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Bush in a Snit

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, October 16, 2006; 12:52 PM

The notion that President Bush is not just in denial -- but is petulantly in denial -- is taking on greater credence thanks to two recent Washington Post stories.

One describes Bush's seemingly inexplicable confidence that Republicans will maintain control of both houses of Congress in the upcoming elections. He doesn't even seem to have a backup plan.

The other describes Bush's growing penchant for calling events on the world stage that he doesn't like "unacceptable" -- an awfully strong formulation in diplomatic circles -- even as his ability to affect those events continues to wither away.

Upbeat During a Meltdown

Michael Abramowitz writes in Sunday's Washington Post: "Amid widespread panic in the Republican establishment about the coming midterm elections, there are two people whose confidence about GOP prospects strikes even their closest allies as almost inexplicably upbeat: President Bush and his top political adviser, Karl Rove. . . .

"The official White House line of supreme self-assurance comes from the top down. Bush has publicly and privately banished any talk of losing the GOP majorities, in part to squelch any loss of nerve among his legions. Come January, he said last week, 'We'll have a Republican speaker and a Republican leader of the Senate.'

"The question is whether this is a case of justified confidence -- based on Bush's and Rove's electoral record and knowledge of the money, technology and other assets at their command -- or of self-delusion. Even many Republicans suspect the latter. Three GOP strategists with close ties to the White House flatly predicted the loss of the House, though they would not do so on the record for fear of offending senior Bush aides."

In a similar vein, Kenneth T. Walsh writes for U.S. News: "Some Republican strategists are increasingly upset with what they consider the overconfidence of President Bush and his senior advisers about the midterm elections November 7--a concern aggravated by the president's news conference this week. . . .

"'The Bush White House has had no relationship with Congress,' said a Bush ally. 'Beyond the Democrats, wait till they see how the Republicans--the ones that survive--treat them if they lose next month.' GOP insiders are upset by Bush's seeming inability to come up with new ideas or fresh approaches. . . .

"There is also considerable criticism of Bush for making little or no news in his 63-minute encounter with the press.

"'He had nothing to say at the press conference,' says a prominent GOP insider. 'My question is, why call it?'"

Marc Sandalow of the San Francisco Chronicle examines the history of harsh words between Bush and House Democratic leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi and asks: "So if Pelosi's party wins control of the House for the final two years of Bush's presidency, can the new Democratic speaker and the Republican chief executive put aside their rhetorical disdain long enough to forge a productive relationship?"

Pelosi says yes, on her terms: "If Democrats are in control of the House, the president will have to listen," she said.

But Sandalow writes that the White House, predictably, "dismissed the premise of a question regarding how Bush might work with a Speaker Pelosi.

"'The president fully intends to maintain control of the House and the Senate and looks forward to working with (Republican) Speaker (Dennis) Hastert,' White House spokesman Peter Watkins said."

Simply Unacceptable

R. Jeffrey Smith , with research assistance from Lucy Shackelford, writes in Friday's Washington Post: "President Bush finds the world around him increasingly 'unacceptable.'

"In speeches, statements and news conferences this year, the president has repeatedly declared a range of problems 'unacceptable,' including rising health costs, immigrants who live outside the law, North Korea's claimed nuclear test, genocide in Sudan and Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"Bush's decision to lay down blunt new markers about the things he deems intolerable comes at an odd time, a phase of his presidency in which all manner of circumstances are not bending to his will: national security setbacks in North Korea and Iraq, a Congress that has shrugged its shoulders at his top domestic initiatives, a favorability rating mired below 40 percent. . . .

"Having a president call something 'unacceptable' is not the same as having him order U.S. troops into action. But foreign policy experts say the word is one of the strongest any leader can deploy, since it both broadcasts a national position and conveys an implicit threat to take action if his warnings are disregarded. . . .

"Moisés Naím, the editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine, said there is a relationship between 'how strident and extreme' the language of many leaders is and how limited their options are. For Bush, Naím said, 'this comes at a time when the world is convinced he is weaker than ever.' . . .

"Bush's proclamations are not the only rhetorical evidence of his mounting frustrations. One of his favorite verbal tics has long been to instruct audiences bluntly to 'listen' to what he is about to say, as in 'Listen, America is respected' (Aug. 30) or 'Listen, this economy is good' (May 24). This year, he made that request more often than he did in a comparable portion of 2005, a sign that he hasn't given up hope it might work."


