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A Welcome Distraction

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, May 7, 2007; 2:50 PM

There's nothing like a royal visit to take your mind off your troubles. So today's festivities in honor of Queen Elizabeth II, complete with a lavish white-tie state dinner, come at a particularly opportune moment for the Bush White House.

It seems like there's pretty much nothing else to celebrate.

Resolute or Delusional?

The latest cover of U.S. News (the soberest of the newsweeklies) features a picture of the president and the headline: 'Bush's Last Stand . . . IS HE RESOLUTE OR DELUSIONAL?'

Kenneth T. Walsh, the author of the cover story, starts off by describing President Bush's increasingly frequent habit of comparing himself to Lincoln and Truman.

Then Walsh quotes presidential historian Robert Dallek's assessment of the current president: "He may come across to some people as a man of principle, but a great majority see him as stubborn and unyielding. . . . And everything he touches turns to dust."

Walsh is particularly struck by "a fundamental fact about George W. Bush's presidency as it approaches what many consider a twilight stage. Despite a cascading series of setbacks that convey the impression of a White House in crisis, Bush continues to exude an aura of calm and self-confidence. Like him or not -- and he is one of the most polarizing leaders in American history -- he rarely if ever backs down or exhibits self-doubt. This intransigence infuriates his critics and delights his admirers, and it will remain perhaps the most vivid characteristic of his leadership."

In fact, Walsh writes that "even some former Bush advisers are worried that the mood is misplaced. . . .

"'We're seeing the very early demise of an administration,' says a former White House adviser to Bush's father, George H. W. Bush, with considerable sadness. 'It usually happens six months before a president leaves office in a second term, but in this case it's happening now.'"

Walsh notes that even many Republican now acknowledge the harmful effects of what I have long called Bush's Bubble: "'Isolation is inevitable in any White House,' says a former Bush aide who returned to the West Wing recently to chat with former colleagues. Now that he is out of the bubble, the former aide says, he can see an isolation he didn't recognize before. 'People in the White House are talking only to each other, reconfirming each other's and the president's perceptions and judgments,' he says."

As for the official White House view, Walsh writes that senior staffers "say Bush and his key aides do listen to advice, including counsel from many outsiders, in a constant campaign of outreach. . . . '[Bush] is constantly getting a whole range and variety of opinions,' White House counselor Dan Bartlett told U.S. News. 'I don't believe there are any blind spots in the White House.'"

And Walsh writes that White House officials "say that Bush isn't delusional at all and that history will vindicate him, just as it vindicated Lincoln and Truman. 'He believes the correctness of his policies-including the war in Iraq-may not be recognized for 10, 15 years,' says a Bush adviser."

Poll Watch

Marcus Mabry writes for Newsweek that "George W. Bush now has the worst approval rating of an American president in a generation. . . . According to the new Newsweek Poll, the public's approval of Bush has sunk to 28 percent, an all-time low for this president in our poll, and a point lower than Gallup recorded for his father at Bush Sr.'s nadir. The last president to be this unpopular was Jimmy Carter who also scored a 28 percent approval in 1979."

Asked "which president showed the greatest political courage -- meaning being brave enough to make the right decisions for the country, even if it jeopardized his popularity -- more respondents volunteered Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton (18 percent each) than any other president. Fourteen percent of adults named John F. Kennedy and 10 percent said Abraham Lincoln. Only four percent mentioned George W. Bush. (Then again, only five percent volunteered Franklin Roosevelt and only three percent said George Washington.)

"A majority of Americans believe Bush is not politically courageous: 55 percent vs. 40 percent. And nearly two out of three Americans (62 percent) believe his recent actions in Iraq show he is 'stubborn and unwilling to admit his mistakes,' compared to 30 percent who say Bush's actions demonstrate that he is 'willing to take political risks to do what's right.'"

Bush's Iraq Legacy

Warren P. Strobel writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The four years since President Bush declared 'Mission Accomplished' have been a legacy of missed opportunities, ineffectual plans, surges and course corrections that have always been too late, too late or both, critics say. . . .

