Saddam Verdict Surprise?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Monday, November 6, 2006; 2:32 PM

Controversy over the timing of Sunday's announcement of Saddam Hussein's conviction provides a fitting finish for an election campaign that has been as much a contest between competing views of reality as between two political parties.

Did White House officials manipulate the timing of the verdict for political gain?

Bush critics are skeptical, saying it fits a pattern and seems awfully convenient.

The White House denies it vehemently, castigating those who would even suggest such a thing as being on drugs or crazy.

The traditional media raises the issue -- but leaves it unresolved.

Maybe we'll find out the answer in a few years, in some book.

The Coverage

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush and politicians from both parties hailed the conviction of Saddam Hussein on Sunday but disagreed on its larger meaning as campaign strategists tried to gauge the political impact just 48 hours before hard-fought midterm elections.

"Speaking in the shadow of Air Force One on a Texas tarmac and at later campaign events, Bush called the verdict a 'landmark event' in Iraq's transition to democracy, and aides hoped it would be seen as vindication of his decision to go to war. Democrats were quick to agree that justice had been done for a vicious tyrant but argued it would not fix what they see as the debacle in Iraq. . . .

"By the time the verdict was announced in a Baghdad court, aides traveling with Bush on the campaign trail were ready with talking points. White House press secretary Tony Snow was booked on television programs starting at 7 a.m., and his office sent e-mails touting other reactions. . . .

"Democratic leaders avoided publicly accusing the Bush administration of orchestrating the verdict's timing but privately some raised questions, and liberal Internet blogs have been full of angry discussion about it. The Iraqi court originally planned to render a verdict in October but delayed it until two days before the election, prompting a defense lawyer for Hussein to write a letter accusing Bush of manipulating the proceedings for campaign purposes."

White House press secretary Tony Snow "dismissed the suggestion as 'preposterous' and absurd. 'Are you smoking rope?' he replied when a reporter asked about timing manipulation aboard Air Force One on Saturday. 'Are you telling me that in Iraq, that they're sitting around -- I'm sorry, that the Iraqi judicial system is coming up with an October surprise?' Corrected on the date, he expressed incredulity, 'A November surprise. Man, that's -- wow.'"

It was Wolf Blitzer 's first question to Snow on CNN on Sunday: "Can you say, categorically, that the United States government had nothing to do with the timing of this verdict?"

Snow: "Yes. I mean, the idea is preposterous. This is one of these tinfoil hat sort of things, where people suddenly decide, if there is news that may call into questions the things that they've been saying, that somehow we've been scheming and plotting with the Iraqis."

Adam Nagourney and Jim Rutenberg write in the New York Times: "The White House said the timing of the announcement, two days before Election Day, had nothing to do with American politics and had been dictated by the Iraqi court. But Mr. Bush moved quickly to put it to use in what has been his central strategic imperative over the past week, trying to rouse Republican voters to turn out.

"'Today we witnessed a landmark event in the history of Iraq: Saddam Hussein was convicted and sentenced to death by the Iraqi High Tribunal,' Mr. Bush said to roars of approval in a hockey auditorium packed with supporters in Grand Island, Neb. 'Saddam Hussein's trial is a milestone in the Iraqi people's efforts to replace the rule of a tyrant with the rule of law.'"

Here's Bush's initial statement , in which he could not have wrapped himself in the flag any more tightly: "[W]e give our thanks to the men and women of America's Armed Forces, who have sacrificed so much for the cause of freedom in Iraq -- and they've sacrificed for the security of the United States. Without their courage and skill, today's verdict would not have happened. On behalf of the American people, I thank every American who wears the uniform, I thank their families -- and I thank them for their service and continued sacrifice."

Tom Engelhardt blogs for the Nation: "The Saddam Hussein verdict, scheduled for October 16 and then suddenly delayed last month (supposedly because the Iraqi special tribunal needed more time) to November 5, the last news cycle before the US midterm election, has now come in and the former dictator (and monster) has been found guilty. The Bush administration, struggling desperately for face time in the media these last weeks, has one day of Iraqi front-page headlines and lead TV news stories of its dreams in an election season in which the Iraq War has more or less shoved every other issue off center stage.