All of this reminded one faithful reader of my column of that running joke in the movie, "The Princess Bride," where the evil Vizzini, played by Wallace Shawn, repeatedly splutters "inconceivable!" in the fact of the implacable advance of the Dread Pirate Roberts. Eventually, Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya tells him: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

(See IMDB 's list of memorable quotes from the movie.)

Angry President

The Huffington Post called my attention to this exchange on NBC's Chris Matthews Show on Sunday, between correspondent Andrea Mitchell and Bob Woodward.

Andrea Mitchell: "Andy Card, former White House chief of staff so memorably interviewed by Bob Woodward for the book, did fly down to the christening of the George Herbert Walker Bush [aircraft] carrier last week on Air Force One, at the personal invitation of the president. But this does not mean he's been absolved. In fact, the president -- and the first lady, most importantly -- are really angry at him for talking to Bob Woodward."

Woodward: "For telling the truth!"

Mitchell: "For telling the truth. And the real reason he was there was the former president Bush wanted him."

Angry Former Presidential Aides

Thomas M. DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News that "one of the worst-kept secrets in Bush World is the dismay, in some cases disdain, harbored by many senior aides of the former president toward the administration of his son - 41 and 43, as many call them, political shorthand that refers to their numerical places in American presidential history.

"For five years, the 41s have bit their collective tongues as, they complain, the 43s ignored their counsel. But as the war in Iraq has worsened and public support for the current administration has tanked, loyalists of the elder Bush have found it impossible to suppress their disillusionment - particularly their belief that many of 43's policies are a stick in the eye of his father.

"'Forty-three has now repudiated everything 41 stands for, and still he won't say a word,' a key member of the elder Bush alumni said. 'Personally, I think he's dying inside.' . . .

"'Everyone knew how Rumsfeld acts,' another key 41 assistant said. 'Everyone knew 43 didn't have an attention span. Everyone knew Condi (Rice) wouldn't be able to stand up to Cheney and Rumsfeld. We told them all of this, and we were told we don't know what we're doing.'"

Angry Electorate

John Whitesides writes for Reuters: "With three weeks left in a volatile U.S. election campaign, growing public unhappiness with the Iraq war has become the top obstacle for Republicans in their fight to keep control of Congress, pollsters and analysts said. . . .

"'This election has become a referendum on Bush and a referendum on his principal policy, which in the minds of voters is Iraq,' said pollster Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center.

"'It is clear the public is angry with President Bush and therefore with Republicans for a war that has his name on it,' he said."

The Baker Panel

Eli Lake wrote for the New York Sun on Friday: "A commission formed to assess the Iraq war and recommend a new course has ruled out the prospect of victory for America, according to draft policy options shared with The New York Sun by commission officials.

"Currently, the 10-member commission -- headed by a secretary of state for President George H.W. Bush, James Baker -- is considering two option papers, 'Stability First' and 'Redeploy and Contain,' both of which rule out any prospect of making Iraq a stable democracy in the near term."

Doyle McManus has more in today's Los Angeles Times: "A commission backed by President Bush that is exploring U.S. options in Iraq intends to propose significant changes in the administration's strategy by early next year, members say. . . .

"While it weighs alternatives, the 10-member commission headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III has agreed on one principle.

"'It's not going to be "stay the course,"' one participant said. 'The bottom line is, [current U.S. policy] isn't working. . . . There's got to be another way.'"

Changing Justifications

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush keeps revising his explanation for why the U.S. is in Iraq, moving from narrow military objectives at first to history-of-civilization stakes now. . . .

"When no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, Bush shifted his war justification to one of liberating Iraqis from a brutal ruler.

"After Saddam's capture in December 2003, the rationale became helping to spread democracy through the Middle East. Then it was confronting terrorists in Iraq 'so we do not have to face them here at home,' and 'making America safer,' themes Bush pounds today."

"'We're in the ideological struggle of the 21st century,' he told a California audience this month. 'It's a struggle between good and evil.'

"Vice President Dick Cheney takes it even further: 'The hopes of the civilized world ride with us,' Cheney tells audiences."

The White House fired back with another of its Setting The Record Straight memos, asserting that Bush had indeed mentioned the importance of liberating the Iraqi people and spreading democracy before the war.

Betrayal Watch

A new memoir by David Kuo, former second-in-command of Bush's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, has the White House on the defensive.

In an excerpt from his book published by Time, Kuo writes about one particularly cynical sounding exchange with the president himself.

Bush, with Karl Rove nearby, asked Kuo how much money had been made available to faith-based groups by Bush's new initiative.

