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'No One Suffers More Than the President'

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, April 25, 2007; 1:00 PM

First Lady Laura Bush said this morning that "no one suffers more" than the president and she do when watching television footage of the carnage in Iraq -- potentially opening her up to charges that the first family is too removed from the anguish of American troops and their families.

The first lady was on NBC's Today show mostly to talk about the president's malaria initiative, but at one point Ann Curry showed some video from Iraq and asked Bush, in a hushed, solicitous tone: "You know the American people are suffering, watching --"

The first lady replied: "Oh, I know that, very much. And believe me, no one suffers more than their president and I do when we watch this. And certainly the commander in chief who has asked our military to go into harm's way --"

Curry: "What do you think the American public need to know about your husband --"

Laura Bush: "Well, I hope they do know the burden of worry that's on his shoulders every single day, for our troops. And I think they do. I mean I think if they don't, they're not seeing what the real responsibilities of our president are."

Curry: "It must be hard for you to watch him in this."

Bush: "Well it's hard, of course, it's absolutely hard."

Here's the complete interview; here's the seminal clip, on Americablog.

Was the first lady actually looking for sympathy?

To call attention -- even when prompted by an interviewer -- to the first family's supposed suffering when American troops are losing their lives and American families are losing their loved ones in a war of choice doesn't strike me as appropriate.

That's especially the case considering that there have been some concerns raised in the media before about whether the war is affecting Bush as emotionally as perhaps it should.

Bush talked about his personal pain in his December 20 news conference. Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times asked him at the time:

"Q Thank you, Mr. President. Mr. President, Lyndon Johnson famously didn't sleep during the Vietnam War, questioning his own decisions. You have always seemed very confident of your decisions, but I can't help but wonder if this has been a time of painful realization for you as you, yourself, have acknowledged that some of the policies you hoped would succeed have not. And I wonder if you can talk to us about that. Has it been a painful time?"

Bush replied: "Yes, thanks. The most painful aspect of my presidency has been knowing that good men and women have died in combat. I read about it every night. My heart breaks for a mother or father, or husband or wife, or son and daughter; it just does. And so when you ask about pain, that's pain. I reach out to a lot of the families, I spend time with them. I am always inspired by their spirit. Most people have asked me to do one thing, and that is to make sure that their child didn't die in vain -- and I agree with that -- that the sacrifice has been worth it.

"We'll accomplish our objective; we've got to constantly adjust our tactics to do so. We've got to insist that the Iraqis take more responsibility more quickly in order to do so.

"But I -- look, my heart breaks for them, it just does, on a regular basis."

And yet Stolberg, in a story a few days later, wrote: "The nation might despair, but not Mr. Bush; his presidential armor seemed firmly intact."

And, she noted: "On weeknights, the Bushes watch football or baseball on television, 'to try not to worry a little bit,' Mrs. Bush told CBS."

And at other times, Bush has made it clear that he is not overly troubled.

People magazine asked Bush in December if he had trouble sleeping. As Karen Travers blogged for ABC News, his response was: "I must tell you, I'm sleeping a lot better than people would assume."

That echoed statements Bush made in June 2005 to board members of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. "I'd say I'd spend most of my time worrying about right now people losing their life in Iraq. Both Americans and Iraqis," he said. But then he added: "You know, I don't worry all that much, other than what I just described to you. I attribute that to . . . I've got peace of mind. A lot of it has to do with my particular faith, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that a lot of people pray for me and Laura . . . I'm sleeping pretty good. Seriously. I get asked that. There's times when I hadn't been. I've got peace of mind."

Fred Barnes wrote in the Weekly Standard in March: "Bush's relentlessly upbeat demeanor, which he flaunts at press conferences and other public events, infuriates his political opponents and much of the mainstream media. They want him to act like the broken man they think he should be. Sorry, but he's a healthy man, mentally and physically. He's bolstered by his religious faith, his sense of mission, his scorn for elite opinion, and what an aide calls 'his really good physical shape.' Exercise and sleep help to 'keep his spirits high,' the aide says."

This would also not be the first time that the issue of whether Bush understands the sacrifices involved in the war has come up. For instance, in a January interview with PBS's Jim Lehrer, Bush was asked about shared sacrifice and responded: "Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night. I mean, we've got a fantastic economy here in the United States, but yet, when you think about the psychology of the country, it is somewhat down because of this war."

Bush on Charlie Rose

Here's video of Bush's one-on-one interview yesterday with PBS's Charlie Rose. The transcript is not publicly available.