"The possibility that this particularly convenient verdict postponement might have been the result of Bush administration planning and pressure to create a November surprise for the midterm elections was first raised here . . . on October 17. Since then the mainstream American media has failed to explore the subject. . . .

"I have little doubt that, weeks, months, or years from now, we'll learn just who carried off this particular administration political ploy--and just how. In the meantime, this is but another small, pathetic tale of how the mainstream media has failed its readers and viewers, blindly and blandly spreading yet another administration fiction about the increasingly fictional land of, and 'government' of, Iraq."

White House Briefing reader Ross Weiner writes in an e-mail: "So, as this White House would have it, it's preposterous to believe that the same administration who is paying to have positive stories placed in Iraqi newspapers, who will do anything for a catchy motto or slogan, and who has avoided reality at all costs by insisting that things are going well and that we are repeatedly 'turning corners,' might actually have orchestrated a bit of good news to come out of Iraq immediately preceding the elections here? And while that might be preposterous, it is quite obvious to the Vice President and others that every roadside bomb that goes off is designed to influence our elections, and has nothing to do with the thousands of years of sectarian strife that has plagued Iraq.

"Quite simply, incredible."

Bushism Watch

Here's Bush in Greeley, Colo. , on Saturday: "No doubt -- let me say to you, if you've got a relative in the military, I wouldn't have your loved one in the theater if I didn't think we'd win. (Applause.) I can't look at the mothers and fathers and husbands and wives of those who wear our uniform who may be in Iraq, and say, it's noble, but not think I can -- we can win the -- the only way we can win is if we leave before the job is -- I mean, the only way we can lose is if we leave before the job is done. That's the only way."

A YouTube clip of the seminal part -- "the only way we can win is if we leave before the job is -- I mean, the only way we can lose is if we leave before the job is done" -- is the second most popular clip on that site at this moment, with 152,000 views, and counting.

Inside the Bubble

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post about the nature of Bush's "final 10-state blitz to save his congressional majorities -- and essentially the remainder of his presidency. . . .

"He has shucked the coat and tie for shirtsleeves and slipped a little more drawl into his voice as he hits mainly conservative, rural communities. . . .

"Even when a sour note turns up, it is quickly overwhelmed in these Bush bastions. The president made a stop Friday in a jampacked, sweltering high school gymnasium in Le Mars, Iowa, the self-styled ice cream capital of the world. At one point, someone in the crowd held up a painted sign that said 'Impeach.' Bush supporters pulled it down as the room erupted in boos. Then, following instructions given before the rally for how to drown out hecklers, volunteers started chanting 'USA! USA!'"

Writes Baker: "If Bush is worried, he does not let on. Nor does his top strategist, Karl Rove, who, just as he did in the final stretch before the 2004 election, has made a point in the past few days of appearing jovial and carefree. Wearing a Cheshire cat grin and the same green tie with greyhounds two days in a row, he playfully teased the traveling media, mocking David Gregory's pocket handkerchief and stuffing pieces of white paper in the jacket pockets of other reporters so they would match the NBC correspondent."

Molly Hennessy-Fiske writes in the Los Angeles Times: "This was a world of true believers, people who enthusiastically support the president even as most Americans, in public opinion polls, give him poor job reviews. In Bush's final campaign swing before election day, he is visiting a series of Republican-leaning communities, like this one in northwest Iowa that hosted him on Friday. . . .

"Tickets to Bush's rallies are distributed at GOP campaign headquarters, and recipients are asked to volunteer. Blocks of tickets are set aside for students at conservative colleges such as Evangel University and Baptist Bible College in Springfield, Mo."

Enforcing the Bubble

Just how ruthlessly is the bubble enforced? Vice President Cheney was in Idaho on Thursday for a " victory rally ".

Tom Greene writes in the Coeur d'Alene Press: "Coeur d'Alene businesswoman Melodee Watt, 51, said she has always considered herself an independent voter. When she heard the vice president was coming to North Idaho, she said she wanted to take advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. She went to the GOP headquarters, filled out a form and waited in line.