"I glanced over at Karl and turned to look the President in the eye. 'Sir, we've given them virtually nothing,' I said, 'because we have had virtually nothing new to give.' The President had been looking down at some papers about the event, but his head jerked up. 'Nothing? What do you mean we've given them nothing?' He glared. 'Don't we have new money in programs like the Compassion Fund thing?'

"I looked again at Karl. He seemed stunned at what I was saying. 'No, sir,' I told the President. 'In the past two years we've gotten less than $80 million in new grant dollars.' The number fell shockingly short of the $8 billion he had vowed to deliver in the first year alone. . . .

"I was also contradicting our office's own spin. In an effort to divert attention from all the money that wasn't being given to faith-based groups, we had come up with the idea of highlighting the amount of money now 'available' to faith-based organizations because of particular administrative reforms announced six months earlier. It was one of those wonderful Washington assertions that is simultaneously accurate and deceptive and just confusing enough to defy opposition. . . .

"I finished the briefing. Yes, I told the President, because of new regulations there was technically about $8 billion in existing funding that was now more accessible to faith-based groups. But, I assured him, those organizations had been getting money from those programs for years and it wasn't that big a deal.

"'Eight billion in new dollars?' he asked.

"'No, sir. Eight billion in existing dollars where groups will find it technically easier to apply for grants. But faith-based groups have been getting that money for years.'

"'Eight billion,' he said. 'That's what we'll tell them. Eight billion in new funds for faith-based groups. O.K., let's go.'"

Lesley Stahl interviewed Kuo on 60 Minutes yesterday. Here's the video . Notes Stahl: "In his book, Kuo wrote that White House staffers would roll their eyes at evangelicals, calling them 'nuts' and 'goofy.'"

In his briefing on Friday, press secretary Tony Snow tried to knock down Kuo's allegations.

"Q Is it possible that Karl Rove called them nuts, the evangelicals?

"MR. SNOW: He says no.

"Q You've asked him about the quotes that are already out?

"MR. SNOW: The nuts quote he was asked about. I don't know if there are any additional ones, but I'll be happy to run all by Karl. But here's what your -- Karl made the same point I did, which is, 'these are my friends, I don't talk about them like that.'"

But Greg Sargent blogs for the American Prospect that Snow got off easy because the press corps "didn't seem to have any real command of the basic facts surrounding the book's potentially important allegations. . . .

"So Snow asked Rove about the 'nuts' quote. And Rove denied saying it. But guess what? Uttering that quote isn't what Rove is accused of in the new book. It's unnamed staffers who are accused of calling evangelicals 'nuts,' not Rove. Rather, Rove is accused by Kuo of a completely different quote -- one which is meant to illuminate Rove's cynical view of the political usefulness of evangelicals."

This from Keith Olbermann on MSNBC Thursday night:

"Kuo . . . says the faith-based office wasn't even set up during the 2001 transition after the end of the Clinton administration. It was not set up until Mr. Bush took office and Karl Rove gave a transition volunteer less than one week to roll out the entire faith-based initiative.

"The volunteer asked Rove how he should do that without a staff, without an office, without even a plan. According to Kuo, quote, 'Rove looked at him, took a deep breath, and said, "I don't know. Just get me a f-ing faith-based thing, got it?" unquote."

Abramoff Watch

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "For five years, Allen Stayman wondered who ordered his removal from a State Department job negotiating agreements with tiny Pacific island nations -- even when his own bosses wanted him to stay.

"Now he knows.

"Newly disclosed e-mails suggest that the ax fell after intervention by one of the highest officials at the White House: Ken Mehlman, on behalf of one of the most influential lobbyists in town, Jack Abramoff. . . .

"Mehlman said he did not recall the details of his contacts with the Abramoff team, including discussions about Stayman, the former State Department official. But he said such interactions were part of his job as White House political director.

"'I was a gateway,' Mehlman said in an interview. 'It was my job to talk to political supporters, to hear their requests, and hand them on to policymakers.'"

CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked Mehlman about that yesterday.

Blitzer: "In the L.A. Times, it quotes an e-mail from one of Abramoff's associates, as saying, 'Mehlman said he would get him fired.'

"MEHLMAN: Yes, Mehlman didn't have that authority. Mehlman wouldn't say he had that authority. And remember, you're dealing with individuals who, as we know, have pled guilty to defrauding their clients by saying they did things they weren't able to get done."

Snow the Partisan

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "In the six months since Mr. Bush enlisted him to resuscitate a White House press operation that was barely breathing, Mr. Snow, a former Fox News television and radio host and a conservative commentator, has reinvented the job with his snappy sound bites and knack for deflecting tough questions with a smile. Now, he is reinventing it yet again, by breaking away from the briefing room to raise money for Republicans, as he did here on Saturday night for Speaker J. Dennis Hastert. . . .