"With 20 months left in Bush's term, his Iraq policy may be at its final crossroads, with little time to show progress and big questions on several fronts."

Benedict Carey writes in the New York Times: "The detailed mental health survey of troops in Iraq released by the Pentagon on Friday highlights a growing worry for the United States as it struggles to bring order to Baghdad: the high level of combat stress suffered during lengthy and repeated tours.

"The fourth in a continuing series, the report suggested that extended tours and multiple deployments, among other policy decisions, could escalate anger and increase the likelihood that soldiers or marines lash out at civilians, or defy military ethics.

"That is no small concern since the United States' counterinsurgency doctrine emphasizes the importance of winning the trust and support of the local population. . . .

"The survey of 1,320 soldiers and 447 marines was conducted in August and September of 2006. The military's report, which drew on that survey as well as interviews with commanders and focus groups, found that longer deployments increased the risk of psychological problems; that the levels of mental problems was highest -- some 30 percent -- among troops involved in close combat; that more than a third of troops endorsed torture in certain situations; and that most would not turn in fellow service members for mistreating a civilian."

GOP Timetables

Jim Tankersley writes in Saturday's Chicago Tribune: "President Bush appears poised to win months more of funding for troops in Iraq. But if conditions don't improve there by fall, he could lose support from a battalion of congressional Republicans.

"Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill, while still debating details, say they are likely to pass a bill that would tie war spending to a set of benchmarks for Iraq's progress but no deadlines for troop withdrawal, which caused Bush to veto a funding bill this week. They would then address the war in other debates this summer and let political pressure mount on the GOP.

"'This is going to be a step-by-step process, continuing to isolate' the president, said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), the House Democratic Caucus chairman. 'The key to that is to basically get Republicans who say, "We're not going to do this anymore." '

"Privately and publicly, some House Republicans and their staff say defections could come as early as September, when Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of American troops in Iraq, returns to brief Congress on the progress of Bush's 'troop surge' of nearly 30,000 to quell insurgent fighters."

And, as Julian E. Barnes writes in this morning's Los Angeles Times: "A key Republican House leader said Sunday that if President Bush's current strategy in Iraq is not working by fall, members of Congress will demand to know what the White House's next plan is.

"Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House minority leader, said the troop buildup had shown some success and noted that it was not yet complete. But he embraced the idea of setting benchmarks for the Iraqi government and requiring Bush to assess the Iraqis' progress on a monthly basis.

"'Over the course of the next three months or four months, we'll have some idea how well the plan is working,' Boehner told Chris Wallace on 'Fox News Sunday.' 'Early signs are indicating there is clearly some success on a number of fronts. But . . . by the time we get to September, October, members are going to want to know how well this is working, and if it isn't, what's Plan B?'"

Et Tu, Gates?

Peter Spiegel and Julian E. Barnes write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush has mobilized his administration, including his top general in Iraq, in a major push to win more time and money for his war strategy. But one crucial voice has been missing from the chorus: Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates'.

"In fact, Gates' recent comments seem to run counter to the message from the White House. During a recent trip to the Middle East, Gates told the Iraqi government that time was running out and praised Democratic efforts in the U.S. Congress to set a timetable for withdrawal, saying it would help prod the Iraqis. He reiterated that point during a meeting with reporters last week.

"A spokesman for Gates insisted there was no distance between the Defense secretary's thinking on the timetable for Iraq and views held by the White House or Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. troops in Iraq.

"But his warnings to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki are just the latest indications from Gates that he believes the window of opportunity for the administration to get Iraq right is closing sooner rather than later. . . .

"'I believe Gates is on a completely different page than President Bush and Gen. Petraeus,' said a former senior Defense official who has supported the buildup. 'He wants to see some results by summer, and if he doesn't see those results, he seems willing to throw the towel in.'"

White House Departure

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post about the resignation of J.D. Crouch: "Crouch, the No. 2 official at the National Security Council, has been a pivotal figure on a series of difficult issues, including Afghanistan, North Korea, Iran and the detention policy for terrorism suspects. And it was his interagency group meeting at the White House complex for many weeks last winter that resulted in the ongoing troop buildup in Iraq, which has become the defining decision of the year for Bush. . . .

