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Spinning the Course

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, October 24, 2006; 1:22 PM

The latest rounds of spin from the Bush administration are really straining the credulity of the press corps and the public.

First, over the weekend, we were asked to believe that the president's strategy in Iraq has never been to "stay the course." This in spite of all the times in the past that Bush himself has used the phrase, which happens to accurately define his approach.

And now, as of this morning, we're being asked to believe that staying the course (or whatever you want to call it) is working, and that Iraqi security forces could be largely self-sufficient within 12 to 18 months.

Again, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

Ibon Villelabeitia writes for Reuters: "Two weeks ahead of congressional elections in which Bush's Republicans are on the defensive over Iraq, the U.S. ambassador and its military commander in Baghdad told a rare joint news conference that success in Iraq was still possible -- and on a 'realistic timetable' that would let U.S. troops start leaving.

"Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said he expected Iraqi leaders to make 'significant progress in the coming 12 months' -- with support from U.S. troops and officials -- in meeting 'benchmarks' for resolving disputes and curbing sectarian killing.

"He gave no indication of what if any action Washington would take if Iraq's fractious national unity government failed to meet those expectations."

Agence France Presse reports: "The United States' ambassador to Iraq has assured US voters that victory was still possible in this war torn country so long as Iraqi leaders live up to their promises.

"At a news conference Tuesday that was briefly plunged into darkness by one Baghdad's incessant power cuts, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad described the battle to save Iraq from extremists as 'the defining challenge of our era'.

"And, in a direct appeal to the American people two weeks before key midterm congressional elections, he said that it was not too late to pull the country back from the brink."

It's nice talk, but is it even vaguely based in reality?

As Christopher Bodeen writes for the Associated Press: "With violence in Iraq at staggering levels, the United States is battling on both the military and political fronts to tame growing chaos in regions where Sunni insurgent violence now is compounded by sectarian killing."

Not to mention the fact that the central government has yet to prove itself to be remotely effective and that the presence of American troops seems to incite rather than quell violence.

Chuck Schumer , chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, today issued this statement: "This is the ninth time we've been told of a new plan on Iraqization so why should the American people believe, two weeks before an election, that this latest vague plan is going to lead to any change at all. We've been hearing White House promises to turn things over to the Iraqi forces for years -- in 2006, in 2005, in 2004, in 2003 -- but nothing ever seems to change."

He lists the nine new plans, dating back to July 2003.

Stay the Course?

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush and his aides are annoyed that people keep misinterpreting his Iraq policy as 'stay the course.' A complete distortion, they say. 'That is not a stay-the-course policy,' White House press secretary Tony Snow declared yesterday.

"Where would anyone have gotten that idea? Well, maybe from Bush."

Baker then offers several examples of the president using the phrase. (See yesterday's column .)

Baker continues: "But the White House is cutting and running from 'stay the course.' A phrase meant to connote steely resolve instead has become a symbol for being out of touch and rigid in the face of a war that seems to grow worse by the week, Republican strategists say. . . .

"[W]ith midterm elections two weeks away, the Bush team is searching for a formula to address public opposition to the war, struggling to appear consistent and flexible at the same time."

Jim Rutenberg and David S. Cloud write in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush used the slogan in a stump speech on Aug. 31, but has not repeated it for some time. Still, [the backpedaling] was a stark example of the complicated line the White House is walking this election year in trying to tag Democrats as wanting to 'cut and run' from Iraq, without itself appearing wedded to unsuccessful tactics there."

Snow Job Watch

Here's the transcript of yesterday's briefing.

"Q Tony, it seems what you have is not 'stay the course.' Has anybody told the President he should stop calling it 'stay the course' then?

"MR. SNOW: I don't think he's used that term in a while.

"Q Oh, yes, he has, repeatedly.

"MR. SNOW: When?

"Q Well, in August, because I wrote a story saying he didn't use it and I was quite sternly corrected.

"MR. SNOW: No, he stopped using it.

"Q Why would he stop using it?

"MR. SNOW: Because it left the wrong impression about what was going on. And it allowed critics to say, well, here's an administration that's just embarked upon a policy and not looking at what the situation is, when, in fact, it's just the opposite. The President is determined not to leave Iraq short of victory, but he also understands that it's important to capture the dynamism of the efforts that have been ongoing to try to make Iraq more secure, and therefore, enhance the clarification -- or the greater precision.

"Q Is the President responsible for the fact people think it's stay the course since he's, in fact, described it that way himself?

"MR. SNOW: No."