Peter Baker and Michael Abramowitz write in The Washington Post: "President Bush said Tuesday that the verdict is still out on whether the Iraqi government can make the political changes necessary to end sectarian violence as he offered a mixed report card on the progress of his new Iraq strategy."

Matt Spetalnick writes for Reuters: "President George W. Bush said on Tuesday that U.S. commanders likely will be able to gauge by September whether or not the troop buildup in Iraq is succeeding."

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush said Tuesday that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice might have one-on-one talks with Iranian leaders at an international conference on Iraq next month, but that Tehran's nuclear program would not be on the table.

"In an interview, Bush initially appeared to rule out any contact with Iran, a member of his 'axis of evil.'

"'What I'm not willing to do is sit down bilaterally with the Iranians,' he told PBS' 'The Charlie Rose Show.'

"Later, he said Rice and Iran's foreign minister might have bilateral conversations at the conference. 'They could. They could,' Bush said."

Brendan Murray writes for Bloomberg: "President George W. Bush said he's confident that U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales did 'nothing wrong' in the firings of eight federal prosecutors and said Iraq's leader is meeting U.S. expectations.

"'Al could've done a better job and his department could've done a better job of just explaining why we did what we did,' Bush said in an interview in New York today on PBS television's 'Charlie Rose' show. 'Instead we've got hearings and testimonies based on something that was perfectly legal.' . . .

"'I've got confidence in Al,' Bush said. 'He's caught up in Washington right now; it's what happens in that town a lot -- there's a lot of politics.' "

New York Times television critic Alessandra Stanley writes: "Charlie Rose is a talk show host known for long and rambling questions. President Bush is famous for his short, Texas-terse answers.

"On last night's show, the two men reversed roles. Mr. Bush spoke forcefully and at length about Iraq. Mr. Rose was succinct."

Stanley may be right about Rose, but she completely misstates Bush's history in this sort of interview. He relishes the opportunity to take softball questions and answer them at great, filibuster-like length, mostly with overly familiar talking points.

In either case, it seems to me that what we should be looking for in an interview with Bush is not whether he talks a lot, it's whether he says something new, whether he offers additional insight into his decision-making process, whether he shows any sign of changing his approach, and whether he confronts the actual arguments of his critics. None of that happened last night.

If Rose had come to the interview prepared to confront Bush with documented facts that contradict his stated positions, it might have been otherwise. But Rose's facilitating was, well, just that.

Some Highlights

"Rose: If the surge doesn't work, I mean, we find out at the end of the summer, everybody asked -- and John McCain said there is no plan B. Is there a plan B?

"Bush: Plan B is to make plan A work, and that's what we're talking to David about. And you know, he's -- he's -- he's just going to let us know where he thinks we stand at the end of the summer. . . .

"Rose: But you have to have a strategy -- that's your responsibility -- to have a strategy in case it doesn't work.

"Bush: We're constantly planning and constantly adjusting and constantly making changes. That's exactly what happened here. . . .

"Rose: Can you imagine a circumstance in which you would have to say, we did our best, good men and good women sacrificed their life, but we can't in the end do what we want to do, and we have to leave?

"Bush: No. I can't imagine that, because I believe that with time, this Iraqi government is going to be able to reconcile and move forward. It is not going to be a pretty picture. Of course, our government wasn't so pretty in its early stages either. And -- but I believe that -- I believe this can work. I do, yes."

Bush's most aggressive argument against a timetable for withdrawal involves predictions about what would happen.

As he said yesterday morning at the White House: "I strongly believe that the Democrats' proposal would undermine our troops and threaten the safety of the American people here at home. . . .

"It makes no sense to tell the enemy when you start to plan withdrawing. If we were to do so, the enemy would simply mark their calendars and begin plotting how to take over a country when we leave.

"We know what could happen next. Just as al Qaeda used Afghanistan as a base to plan attacks of September the 11th, al Qaeda could make Iraq a base to plan even more deadly attacks. . . . . Precipitous withdrawal . . . would embolden our enemies and confirm their belief that America is weak. It could unleash chaos in Iraq that could spread across the entire region. It would be an invitation to the enemy to attack America and our friends around the world. And, ultimately, a precipitous withdrawal would increase the probability that American troops would one day have to return to Iraq and confront an enemy that's even more dangerous."

Here is Rose's best question of the night -- and Bush's lame response:

"Rose: Is there much evidence of that, though, I mean, that in fact, if there is a date certain, what's the proof that it will have that impact?

"Bush: [Looking sort of perplexed] Just logic. I mean, you say 'we start moving troops out,' don't you think an enemy is going to wait and adjust based upon an announced timetable of withdrawal?"

Rose moved on.