"'She (a GOP volunteer) typed it in and said 'Oops, we have a little problem,'' Watt said. 'I thought 'What? I've never been arrested or anything.''

"The volunteer had pulled up a scarlet 'D' by Watt's name. She was flagged as a Democrat, and Democrats were not invited to the vice president's rally. . . .

"Kootenai County Chairman Brad Corkhill confirmed Democrats were not invited except 'a few might have snuck in.'

"'Not when we want Republicans to have them (tickets),' Corkhill said. 'It's our party and that's what we want to do.' . . .

"Corkhill said they used a GOP 'voter vault' computer database to determine which party a ticket seeker belonged to. The voter vault is a marketing tool used by Republicans to identify prospective voters."

Avoiding the President

Dan Balz and Jim VandeHei write in today's Washington Post: "In another sign of how Bush's market value has fallen, Florida gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist said yesterday that he would skip the president's rally in Pensacola this morning. The White House put the Florida stop on Bush's election-eve schedule specifically to promote Crist, only to be embarrassed by his last-minute defection. That will make the most prominent Florida politician appearing at the event Senate candidate Rep. Katherine Harris, who appears headed for a crushing defeat and whom the Bush family has tried to avoid this fall."

End of an Era

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and David E. Sanger write in the New York Times: "A sense of poignancy has set in. Jetting about the country on Air Force One, Mr. Bush has been playing hearts and gin rummy with his longtime political adviser and confidant, Karl Rove; Mr. Rove usually wins. At each stop, the men share memories of where they were two years ago, or four, reminding themselves of Texas and happier campaigns gone by.

"'Any time we're on the campaign plane, it's reminiscent of past elections,' [counselor Dan] Bartlett said, recounting the card games. But he insisted that Mr. Bush was looking ahead, not back: 'There's no cruise control into '08 for this president. He believes that two years is a long time and a lot could get done.'"

Blood and Oil

Peter Baker writes in Sunday's Washington Post: "During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, President Bush and his aides sternly dismissed suggestions that the war was all about oil. 'Nonsense,' Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld declared. 'This is not about that,' said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

"Now, more than 3 1/2 years later, someone else is asserting that the war is about oil -- President Bush.

"As he barnstorms across the country campaigning for Republican candidates in Tuesday's elections, Bush has been citing oil as a reason to stay in Iraq. If the United States pulled its troops out prematurely and surrendered the country to insurgents, he warns audiences, it would effectively hand over Iraq's considerable petroleum reserves to terrorists who would use it as a weapon against other countries.

"'You can imagine a world in which these extremists and radicals got control of energy resources,' he said at a rally here Saturday for Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.). 'And then you can imagine them saying, "We're going to pull a bunch of oil off the market to run your price of oil up unless you do the following." And the following would be along the lines of, well, "Retreat and let us continue to expand our dark vision." ' . . .

"Oil is not the only reason Bush offers for staying in Iraq, but his comments on the stump represent another striking evolution of his argument on behalf of the war."

Here's Bush in Missouri on Friday: "Imagine the radicals and extremists taking over a country, and they were able to pull millions of barrels of oil off the market, driving the price up to $300 or $400 a barrel, whatever it would be, and saying, okay, we'll reduce the price, all you've got to do is surrender. All you've got to do is abandon your alliance with Israel, and we'll lower the price. All you've got to do is retreat. And couple that with a country which doesn't like us, with a nuclear weapon, and a generation of Americans will say, what happened to them in 2006? How come they couldn't see the impending danger? What was it that clouded their vision?"

Among other things, however, Bush is dramatically exaggerating the impact of Iraq's oil production on world markets.

Writes Baker: "The world, in fact, has already seen what would happen if Iraqi oil were cut off entirely, as Bush suggests radicals might do. Iraq effectively stopped pumping oil altogether in the months immediately after the invasion. And yet the price of oil has never topped $80, much less come anywhere near the $300 or $400 a barrel Bush cited as a possible consequence of a radical Iraqi regime withholding the country's oil."

Gas Prices Watch

While it's unlikely that Bush's new oil rhetoric will gain much currency, Elizabeth Douglass of the Los Angeles Times observes that "a notable percentage of Americans believe that the recent plunge in gasoline prices has more to do with November voting than with the price of oil and other market forces, two recent polls found."