Opinion Watch: The War

The New York Times editorial board writes: "For all the talk of timetables for Iraq, there has been little discussion of the timetable that must be handed to George W. Bush. The president cannot leave office with American troops still dying in an Iraq that staggers along just short of civil war, on behalf of no concrete objective other than 'get the job done,' which is now Mr. Bush's rhetorical substitute for 'stay the course.'

Richard Holbrooke writes an open letter to Bush on The Washington Post op-ed page: "In your radio address last week, you said that 'our goal in Iraq is clear and unchanging: . . . victory.' You added that the only thing changing 'are the tactics. . . . Commanders on the ground are constantly adjusting their approach to stay ahead of the enemy, particularly in Baghdad.' One can only hope that you do not mean those words literally -- or believe them. 'Stay the course' is not a strategy; it is a slogan, useful in domestic politics but meaningless in the field."

Holbrooke's advice: "Change your goals, disengage from the civil war already underway, focus maximum effort on seeking a political power-sharing agreement, and try to limit further damage in the region and the world."

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "Okay, now they're just making stuff up. George W. Bush went on television Sunday and claimed that on Iraq war policy, 'We've never been 'stay the course' ' -- as if no record survived of all the times he has used those very words. Maybe he was trying to outdo Dick Cheney, who went on the radio last week and proclaimed that the beleaguered Iraqi government is doing 'remarkably well.' . . .

"If Bush and Cheney were being sincere, then they're lying to themselves; if not, they're lying to the rest of us. My money is on the latter."

Poll Watch

The mid-term elections are looking more and more like that "accountability moment" Bush thought he'd survived in 2004.

Dan Balz and Jon Cohen write in The Washington Post: "Two weeks before the midterm elections, Republicans are losing the battle for independent voters, who now strongly favor Democrats on Iraq and other major issues facing the country and overwhelmingly prefer to see them take over the House in November, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. . . .

"President Bush's approval rating among all Americans stood at 37 percent. Two weeks ago he was at 39 percent, and in September he was at 42 percent."

Here are the complete poll results .

Susan Page and Jill Lawrence write in USA Today: "Two weeks before Election Day, voters are more focused on national issues than in any previous congressional election, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds, and they express unprecedented pessimism on the war in Iraq and downbeat attitudes about the economy. . . .

"Bush, whose job approval rating remained at 37%, could be a liability for candidates. By 41%-27%, those surveyed say they are more likely to vote for a candidate who opposes the president than one who supports him."

Optimist in Chief

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Jim Rutenberg wrote in Monday's the New York Times: "President Bush and his political strategists may be the most outwardly optimistic Republicans in Washington these days, and perhaps the only ones. They are doing their best to fend off the sense of impending doom within their party that they fear will become a self-fulfilling prophecy on Nov. 7. . . .

"The president's professed certainty, shared with outside friends and advisers, is a source of fascination among even his staunchest allies. In lobbying shops and strategy firms around town, the latest Republican parlor game is divining whether the White House optimism is staged, or whether Mr. Bush and his political team really believe what they are saying."

Rove Watch

Kenneth T. Walsh, Paul Bedard and Linda Robinson write for U.S. News: "A big topic among White House insiders as the midterm elections approach is the fate of top political aide Karl Rove if the Republicans lose control of the House or Senate. The consensus is that Rove's image will suffer, big time. 'He will be taken a lot less seriously,' a senior Republican strategist and informal White House adviser says. Indeed, some insiders believe that Rove will leave after the first of the year."

Michael Abramowitz and Zachary A. Goldfarb wrote in Saturday's Washington Post: "Appearing in support of embattled GOP Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.), Karl Rove offered biting jibes against House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), took a shot at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and asserted that Democratic policies would leave the country weaker."

Rove "needled congressional Democrats for voting against a GOP plan to try terrorist suspects at the Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. Many Democrats said the plan violated basic rights, but Rove rejected that. 'You need to have the ability to try these people without worrying about the ACLU showing up saying, "Wait a minute, did you Mirandize them when you found them on the battlefield," ' he said. 'With all due respect, I don't happen to remember that in World War II, that when we captured Nazis and Japanese and took them to camps, that the first thing we did was provide them legal aid.'"

David Lightman wrote in Saturday's Hartford Courant that, thanks to Rove, Senator Joe Lieberman has gotten significant financial help from the White House donor network.

Latinos and Blacks

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "A major effort to draw Latinos and blacks into the Republican Party, a central element of the GOP plan to build a long-lasting majority, is in danger of collapse amid anger over the immigration debate and claims that Republican leaders have not delivered on promises to direct more money to church-based social services.