On Civil War

Rose: "[I]t's pretty clear sectarian violence is almost a civil war there, in your judgment?

"Bush: I asked David Petraeus that, and he said no.

"Rose: It's not a civil war?

"Bush: He doesn't think so. He thinks it's extremists trying to foment a civil war, but no, he doesn't believe that."

On the Iraqi Prime Minister

"Rose: If he said 'get out now, we don't want you anymore . . . '

"Bush: I don't see how we could stay. It's -- it's his country.

"Rose: But if he said that, it would lead to the catastrophe that you have suggested.

"Bush: That's why he's not going to say it."

On Domestic Issues

Bush admitted he has been stymied on his proposed changes to Social Security. "I'll keep pushing, but I don't think it's going to happen," he said. "It's a little defeatist."

But asked if there is one "bold stroke" left in his presidency, he said: "Immigration bill. I believe that this country needs a comprehensive immigration bill that enforces law and treats people with respect."

War of Words

Carl Hulse and Jeff Zeleny write in the New York Times: "President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney aggressively challenged the motives of Congressional Democrats on Tuesday, as the House and Senate prepared to consider a war spending bill that would order troops to be withdrawn from Iraq beginning later this year.

"In separate appearances that served as a prelude to an inevitable veto showdown, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney accused Democrats of political opportunism in forging ahead with a $124 billion measure that sets a timetable for leaving Iraq. . . .

"[Cheney] lashed out at Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, who delivered stinging comments of his own on Monday, portraying Mr. Bush as being in denial about the war and saying Mr. Cheney had tarnished his own office.

'What's most troubling about Senator Reid's comments yesterday is his defeatism,' said Mr. Cheney. 'And the timetable legislation that he is now pursuing would guarantee defeat. Maybe it is a political calculation.' . . .

"Mr. Reid said he was not going to engage in a tit-for-tat with the vice president. 'I'm not going to get into a name-calling match with somebody who has a 9 percent approval rating,' Mr. Reid said."

Cheney Watch

Blogging in Time, columnist Joe Klein does a hilarious Cheney translation:

Cheney: "Maybe it's a political calculation. Some Democratic leaders seem to believe that blind opposition to the new strategy in Iraq is good politics. Senator Reid himself has said that the war in Iraq will bring his party more seats in the next election. It is cynical to declare that the war is lost because you believe it gives you political advantage. Leaders should make decisions based on the security interests of our country, not on the interests of their political party."

Translation: "We have never played politics with Iraq. We didn't schedule the initial authorization vote for just before the 2002 elections. We didn't cook the intel. We had nothing to do with the Mission Accomplished banner. The Navy told Bush to put on the flight suit. We didn't ignore the insurgency and spend vast resources on the Iraq Survey Group to look for non-existent WMD. Karl Rove never told Republicans they could use the war for their benefit. We never questioned the patriotism of people who opposed the war. I'm not questioning Harry Reid's patriotism now. And if you can't get that through your thick heads, you stupid, stupid Americans...you stupid Americans impatient with our master plan for VICTORY in the middle east...you...you... well then, as I once explained to Pat Leahy [expletive deleted]."

David Rogers blogs for the Wall Street Journal: "Rep. Barney Frank (D., Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, suggested any Democratic leader's stock rises in the party when attacked by Cheney. In checking liberal votes on the Iraq war funding bill this week, Frank said he is using the expression 'WWCD--What Would Cheney Do?'

"'I say WWCD and do the opposite,' Frank said."

Opposition Watch

Shailagh Murray writes in The Washington Post: "Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) accused President Bush this week of living in a 'state of denial,' of having ignored warnings from military leaders about his Iraq strategy, and of becoming 'isolated' and 'obstinate' as public support for the war dwindled.

"That sharp blast came from an unlikely source. When Democrats took over Congress in January, it was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- a staunch antiwar liberal from San Francisco -- who was expected to emerge as the new majority's lead spokesperson on Iraq. Instead, the role is being filled by Reid, a quirky Senate insider who voted to authorize the Iraq invasion in 2002 and backed the 1991 Persian Gulf War. . . .

"Reid's provocations have been carefully calculated, an attempt by Democrats to force Bush to play defense during a week of heated partisan confrontation over Iraq."

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "A senior Democratic leader, in a speech Wednesday at the Brookings Institution, will tie together a long series of Bush administration scandals, controversies and missteps into what he argues is a campaign to turn the government into an appendage of the Republican Party.

"The speech by House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) marks an escalation in the party's rhetorical war with President Bush. For much of last year's campaign season, Democrats called the Bush administration incompetent. Now they are preparing a darker case, accusing the administration of harboring malevolent intent."