"Crouch becomes the second top official involved in crafting the new Iraq strategy to leave before it is clear if the new approach will work. Meghan O'Sullivan, the deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan, also plans to resign soon. The departures will leave national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley huge holes to fill even as he tries to find a new 'war czar' to oversee Iraq."

Help Wanted

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "Now that the White House is searching for a 'war czar,' it begs the question of who has been coordinating U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan the past four years.

"A team of West Wing players led by national security adviser Stephen Hadley has tried to keep turf-conscious agencies marching in the same direction on military, political and reconstruction fronts. A few Bush aides say privately, however, that the White House probably should have recruited someone to oversee the war effort a year ago.

"Critics say the administration's job of coordinating the war has never gone smooth enough or fast enough. And now two key members of the White House team focused on the war are leaving."

Mark Silva blogs for the Chicago Tribune: "The Bush administration may have found that 'war czar' it's been looking for: Vice President Dick Cheney."

"The vice president . . . will depart next week for a tour of Middle East capitals and a review of U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf. . . .

"In the midst of the White House's quest for someone to oversee war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and with the announced departure today of another high-ranking official at the National Security Council -- there is no one more adamant about prosecuting those wars than Cheney."

Where's Osama?

Kevin Whitelaw writes for U.S. News: "When President Bush talks about Osama bin Laden these days, it's usually to rally support for the U.S. effort in Iraq. Last month, he told an audience that bin Laden and his al Qaeda network 'have made it clear they want to drive us from Iraq to establish safe haven in order to launch further attacks.' But over the past year, U.S. intelligence agencies have completely revised their assessment of al Qaeda and reached an alarming conclusion: Bin Laden already has a safe haven-in Pakistan-and may be stronger than ever. . . .

"Privately, U.S. officials concede that they had overestimated the damage they had inflicted on al Qaeda's network. . . .

"Iraq has, of course, been an undeniable boon for al Qaeda, both as a battleground and a rallying cause. But when it comes to exporting terrorism, U.S. intelligence is more worried today about the badlands of western Pakistan. That's where bin Laden has succeeded in reconstituting a safe haven after several years on the run."

Editorial Watch

Editor and Publisher notes that a growing number of editorial pages are starting to call for a U.S. withdrawal.

The Los Angeles Times editorial board writes: "After four years of war, more than $350 billion spent and 3,363 U.S. soldiers killed and 24,310 wounded, it seems increasingly obvious that an Iraqi political settlement cannot be achieved in the shadow of an indefinite foreign occupation. The U.S. military presence -- opposed by more than three-quarters of Iraqis -- inflames terrorism and delays what should be the primary and most pressing goal: meaningful reconciliation among the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

"This newspaper reluctantly endorsed the U.S. troop surge as the last, best hope for stabilizing conditions so that the elected Iraqi government could assume full responsibility for its affairs. But we also warned that the troops should not be used to referee a civil war. That, regrettably, is what has happened.

"The mire deepens against a backdrop of domestic U.S. politics in which support for the ill-defined mission wanes by the week. Better to begin planning a careful, strategic withdrawal from Iraq now, based on the strategies laid out by the Iraq Study Group, than allow for the 2008 campaign season to create a precipitous pullout."

The Roanoke Times editorial board writes: "Though President Bush seems psychologically incapable of the act, it is time for everyone else in the United States to recognize the inevitable: The occupation of Iraq is an utter, irredeemable failure. We cannot win there militarily or politically.

"Further expenditure of blood, lives and treasure will gain the United States nothing. Nor will it gain anything for the Iraqi people, who have seen only chaos and bloodshed from this intervention."

Meanwhile, the New York Times editorial board writes about benchmarks: "What Mr. Maliki needs to do to slow Iraq's bloodletting is no mystery. . . . "Mr. Bush acknowledges that these benchmarks are important. Yet he refuses to insist, or let Congress insist, that Baghdad achieve them or face real consequences. Each time Baghdad fails a test, Mr. Bush lowers his requirements and postpones his target dates -- the kind of destructive denial Mr. Bush called, in another context, the soft bigotry of low expectations. . . .