"Yet even as the Republican establishment revels in his celebrity -- 'It's like Mick Jagger at a rock concert,' Mr. Rove said -- Mr. Snow's extracurricular activities are making some veteran Washington hands, including those with strong Republican ties, deeply uneasy.

"'The principal job of the press secretary is to present information to reporters, not propaganda,' said David R. Gergen, who served in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations and also advised President Bill Clinton. 'If he is seen as wearing two hats, reporters as well as the public will inevitably wonder: is he speaking to us now as the traditional press secretary, or is he speaking to us as a political partisan?'"

There's also the credibility question. As Stolberg writes, here's Snow on "the intellectual acumen of his boss: 'He reminds me of one of those guys at the gym who plays about 40 chessboards at once.'"

Larry Sandler writes in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "President Bush is smarter than his critics think, Bush's chief spokesman said Thursday. . . .

"Snow said Bush questioned aides closely to learn all sides of an issue because he knows 'you can't be living in a dream world' as president."

Poll Watch

The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday: "President Bush's job-approval rating fell, with 34% of Americans voting him 'excellent' or 'good,' down from 38% in September, according to a new Harris Interactive poll.

"Sixty-four percent of U.S. adults now have a negative view of Mr. Bush's job performance, compared with 61% who ranked him 'only fair' or 'poor' in a similar poll last month. The drop follows a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll that showed the president's job approval rating fell to 39% from 42% earlier in October."

Cynical, or Just Forgetful?

The White House issued a solemn statement Thursday commemorating the sixth anniversary of the al Qaeda attack on the USS Cole.

The White House has been citing the Cole a lot lately, as part of its narrative that President Clinton, who was in charge back then, was asleep at the switch when it came to terrorism.

I went back to see what the White House statement was like on the fifth anniversary of the attack on the Cole. But there wasn't one!

And there wasn't one on the fourth, the third, the second or the first, either.

Specter's Dive?

R. Jeffrey Smith writes in The Washington Post about whether Republican Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter knuckled under to White House pressure yet again -- but this time, in a particularly sneaky fashion.

At issue: Proposed amendments to the recent detainee legislation that, among other things, stripped detainees of habeas corpus rights

Specter is accused of having put to a vote only the more assertive of two amendments restoring habeas rights -- knowing that it would be defeated, thereby giving the White House an important political victory before the mid-term elections.

Writes Smith: "Questions about Specter's role in the last-minute maneuvering arose in part because he had taken a maverick position before -- and then backed President Bush's policy on the floor or in his votes."

Bush is set to sign the legislation tomorrow morning in a Rose Garden ceremony.

The Washington Region Religious Campaign Against Torture will hold a simultaneous "vigil to mourn the attack this legislation wages on basic American and religious values." And a " People's Signing Statement will be presented to the White House, during which time some participants are prepared to commit acts of civil disobedience in order to deliver the People's Signing Statement to the president."

The Gift That Barked

Darlene Superville writes for the Associated Press: "When U.S. presidents receive gifts, the items are acknowledged, then packed away in a government warehouse to await the opening of his future library."

But Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov gave Bush a dog: "a living, barking, 2-month-old Bulgarian Goran shepherd pup named Balkan of Gorannadraganov. . . .

"Obviously, Balkan couldn't be sent to the National Archives with the rest of the presidential booty. The Bushes apparently considered taking him to their ranch in central Texas but realized he might not adapt well to the heat, said first lady spokeswoman Susan Whitson."

So Bush ended up giving the dog "to an unidentified friend who lives with her Bulgarian-American husband on a farm in Maryland, Whitson said."

The dog was one of more than 100 gifts worth nearly $75,000 Bush received from the leaders of some 50 countries last year.

Here's a partial list from the Associated Press. Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah gave Bush an $8,000 clock; Russian President Vladimir Putin gave Bush a $5 photograph of the Bush's father.

Here's the full list from the Federal Register.

Answers From a Bush?

John M. Broder blogs for the New York Times about this new political ad , which "shows a variety of Americans standing in a park asking questions of a piece of shrubbery. 'So what's our exit strategy from Iraq?' the first person asks. 'Why did we let down Katrina victims?' asks an African-American man. 'Why are we losing so many jobs to overseas?' asks an elderly citizen. The narrator then says, 'Okay, it's kind of ridiculous to think you're ever going to get an answer from this (pause) bush. But it's also kind of ridiculous to think you're going to get an answer (cue a picture of President Bush) from this one.'"

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