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Most Ridiculous Moment?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, October 27, 2006; 1:02 PM

It may go down as one of the most ridiculous -- and ridiculed -- utterances of the Bush presidency.

In an interview with ABC News broadcast on Sunday, President Bush gamely suggested that "we've never been 'stay the course'" when it comes to Iraq.

With mid-term elections just around the bend -- and with public opinion starkly and unhappily focused on Iraq -- it's understandable that Bush might want to rewrite history. But his attempt failed miserably.

Less than a week later, there are 96 and counting entries on You Tube making a lie of his assertion, trumpeting videotaped examples of Bush using that particular phrase to describe his Iraq strategy -- over and over again.

In contrast to press secretary Tony Snow's insistence on Tuesday that his office could only find eight times when Bush had used the phrase, the official compilation of presidential documents contains 52 such public utterances by the president since 2003. Googling bloggers seemingly turn up more every day.

And in an off-camera interview with friendly conservative journalists on Wednesday, Bush himself actually embraced the term again.

"This stuff about 'stay the course' -- stay the course means, we're going to win," he said.

But more significantly, in spite of a furious public-relations campaign by the White House aimed at muddying the issue, at week's end there is simply no doubt that "stay the course" is a deadly accurate description of Bush's strategy in Iraq.

The fundamental issue is whether American troops should continue what looks to many to be a hopeless fight -- or whether they should start coming home. And on that central point, Bush has not wavered one bit.

Yes, as the White House has been at great pains to point out lately, the day-to-day military tactics sometimes change. But as Bush himself has long been at great pains to point out, the White House has no place in setting those military tactics.

Bush reiterated that latter point in the Wednesday interview: "Remember the pictures in the Oval Office, with them sitting over the maps, picking out the targets in Vietnam? That's not happening in this war. The Commander-in-Chief, through the Secretary of Defense, must empower the military people on the ground, and the embassy, to . . . implement the strategy. And if tactics need to change, change them. Just keep us posted. And that's what's happening."

When it comes to strategy, the message from the White House has been utterly constant since the beginning of the occupation -- regardless of the mounting evidence that it is not working. And that message has been "stay the course."

I've exhaustively chronicled the White House's furious attempt to muddle the issue this week.

Yesterday, there was at least one more White House attempt to somehow convey that Bush is not simply "staying the course." Naturally, it failed.

Margaret Warner interviewed national security adviser Stephen Hadley for PBS's NewsHour.

"WARNER: 'Is the president himself more open to other ideas now than, say, six months ago?'

"HADLEY: 'Well, we would say that we've made a lot of changes all the way through. Obviously, there are some things, the Baghdad security plan which we've talked about, there was a phase one. It did not achieve all the objectives we had hoped. We moved into a phase two; further adjustments clearly need to be made.

"It's a difficult situation. The president made clear about that. We made changes in the past. It's pretty clear we're going to need to make some changes in the future. I think the president recognizes that."

In other words: No.

A Linguistic Trap

Linguistics professor George Lakoff writes in a New York Times op-ed: "The first rule of using negatives is that negating a frame activates the frame. If you tell someone not to think of an elephant, he'll think of an elephant. When Richard Nixon said, 'I am not a crook' during Watergate, the nation thought of him as a crook.

"'Listen, we've never been stay the course, George,' President Bush told George Stephanopoulos of ABC News a day earlier. Saying that just reminds us of all the times he said 'stay the course.' . . .

"'Stay the course' was for years a trap for those who disagreed with the president's policies in Iraq. To disagree was weak and immoral. It meant abandoning the fight against evil. But now the president himself is caught in that trap. To keep staying the course, given obvious reality, is to get deeper into disaster in Iraq, while not staying the course is to abandon one's moral authority as a conservative. Either way, the president loses."

Andrew Greeley writes in a Chicago Sun-Times opinion column: "It would appear that two weeks before the election, President Bush may be revising the course as well as staying it. Perhaps this is the ultimate Karl Rove scam: We will stay the course until victory in Iraq, but we will set up 'milestones' that will in effect be a schedule for withdrawal. We will have our cake and eat it too. . . .

"If it works, it will be the greatest shell game in political history. The only problem with it is, while it might win another election, what will happen when the bloody killing in Iraq continues despite the milestones?"

Torture Watch

As first noted in my Wednesday column and Live Online , Vice President Cheney made a startling acknowledgment about torture in a Tuesday radio interview with conservative talk-show host Scott Hennen.

"Would you agree a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?' Hennen asked.

"Well, it's a no-brainer for me," Cheney said.

Jonathan S. Landay wrote about the interview for McClatchy Newspapers yesterday.

Today, Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post that Cheney's comments have raised "complaints from human rights advocates that he was endorsing the use of a controversial technique known as waterboarding on prisoners held by the United States. . . .

