Bolten Pushes Bush to Listen

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Monday, December 11, 2006; 12:00 PM

Newsweek today weighs in with a new White House narrative, this one starring Chief of Staff Josh Bolten.

When Bolten took over from go-along-get-along Andrew H. Card Jr. in April, the expectation was that the change would be dramatic. By all public indications, it wasn't.

If Newsweek is to be believed, however, Bolten has for more than eight months been quietly and diligently working to lance the protective bubble that for so long encouraged President Bush to believe that his Iraq policy was succeeding.

And at long last, as exemplified by well-publicized events last week and this week, Bolten has finally succeeded in getting Bush to adopt an entirely new trick: Listening. Or at least giving the appearance of listening.

What's missing from this narrative, of course, is whether all this "listening" will actually lead Bush to change course.

Also missing: How Bolten has neutralized Vice President Cheney -- if he has at all. Because if Cheney is still the first and last person whispering into Bush's ear about Iraq, then whatever he may have heard in between doesn't really matter.

Weston Kosova is the author of the fascinating Newsweek story.

He writes: "For months, the White House had been girding for the release of the Iraq Study Group report. They knew from press leaks that it would be critical in tone and that the president wouldn't like some of its ideas -- especially a suggested pullback of U.S. troops and a proposal to reach out to Syria and Iran for help in quelling violence in the country.

"The challenge for Bush's team was to make the president appear as though he were taking the release of the report seriously, without necessarily embracing its conclusions. In the days following the report's release, Bush the Decider transformed himself into Bush the Listener. Usually prickly with war critics -- on the rare occasions he spoke to them at all -- the president now invited them in from the cold and kept quiet. . . .

"The change in Bush's approach had its beginnings well before [James A. Baker III's] group put pen to paper. It came about in part because of a slow, careful effort by Bush's closest aides -- under the direction of chief of staff Josh Bolten -- to convince the president that he had to listen to different voices on Iraq, and ultimately change direction. . . .

"When Bolten took charge of the West Wing last April, he was one of the few people in the White House who were willing to admit that Iraq was broken and that the president was stuck. He worried that Bush had been hearing the same bad advice from the same people for nearly three years. Over the summer, Bolten began the first of his efforts to puncture Bush's bubble by having the president sit down with some of the harshest critics of the war -- conservatives who had turned against the effort. At one session last summer at Camp David, Bolten sat Bush, Vice President Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld across from a group of academics. 'They were folks who had actually been to the region and spent the time talking to noncommissioned officers and generals,' Bolten says. The academics were told not to hold back. A couple of weeks later, Bolten staged another session with Iraq experts, who met with the president at the Pentagon. Among them: Vali Nasr, an authority on the rise of the Shia. Bolten, who is known to obsess over the smallest details, makes careful seating charts for Oval Office briefings to put certain advisers directly in Bush's line of sight so the president will be more likely to listen carefully to their opinions. . . .

"In the weeks before the Republicans lost Congress, while Karl Rove was predicting victory, Bolten tasked a small group of trusted aides to plan for electoral defeat and its aftermath. The first step was to fire the abrasive, out-of-touch Rumsfeld and replace him with straight-talking Robert Gates. The second was to ready a respectful response to the pending Baker-Hamilton report but to downplay its importance by stressing it is just one of several government reports on the war effort that Bush is reviewing. The final phase was to move past the elder statesmen by introducing Bush's own strategy."

It seems clear that the source for this narrative is none other than Bolten himself. But even while casting himself as the hero of this narrative, he maintains some humility. Kosava writes "Bolten told Newsweek he can imagine his last day in the Bush White House. West Wing staffers will be cleaning out their desks on Jan. 20, 2009, when the cable news networks cut into their Inauguration coverage for a breaking story: a car bomb has gone off in Baghdad. Bolten knows he can't do much to stop that from happening. What he can do is try to limit the number of political explosions between now and then."

Reading Tea Leaves

So far, there are lots of signs suggesting no major course correction is being seriously considered.

William Douglas and Margaret Talev write for McClatchy Newspapers: "Top Democrats in Congress left a White House meeting with President Bush on Friday frustrated over what they perceived as his reluctance to embrace major recommendations from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. . . .

