Bush Denies Reaching Out to Dad

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, December 5, 2006; 12:56 PM

Even as Washington's punditocracy relishes the storyline of the elder-statesman father riding to the hapless son's rescue, President Bush insisted yesterday that he doesn't talk shop with his dad -- and certainly doesn't ask for his advice.

Bush's first one-on-one interview since his brutal rebuff at the hands of the voters on Nov. 7 was a tame affair, thanks to Fox News anchor Brit Hume. Here's the transcript and the video.

But when Hume brought up the issue of his father's influence, Bush responded with a forced grin, a clenched fist and a somewhat petulant response: "I'm the commander in chief," he said.

And Bush's explanation for why he doesn't talk policy with his dad simply doesn't hold water.

"You know, I love my dad," Bush said. "But he understands what I know, that the level of information I have relative to the level of information most other people have, including himself, is significant."

Oh, please. That's obviously not the real reason.

So here are two more-likely possibilities: Either Bush does talk to his dad and doesn't want people to know; or he truly has no interest in what his dad thinks.

The latter still strikes me as the most likely. Bush, after all, remains the son whose actions can be seen in large part as a reaction to his father -- rather than an homage.

As Bush biographer Bill Sammon wrote in 2004: "President Bush is resolved not to repeat what he thinks were the two fundamental blunders of his father's one-term presidency: abandoning Iraq and failing to vanquish the Democrats.

"In one of several exclusive interviews with the Washington Times, Mr. Bush said his father had 'cut and run early' from Iraq in 1991."

But now, with the younger Bush looking so reckless by comparison, the elder Bush -- according to Bob Woodward-- is "in agony, anguished, tormented by the war in Iraq and its aftermath."

The last time Bush spoke publicly about his father was just before the election. As Reuters reported, Bush "gently admonished his father for saying he hates to think what life will be like for his son if the Democrats win control of Congress in the Nov. 7 election.

"'He shouldn't be speculating like this, because -- he should have called me ahead of time and I'd tell him they're not going to [win],' a smiling Bush said during an interview broadcast yesterday on the ABC program 'This Week.'"

Of course, the elder Bush was right about that one, too.

Interview Excerpt

Here is the relevant excerpt from the Fox News interview, with a few stage directions:

Hume: "The presence of Baker on this commission and the important role he plays, the emergence now of Bob Gates as the Rumsfeld successor, has given rise to a widespread feeling that the men who advised your father are now emerging as critical to you and that your father's influence is all over this."

Bush: "Yeah." [Bush grins, but his raised left fist is clenched tightly.]

Hume: "What do you say to that?"

Bush: "I say that [pause, exasperated shrug] you know, I'm the commander in chief. I make decisions based upon what I think is best to achieve our objectives, and that, uh --" [shakes his head]

Hume: "Was your father involved in the decision to name Gates?"

Bush: [Eyebrows shoot up defensively] "I asked him what kind of man Gates was with him, because of course he knows him."

Hume: "Did he know ahead of time? Ahead of the day? That you were gonna --"

Bush: "No."

Hume: "He didn't."

Bush: "No."

Hume: "A lot of people have been curious -- and I've asked you about this before and the answer fascinates me, so I'll ask it again. The universal expectation would be, your father's a former president, you and your brothers and your sister Doro all adore your father, everybody knows that, one would imagine you would consult him constantly about matters of policy. Is that the case?

Bush: "No. You know, I love my dad. But he understands what I know -- that the level of information I have relative to the level of information most other people have, including himself, is significant and that he trusts me to make decisions.

"I love to talk to my Dad about things between a father and a son, not policy. I get plenty of policy time. I'm interested in talking to a guy I love. And I get inspiration from him as a father, you know.

"Washington can be a tough town at times, and there's nothing better than hearing a loving voice at the end of the phone call occasionally, and so I check in with mother and dad, you know, I would say once every two weeks. I love surprising them with an early morning phone call and saying, you know, how ya doing?

"And of course, they're worried about their son. They're worried about -- they're paying too much attention to the newspapers, I guess."

The Decider

Bush's "I'm the commander in chief" response is a little reminiscent of his "I'm the decider" riff from back in April.

Both sound a bit defensive. And it's worth noting that the latter comment came about in the midst of what turned out to be a hollow assurance.