"The final version of the spending bill should include explicit benchmarks and timetables for the Iraqis, even if Mr. Bush won't let Congress back them up with a clear timetable for America's withdrawal. If Mr. Maliki and Mr. Bush still don't get it, Congress will have to enact new means of enforcement, and back that up with a veto-proof majority."

Scandal Watch

Chitra Ragavan writes in U.S. News about the "unremitting wave of formative scandals. Most may amount to nothing, but with the White House's immunity to oversight severely weakened by November's election rout, Bush officials are swamped with endless subpoena requests and preparations for Capitol Hill grillings. . . .

"[O]ne particular target is Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove."

Close Coordination

James Rowley writes for Bloomberg: "Monica Goodling, at the time an aide to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, sobbed for 45 minutes in the office of career Justice Department official David Margolis on March 8 as she related her fears that she would have to quit, according to congressional aides briefed on Margolis's private testimony to House and Senate investigators. . . .

"Three hours before Goodling visited his fourth-floor office, Margolis told House and Senate investigators that [D. Kyle Sampson, Gonzales's chief of staff,] dropped by to say he had information Margolis needed to know, one congressional aide said.

"Margolis recounted that Sampson read his e-mail exchanges with White House aides that showed the decisions on firing the prosecutors were closely coordinated with members of the president's staff, the aide said.

"Margolis recalled that he was stunned to learn the extent of White House involvement in the dismissals, congressional aides said. Margolis testified that preparation for McNulty's Senate testimony -- which took place more than a month before his meetings with Goodling and Sampson -- was based on the assumption that the White House only became involved at the end of the firing process, the aide said."

Politicization of Justice

Greg Gordon and Margaret Talev write for McClatchy Newspapers: "Congressional investigators are beginning to focus on accusations that a top civil rights official at the Justice Department illegally hired lawyers based on their political affiliations, especially for sensitive voting rights jobs.

"Two former department lawyers told McClatchy Newspapers that Bradley Schlozman, a senior civil rights official, told them in early 2005, after spotting mention of their Republican affiliations on their job applications, to delete those references and resubmit their resumes. Both attorneys were hired."

Charlie Savage writes in the Boston Globe: "Schlozman is emerging as a focal point of the investigation into the firing of eight US attorneys last year -- and as a symbol of broader complaints that the Bush administration has misused its stewardship of law enforcement to give Republicans an electoral edge."

The Rove Meeting

I wrote in Friday's column about the news that Karl Rove had participated in a controversial March 5 White House meeting to coach a Justice department official on what to tell a congressional committee about the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.

There are two important questions here: 1) Were Rove and the others concocting a cover story? And 2) Did Rove's silence about his own considerable role in the firings amount to an attempt mislead Congress?

The White House on Friday addressed question No. 1. From Friday's briefing:

"Q You don't think it creates an appearance of everybody getting their story straight?

"MS. PERINO: What I think is that -- what it appears is that anytime Karl Rove's name is mentioned is that there's some sort of nefarious action. I will tell you that, having worked on that issue intimately... That is not unusual, and we would have done that with any agency.

"Q Yes, but there was a sense at the time that the Justice Department, I believe from the podium it was suggested often that the Justice Department needs to get its -- all of its story in line, straight, and get it in, settled up to the Hill, but that it was the Justice Department's problem to solve, which would be different than having meetings at the White House to talk about any kind of strategy about how you're going to testify.

"MS. PERINO: Urging members of the administration to make sure that they're responsive to members of Congress is not at all inappropriate. In fact, I think we would be remiss if we hadn't done so.

"Q That's not what I'm saying. I'm saying that there were meetings at the White House about coordinating a strategy for how to deal with it. That's not exactly the kind of --

"MS. PERINO: Look, I was at that meeting, and I will tell you that the way you're describing it, in terms of coordinating some sort of message, was not the case. It was encouraging them to make sure that all the information got out quickly so that the members of Congress could have what they needed so that we could move on from that story.

"Q You were there?

"MS. PERINO: I was there."