"The comments underscore continuing uncertainty over precisely which techniques can be used legally during CIA interrogations of terrorism suspects. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other lawmakers have said recent legislation that established ground rules for interrogations should effectively bar waterboarding and other methods that are viewed as violations of the Geneva Conventions and U.S. criminal law.

"Bush administration officials have repeatedly declined to say which techniques they believe are permitted under the new law and have steadfastly declined to discuss methods used in the past. . . .

"Neal Sonnett, chairman of an American Bar Association task force on enemy combatants, said Cheney's comments were 'a little equivocal' on details but clear in their overall meaning.

"'It may be too much to characterize it as a direct admission,' Sonnett said. 'But he is certainly suggesting that he doesn't see anything wrong with waterboarding.'"

Demetri Sevastopulo writes in the Financial Times: "Dick Cheney, US vice-president, has endorsed the use of 'water boarding' for terror suspects and confirmed that the controversial interrogation technique was used on Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the senior al-Qaeda operative now being held at Guantánamo Bay."

Mark Tran writes in the Guardian: "The US has long considered waterboarding - which dates back at least to the Spanish Inquisition - to be torture and a war crime.

"As early as 1901, a US court martial sentenced Major Edwin Glenn to 10 years hard labour for subjecting a suspected insurgent in the Philippines to the 'water cure'.

"After the second world war, US military commissions successfully prosecuted as war criminals several Japanese soldiers who subjected US prisoners to waterboarding.

"In 1968, a US army officer was court martialled for helping to waterboard a prisoner in Vietnam."

Here's a statement from Human Rights Watch : "If Iran or Syria detained an American, Cheney is saying that it would be perfectly fine for them to hold that American's head under water until he nearly drowns, if that's what they think they need to do to save Iranian or Syrian lives."

Caren Bohan of Reuters asked Bush about Cheney's comment during a photo op with NATO's secretary general this morning.

"Q Sir, do you agree with the Vice President that a dunk in the water is a 'no brainer' when it comes to interrogating a terror suspect?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: This country doesn't torture, we're not going to torture. We will interrogate people we pick up off the battlefield to determine whether or not they've got information that will be helpful to protect the country."

But of course Bush has never said how he defines torture, so the answer was meaningless.

A Contradiction

White House Briefing reader Dave King, from Merchantville, N.J., writes to point out a big contradiction in Bush's Iraq rhetoric, just from Wednesday alone.

I noted in my column yesterday what Bush said in his press conference about winning: "Absolutely, we're winning. . . . As a matter of fact, my view is the only way we lose in Iraq is if we leave before the job is done."

But as King pointed out, "Then later, from the Oval Office interview , you quote Bush as saying: 'If we can't win, I'll pull us out.'

"That struck me as an unbelievable contradiction of all logic -- 'the only way we can't win is if we leave, but if we can't win, we'll leave' -- so is he saying that if we don't stay in Iraq, we'll leave? I'm confused -- what's winning?"

Kathleen Parker , one of the conservative writers who was invited to participate in the interview, writes today: "Bush tried to clarify what 'winning' is. . . .

"This is a little tricky, so pay attention.

"First, 'winning' is closely tied to 'staying the course,' another term seeking definition the past few days. As of this writing, 'staying the course' means 'winning,' which means 'not losing,' but you knew that.

"And what does 'not losing' mean? According to Bush, it means not leaving. Which no one wants to hear, but there it is. . . .

"At this point, the only real question, said Bush, is whether we can help the Iraqi government succeed. 'Not only can we help them, we must help them,' he said.

"Which means not leaving. Which means not losing. Which means winning, maybe, as currently defined."

More on the Oval Office Interview

Daniel Henninger , another participant in the interview, writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The burden of war . . . has not sapped Mr. Bush physically as it did Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Recalling the deep toll that war and partisanship imposed on their presidencies, I looked closely at Mr. Bush for similar evidence: none. The hair's gone gray, but there is little sign of fatigue in his face or demeanor. I asked how he stays normal: 'Prayer and exercise.' . . .

"Still, it's evident that Baghdad's sectarian violence has sent the U.S mood into a trough. The next day in a similar conversation with Vice President Cheney -- ballast to the energy of his president -- I ask if he senses a nation veering again toward the disillusion of the Vietnam War. He says no. '9/11 changes a lot. It's a watershed event and makes it more difficult for someone to argue that if we just bring the troops home we'll be safe and secure behind our oceans. The threat is there and it's real.'"

Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer was also in the Oval Office Wednesday. But apparently, he didn't find what Bush had to say particularly interesting. His column today is about Barack Obama.

Greg Sargent blogs for the American Prospect, calling attention to this quote from the interview:

"My attitude about our -- look, I'm into campaigning out there: People want to know, can you win? That's what they want to know. I mean, there's -- look, there's some 25 percent or so that want us to get out, shouldn't have been out there in the first place -- and that's fine. They're wrong. But you can understand why they feel that way. They just don't believe in war, and -- at any cost. I believe when you get attacked and somebody declares war on you, you fight back. And that's what we're doing."