"I hear the voices, and I read the front page, and I know the speculation," Bush said at the time. "But I'm the decider, and I decide what is best. And what's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the secretary of defense."

'The Load Is Not Heavy'

The other memorable exchange in the interview came when Bush talked about his state of mind. He is apparently neither pained nor burdened by the war in Iraq -- or anything else, for that matter -- thanks to all the people praying for him.

Hume: "I've just spent some time in the company of people who were for you, who are worried about you, just as you described your parents are. They think that your presidency has run aground on the shoals of Iraq and that you must be -- they feel almost sorry for you. What do you say to those people?"

Bush: "Yeah, I don't think people are -- at least the ones I run into -- look, I had a bunch of our buddies from Texas up here this weekend, and they're kind of -- they look at you, and go, man, how come you're still standing? It's not so much the presidency on the shoals because of difficult decisions I made; it's more, the weightiness of this thing must be impossible for anybody to bear. And I tell them it's just not the case, that I'm inspired by doing this job. . . .

"I also remind them, Brit, that Laura and I are sustained by the prayers of millions of people. That's hard for some to, you know, I guess, chew on."

Hume: "You sense that."

Bush: "Absolutely."

Hume: "I know they tell you that, when you see them out on the hustings. But do you sense that?"

Bush: "I feel it."

Hume: "You feel it."

Bush: "Yeah. Because the load is not heavy, I guess is the best way to describe it. Look, somebody said to me, prove it. I said you can't prove it. All I can tell you is I feel it. And it's a remarkable country when millions pray for me and Laura. So therefore I'm able to say to people, that this is a joyful experience, not a painful experience. And yeah it's tough, but that's okay. It's tough times."

Hume's One Tough Question

Hume: "You have said on a number of occasions that your view of the shape and mission of U.S. forces day by day in Iraq, week by week, is based on what General Abizaid and, more specifically, General Casey say, that this has been kind of a Casey and Abizaid approach. Is that a fair assessment?"

Bush: "I have said that the force size will depend upon conditions on the ground and upon the recommendations of our commanders on the ground, absolutely."

Hume: "Is it fair to say, then, that the approach in Iraq has been more a reflection of what Casey and Abizaid wanted than of anybody else over there? Or anybody else in the military?"

Bush: "I think from the military tactics that they are the chain of command through Rumsfeld to me."

Hume: "Right."

Bush: "Now they listen to all kinds of people on the ground and they are very thoughtful, decent, honorable men, who understand that -- what the mission is and understand that it is their obligation to design the tactics to achieve the mission."

Hume: "It is -- it does the raise the question though, Mr. President, if they're the guys who've been designing and trying to execute the mission and you're impatient with the progress, why is it that Rumsfeld's going and they're staying?"

Bush: "Well, they also are impatient with the progress, just like Secretary Rumsfeld is. And he came to the same conclusion that I came to, that it was time to get fresh eyes in the Pentagon on the issue. And I strongly support his past tenure and I appreciate his service to the country."

That answer, of course, is completely nonresponsive.

On 'Sectarian Violence'

Hume: " Kofi Annan has now joined others, including Colin Powell, in declaring that that is a civil war -- what is your reaction to that?"

Bush: "Listen, I've heard a lot of voices say that. And I've talked to people there in Iraq who don't believe that's the case. For example, some would argue that the fact that 90 percent of the country -- let me just say this -- most of the country outside of the Baghdad area, is relatively peaceful, doesn't indicate a civil war as far as they're concerned."

Bolton Bows Out

Peter Baker and Glenn Kessler write in The Washington Post: "President Bush surrendered to congressional foes yesterday in his fight to install John R. Bolton as permanent ambassador to the United Nations, a harbinger of how the political world has changed since Democrats captured both houses of Congress.

"Bush circumvented Senate opposition last year, sending Bolton to the United Nations on a recess appointment, and administration lawyers in recent weeks had developed options to keep him there after that appointment expires this month. But officials said Bolton and the White House decided against provoking an early confrontation with Democrats as they take over Congress next month. . . .

"Bush appeared aggravated at having to abandon Bolton, whose bare-knuckle diplomacy and skepticism of multilateralism made him a favorite of conservatives and a lightning rod for many in the Washington and international establishments.

