line" would be crossed if North Korea gave a nuke to someone else -- like a terrorist group, for instance.

Yesterday, Bush was asked directly: "What is the red line for North Korea, given what has happened over the past few months?" He ducked the question entirely.

This is particularly troubling in the context of Bush having made a slew of what now sound an awful lot like empty threats against North Korea in the past (while, of course, attacking and occupying a country that didn't actually have WMDs at all.)

Has Bush lost his ability to be taken seriously on the world stage? How much is an American ultimatum worth these days?

Washington Post White House correspondent Michael Abramowitz neatly laid out the problem in his question:

"Q You said yesterday in your statement that the North Korean nuclear test was unacceptable. Your chief negotiator for the six-party talks said last week that North Korea has a choice of either having weapons or having a future. When you spoke a month or so ago to the American Legion, you talked about Iran and said, there must be consequences for Iran's defiance, and we must not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. I am wondering, sir, your administration has issued these kinds of warnings pretty regularly over the last five years, and yet these countries have pursued their nuclear programs. I'm wondering if you -- what is different about the current set of warnings, and do you think the administration and our government runs a risk of looking feckless to the world by issuing these kinds of warnings regularly without response from the countries?"

Bush's response, in part: "[T]o answer your question as to whether or not the words will be empty, I would suggest that, quite the contrary, that we not only have spoken about the goals, but as a result of working together with our friends, Iran and North Korea are looking at a different -- a different diplomatic scenario."

The New York Times editorial board writes this morning: "The Iraq war and President Bush's with-us-or-against-us war on terrorism was supposed to frighten the bad guys so much that they wouldn't dare cross the United States. But the opposite has happened. President Bush has squandered so much of America's moral authority -- not to mention our military resources -- that efforts to shame or bully the right behavior from adversaries (and allies) sound hollow."

Bush, Diplomat?

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "The endorsement of diplomacy is not characteristic of the president who declared at a news conference in March 2003, the week before the U.S. attacked Iraq, that 'when it comes to our security, we really don't need anybody's permission.'

"It was Bush who reneged on his promise to bring an Iraq war resolution back to the U.N. Security Council, who walked away from at least half a dozen international treaties and who has presided over a period in which U.S. relations with many traditional allies -- most notably France and other Western European nations -- have been severely strained.

"So it struck some as disingenuous Wednesday when Bush insisted, 'I believe the commander in chief must try all diplomatic measures before we commit our military.'

"Three years ago in Iraq, he said, 'we tried diplomacy. Matter of fact, we tried resolution after resolution after resolution.'

"'It's a remarkable rewriting of history,' Steven Weber, director of the Institute of International Studies at UC Berkeley, said of the president's explanations."

As Newsweek's Wolffe and Bailey write: "In fact, the president tried diplomacy but abandoned it well before he used all diplomatic measures, especially weapons inspections in Iraq. While Britain's Tony Blair pushed for more time for inspections, the president decided those inspections were going nowhere -- well before his allies agreed with his analysis. His approach to Iraq has long been shaped by the kind of passion and impatience he rarely shows in the case of North Korea."

What's Different?

So why such different reactions to North Korea and Iraq?

The Chronicle's Sandalow collects various theories: "Overthrowing Saddam Hussein posed less of a military risk than overthrowing Kim Jong Il. . . . Bush's desire to keep Middle Eastern oil under U.S. control, a desire to complete the job begun by his father during the first Gulf War and perhaps even wisdom gained from the setbacks in Iraq."

Newsweek's Wolffe and Bailey make this observation: "For anyone wondering why President Bush treats Kim Jong Il so differently from Saddam Hussein, there was one big clue at Wednesday's press conference. When he talks about North Korea, the president clings to the side of his lectern and sounds like he's reading from his script. When he talks about Iraq, he raises his voice, leans into his microphone and tears into the Democrats."

Wolffe and Bailey discern "a strangely fatalistic and passive approach to what is now the very real prospect of a nuclear arms race in Asia. Bush's approach seems to be that it's already too late to deal with the problems of North Korea. 'Obviously, I'm listening very carefully to this debate,' he explained on Wednesday -- as if he was just part of the audience on North Korea. Even when it came to political criticism of his approach to North Korea, the president responded meekly. 'This is a serious issue,' he noted. 'But I want to remind our fellow citizens that the North Korea issue was serious for years.' . . .

