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White House Year in Review: Bush Loses His Parade

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, December 20, 2006; 10:22 AM

The year 2006 started with President Bush firmly in denial about how terribly wrong his war in Iraq has gone. It ends that way, too.

But in between, something changed: Bush lost his parade.

Somehow, Bush had managed up until this year to lull voters -- and seduce journalists -- into complicity with a worldview that was simply not based in reality.

There's been plenty of evidence for years now that Bush was living in a self-imposed bubble of non-reality, particularly when it came to the situation in Iraq.

But it wasn't until Bob Woodward's book "State of Denial," came out in September that it was definitively established, to the full satisfaction of Washington's cocktail-party circles, that the president is not to be taken seriously on Iraq.

It wasn't until November, when the voters resoundingly threw Bush's congressional enablers from power, that it became undeniably clear that Americans reject Bush's leadership.

And Bush's response to this month's report from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group is making it manifestly obvious that, for all the White House's attempts to give the impression that Bush listens to people who disagree with him, he does not.

He appears to still listen pretty much only to two people -- Vice President Cheney and political guru Karl Rove -- even though both were proven catastrophically wrong in 2006.

The Iraq debacle, after all, is Cheney's doing almost more than it is Bush's. It was Cheney who whispered into Bush's ear that it would all work out just fine. Apparently, that continues.

And it is Rove who is responsible for Bush's aversion to finding common ground with his political enemies. That also appears to continue, even though this year's election proved quite conclusively that the politics of division have a limit.

These days, when Bush turns around to see who's marching behind him, he sees Cheney and Rove -- and increasingly few others.

A Look Back at 2006

Here's a look back at the year that was, through a sampling of White House Briefing columns:

* Feb. 3:It's the Credibility, Stupid

President Bush's fundamental challenge as he tries to regain his political footing is that most Americans don't trust him anymore.

* Feb. 8:The Captive President

President Bush almost never hears criticism to his face. Certainly not in public.

But yesterday, at the widely-watched funeral of civil rights icon Coretta Scott King, a fidgety president had no choice but to sit quietly and listen as several speakers reproached him for not having learned the lessons that King and her martyred husband, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., spent their lives teaching.

* Feb. 13:Shoots, Hides and Leaves

The vice president of the United States shoots someone in a hunting accident and rather than immediately come clean to the public, his office keeps it a secret for almost a whole day. Even then, it's only to confirm a report in a local paper.

And still from the White House, no details, no apologies, and no Cheney.

No one is suggesting that Cheney shot his hunting buddy on purpose. But could he have been negligent? What does he say happened exactly? What do the others there -- not just their hostess -- say took place? Shouldn't there be some sort of investigation? Does Cheney take any responsibility? And just when was he planning on letting the press know?

* Feb. 23:Reaping What He Sows

It's not often that President Bush gets a taste of his own medicine. But it's happening now as Bush defends his administration's decision to turn over operations at six U.S. seaports to an Arab company.

He stands accused of being weak on national security, insufficiently fearful of terrorism, and out of touch with the American public. And he's operating in a political climate where nuance and details make a poor defense.

* March 21:Incredibly Optimistic

"I understand how some Americans have had their confidence shaken," President Bush said yesterday in Cleveland. "Others look at the violence they see each night on their television screens, and they wonder how I can remain so optimistic about the prospects of success in Iraq. They wonder what I see that they don't."

Bush tried to explain. But in the end, what he provided was yet another example of what others see -- and he doesn't.

That would be reality.

* March 28:The Card Sacrifice

Sacrificing Andy Card, his longtime chief of staff, is President Bush's way of responding to the growing complaints about the administration's competence.

The botched response to Hurricane Katrina, the deteriorating situation in Iraq, the rocky relations with the Republican Congress -- all of these are seen at least in part as failures of execution. And execution is the chief of staff's job.

But Card's departure in no way addresses the two even more fundamental areas where Bush is vulnerable: His decisions and his credibility.

* March 31:A Compelling Story

Slowly but surely, investigative reporter Murray Waas has been putting together a compelling narrative about how President Bush and his top aides contrived their bogus case for war in Iraq; how they succeeded in keeping charges of deception from becoming a major issue in the 2004 election; and how they continue to keep most of the press off the trail to this day.