Could it be true?

"Few would dispute the notion that oil and politics are intertwined. Wars, campaign contributions, land-use decisions, environmental regulations and foreign policy are part of the landscape that connects the two," Douglass writes. . . .

"But proving that the sharp decline in gasoline prices since midsummer is, or isn't, related to the November election is quite another matter.

"'A lot of the data you would want to look at to see if something is going on right now isn't available yet,' said Peter K. Ashton, president of Innovation & Information Consultants Inc., who has worked on gasoline-price investigations in California and other states. 'And to prove a link to politics and to the election and all of that is extremely difficult. But that doesn't mean people shouldn't be suspicious.'"

How could it be done?

"Bush's stance on Iran and other foreign policy matters can certainly move oil markets, and so can decisions affecting the oil levels in the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve. And there is the Bush family's close relationship with the royal family of Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil producer and the most powerful member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.

"Skeptics also focus on the oil companies, a group that has strong ties to the White House and donates heavily to Republicans. . . .

"Another theory holds that nontraditional energy futures investors -- those who are looking for profits rather than a barrel of oil -- intentionally throttled back their activity on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The presumption is that they did so to send prices for oil and gasoline tumbling so congressional control wouldn't shift to Democrats, some of whom favor reining in hedge funds and other speculators that have made energy markets more volatile."

Would Bush Change?

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and David E. Sanger write in the New York Times that "with Mr. Bush facing the likelihood of a remade political landscape in Washington, even if his party holds on to both houses of Congress, the White House is sending signals that Mr. Bush is open to a shift in approach. After six years of virtually ignoring Democrats as he pressed his own party to do his bidding on Capitol Hill, Mr. Bush and his aides are charting a course that they say will take the president back to his roots as Texas governor, when he worked in a more bipartisan way with Democrats."

Wow. That would indeed be news. So where's the evidence?

Stolberg and Sanger write that aides "are piecing together a domestic agenda that includes reviving the president's failed bid to overhaul entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, White House officials and allies of the administration said. The president has assigned Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. to spearhead the effort, and the White House says it is quietly reaching out to Democrats on Capitol Hill. . . .

"'I think his hope,' Mr. Bartlett said, 'is that maybe, maybe we can enter into an era where the president will not be viewed as such a threatening force to Democrats who are more eager to get some accomplishments done.'"

Cheney: 'Full Speed Ahead' on Iraq

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration is determined to continue 'full speed ahead' with its policy in Iraq, regardless of Tuesday's midterm elections, Vice President Cheney said Friday. . . .

"Cheney also said that terrorists are banking not on defeating the United States militarily but rather on the nation growing tired of the war and walking away from the fight. And he suggested that a Democratic victory on Tuesday would also be a victory for terrorists."

Here's the transcript and video of the interview.

Stephanopoulos: "It seems like the public has turned against it right now."

Cheney: "It may not be popular with the public. It doesn't matter, in the sense that we have to continue the mission and do what we think is right. And that's exactly what we're doing. We're not running for office, we're doing what we think is right."

Stephanopoulos: "Both you and Secretary Rumsfeld have such deep experience in the government, in the House, as White House Chiefs of Staff, as Pentagon Secretaries, now you as Vice President, how do you explain the failure to anticipate more of these problems, the failure to prepare for them?"

Cheney: "George, I don't buy the analysis, basically."

No questions about waterboarding? Nothing about the unprecedented use of war as a partisan issue? For shame.

Poll Watch

The latest Washington Post/ABC News poll has Bush at a 40 percent approval rating, up three points from three weeks earlier.

Susan Page writes in USA Today about the latest Gallup Poll, which has Bush's approval at 38 percent: "The president and the war in Iraq remain at the center of this election: 36% of likely voters saying that are casting a ballot for a candidate to send a message that they oppose Bush; 20% to send a message that they support him." CNN reports this morning: "President Bush's popularity has dipped to 35 percent, according to a new CNN poll, with 41 percent of likely voters saying their disapproval of his performance will affect their vote in Tuesday's elections for control of Congress. . . .