"Compare that with his response to his Democratic critics on Iraq and domestic legislation on terrorism. The president accused his opponents of wanting to wait for more terrorist attacks and wanting to run away from Iraq."

Civilian Deaths

Brian MacQuarrie writes in the Boston Globe: "President Bush and defense officials yesterday assailed an MIT-funded survey that estimated about 600,000 Iraqis have died in war-related violence since the US invasion in 2003, a figure many times greater than the number used by American officials.

"However, researchers from Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, which conducted the study in conjunction with teams of Iraqi physicians, defended the methodology as the best yet in determining the war's total death toll."

Here's part of Bush had to say on the topic: "No, I don't consider it a credible report. Neither does General Casey and neither do Iraqi officials. I do know that a lot of innocent people have died, and that troubles me and it grieves me. And I applaud the Iraqis for their courage in the face of violence. I am amazed that this is a society which so wants to be free that they're willing to -- that there's a level of violence that they tolerate."

Tolerating It?

It was that last sentence that really set Will Bunch off.

The Philadelphia Daily News blogger wrote that he was "dumbfounded" by the notion "that people in Iraq are 'tolerating' a situation where you can be shot dead at a traffic light . . . or just going to the local market, a situation where anywhere from 50,000 (the very lowball estimate) to 600,000 (new high-end estimate) have been killed, not just by violence but by often unspeakable violence -- shot in the head or decapitated, hands bound, with severed penises or other mutilation, often just dumped in the river like so much raw sewage.

"Who is 'tolerating' that? Bush is -- from the comfort of his treadmill in the White House gym -- and Cheney and Rumsfeld, maybe. But do you honestly think that any mother trying to raise a family on the streets of Baghdad tolerates it? And the evidence is overwhelming that they don't tolerate it one bit. Why do you think that a whopping 71 percent of Iraqis want America to leave in the next year?

"What's 'amazing here' is the level of cluelessness -- and deception -- packed into one sentence. Iraqis do want to choose their own leaders, like most people, but the White House is trying to cast what has really happened there -- an unprovoked invasion by the world's most powerful military, followed by a three-year carnival of killing -- as some type of 'popular uprising,' a 'society that so wants to be free.' The overwhelming evidence is that they're merely a society that so wants to be left alone -- by us."

By contrast to Bunch's reaction, the traditional media took no notice of Bush's assertion about tolerating violence. It wasn't in any of the major newspaper stories. The NBC Nightly News actually aired that sound byte, but without comment.

North Korea Fact Check

The debate over what to do in North Korea seems to repeatedly turn into a debate over the history of US-North Korean relations.

But history is not entirely in the eye of the beholder. A little fact-checking is called for.

So Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush asserted yesterday that the administration's strategy on North Korea is superior to the one pursued by his predecessor, Bill Clinton, because Clinton reached a bilateral agreement that failed, while the current administration is trying to end North Korea's nuclear programs through multi-nation talks. . . .

"But the reality is more complicated."

For instance: "Robert L. Gallucci, the chief negotiator of the accord and now dean of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, said it is a 'ludicrous thing' to say the Clinton agreement failed. For eight years, the Agreed Framework kept North Korea's five-megawatt plutonium reactor frozen and under international inspection, while North Korea did not build planned 50- and 200-megawatt reactors. If those reactors had been built and running, he said, North Korea would now have enough plutonium for more than 100 nuclear weapons."

Fred Kaplan , writing in Slate, sums up the recent history of US-North Korean relations this way: "George H.W. Bush, the president's father, had just moved into the White House in 1989 when the CIA discovered that the North Koreans were building a reprocessing facility near their nuclear reactor at Yongbyon -- the facility that could manufacture plutonium from the fuel rods. Five years later, Bill Clinton stopped them from moving the rods into this facility. Eight years after that, George W. Bush let them go ahead."

Straw Man Watch

Bush had just wrapped up an answer in which he described the difference between Republicans and Democrats, noting among other things that "I don't believe we can wait to respond after attack has occurred," when he called on Don Gonyea of National Public Radio.