What emerges in Waas's stories is a consistent White House modus operandi: That time and time again, Bush and his aides have selectively leaked or declassified secret intelligence findings that served their political agenda -- while aggressively asserting the need to keep secret the information that would tend to discredit them.

* April 26:The Snow Forecast

There's no doubt that Tony Snow will be a breath of fresh air in the White House briefing room.

After almost three years during which members of the press corps banged their heads against the increasingly robotic, unresponsive and sometimes even unwitting Scott McClellan, there's someone new to talk to: A vivacious, outspoken, ultra-conservative pundit who apparently demanded a major role in the White House before agreeing to join the team....

But it's still entirely possibly that, in the long run, Snow will simply represent a more charming, energetic, engaged and plugged-in way of continuing to tell the press nothing.

* May 1:All Kidding Aside

President Bush on Saturday night had the audience at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner in stitches. With doppelganger comedian Steve Bridges alongside -- playing his inner self -- Bush poked gentle fun of his own mangling of the English language, his belligerence and his feelings about the media.

Then Comedy Central satirist Stephen Colbert ripped those stitches out.

Colbert was merciless, reserving his most potent zingers for the people in spitting distance: The president who took the nation to war on false pretenses and the press corps that let him do it.

* May 8:Would Bush Rather Be Fishing?

Is it possible that President Bush doesn't really enjoy his job?

Asked by a German tabloid to name the most wonderful moment of his presidency, Bush on Friday said it came while he was on vacation, fishing on his private lake. . . .

Maybe it was just a little innocent clowning. But maybe it emerged from his own candid awareness that historians looking back at his presidency may see an obvious low point (or two or three), but no equally obvious high points.

Or maybe, at heart, he'd rather be fishing.

* May 15:The Smoking Pen

Handwritten notes from Vice President Cheney once and for all place the vice president at the epicenter of a scandal that still threatens to tear apart the Bush White House.

The notes were scrawled in the margins of former U.S. ambassador Joseph Wilson's fateful July 2003 New York Times op-ed piece, in which Wilson described his trip to Niger at the behest of the CIA and criticized the White House for misusing intelligence in the run-up to war in Iraq.

"Do we ordinarily send people out pro bono to work for us?" Cheney scribbled atop his copy, a reproduction of which was filed in federal court late Friday by special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald. "Or did his wife send him on a junket?"...

"Those annotations support the proposition that publication of the Wilson Op-Ed acutely focused the attention of the vice president and the defendant -- his chief of staff -- on Mr. Wilson," Fitzgerald wrote in his filing.

* May 25:What Would Cheney Say?

Vice President Cheney's testimony in the criminal trial of his chief of staff -- suddenly a distinct possibility -- would appear to be crucial to the case.

The more we learn, the clearer it becomes that Cheney was at the epicenter of a White House campaign to discredit administration critic Joseph Wilson -- a campaign that ultimately included the outing of Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA operative.

Cheney is obviously the person in the best position to either confirm or contradict one of the hardest-to-swallow elements of Scooter Libby's defense: That Libby and Cheney specifically discussed Valerie Plame's status as a CIA operative in early June 2003, and then again after columnist Robert Novak publicly outed her on July 14 -- but not in between.

This is a key element of Libby's defense, because in between, Libby has argued, he "forgot" that he knew.

* June 6:Executive Power Outrage

When all is said and done, the biggest story of the Bush presidency will likely be its dramatic expansion of executive power -- engineered by Vice President Cheney, unchecked by a supine Congress, and underreported by the traditional media.

* June 15:The War Over the War

President Bush could have declared a change of course in his overwhelmingly unpopular war in Iraq this week.

Riding high on a few rare glimmers of good news, Bush could have declared that it was time for the U.S. to start its exodus from that troubled country, thereby offering the public a light at the end of the tunnel -- and possibly uniting a deeply fractured country in the anticipation of our troops coming home.

But instead, Bush yesterday made it clear: Not only is he set in his path -- he's embracing the divisive nature of the war and declaring it the No. 1 campaign issue of the 2006 mid-term elections.

* June 30:Overreach Overturned

Yesterday's Supreme Court ruling, definitively curbing the Bush White House's assertion of nearly unlimited executive power in a time of war, puts the other two branches of government back in business.

The Republican-controlled Congress, which has remained resolutely blind, deaf and dumb as President Bush took national security matters entirely into his own hands, now has little choice but to rouse itself to some sort of action.