"'I just didn't feel there today, the president in his words or his demeanor, that he is going to do anything right away to change things drastically,' Senate Majority Leader-elect Harry Reid, D-Nev., said following the Oval Office meeting. 'He is tepid in what he talks about doing. Someone has to get the message to this man that there have to be significant changes.'

"Instead, Bush began his talk by comparing himself to President Harry S Truman, who launched the Truman Doctrine to fight communism, got bogged down in the Korean War and left office unpopular.

"Bush said that 'in years to come they realized he was right and then his doctrine became the standard for America,' recalled Senate Majority Whip-elect Richard Durbin, D-Ill. 'He's trying to position himself in history and to justify those who continue to stand by him, saying sometimes if you're right you're unpopular, and be prepared for criticism.'

"Durbin said he challenged Bush's analogy, reminding him that Truman had the NATO alliance behind him and negotiated with his enemies at the United Nations. Durbin said that's what the Iraq Study Group is recommending that Bush do now - work more with allies and negotiate with adversaries on Iraq.

"Bush, Durbin said, 'reacted very strongly. He got very animated in his response' and emphasized that he is 'the commander in chief.'"

Thomas M. DeFrank writes in the New York Daily News that one of Bush's "recent visitor" describes the president as "still resolutely defiant, convinced history will ultimately vindicate him.

"'I'll be dead when they get it right,' he said during an Oval Office meeting last week."

DeFrank also writes, in a counterpoint to the Bolten narrative: "Outside Republican sources report that except for isolated pockets of realism, the West Wing bunker hasn't yet absorbed Bush's diminished power.

"'The White House is totally constipated,' a former aide complained. 'There's not enough adult leadership, and the 30-year-olds still think it's 2000 and they're riding high.'

"One White House assistant insisted to a friend last week that the election was merely a repudiation of Bush's execution, not his policies.

"'They don't get it,' a GOP mandarin snapped. 'The Iraq report was their brass ring to pivot and salvage the last two years, and they didn't grab it.'"

U.S. News reports: "The president and his advisers, including political strategist Karl Rove, are said to believe that it's not only the administration that should give ground-majority Democrats also must reach out to the GOP and the White House. 'The Democrats now have a leadership stake in working together,' says a senior Bush aide. . . . He adds, if the Democrats truly want to win the war, they should unite behind the president."

Watch the Hawks

Michael Abramowitz and Glenn Kessler write in The Washington Post: "Comments from the hawkish right . . . have often been an accurate gauge of the beliefs of key figures inside the Bush administration, especially Vice President Cheney."

And what are the hawks saying?

John M. Broder and Robin Toner write in the New York Times that the hawks are saying the Baker-Hamilton report "was a wasted effort that advocated a shameful American retreat."

Swatting the Report Away

Jim Rutenberg and David E. Sanger write in the New York Times: "Administration officials say their preliminary review of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group's recommendations has concluded that many of its key proposals are impractical or unrealistic, and a small group inside the National Security Council is now racing to come up with alternatives to the panel's ideas. . . .

"The administration's inclination to dismiss so many of the major findings of the bipartisan group sets the stage for what could become a titanic struggle over Iraq policy. . . .

"The administration's strategy appears to be: Adopt parts of the recommendations that are under way already, or that are considered minor modifications of those efforts, and pick away at those that the administration believes imply retreat or folly."

And here's an astonishing admission: "Dan Senor, a former administration spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq . . . said former colleagues had told him they felt comforted by the recognition that there were no good options, because despite all of the intellect brought to the endeavor, the members of the panel had failed to make the leap from strategy to implementation."

So the White House is relieved no one else can find an easy way out of this mess either?

Three Options

Robin Wright and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post: "As pressure mounts for a change of course in Iraq, the Bush administration is groping for a viable new strategy for the president to unveil by Christmas, with deliberations now focused on three main options to redefine the U.S. military and political engagement, according to officials familiar with the debate.