Traditionally, White House correspondents let that kind of rhetoric slide. But Gonyea, instead, asked about it.

Q: "Following up on that answer, one of the things Democrats complain about is the way you portray their position --

"THE PRESIDENT: Oh, really?

"Q -- in wanting to fight the war on terror. They would say you portray it as either they support exactly what you want to do, or they want to do nothing. We hear it in some of your speeches. Is it fair to portray it to the American people that way?"

Bush gave no ground.

"THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think it's fair to use the words of the people in Congress or their votes. The vote was on the Hamdan legislation: Do you want to continue a program that enabled us to interrogate folks, or not? And all I was doing was reciting the votes. I would cite my opponent in the 2004 campaign when he said there needs to be a date certain from which to withdraw from Iraq. I characterize that as cut and run because I believe it is cut and run. In other words, I've been using either their votes or their words to characterize their positions."

I gave Gonyea some props for asking the question in my Live Online yesterday, which led reader Devon Moore to e-mail me that he felt Gonyea's question was too easy for Bush to sidestep.

Writes Moore: "I would have loved to hear Mr. Bush answer a question more along the lines of: 'Mr. President, I think the American people will be as outraged as you are that some of our elected representatives believe that we should wait until we are attacked to respond, and most certainly will want to vote out any one who believes that. Can you identify by name some of the people who have claimed this so they can be held accountable? Are any of them up for election this year?'"

State of Denial?

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "President Bush predicted on Wednesday that Republicans would be victorious in November, declaring that positive economic signs, combined with tough rhetoric against Democrats on national security, would help lift his party on Election Day. . . .

"Mr. Bush also used the briefing to repeat his attacks on Democrats for, he said, trying to stand in the way of provisions that would give him more latitude to pursue terrorists.

"'The vast majority of Democrats in the House voted against a program that would have institutionalized the capacity of this government to listen to Al Qaeda phone calls or Al Qaeda affiliate phone calls coming from outside the country to inside the country,' he said, referring to a bill to give Congressional approval to his program granting wiretaps to the authorities seeking terrorism suspects without warrants.

"Democrats have said that such statements mischaracterize their positions -- in this case to make it appear that they oppose efforts to listen to terrorists' phone calls, when what they oppose is trying to do so without warrants that they argue can be obtained quickly."

More False Choices

From a Los Angeles Times editorial this morning: "At his news conference Wednesday, President Bush expressed not once but three times his view that if the U.S. does not defeat the terrorists 'over there' in Iraq, it will have to fight them here in the United States. This crude formulation is tiresome and insulting to Americans' intelligence.

"'I firmly believe that the American people understand that this is different from other wars because in this war, if we were to leave early, before the job is done, the enemy will follow us here,' Bush said. This conjures up improbable images of Shiite death squads and Sunni insurgents stuffing bomb-making manuals into their backpacks and booking flights to LAX while U.S. troops march out of Baghdad."

Hastert Watch

Jim Rutenberg and Jeff Zeleny write in the New York Times: "Early last week, President Bush said he respected J. Dennis Hastert as a father, a teacher and a coach -- but did not say what he thought of him as House speaker.

"Two days later, amid continuing calls for Mr. Hastert to resign as speaker over the Mark Foley e-mail scandal, Mr. Bush expressed more direct support for Mr. Hastert, but only through aides.

"This week, Mr. Bush is giving Mr. Hastert a more unmistakable embrace, telling reporters on Wednesday: 'Denny is very credible, as far as I'm concerned. And he's done a fine job as speaker.'

"The president is expected go one step further on Thursday, when he is scheduled to appear side-by-side with Mr. Hastert at a Republican rally in Chicago."

White House Role?

Although the stakes of the Foley scandal are enormous for the White House, Bush and his top aides have thus far managed to avoid any suggestion that they had any complicity whatsoever.

But Ryan Lizza blogs for the New Republic that Foley told a friend that he had been planning to retire from the House and become a lobbyist -- until White House political strategist Karl Rove intervened.

"According to the source, Foley said he was being pressured by 'the White House and Rove gang,' who insisted that Foley run. If he didn't, Foley was told, it might impact his lobbying career.