And in reasserting the rule of law, the high court has opened the way to what could be major legal action over other executive branch violations of established statutes -- about domestic spying, for instance. The ruling even raises the possibility that U.S. forces and Bush administration officials could be tried for war crimes.

* July 24:An Imminent Threat (to the Constitution)

A blistering report out today from a blue-ribbon legal panel dramatically establishes how President Bush's use of signing statements to assert his right to ignore legislation passed by Congress undermines the rule of law and the constitutional system of separation of powers.

The report, from an American Bar Association task force, goes a long way toward establishing the parameters for what could be a ferocious and consequential debate -- or an unparalleled acquiescence to an executive-branch power grab.

* Aug. 7:This Is Diplomacy?

As President Bush's foreign policy oscillates between "cowboy diplomacy" and "post-cowboy diplomacy" and back again, it's worth pointing out that it's not really correct to call it diplomacy if he invariably refuses to talk to people who disagree with him.

* Aug. 9:The Anti-Bush Movement

Political fledgling Ned Lamont's unlikely triumph over President Bush's favorite Democrat in the Connecticut Senate primary lends itself to all sorts of fascinating interpretations -- and one is that it could mark the emergence of an anti-Bush voting bloc.

* Aug. 14:Did Cheney Go Too Far?

By insinuating that the sizeable majority of American voters who oppose the war in Iraq are aiding and abetting the enemy, Vice President Cheney on Wednesday may have crossed the line that separates legitimate political discourse from hysteria.

Cheney's comments came in a highly unusual conference call with reporters, part of an extensively orchestrated and largely successful Republican effort to spin the obviously anti-Bush message of Ned Lamont's victory over presidential enabler Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut Democratic Senate primary.

* Aug. 16:Bush Bubble Alive and Well

The White House made a big to-do about President Bush's meeting Monday with four outside experts on Iraq. Spokesman Tony Snow held the meeting up as proof that the president is interested in -- and consistently exposed to -- different points of view, and even dissent.

But the only thing that meeting demonstrated is that true dissent is still not welcome at the White House, unless you define dissenters as anyone who doesn't agree with the president on absolutely everything.

By all independent accounts, none of the academics who were granted an audience with the president Monday criticized his fundamental approach to Iraq. At most, they suggested minor course corrections.

And none of them told him what he evidently refuses to hear: That it's not working.

* Sept. 18:Torture Is All in the Subtext

President Bush was at his most pugnacious and disingenuous Friday in a Rose Garden press conference, refusing to give reporters a direct answer about where he stands on torture.

* Sept. 21:Bush vs. Reality

On the dominant issue of our time, the president is in denial.

By most reliable accounts, three and a half years into the U.S. occupation, Iraq is in chaos -- if not in a state of civil war, then awfully close. But President Bush insists it's not so.

He says the people he talks to assure him that the press coverage about how bad things are in Iraq is not to be trusted.

You might think that the enormous gulf between Bush's perceptions and reality on such a life-and-death topic would be, well, newsworthy. But if members of the Washington press corps consider it news at all, apparently it's old news. They report Bush's assertions about Iraq without noting that his fundamental assessment of the situation is dramatically contradicted by the reporting from their own colleagues on the ground.

And in the rare circumstances when they directly confront the president with observations that conflict with his own, they let it drop too quickly.

* Sept. 22:Bush Gets His Way

Pay no attention to the news stories suggesting that the White House caved in yesterday.

On the central issue of whether the CIA should continue using interrogation methods on suspected terrorists that many say constitute torture, the White House got its way, winning agreement from the "maverick" Republican senators who had refused to go along with an overt undoing of the Geneva Conventions.

The "compromise"? The Republican senators essentially agreed to look the other way.

* Sept. 27:Bush's Imaginary Foes

President Bush's angry nonanswers to two straightforward questions yesterday were among the best illustrations yet of his intense aversion to responding to his critics' actual arguments.

Rather than acknowledge and attempt to rebut the many concerns about his policies, Bush makes up inane arguments and then ridicules them.

* Oct. 5:Torture, By Any Other Name

President Bush repeatedly says he's against torture. The detainee legislation recently approved by Congress ostensibly bans torture.

But that's meaningless if the Bush administration won't say how it defines the word.

* Oct. 6:Olbermann's Special Comments

The traditional media has been slow to come to grips with the American public's distrust and dislike of President Bush -- sentiments clearly reflected in opinion polls dating back well over a year.