"The major alternatives include a short-term surge of 15,000 to 30,000 additional U.S. troops to secure Baghdad and accelerate the training of Iraqi forces. Another strategy would redirect the U.S. military away from the internal strife to focus mainly on hunting terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda. And the third would concentrate political attention on supporting the majority Shiites and abandon U.S. efforts to reach out to Sunni insurgents."

Baker and Wright write that a "crash White House review -- which involves the State Department, the National Security Council, the CIA and the Pentagon -- is tentatively expected to lead to a speech to the nation the week of Dec. 18, officials say."

It's the Visibility, Stupid

Jim Rutenberg and Carl Hulse write in the New York Times: "President Bush will take part in high-visibility deliberations on Iraq next week, making visits to the Pentagon and State Department as they take part in an administrationwide effort to chart a new course in the war.

"Mr. Bush will also meet with a group of academic and policy experts about Iraq on Monday, officials said, and will hold a video teleconference with senior military commanders.

"The flurry of conspicuous consultation, officials said, is part of Mr. Bush's effort to come up with a new approach in Iraq under intense pressure to bring the violence there under control or begin reducing the United States' military commitment."


Gloria Borger writes in U.S. News about the Baker-Hamilton commission's interview with the president and his national security team.

"At one point, Vernon Jordan, a skilled Washington insider, put it pretty bluntly to the president, according to a panel member's paraphrase:

"Jordan: What do you mean by victory? When my mama told me to clean the garage, I cleaned the garage because I knew what she meant. But I don't understand what you mean.

"Bush: You have to speak to the American people with a simple message here. They understand what victory is, and if you come off of it, they'll think you're giving up.

"Some members say they were stunned by the response. And when they left, they were puzzled by one more thing: During their entire session, Vice President Dick Cheney--a key architect of the war in Iraq--never said a word. Not one."

Kissy Kissy

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "Former secretary of state James A. Baker III said for the first time yesterday that the Iraq Study Group remains committed to democracy in Iraq, as he and Co-Chairman Lee H. Hamilton offered conciliatory words to a Bush administration that has reacted coolly to the panel's key recommendations.

"The group's report makes no mention of President Bush's oft-stated goal of establishing democracy in Iraq; in the five days since its release, Baker and Hamilton have talked in more modest terms, referring to Bush's recent formulation of creating an Iraq that can govern and defend itself. But in an interview on 'Fox News Sunday,' Baker emphasized: 'We don't negate the goal of democracy.'"

Bubble Watch

If Bolten is to be believed, the Bush Bubble (so lovingly and exhaustively chronicled by yours truly) is coming to an end.

But Jonathan Chait, writing in a Los Angeles Times opinion column, sure doesn't see any signs yet: "Bush is the president of the United States, which therefore gives him enormous power, but he is treated by everybody around him as if he were a child."

Jonathan Alter writes in Newsweek: "If the president is supple and open-minded, those decisions made many layers below him are more likely to be agile and empirical. If he's stubborn and too sure that he has all the answers, the modeling of his behavior is likely to result in decisions you would ground your teenager for...

"Beyond the headlines and major policy recommendations, the Iraq Study Group's mercifully readable report shows how President Bush's personal shortcomings manifest themselves in appalling miscues on the ground. . . .

"Bush did not set out to miss the mark, of course, but his inattention to the execution of his grand ideas has had fatal consequences. . . .

"This is what happens when you have a president who is incurious and impatient with inconvenient facts he doesn't 'need to know': hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, nearly 3,000 dead Americans and what the Baker-Hamilton Commission estimates as a $2 trillion tab for our children."

The New York Times editorial board writes about the report: "We were particularly drawn to Recommendations 46, 72 and 78. Under separate headings dealing with the military, the federal budget and the nation's intelligence agencies, they share one basic idea: Government officials should not lie to the public or each other, especially in matters of war. . . .

"It is mind-boggling that this commission felt compelled to deliver Governing 101 lessons to the president of the United States. But that fits with the implicit message of the entire exercise -- a rebuke of the ideologically blinkered way Mr. Bush operates."

In his blog, William M. Arkin points out a key phrase from Bush's press conference on Thursday: "The only way to secure a lasting peace for our children and grandchildren is to defeat the extremist ideologies."