Now it's time to ask Perino question No. 2.

The Royal Visit

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Jim Rutenberg write in the New York Times: "The White House is atwitter over the visit on Monday by Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. This is the first visit by the queen since 1991, when Mr. Bush's father was president. White House aides say the state dinner in her honor is not only the social event of the year, but also of the entire Bush presidency.

"It will be closely watched by the social elite for its collision of cultures -- Texas swagger meets British prim. Dinner attire is white tie and tails, the first and, perhaps, only white-tie affair of the Bush administration. The president was said to be none too keen on that, but bowed to a higher power, his wife."

Julianna Goldman writes for Bloomberg: "This is the third time Bush will greet the queen. The first was 16 years ago, when his father George H.W. Bush was president. In her memoir, former first lady Barbara Bush recounts that during lunch, she jokingly told Queen Elizabeth she had put their 'Texas son as far away from her as possible at the table and had told him that he was not allowed to say a word to her.'

"The queen asked the 'Texas son,' George W. Bush, why that was and whether he was 'the black sheep in the family?' Bush said he guessed that was the case and asked the queen who was the black sheep in her family. She laughed and didn't answer."

A few things to look for today: Will the queen give Bush an award? Will the queen allow Bush a dance? And will the queen talk about Iraq?

In 1991, the last time she visited the White House, the queen presented Bush Sr. with the Winston Churchill Award "in recognition of the leadership you have shown the world."

In 1976, she and President Ford shared a dance.

And the queen's grandson, Harry, is about to ship out to Iraq.

Bush 101

Paul Bedard writes in U.S. News: "There could be a brand of Bush 101 taught in business schools soon if James Hoopes, the Murata Professor of Ethics in Business at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., gets his way. Just last week, he landed a publisher for Hail to the CEO: The Failure of George W. Bush and the Cult of Moral Leadership. His premise: President Bush, a Harvard University M.B.A. grad, is proof that business schools focus more on leadership than on management."

Eternal General

Ken Herman blogs for Cox News: "The official White House transcript shows otherwise, but a recording shows that President Bush today introduced embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in a way that indicates Gonzales will have the job in perpetuity.

"'I'm honored to be here with the eternal general of the United States, mi amigo, Alberto Gonzales,' Bush said in recognizing his longtime friend at a Rose Garden celebration of Cinco de Mayo."

You can hear it at the one-minute mark in this video.

Belated Correction

Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post: "Correction of the week: Remember President Bush's speech last Tuesday to the Associated General Contractors of America, in which he excoriated Congress for meddling with military decisions in Iraq?

"'The question is, who ought to make that decision? The Congress or the commanders? And as you know, my position is clear -- I'm the commander guy,' Bush said, according to the White House transcript."

But Perino asked the transcribers to double-check. "And sure enough, he actually said 'a' commander guy. Thus the correction issued on Friday.

"It's a critical distinction. The change means that all Bush really was saying was that he's someone who sides with the commanders. Except of course when he doesn't, such as when he rejected their recommendations at the outset to double the troops invading Iraq, or more recently, when he overrode strong misgivings among the brass and ordered the 'surge.' So he's 'The Surger Guy.'

Fittest President Ever

Ann Sanner writes for the Associated Press: "Just before climbing on his mountain bike Saturday, President Bush urged people to get up off their couches and walk, jog, pedal and swim."

Here's the text of his brief remarks: "It doesn't take much time to stay fit -- 30 minutes five days a week. . . . I have found that exercise not only is a good excuse to get outdoors, it helps relieve stress, as well."

After the official statement, Bush announced: "Wait, I'm going to lift my bike." Which he did, with one hand. "Lightweight," he said. Here's the AP photo.

Cartoon Watch

Garry Trudeau on false choices; John Sherffius on Commander Guy; Tony Auth on a tale of two cities.

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno via U.S. News: "And how embarrassing is this? 'Time' magazine released its list of the 100 most influential people in the world. President Bush is not on the list. Isn't that amazing? However, supermodel Kate Moss is! And here's the scary part -- Kate Moss actually has a better plan for getting us out of Iraq."

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