"'He said, "The White House made it very clear I have to run,"' explains Foley's friend, adding that Foley told him that the White House promised that if Foley served for two more years it would 'enhance his success' as a lobbyist. 'I said, "I thought you wanted out of this?" And he said, "I do, but they're scared of losing the House and the thought of two years of Congressional hearings, so I have two more years of duty."'"

Deficit Watch

Here is the transcript of Bush's afternoon announcement of new deficit figures:

"In 2004, I made a promise to the American people, we would cut the federal budget deficit in half over five years. Today I'm pleased to report that we have achieved this goal, and we've done it three years ahead of schedule. (Applause.)

"This morning my administration released the budget numbers for fiscal 2006. These budget numbers are not just estimates; these are the actual results for the fiscal year that ended February the 30th.* [sic]"

Liberal economist blogger Brad DeLong writes: "Should we say that the 2004 budget deficit was $412.7 billion, and that half of that would be $206.3 billion--not $248 billion? Should we say that the fiscal year ends in September, not February? Should we say that February never has 30 days? Should we say that February never had--not even before Julius Caesar--30 days?"

Meet Tony Snow

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "There has never been a White House press secretary quite like Snow. He is a combative presence on television and radio, relishes the repartee at daily briefings and, in a first for his position, has hit the fundraising circuit for Republican candidates. Snow brings a flashy, Fox News sensibility to the high-profile podium, which means he is increasingly popping up on newscasts and in the papers."

So he spins like a champ. But can he answer the questions that are put to him? Not so much.

Writes Kurtz: "Away from the cameras, journalists give Snow mixed grades for providing information. They say he often delegates detailed questions to his deputy, Dana Perino, and other assistants. Snow says he can answer questions 'to a certain depth' but that it makes more sense for reporters to deal with staff members who specialize in the subjects."

Just Using Christians?

Jonathan Larsen reports for MSNBC on a new book by David Kuo, the former second-in-command of Bush's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives.

"He says some of the nation's most prominent evangelical leaders were known in the office of presidential political strategist Karl Rove as 'the nuts.' . . .

"More seriously, Kuo alleges that then-White House political affairs director Ken Mehlman knowingly participated in a scheme to use the office, and taxpayer funds, to mount ostensibly 'nonpartisan' events that were, in reality, designed with the intent of mobilizing religious voters in 20 targeted races."

Here's Keith Olbermann on Kuo.

Signing Statement Watch

Charlie Savage writes in the Boston Globe: "Three US senators yesterday blasted President Bush for claiming that he has the power to disobey a new law requiring that anyone he nominates to be director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency be experienced in disaster relief.

"After signing the law last week, Bush issued a statement saying that under his interpretation of the Constitution, Congress cannot set limits on who he nominates as FEMA director."

From a San Francisco Chronicle editorial : "Congress' attempt to avert the calamity of another Michael 'Heck of a job, Brownie' Brown running the Federal Emergency Management Agency was dismissed last week as an incursion on President Bush's power. It's time for Congress to push back."

Whither the Military Commissions Act?

A lot of readers are asking whatever happened to the Military Commissions Act? (You know, the one that the Senate approved on September 29, allowing harsh interrogations, denying the right of habeas corpus, etc.)

When Congress is in session, a bill becomes law in 10 days unless the president vetoes it. When Congress is adjourned, and the president fails to sign a bill within 10 days, the bill does not take effect and that's called a pocket veto. Congress adjourned on September 30. So has the bill been pocket vetoed?

Well, no. According to the Thomas Web site, it wasn't actually formally "presented" to the president until Tuesday the 10th.

Fashion Maven

Kevin Corke blogs for NBC News: "Today during his press conference in the White House Rose Garden, Mr. Bush had kind words for your humble correspondent, specifically about my suit.

"'If I might say, that is a beautiful suit,' said Mr. Bush, noting my brushed, slate gray suit, subtlety accented by cobalt pinstripes and off-set by a cardinal tie-pocket-square combination."

Block That Metaphor

Here's Bush yesterday, trying to explain the value of multilateral diplomacy: "One has a stronger hand when there's more people playing your same cards."

Froomkin Watch

No column tomorrow, as I'll be attending a conference on the "future of news" at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

But I'll be talking about the White House -- and the conference -- tomorrow on Washington Post Radio shortly after 2 p.m.

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