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Bush's 'Firsthand' Experience With War

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, November 9, 2007; 1:30 PM

President Bush, who claimed earlier this week that he understands the consequences of war "firsthand," shot at insurgents on the streets of Baghdad yesterday.

But only in virtual reality.

Bush tried his hand at a computer game designed for recovering soldiers during a visit to a private Texas facility for grievously wounded veterans -- a visit that he sandwiched between two big-donor Republican fundraisers.

Bush played the game out of view of reporters. But, according to White House Press Secretary Dana Perino, he "helped to shoot the bad guys" in a Baghdad neighborhood and saw several other "cutting edge virtual reality games," AFP reported.

Apparently, Perino didn't say how many people he killed.

In an interview on Wednesday with German television networks, Bush asserted: "I've committed our troops into harm's way twice, and it's not a pleasant experience because I understand the consequences firsthand."

Bush, of course, has no combat experience. And sometimes he gives the impression that he doesn't appreciate how removed he is from the horrors of war, and how different his situation is from those who bear the burden of his decisions. This would appear to be another such example.

Bush's Day in Texas

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press that Bush used the visit to San Antonio's Brooke Army Medical Center to assert his administration's determination to mend the nation's veterans care system.

"'We have an outdated system that can bog down some of those recovering in a maze of bureaucracy and that's what happened at Walter Reed,' he said, referring to the Army medical center in Washington, D.C.

"Bush's visit to Brooke comes amid scrutiny of veterans' care and discontent among returning troops after extended tours in Iraq. . . .

"At the rehabilitation center, Bush stopped at a 'gait lab,' where amputees with protheses learn to walk on gravel, artificial turf and other surfaces. A pool with a simulated wave allows patients to practice their balance while riding tiny surf boards.

"Bush toured a physical therapy gym where two double amputees tossed a ball while balancing themselves on exercise balls. He talked to two servicemen with faces so burned that scarring had left them with mask-like expressions.

"The president also watched as Lance Cpl. Matt Bradford, 22, of Winchester, Ky., who lost both legs and his sight in an explosion in Iraq, climb a fake rock wall. Other soldiers cheered him on as he slowly scaled the 35-foot wall and captured a red flag at the top.

"'Good man. Isn't he?' Bush said."

Here are some harrowing pictures of Bush with the wounded soldiers. Here is Lcpl. Isaac Gallegos presenting Bush with a souvenir T-shirt.

Don Teague blogs for NBC News: "I arrived at the center this morning, several hours in advance of President Bush's visit this afternoon. What a humbling experience.

"There are hundreds of men and women here, recovering from horrific wounds. Burns, amputations, blindness. They have suffered and lost, and paid the price for service.

"Yet, most are smiling -- even through pain.

"I'm not sure I can explain why. Soldiers and Marines have always had an uncanny ability to 'smoke and joke' under extreme circumstances. I saw lots of that today. Men and women, some burned beyond recognition or with only two limbs, sitting in the warm sunshine, telling stories, anticipating the president's arrival. . . .

"One soldier said it was a big boost for morale for Bush to come and meet them. He wanted the president to know he missed his buddies in Afghanistan and that he's looking forward to rejoining the fight -- with his one good leg.

"Bush, for his part, marveled at the technology. He watched amputees climb a rock wall using prosthetic limbs. He offered encouragement to a soldier who had lost both legs as he balanced on a fitness ball. He spent time talking with dozens of soldiers and thanked them for their service. He came and went.

"But the men and women who need this place can't leave just yet. They have much work to do, fighting to regain any version of normalcy. And smiling."

As The Washington Post's Michael Abramowitz described in his pool report: "Bush worked his way through the gym, looking very engaged and upbeat, chatting animatedly with the wounded marines and soldiers." But, Abramowitz added, Bush "seemed to some in the pool choked up by the end of his hour and a half visit."

From Bush's remarks: "If anybody were to come to this center, they would have to leave inspired and thankful, inspired by the servicemen and women who are recovering from wounds with such courage; thankful that there are instructors and preachers and volunteers who are helping these people get back on their feet and getting their lives together."

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The president visited the military center between parties for the Texas GOP and for Sen. John Cornyn's reelection campaign that were expected to raise $1.3 million.

"When the president splits his travel time between official events -- in this case, the tour of the rehabilitation center -- and political events, the government picks up a share of the costs that would otherwise be charged to the beneficiaries of the fundraising."

Julie Mason writes in the Houston Chronicle about the first fundraiser, a brunch: "The president spent over an hour with a few hundred guests at the River Oaks home of energy executive Richard Kinder, the former president of Enron Corp., and his wife, Nancy Kinder. . . .