"'I'm not happy about it,' Bush said in a one-minute appearance with Bolton before cameras in the Oval Office. 'I think he deserved to be confirmed. And the reason why I think he deserved to be confirmed is because I know he did a fabulous job for the country.'"

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Bolton wanted very much to stay at the world body, administration officials said, and Vice President Dick Cheney backed exploration of some way to bypass the Senate. But that course was almost certain to inflame tensions between Congress and the White House, and in the end, Mr. Cheney and Mr. Bolton gave up.

"Lea Anne McBride, a spokeswoman for Mr. Cheney, said that Mr. Bolton came to Washington on Thursday and met with the vice president. At the meeting, the two men decided not to press the issue any further. On Friday, Mr. Bolton sent a resignation letter to President Bush."

Farah Stockman and Joe Lauria write in the Boston Globe: "Bolton's resignation, just a month after Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld announced he was stepping down, represents the departure of another early advocate of the Iraq war and adds to a sense of upheaval in Washington this week. . . .

"'What you are seeing is the collapse of the neoconservative policy that has guided this administration since 9/11,' said Joseph Cirincione , a former staff member of the House Armed Services Committee who is now at the Center for American Progress , a liberal think tank. . . .

"'Cheney just lost another piece on the [chess] board,' Cirincione said."

Caroline Daniel and Mark Turner write in the Financial Times: "The White House decision last month to renominate Mr Bolton was seen by some political analysts as a strategic mistake, undermining Mr Bush's immediate rhetoric of bipartisanship, and was always doomed to fail."

But they point out that the White House was reluctant to present yesterday's action as conciliatory move. "Mr Bush blamed 'stubborn obstructionism' while Mr Snow said the 'appointments process is broken', and charged that 'for reasons of partisanship a handful of senators prevented him remaining UN ambassador'."

John O'Sullivan writes in his Chicago Sun Times opinion column: "John Bolton's resignation as the American ambassador to the United Nations makes it official: The Bush administration is now drifting idly toward a mixture of centrism and impotence."

Will He Bend? Inevitably

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "Make no mistake about it, change is coming in President Bush's Iraq policy. After stubbornly pursuing a stay-the-course policy into a fourth year of war, Bush is being told it's time for a new direction -- by everyone from U.S. voters and a blue-ribbon panel to his own national security adviser and ousted defense secretary.

"The big question is, how far is Bush willing to bend? And can he be persuaded to change a policy he's never seemed to doubt?"

Will He Bend? Maybe Not

Peter S. Canellos writes in the Boston Globe: "Last week was a bitter disappointment for those who had hoped the November election would bring significant changes in President Bush's Iraq policy.

"The president's highly touted summit with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq ended with assurances that progress is being made, that troop withdrawals would reward the terrorists, and that the United States would stay in Iraq 'until the job is complete' -- in other words, exactly the refrain from before the election.

"This week could bring more disappointment: The bipartisan Iraq Study Group, commissioned by Congress to bring fresh perspectives, will issue recommendations tomorrow. Leaks to the media suggest the panel will urge a gradual withdrawal of troops by 2008, 'predicated on the assumption that circumstances on the ground would permit it,' according to The Washington Post.

"This may, in fact, be the most responsible course, but it leaves open the possibility -- to some, even the likelihood -- that 'circumstances on the ground' will mandate an indefinite stay. And it could kill altogether the chances of employing some alternative strategy, such as moving troops to neighboring countries, where they could serve as strike forces against terrorists while steering clear of regular policing.

"The upshot of the Maliki meeting -- and the leaked recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, if accurate -- seems to be that the likeliest course is more of the same. The message seems to be that Iraq is a foreign-policy sinkhole, and that no number of fresh eyes on the problem can devise new solutions."

Credibility Watch

Here's John Roberts on CNN last night with Wolf Blitzer:

ROBERTS: "When you are the president, the American people will support you through a lot of difficult times if they think you are being straight with them. Tonight, there are new questions about just how straight the president has been on the Iraq war, and the political impact of that.

"A week before the November election, President Bush put his characteristically rosy spin on the Iraq war.

"GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're winning, and we will win unless we leave before the job is done.

"ROBERTS: At almost the same time, his defense secretary had a much darker outlook, crafting a memo that reads: 'It is time for a major adjustment. Clearly, what U.S. forces are currently doing in Iraq is not working well enough or fast enough.'