"President Bush, strategist Karl Rove and other top Republicans have wooed Latino and black leaders, many of them evangelical clergy who lead large congregations, in hopes of peeling away the traditional Democratic base. But now some of the leaders who helped Bush win in 2004 are revisiting their loyalty to the Republican Party and, in some cases, abandoning it. . . .

"Complaints among black pastors who had been courted by the White House -- while less pronounced than those of Latino leaders -- have been fueled by a tell-all book by former White House aide David Kuo. The new book says that Bush, referring to pastors from one major African American denomination, once griped: 'Money. All these guys care about is money. They want money.'"

Off the Fence

Wallsten also writes: "The White House now faces a symbolic choice on the border-fence legislation: Does Bush rally the GOP base with a large, pre-election signing ceremony, or does he reject such fanfare in hopes of avoiding long-term damage among Latinos?"

Stephen Dinan and Charles Hurt report in the Washington Times that the decision has been made: Bush will sign it in a ceremony Thursday morning in the Roosevelt Room.

They write: "The decision to have a public ceremony is a reversal for the Bush administration. . . . Although Mr. Bush had committed to signing the bill, aides had said consistently over the past few weeks there would not be a signing ceremony.

"But Republicans in Congress had demanded a public signing, with leaders saying the bill is a major accomplishment that will help their re-election prospects."

Opinion Watch: About That Election

E. J. Dionne Jr. writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "President Bush's six-year effort to create an enduring Republican majority based on a right-leaning coalition is on the verge of collapse. The way he tried to create it could have the unintended consequence of opening the way for an alternative majority. . . .

"The strategy pursued by Bush and Karl Rove has frightened most of the political center into the arms of Democrats. Bush and Rove sought victory by building large turnouts among conservatives and cajoling just enough moderates the Republicans' way. But this approach created what may prove to be a fatal political disconnect: Adventurous policies designed to create enthusiasm on the right turned off a large number of less ideological voters.

"The Democrats' lead in the polls can be thus explained by two factors: the energy of a passionate phalanx of voters desperate to use this election to rebuke Bush, and the disenchantment of moderates fed up with the failures of Bush's governing style and ideology, notably in Iraq."

What's particularly fascinating about Dionne's piece is that it posits the Democrats as a moderate -- not equally extreme -- option to radical Bushism.

That's a far cry from, say, fellow Washington Post columnist David S. Broder 's attempt to exalt what he calls the middle: Senators like John McCain and Joe Lieberman, who actually embrace many of the most critical tenets of radical Bushism.

Torture Watch

Bill Dedman writes for MSNBC: "Speaking publicly for the first time, senior U.S. law enforcement investigators say they waged a long but futile battle inside the Pentagon to stop coercive and degrading treatment of detainees by intelligence interrogators at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba."

In an accompanying piece , Dedman writes that a high-level delegation from Washington flew into Guantanamo even as the debate was ongoing. They included: Alberto R. Gonzales, then the White House counsel and now attorney general; David S. Addington, legal counsel to Vice President Dick Cheney, now his chief of staff; and Timothy E. Flanigan, the deputy White House counsel.

Example to the World

Nick Wadhams writes for the Associated Press: "Several governments around the world have tried to rebut criticism of how they handle detainees by claiming they are only following the U.S. example in fighting terrorism, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture said Monday.

"Manfred Nowak said that when he criticizes governments for their questionable treatment of detainees, they respond by telling him that if the United States does something, it must be all right."

Vice Watch

In today's Washington Post, Chris Suellentrop reviews "VICE: Dick Cheney and the Hijacking of the American Presidency," by Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein.

"With Molly Ivins, Dubose wrote 'Shrub: The Short but Happy Political Life of George W. Bush,' which was published during Bush's 2000 presidential campaign. 'Vice' is clearly intended as a sequel, but it also comes off as a sort of apology for picking the wrong subject last time.

"As their subtitle indicates, Dubose and Bernstein (the executive editor of the Texas Observer) argue that Cheney is more than merely the Most Powerful Veep Ever. They regard him as the power behind the throne, the regent for Bush's boy president. . . .

"The book's thesis can't be overstated: Dubose and Bernstein think Cheney is a threat to the republic on a scale unseen since the Civil War. (No, really.) They don't quite make the sale for that, partly because to build the case for Cheney's world-historical menace they embrace two contradictory propositions. The first is that his entire political career, dating back to the Ford administration, has involved the single-minded pursuit of one ambition: expanding the institutional power of the executive branch, which Cheney believes was unduly weakened by post-Watergate reforms. . . .