Writes Arkin: "Mark his words: the only way. . . .

"Thus we are witnessing the emergence of a new divide in American politics. It is no longer Democrats vs. Republicans or withdrawers vs. stay-the-coursers. The majority, bucked up by strong majority in American public opinion, is clearly in favor of change. In English, that means it's over in Iraq.

"The new battleground will be between the believers and the non-believers. Bush and Cheney command the believers, who remain the custodians of the Sept. 11 aesthetic that America and the world are threatened, leaving no room for niceties and togetherness."

Father and Son, Part One

Kenneth T. Walsh writes in U.S. News: "Former White House advisers to George H.W. Bush are keenly disappointed and concerned about the current President Bush's initial reaction to the report by the Iraq Study Group."

GOP Alienation

Noam N. Levey writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush, weakened by an unpopular war and the loss of Republican control in Congress, is now confronting disaffection within his own party that could complicate his attempt to set an agenda for his final two years in office.

"As Republicans departed Capitol Hill this weekend, some who used to dismiss Democratic attempts to investigate the administration as political posturing are now lining up behind calls for greater oversight of the executive branch."

Kurtz v. Snow

Howard Kurtz hosted White House press secretary Tony Snow on his CNN show yesterday.

After the first question was out of the way -- "Is the White House getting a fair shake from the press corps?" -- Kurtz grilled Snow for calling NBC White House correspondent David Gregory "partisan" at Wednesday's briefing, after Gregory asked a question that included a little legitimate journalistic skepticism.

Gregory's central question was "Can this report be seen as anything other than a rejection of this President's handling of the war?"

"KURTZ: But when you say to David Gregory -- you're asking a question in a partisan way --

"SNOW: Yes.

"KURTZ: And a few months ago you accused him of asking a question that reflected the Democratic point of view.

"SNOW: Right.

"KURTZ: That is a really serious charge for a lot of journalists.

"SNOW: Well, and I will tell you why. Because, number one, it did not reflect the stated views and approaches of the commission itself. I mean, what they had said.

"Secondly, I'd only heard that particular formulation through a partisan lens as a critique of the president, rather than as a critique of -- or a characterization of the report itself."

Kurtz concluded: "[I]t seems to be a recurring theme when journalists press you, you kind of accuse them of being troublemakers."

Snow tried to emphasize the few aspects of the report that were in sync with White House statements. But he continued to refuse to acknowledge the report's central argument.

"KURTZ: They also said the policy is not working.

"SNOW: No, what they said is that you need a new policy."

Snow also said the president likes holding press conferences. "[H]e actually likes it. I think, you know, presidents may say, 'Oh do I have to go out in front of the press?' And then when he does it he wants to do it longer."

Poll Watch

None of the options Bush appears to be considering go nearly far enough. At least, that's what the American public thinks.

Marcus Mabry writes for Newsweek: "Nearly two out of three Americans (65 percent) concur with the Iraq Study Group that the U.S. should threaten to reduce economic and military aid to the Baghdad government unless it meets benchmarks for security and development. Fifty-seven percent believe Washington should reach out to its adversaries Iran and Syria in an effort to stabilize Iraq. And 61 percent believe Washington should launch a new and sustained effort to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

But that's not enough. "Sixty-two percent of Americans want the Bush administration to set a timetable for withdrawal. And not in the distant future. Forty-eight percent of Americans want U.S. soldiers and Marines to come home now or within the next year. Add in the 19 percent who say they would support U.S. troops remaining in Iraq one to two years more and 67 percent of Americans say they would support keeping large numbers of U.S. military personnel in Iraq for no more than another year or two.

"Only 23 percent of Americas sound like the president, arguing that troops should stay in Iraq 'as long as it takes to achieve U.S. goals,' the lowest percentage ever recorded in the Newsweek poll. . . .

"[T]he president's approval remains at a near-record low 32 percent and only 31 percent of Americans say they're satisfied with the direction of the country."

A new Zogby poll finds: "The national job approval rating of President Bush has plummeted to 30%, an all--time low in the latest Zogby International telephone poll, sinking below the 31% approval rating he dropped to in early June. . . .