"A stark contradiction, and evidence, says former presidential adviser David Gergen that what the administration says in public isn't what it's thinking in private.

"DAVID GERGEN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: They show that the inside talk is much bleaker about Iraq than what they have been saying in their upbeat public assessments and it really suggests you know they are not giving us the unvarnished truth as a public.

"ROBERTS: It was the second time in less than a week that the curtain has been pulled back on this famously tight lipped administration. The first was this leaked memo from national security adviser Stephen Hadley who raised serious questions about the Iraqi prime minister's ability to lead. The next day in public it was like President Bush hadn't even seen it.

"BUSH: He's the right guy for Iraq.

"ROBERTS: Some people see a pattern to the disconnect. One first illuminated in the days after Hurricane Katrina, when White House statements about relief efforts didn't match the pictures on the ground."

Roberts then concludes: "So what's the real danger for President Bush? Well, people might not like being spun, but they hate being deceived. And if they feel the White House is deceiving over the war, the president may find an already shallow well of support quickly turning bone dry -- Wolf."

Roberts is dead-on, but a little late. The American public has been feeling deceived for a long time already.

Richard Morin and Dana Milbank wrote in The Washington Post almost three years ago: "A majority of Americans believe President Bush either lied or deliberately exaggerated evidence that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction in order to justify war, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll."

And ever since Katrina, polls have shown that a clear majority of voters do not consider Bush honest and trustworthy.

On the Leaked Memos

In Slate, John Dickerson speculates on the provenance of the two recently leaked, highly sensitive administration memos (see my column yesterday), then writes: "But whatever the specific motivations behind them, these leaks powerfully reinforce the notion that George Bush has lost control of his Iraq policy. . . .

"The Rumsfeld memo is more globally troubling for the administration. Bush's credibility has been declining steadily since early 2005. When he fired Rumsfeld days after saying he wasn't thinking about doing so, it took another hit. Now, we learn that while Bush was attacking Democrats as the party of 'cut and run,' Rumsfeld was suggesting the administration look at proposals very similar to the ones Democrats were proposing. We knew all along that Bush's charge was cynical, but Rumsfeld's memo brings into high relief that the administration was pursuing ideas behind closed doors that it attacked in public. Perhaps this is the message the struggling administration now wants to send out about Iraq. Okay, the president's a liar. But he's not as clueless as he looks."

Civil War Watch

Eric Boehlert writes for Media Matters: "[E]xcuse me if I don't applaud when, 50 months after Iraq emerged as a major news story, the mainstream media finally discover the phrase 'civil war.' . . .

"It reminded me of the media buzz that washed ashore after Hurricane Katrina, when grateful news consumers were supposed to applaud reporters because they had awoken from a five-year, self-induced, Bush-era slumber and summoned up enough courage, for at least a few weeks, to speak truth to power and report that what the Bush administration said and did were often two different things. In other words, we were supposed to cheer producers, reporters, and editors for doing their job. Not me. . . .

"Indeed, the fact that a simple decision to use the phrase 'civil war' passed for news itself simply highlights how timid the mainstream press corps has been during the Bush years."

Twins Watch

Michael Kinsley writes in his Washington Post opinion column that "no amount of eloquence can overcome the bald contrast between [Bush's] rhetoric and how his own family lives."

Kinsley doesn't exactly blame the twins for being party girls; he just finds it unseemly.

"[T]here is a war on. It's a war that has killed 3,000 Americans, most of them around Jenna and Barbara's age or younger. It has killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis of all ages. And even more Americans and Iraqis have been injured, lost limbs, suffered terrible pain. President Bush can be quite eloquent in talking about the sacrifices of American soldiers and -- he always adds -- their families. In the Reagan style that has become almost mandatory, he uses anecdotes. He talks of Marine 2nd Lt. Frederick Pokorney Jr. 'His wife, Carolyn, received a folded flag. His two-year-old daughter, Taylor, knelt beside her mother at the casket to say a final goodbye.' . . .

"No one thinks that the president should have to give up a child to prove that his family is as serious about freedom as these other families he praises. But it would be reassuring to see a little struggle here -- some sign that the Bush family truly believes that American soldiers are dying for our freedom, and that it's worth it."

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET.

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