"But Dubose and Bernstein suggest at the same time that 9/11 radicalized Cheney, who was transformed from a sober and moderate conservative into a 'strategic hysteric.' Or perhaps it wasn't 9/11: In one of the book's more distasteful passages, the authors speculate that Cheney's health problems have caused a physiological change in personality. 'It is unknown if Cheney suffered any brain damage from his numerous heart attacks,' they write. They provide no evidence for the supposition."

(Not) Speaking of Cheney

Olivier Knox writes for AFP: "Bush, who used to boast to applause during the 2004 White House race that he had 'picked a fine vice president,' has not mentioned him in a campaign speech in months."

Bush, the 'Money Honey' and 'the Google'

Bush spent some time yesterday afternoon with CNBC's Maria Bartiromo.

Mary Lu Carnevale writes for the Wall Street Journal: "President Bush said he sometimes uses Google's satellite mapping program to transport him back to his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

"In a CNBC interview with Maria Bartiromo, Bush was asked a question on many of our minds: 'I'm curious, have you ever Googled anybody? Do you use Google?'

"According to CNBC's unofficial transcript, he replied: 'Occasionally. One of the things I've used on the Google is to pull up maps. It's very interesting to see that. I forgot the name of the program, but you get the satellite and you can -- like, I kind of like to look at the ranch on Google, reminds me of where I want to be sometimes. Yeah, I do it some.' He added: 'I tend not to email or -- not only tend not to email, I don't email, because of the different record requests that can happen to a president. I don't want to receive emails because, you know, there's no telling what somebody's email may -- it would show up as, you know, a part of some kind of a story, and I wouldn't be able to say, `Well, I didn't read the email.' `But I sent it to your address, how can you say you didn't?' So, in other words, I'm very cautious about emailing.'"

So Bush goes on " the Internets " to use "the Google."

Here , by the way, is the Google Maps satellite view of his place in Crawford.

The Bartiromo interview video is in three parts: one , two and three .

Demian McLean writes for Bloomberg News: "President Bush said he is 'astounded' by the size of some executive pay packages and urged companies to tie salaries to performance, while stopping short of advocating government action."

Said Bush: "I get astounded by the size of the pay packages. Consider me floored, when I see a guy making a billion dollars as the CEO of a company."

And, as Reuters reports, Bush "put Social Security reform on his list of 'big items' to deal with in the final two years of his presidency, possibly including indexing benefits for wealthier Americans."

Towel-Snapping the Press

In his pool report from Bush's visit to the Urban Trust Bank yesterday, Ron Hutcheson of McClatchy Newspapers described Bush standing alongside bank owner Robert L. Johnson.

"'Most of these people here make more money than you and me combined,' Bush told his host. 'They're well paid. . . . The cameramen, they're very well paid.' He singled out NBC's Kelly O'Donnell as a particularly well-paid reporter."

Bush pulls down $400,000 a year; Johnson is a billionaire, and the 374th richest person in America , according to Forbes.

Snow and the Press

Greg Sargent blogs for the American Prospect: "White House press secretary Tony Snow has endorsed this view -- he has now accused CNN of being 'manipulated' by terrorists."

Sargent caught Snow's comments in a podcast conducted by right-wing Powerline blogger John Hinderaker.

And here are a few other exchanges from that interview:

Hinderaker: "How are you holding up after six months of battering by the White House press corps?"

Snow: "It doesn't feel like battering. I'm having a great time. . . . If this is battering, bring me more."

Here's Snow observing what keeps the press corps happy: "[I]f can give them something new that they can report, especially the TV and radio people, they're going to get on air. They're going to be rewarded in that way."

And here's Snow astutely noting the dramatic difference between NBC News reporter David Gregory's tough questions in the briefing room and his on-air reports:

"Part of my job is to communicate as effectively as I can what the policies are . . . so that people at least get it. So that they can do an effective job of laying out our point of view. And this may surprise you, but one of the guys who's actually best on air about doing that is David Gregory. David sometimes can make the press briefings kind of interesting, but on the other hand, he actually does work pretty hard to try to get it right."

53 and Falling

The United States has slipped further down the scale in a global press freedom index compiled by Reporters Without Borders.

Nora Boustany writes for The Washington Post: "Although it ranked 17th on the first list, published in 2002, the United States now stands at 53, having fallen nine places since last year.

"'Relations between the media and the Bush administration sharply deteriorated after the president used the pretext of "national security" to regard as suspicious any journalist who questioned his "war on terrorism," ' the group said.

Late Night Humor

On YouTube , via Wonkette: "Bush" on "Fox News."

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