"The poll showed that Bush's troubles clearly stem from trouble with the war in Iraq. Just 24% give him positive marks for his handling of the war, down from 39% who gave him a positive rating six months ago for his handling the way. Even among Republicans, a minority -- 47% -- think he has handled the war well (52% of Republicans gave him negative marks for his leadership on the war in Iraq). Not a single demographic group in the Zogby poll gave the president a majority positive rating for his handling of the war.

"Asked whether the Iraq war has been worth the loss of American lives, just 34% responded positively, equally the lowest percentage recorded in a long series of Zogby polls on the question."

Repent Now

The president and first lady as usual attended Sunday morning services across the street, at St. John's Episcopal Church.

Mark Silva of the Chicago Tribune wrote in his pool report that the Rev. Luis Leon "spoke of 'the theology of reversal,' in which everything is turned upside down. . . .

"'Repentance is changing your way, changing your mind, changing your direction,' the Rev. Leon said.

"'It requires the will to change,' he said. 'It requires the courage to acknowledge that you want to change, to change your direction.'"

Rove Watch

Paul Bedard writes in U.S. News: "It's an ugly rumor, but it's spreading like wildfire: Karl Rove has lost his touch. In an amazing betrayal within a family where top political aide Rove is royalty, Bushies have been sneering at his pre-election happy talk. . . . And now we learn that President Bush really believed the GOP was safe, too. On the day before the elections, he asked embattled House GOP leader Dennis Hastert to run for speaker again so he could guide the White House's agenda in Congress."


James Rosen writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Vice President Dick Cheney went quail hunting last week, and the senator lived to tell the tale.

"Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and Republican South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford joined Cheney and Graham for two days of hunting on a private plantation that friends of Chambliss own in southern Georgia.

"The outing was only Cheney's second hunting trip since he accidentally wounded a close friend, Texas lawyer Harry Whittington, last February by spraying pellets into his face, neck and chest."

Quote Unquote

Friday's column was about the very good questions posed by two British reporters at Bush's press conference on Thursday.

Several readers pointed out that the White House transcript of the question from Nick Robinson of BBC was -- and remains -- incorrect.

According to the White House transcript, Robinson said: "Mr. President, the Iraq Study Group described the situation in Iraq as grave and deteriorating. You said that the increase in attacks is unsettling. That won't convince many people that you're still in denial about how bad things are in Iraq, and question your sincerity about changing course."

But watch the video, and it's quite clear that what Robinson said was "That will convince many people that you're still in denial about how bad things are in Iraq, and question your sincerity about changing course."

Father and Son, Part Two

Eleanor Clift writes in Newsweek: "On the eve of a report that repudiates his son's leadership, former president George H.W. Bush broke down crying when he recalled how his other son, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, lost an election a dozen years ago and then came back to serve two successful terms. The elder Bush has always been a softie, but this display of emotion was so over the top that it had to be about something other than Jeb's long-ago loss. . . .

"The former president was reflecting on how well Jeb handled defeat in 1994 when he lost his composure. 'He didn't whine about it,' he said, putting a handkerchief to his face in an effort to stifle his sobbing.

"That election turned out to be pivotal because it disrupted the plan Papa Bush had for his sons, which may be why he was crying, and why the country cries with him. The family's grand design had the No. 2 son, Jeb, by far the brighter and more responsible, ascend to the presidency while George, the partying frat-boy type, settled for second best in Texas. The plan went awry when Jeb, contrary to conventional wisdom, lost in Florida, and George unexpectedly defeated Ann Richards in Texas. With the favored heir on the sidelines, the family calculus shifted. They'd go for the presidency with the son that won and not the one they wished had won.

"The son who was wrongly launched has made such a mess of things that he has ruined the family franchise. Without getting too Oedipal, it's fair to say that so many mistakes George W. Bush made are the result of his need to distinguish himself from his father and show that he's smarter and tougher. His need to outdo his father and at the same time vindicate his father's failure to get re-elected makes for a complicated stew of emotions. The irony is that the senior Bush, dismissed by Junior's crowd as a country-club patrician, looks like a giant among presidents compared to his son."

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