"This finding represents a two-point decline in Bush's approval rating compared with a CNN poll conducted a week earlier."

Michael Lemonick writes for Time: "President Bush's performance is a voting issue and is likely a factor in energizing Democrats on the eve of the election. . . . Bush's approval rating remained in the doldrums, at 37%."

Marcus Mabry writes for Newsweek: "President Bush's approval rating remains low-35 percent; compared to 37 percent in the October 26-27, 2006 Newsweek Poll."

The Pew Research Center reports: "President Bush's political standing has improved in the final week before the election. Bush's job approval rating among registered voters has risen from 37% in early October, to 41% in the current survey. . . .

"Sen. John Kerry's 'botched joke' about the war in Iraq attracted enormous attention. Fully 84% of voters say they have heard a lot or a little about Kerry's remarks with 60% saying they have heard a lot. By comparison, just 26% say they have heard a lot about President Bush's statement that he will keep Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense until he leaves office in 2009."

Revolt of the Neocons

David Rose publishes excerpts from his upcoming Vanity Fair story on how "the war's neoconservative boosters have turned sharply on the Bush administration, charging that their grand designs have been undermined by White House incompetence."

For instance, there's Richard Perle. "According to Perle, who left the Defense Policy Board in 2004, this unfolding catastrophe has a central cause: devastating dysfunction within the administration of President George W. Bush. Perle says, 'The decisions did not get made that should have been. They didn't get made in a timely fashion, and the differences were argued out endlessly. . . . At the end of the day, you have to hold the president responsible."

Here's Kenneth Adelman talking: "The most dispiriting and awful moment of the whole administration was the day that Bush gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom to [former C.I.A. director] George Tenet, General Tommy Franks, and [Coalition Provisional Authority chief] Jerry [Paul] Bremer--three of the most incompetent people who've ever served in such key spots."

And here's David Frum talking: "I always believed as a speechwriter that if you could persuade the president to commit himself to certain words, he would feel himself committed to the ideas that underlay those words. And the big shock to me has been that although the president said the words, he just did not absorb the ideas. And that is the root of, maybe, everything."

(Blogger Kevin Drum writes: "Shorter David Frum: I used to think Bush was such an empty vessel that if I could just get him to parrot the words I wrote, they'd bounce around in his skull and become actual ideas for lack of any competition. Later, though, I finally realized why his skull was empty of serious ideas in the first place.")

Over at National Review Online , however, the subjects of that story are livid.

For instance, Perle: "I had been promised that my remarks would not be published before the election. . . .

"Moreover, in condensing and characterizing my views for their own partisan political purposes, they have distorted my opinion about the situation in Iraq and what I believe to be in the best interest of our country."

Revolt of the Military Times

An editorial in today's issues of the Army Times, Navy Times, Air Force Times, and Marine Corps Times calls for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to resign.

Tony Snow responded on Saturday: "The editorial, for one thing, makes the allegation that -- it says, 'One rosy reassurance after another has been handed down by President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.' That's just flat not true."

The First Lady Turns 60

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "For the second year in a row, President Bush gave his wife jewelry for her birthday.

"This year, it's a triple-strand necklace with amber-colored citrine, a November birthstone."

Ken Herman , blogging for Cox News Service, comes pretty darn close to calling Bush cheap.

Simpsons Watch

Blogger Atrios has a video clip from the Simpsons last night: Three years after the alien invasion.

Cartoon Watch

Jeff Danziger on the omnipresent president; Stuart Carlson on the vice prognosticator; Mike Luckovich on the real joker; Tony Auth on coming home to roost.

A Hunting He Will Go

The Associated Press reports: "Vice President Dick Cheney will spend Election Day on his first hunting trip since he accidentally shot a companion last February while aiming at a covey of quail on a private Texas ranch.

"The vice president, after working at the White House on Monday morning, will head to South Dakota to spend several days at a private hunting lodge near Pierre. Lea Anne McBride, his press secretary, said it was an annual hunting outing and said Cheney spent Election Day in 2002 at the same lodge.

"He will be accompanied by his daughter, Mary, and his political director, Mel Raines, who will help him keep track of the election returns, McBride said."

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