Almost alone among the network newscasters, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann is channeling that sensibility. Channeling it -- and amplifying it.

* Oct. 17:A 'Clear Message'

President Bush this morning proudly signed into law a bill that critics consider one of the most un-American in the nation's long history.

The new law vaguely bans torture -- but makes the administration the arbiter of what is torture and what isn't. It allows the president to imprison indefinitely anyone he decides falls under a wide-ranging new definition of unlawful combatant. It suspends the Great Writ of habeas corpus for detainees. It allows coerced testimony at trial. It immunizes retroactively interrogators who may have engaged in torture.

Here's what Bush had to say at his signing ceremony in the East Room: "The bill I sign today helps secure this country, and it sends a clear message: This nation is patient and decent and fair, and we will never back down from the threats to our freedom."

But that may not be the "clear message" the new law sends most people.

Here's the clear message the law sends to the world: America makes its own rules. The law would apparently subject terror suspects to some of the same sorts of brutal interrogation tactics that have historically been prosecuted as war crimes when committed against Americans.

Here's the clear message to the voters: This Congress is willing to rubberstamp pretty much any White House initiative it sees as being in its short-term political interests. (And I don't just mean the Republicans; 12 Senate Democrats and 32 House Democrats voted for the bill as well.)

* Oct. 26:Why Bush Thinks We're Winning

One of the more reality-defying aspects of President Bush's position on the war in Iraq is his insistence that we're winning.

That was a central theme at yesterday's press conference. . . .

"Absolutely, we're winning," Bush said. "As a matter of fact, my view is the only way we lose in Iraq is if we leave before the job is done."

With the body counts soaring, the country descending deeper into civil war and the central government consistently unable to assert itself, how can he call this winning?

The answer: It's becoming increasingly clear that Bush sees the war in Iraq in very simple terms. As he himself said, he believes that the only way to lose is to leave. Therefore anything else is winning -- anything else at all.

Even if no progress is being made -- even if things are getting worse, rather than better -- simply staying is winning.

So we're winning.

* Oct. 27:Most Ridiculous Moment?

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.

* Nov. 8:Does Bush Mean It?

The morning after a dramatic vote of no confidence from the American electorate, White House aides are fanning out to promise a new era of bipartisanship in the final two years of the Bush presidency. The president himself is expected to do the same in an afternoon news conference.

On a rhetorical level, it's a neck-snapping reversal from the savage smearing of Democrats as troop-hating terrorist-appeasing cowards that continued right up until last night, when the will of the voters became undeniable even by White House standards.

But more substantively, is President Bush actually prepared to reverse any of the controversial policies that have put him so dramatically out of step with the public?

* Nov. 13:The Unbelievable Karl Rove

How did Karl Rove get everything so wrong? . . .

Rove's divide-and-conquer political strategy, his insistence that Republican candidates embrace the war in Iraq as a campaign issue, his supremely self-assured predictions of victory -- all were proven deeply, even delusionally wrong last week.

* Nov. 27:It's a Civil War, Stupid

After nearly four years of letting the Bush Administration set the terms of the national debate over Iraq, some major news organizations are finally calling the conflict there what it is: a civil war. The White House is howling in protest.

* Nov. 30:Bush v. Baker

The conventional wisdom in the immediate aftermath of the mid-term election was that President Bush -- humbled by a vote of no confidence, hobbled by a deepening crisis in Iraq -- would turn away from the neoconservatism of Vice President Cheney and the hyper-partisanship of Karl Rove.

It was said that he would turn to his father's team. There was to be a course correction, in Iraq and elsewhere.

As the Year Ends

Michael Abramowitz writes in this morning's paper: "Yesterday, in an interview with The Washington Post, while acknowledging that the United States is not winning in Iraq, Bush bluntly dismissed the suggestion that the midterm elections meant voters want to bring the mission in that country to closure. He said he interpreted the election results 'as people not satisfied with the progress' in Iraq."

In other words, he can't hear what the voters were really saying.

Froomkin Watch

I'll be Live Online this afternoon at 1 ET -- and we can talk about The Post interview, Bush's news conference and Cheney's upcoming testimony in the Scooter Libby case -- but after that, I'll be taking a little break.

This is my last column until the new year. Thank you for reading. Thank you for writing. And happy holidays to all of you.

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