But as Sargent points out, fully 63 percent of Americans, according to the latest USA Today/Gallup Poll favor a timetable for withdrawal. Polls also consistently show that more than 50 percent of Americans think the war was a mistake.

Blogger Duncan Black adds: "But more than that, we weren't attacked by Iraq."

Scooter Libby Watch

Carol D. Leonnig writes in The Washington Post: "With withering and methodical dispatch, White House nemesis and prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald yesterday sliced up the first person called to the stand on behalf of the vice president's former chief of staff.

"If I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby was not afraid of the special counsel before, the former Cheney aide, who will face Fitzgerald in a trial beginning Jan. 11, had ample reason to start quaking after yesterday's Ginsu-like legal performance.

"Fitzgerald's target in the witness box was Elizabeth F. Loftus, a professor of criminology and psychology at the University of California at Irvine. For more than an hour of the pretrial hearing, Loftus calmly explained to Judge Reggie B. Walton her three decades of expertise in human memory and witness testimony. Loftus asserted that, after copious scientific research, she has found that many potential jurors do not understand the limits of memory and that Libby should be allowed to call an expert to make that clear to them.

"But when Fitzgerald got his chance to cross-examine Loftus about her findings, he had her stuttering to explain her own writings and backpedaling from her earlier assertions."

And it gets even better. Read the story.

Fencing With Bush

Michael A. Fletcher and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "President Bush signed a measure Thursday authorizing the construction of a fence along 700 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, an action that conflicts with his own stated vision of immigration reform but one championed by many Republicans facing reelection in November...

"Bush portrayed the measure as a key step toward comprehensive immigration reform, but the fence bill passed by the GOP-controlled Congress put him in a tight squeeze with international allies and his own immigration principles on one side, and the electoral needs of his party on the other.

"Bush has said that immigration reform would work only if stepped-up enforcement is accompanied by a guest-worker program that would create a legal path for large numbers of low-skill workers to enter the United States. The president has also endorsed providing the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the United States a chance at citizenship, saying such a humane vision of immigration is in keeping with the nation's history and traditions. . . .

"Democrats dismissed the legislation as pointless. Only a fraction of the billions needed to finance the fence has been appropriated, and much of the construction might not be feasible. In swaths of Arizona, the fence would have to climb steep, desert crags and plunge into deep ravines."

Here's the text of Bush's speech at the signing ceremony.

Gay Marriage

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "The divisive debate over gay marriage, which played a prominent role in 2004 campaigns but this year largely faded from view, erupted anew on Thursday as President Bush and Republicans across the country tried to use a court ruling in New Jersey to rally dispirited conservatives to the polls. . . .

"President Bush put a spotlight on the issue while campaigning in Iowa, which does not have a proposal on the ballot. With the Republican House candidate, Jeff Lamberti, by his side, Mr. Bush -- who has not been talking about gay marriage in recent weeks -- took pains to insert a reference into his stump speech warning that Democrats would raise taxes and make America less safe.

"'Yesterday in New Jersey, we had another activist court issue a ruling that raises doubts about the institution of marriage,' Mr. Bush said at a luncheon at the Iowa State Fairgrounds that raised $400,000 for Mr. Lamberti.

"The president drew applause when he reiterated his long-held stance that marriage was 'a union between a man and a woman,' adding, 'I believe it's a sacred institution that is critical to the health of our society and the well-being of families, and it must be defended.'"

Here's the text of his speech.

Whole Lotta Sicness

Lamberti's first name is Jeff. But Bush twice called him Dave.

From the transcript: "No doubt in my mind, with your help, Dave [sic] Lamberti will be the next United States congressman. (Applause.)

"Dave [sic] and I believe a lot of things."

And those weren't the only sic's of the day.

This one might even qualify as a Bushism: "You know, when I campaigned here in 2000, I said, I want to be a war President. [sic] No President wants to be a war President, but I am one."

Presidential Power

CNN's John King had a special on presidential power last night.

A few of his better lines:

"Justice, on Mr. Bush's terms, would mean challenge after challenge, test after test of the balance of powers laid out in the Constitution. . . .

"The Geneva Conventions govern treatment of wartime prisoners -- not this time. . . .

"Mr. Bush approved more aggressive home-front tactics that were meant to stay secret: a massive domestic eavesdropping program, an unprecedented use of data mining, searching electronic bills and other records, and a secret financial database to track terror supporters. . . .

"Mr. Bush is hardly the first president to test the reach of executive power. President Lincoln, at the height of the Civil War, suspended one of democracy's most fundamental rights: habeas corpus, the right to go to court to challenge imprisonment. During World War II, President Roosevelt ordered the detention of 100,000 Japanese and Americans of Japanese descent.