From the prepared text of Emanuel's speech: "Under this administration, the federal government has become a stepchild of the Republican Party. And in promoting its partisan interests, absolutely nothing is out of bounds -- from our national security to our justice system and everything in between."

Gonzales Watch

Paul Kane writes in The Washington Post: "Despite vocal backing from President Bush, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales faced new doubts yesterday within his own party about whether he should stay on the job amid strong criticism about his handling of the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys.

"Several Senate Republicans spoke out against Gonzales for the first time, voicing deep concerns about his performance before the Judiciary Committee last week."

John R. Wilke and Evan Perez write in the Wall Street Journal: "As midterm elections approached last November, federal investigators in Arizona faced unexpected obstacles in getting needed Justice Department approvals to advance a corruption investigation of Republican Rep. Rick Renzi, people close to the case said.

"The delays, which postponed key approvals in the case until after the election, raise new questions about whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales or other officials may have weighed political issues in some investigations."

Special Counsel Watch

Tom Hamburger writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Even as Special Counsel Scott J. Bloch moved forward with plans for a sweeping probe of the Bush administration, several advocacy groups complained that his ties to the administration and to conservative groups, as well as his record on gay rights and whistle-blowers, made him the wrong man for the job.

"'There is a serious question as to whether Bloch will just provide cover for an administration that is covering for him,' said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a Democratic-leaning group."

On CNN, Ed Henry discussed the possible ramifications for Karl Rove and others in the White House.

"HENRY: Well, what's interesting, Scott Bloch acknowledges he can't prosecute any White House aides. He can't really do anything like that. And he can't actually admonish them.

"But what he can do, at the end of his investigation, is formally write a letter to the president urging him to take any kind of corrective action against an employee like Rove. It could be urging the president to fire an employee or to suspend an employee.

"So, though, the bottom line is that this is not going to lead to a prosecution or anything like that, even if wrongdoing is proven. All it really is is another political headache for this White House at a time when it doesn't need another headache. And the fact that it's coming from a Republican appointed by this president, not a Democrat, is a problem."

But moment later, Jack Cafferty had this to say: "One of Bush's guys is going to set out to do what, take down his boys?

"What, are you kidding me? That's like letting Charlie Manson conduct his own murder investigation."

The Washington Post editorial board writes that the White House has more explaining to do about political briefings at federal agencies.

The New York Times editorial board writes: "It is past time to get to the bottom of the administration's sleazy on-the-job politicking. Congress is already investigating Republican Party e-mail ties with Mr. Rove and others involved in the firings of eight United States attorneys. How many government agencies might have been despoiled by the White House's substitution of political machinations for honorable service? Taxpayers deserve answers."

Kucinich's Lonely Quest

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "'I do not stand alone,' Dennis Kucinich said as he stood, alone, in front of a cluster of microphones yesterday evening.

"The Ohio congressman, a Democratic presidential candidate, was holding a news conference outside the Capitol to announce that he had just filed articles of impeachment against Vice President Cheney. But subsequent questioning quickly revealed that Kucinich had not yet persuaded any of his 434 colleagues to be a cosponsor, that he had not even discussed the matter with House Democratic leaders, and that he had not raised the subject with the Judiciary Committee."

Here's Kucinich with CNN's Wolf Blitzer yesterday:

"BLITZER: Lots of questions. Why the vice president, if you're so concerned about the war, as opposed to the commander-in-chief? That would be the president.

"KUCINICH: Well, the vice president had a singular responsibility in whipping up public sentiment to lay the groundwork for a war against Iraq on false pretenses, and the articles of impeachment cover that. And there's another practical reason, Wolf, and that is that if someone was to aim at impeaching the president, then Mr. Cheney would become the president."

The Kucinich Web site has more information.

Bunker Watch

David Ignatius writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "If you want to hear despair in Washington these days, talk to Republicans. The Democrats are exulting in their newfound political power and are eager to profit from Bush's difficulties. But Republicans voice the bitterness and frustration of people chained to the hull of a sinking ship.

"I spoke with a half-dozen prominent GOP operatives this past week, most of them high-level officials in the Reagan and Bush I and Bush II administrations, and I heard the same devastating critique: This White House is isolated and ineffective; the country has stopped listening to President Bush, just as it once tuned out the hapless Jimmy Carter; the president's misplaced sense of personal loyalty is hurting his party and the nation.

"'This is the most incompetent White House I've seen since I came to Washington,' said one GOP senator. . . .