"But no president has pushed the limits on the scale of this one, overseas at home, from secret CIA prisons and domestic eavesdropping, to what some consider the boldest test of all, launching war in Iraq, absent any direct attack or provocation."

Laura Bush on Bob Woodward

Ed Henry reports on CNN about his interview with Laura Bush. "I pressed her on whether or not she wanted Donald Rumsfeld out as defense secretary," he said.

"LAURA BUSH, FIRST LADY OF THE UNITED STATES: And Andy Card also went on television and said that's not true. And let me just say the one thing about that book. Those quotes of mine were in quotes and the author didn't call me and fact check, and it just didn't happen.

"HENRY: You wanted Rumsfeld out.

"BUSH: Are you just trying to continue to give the quotes that I said I didn't say?

"HENRY: OK, well, without any quotes, just in general, the book claims that you wanted to push Rumsfeld.

"BUSH: No, absolutely not. That is absolutely not true."

And another exchange:

"HENRY: Senator Hillary Clinton recently said, quote, 'I'm certain if my husband and his national security team had been given a classified report saying bin Laden determined to strike in the United States, that he would have taken it more seriously than history shows Mr. Bush did.'

"BUSH: Well, she's just trying to defend her husband and that's what I'm trying to do, too, as I go around here. I know what kind of job my husband does and I know it's a great job, and that, of course, what he wants more than anything is for our country to be safe. And I know that.

"HENRY: And did he take that threat seriously enough to answer her question there?

"BUSH: Well, I don't even know exactly what she was talking about."

But that's hard to believe. It's pretty clear to anyone who's been following the news at all for the last several years that Clinton was referring to this memo .

North Korea Watch

Graham Allison , writing in a Washington Post op-ed, looks at Bush's unusually milquetoast response to the prospect of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il selling nukes to Iran or al-Qaeda (see my Oct. 19 column ).

Allison asks: "Say what? If North Korea sells a nuclear weapon to Osama bin Laden or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he should expect the United States to go to the United Nations and negotiate further sanctions? And if al-Qaeda sneaks that bomb into the United States and we awake to the president's nightmare in which a mushroom cloud engulfs Washington or Los Angeles, then what?

"If this formulation stands -- without further specification -- America risks becoming the victim of a catastrophic 'deterrence failure.'"


From NiemanWatchdog.org: 25 questions for Dick Cheney. "Even after extensively researching their book about Vice President Cheney -- 'Vice: Dick Cheney and the Hijacking of the American Presidency' -- Lou Dubose and Jake Bernstein found they still had lots of unanswered questions."

Candy Store Visit

Bush made a stop at the Morley Candy Makers in Clinton Township, Mich., yesterday, in between political fundraisers.

Considering that the transcript of his two-minute chat with the pool is headlined "President Discusses Small Business in Michigan," I'm guessing this was another attempt to get the taxpayers to pay for some of his trip.

(As Jennifer Loven recently wrote for the Associated Press: "The rules governing how a campaign reimburses the government for an appearance by Bush or another official dictate that scheduling an official event alongside the political one reduces the share of the president's travel costs that must be funded by the candidate.")

Here's what Bush had to say about small business in Michigan: "They asked me why I came here, and I said, one, I like small businesses, and two, I like sweets."

Pool reporter Michael Fletcher of The Washington Post e-mailed his colleagues: "He then uttered his funniest line of the day (to us print folks, anyway) about the real money being with the press corps and urged us to shop. But there was no time as we in short order loaded up and headed out."

But never fear: Karl Rove made it all better.

Pooler Jim Gerstenzang of the Los Angeles Times described the ride home: "Two minutes into the flight, Rove appeared bearing a tray of chocolate-coated caramels. . . . He was asked for his November 7 report. 'Victory, victory, victory,' he said, flashing a two-finger 'V' sign and smiling. Then he said, 'I'm here as the candyman, not the prognosticator.'"

Pool Follies

Ken Herman blogs for Cox News Service about the trailer temporarily housing the handful of reporters, photographers and TV technicians who have to be on hand for events open only to the pool. (The rest of the press corps is being housed across the street during West Wing renovations.)

"The bathroom in the trailer is, shall we say, overtaxed and balky."

But help is on the way. "White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin has told [White House Correspondent Association] President Steve Scully that pool denizens can use a unisex bathroom in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building when nature calls. The trailer is adjacent to the EEOB. And - the best news of all - poolers will not have to be escorted into the EEOB (as long as they behave).

"'If we abuse the use of the bathroom, if folks begin roaming the halls of EEOB, Joe said he will end this immediately and we're back in the trailer bathroom,' Scully told colleagues."

Froomkin on the Radio

I'll be on Washington Post Radio today around 2:10 p.m. ET.

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