"A prominent conservative complains: 'With this White House, there is loyalty not to an idea, but to a person. When Republicans talked about someone in the Reagan administration being 'loyal,' they didn't mean to Ronald Reagan but to the conservative movement.' Bush's stubborn defense of Gonzales offends these Republicans, who see the president defiantly clinging to an official who has lost public confidence, just as he did for too long with former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld."

Ronald Brownstein writes in his Los Angeles Times opinion column: "George W. Bush's presidency is devolving into an extended holding action. On too many fronts, his top priority now appears to be delaying the inevitable.

"Donald H. Rumsfeld, the former Defense secretary, once described the Iraqi resistance as a few 'dead-enders' who refused to acknowledge that the world around them had changed. Increasingly that phrase applies as a self-portrait for the administration that Rumsfeld served. Forget 'the decider.' Bush has become the dead-ender. . . .

"[O]n stem cells, global warming and Iraq, Bush seems intent on defending the decisions he's made already, even at the price of obstructing a new consensus attempting to form around him. If Bush continues to view standing alone as the highest form of principle, he will never escape the dead end into which he's steered his second term."

Friendly Fire

Josh White writes in The Washington Post: "Members of a congressional oversight panel vowed yesterday to investigate whether the White House and top Pentagon officials played a role in deceiving the public about the 2004 'friendly fire' death of a former NFL player, Cpl. Pat Tillman, and argued that five investigations have failed to answer critical questions about the case. . . .

"Mary Tillman, who has called for high-level investigations since 2004, continued to accuse the government of 'using' her son's death to divert attention from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and high casualties in the Iraq war. . . .

"Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), the committee's chairman, said the government violates its most basic duty when it fails to tell soldiers and their families the truth. He said he is awaiting the Army's top-level review of how to assign responsibility for the lies about Tillman's death but said he will continue investigating.

"'We still don't know how far up this went,' Waxman said. 'We don't know what the secretary of defense knew. We don't know what the White House knew. These are questions the committee seeks answers to.'"

Margaret Talev notes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Jim Wilkinson, a top White House communications official, was present when U.S. news media at the battlefront were summoned from their beds in the pre-dawn hours of April 2, 2003, to a press conference where the fictional version of Lynch's capture and rescue was presented."

Talev writes that the Tillmans said they had specific questions, among them: "When Bush spoke of Tillman in careful terms at a White House correspondents dinner days after his death, did he already know what wasn't revealed for weeks - that friendly fire was likely to blame?"

Oversight Watch

Elizabeth Williamson writes in The Washington Post: "Over the course of only 15 minutes today, three congressional committees will consider subpoenas for half a dozen officials from the White House and the departments of Justice and State. . . .

"Republican leaders call it a 'partisan witch hunt.' But Democratic lawmakers, and even some Republicans, say it is an overdue return to their constitutional role of executive-branch oversight."

The Moyers Indictment

Tom Shales writes in The Washington Post: "Tonight's edition of 'Bill Moyers Journal' on PBS is one of the most gripping and important pieces of broadcast journalism so far this year, but it's as disheartening as it is compelling. . . .

"In this 90-minute report, called 'Buying the War,' Moyers and producer Kathleen Hughes use alarming evidence and an array of respected journalists to make the case that, in the rage that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the media abandoned their role as watchdog and became a lapdog instead."

Sympathy from Murdoch

Paul Bond writes in the Hollywood Reporter about Rupert Murdoch "telling a large audience of business leaders that the press is routinely unfair to George W. Bush and that the president doesn't seem capable of defending himself. . . .

"The News Corp. chairman and CEO said that, in person, Bush is 'persuasive, strong and articulate' but that 'he seems to freeze whenever a television camera appears.'

"Motioning to Paul Gigot, editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, Murdoch said, 'Apart from your newspaper and mine, there's a sort of monolithic attack on him every day of the year.'

"News Corp. is the parent company of Fox News Channel, the New York Post and dozens of other media assets."

Cheney's Clot

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "The blood clot in Vice President Dick Cheney's left leg is slowly getting smaller, according to doctors who checked his leg Tuesday and gave him an upbeat report, a spokeswoman said."

Jon Stewart Watch

Jon Stewart last night used clips of first-term President Bush to "debate" current President Bush.

"So let me see if I have this straight," Stewart said. "Basically, first-term President Bush, you invaded to remove the threat of Saddam Hussein, and you, current President Bush, are there to battle the threat created by the lack of Saddam Hussein."

Cartoon Watch

Rex Babin and Mike Luckovich on Tillman and Bush; Steve Sack on Bush's legacy, Walt Handelsman on Bush's listening ability.

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