"About 100 people waited in line for a photo with the president, which cost between $10,000 and $14,600. Other guests mingled on the Kinders' perfectly manicured lawn.

"Although the event was closed to the press, those who went in described Bush as talkative and sentimental, before an adoring crowd of supporters.

"He gave a familiar speech about the Oval Office, and how he asked first lady Laura Bush to pick out a rug for him that conveys optimism. The custom-made rug is in shades of cream and yellow, and looks like rays of the sun.

"The president also talked about how he is not a navel-gazer, and doesn't spend time soul-searching and asking why. He is the decider, he told the group, and his job as president is to be an optimistic decider.

"Bush reportedly dismissed the polls that show him with historically low public approval ratings, saying history will be the better judge of his presidency. He reminded the audience that Lincoln was unpopular, too."

Guillermo X. Garcia and Laura E. Jesse write for the San Antonio Express about the second fundraiser: "After praising the world-class care that maimed and disfigured veterans are getting at the Center for the Intrepid at Fort Sam Houston, President Bush defended the war in Iraq at a gathering of Republican supporters and predicted Thursday that history will bear him out.

"'Some day people are going to look back at this time and day and say, "Thank God there was a generation that did not lose faith . . . because the Middle East is a place free of suiciders,"' Bush said. . . .

"Bush, whose comments were heard through an attendee's cell phone, spoke of the gravity of his decision to go to war and the principles that guide him at a time when his popularity has taken a beating.

"'You can't make profound decisions for America unless you are certain in your soul,' said Bush, who made his fourth trip to San Antonio since 2001. 'The decisions I have made will make it easier for your grandchildren to live in peace.'"

The New AG

Dan Eggen and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post: "A divided Senate narrowly confirmed former federal judge Michael B. Mukasey last night as the 81st attorney general, giving the nominee the lowest level of congressional support of any Justice Department leader in the past half-century.

"The 53 to 40 vote came after more than four hours of impassioned floor debate, and it reflected an effort by Democrats to register their displeasure with Bush administration policies on torture and the boundaries of presidential power. . . .

"Mukasey, 66, had outraged many lawmakers and human rights groups by repeatedly refusing to classify waterboarding, a simulated-drowning technique, as torture. His few Democratic supporters said last night that, although they are troubled by his equivocal views on waterboarding, they believe Mukasey represents the best possibility for change at the troubled Justice Department. 'This is the only chance we have,' said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)."

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The margin of confirmation -- narrower than that for either Gonzales or John Ashcroft, Bush's first attorney general -- was hardly the vote of confidence that the White House or even Senate Democrats expected when Bush tapped Mukasey in mid-September to succeed Gonzales."

As for Waterboarding

Josh White writes in The Washington Post: "A former Navy survival instructor subjected to waterboarding as part of his military training told Congress yesterday that the controversial tactic should plainly be considered torture and that such a method was never intended for use by U.S. interrogators because it is a relic of abusive totalitarian governments.

"Malcolm Wrightson Nance, a counterterrorism specialist who taught at the Navy's Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) school in California, likened waterboarding to drowning and said those who experience it will say or do anything to make it stop, rendering the information they give nearly useless. . . .

"Unlike attorney general nominee Michael B. Mukasey, who called the technique repugnant but declined to say whether it is torture, Nance said unequivocally that waterboarding is a long-standing form of torture used by history's most brutal governments, including those of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, North Korea, Iraq, the Soviet Union and the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia."

Congress: Now One for Five

Bush has only issued five vetoes during his seven-year presidency. Yesterday, Congress overrode one of them.

David M. Hersenzohn writes in the New York Times: "The Senate dealt President Bush the first veto override of his presidency on Thursday, with a resounding bipartisan vote to adopt a $23.2 billion water resources bill that authorizes popular projects across the country.

"The vote of 79 to 14 sent a clear signal that the Democrats in control of Congress plan to test the power of the White House on other fronts, and it gave Republicans a chance to show distance from an unpopular president heading into a tough election year.

"'We have said today, as a Congress to this president, you can't just keep rolling over us like this,' said Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, who led the charge on the water bill as chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee. . . .

"Thirty-four of the Senate's 49 Republicans voted to override."

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post that the override vote in the Senate "was followed last night by final passage of a huge, $151 billion health, education and labor spending bill. House and Senate negotiators also reached agreement on a transportation and housing bill that increases spending on highway repair in the wake of the Minneapolis bridge collapse and boosts foreclosure assistance in the midst of a housing crisis.

"Moreover, the House unveiled a four-month, $50 billion Iraq war-funding bill that would give the president 60 days to present a plan to complete U.S. troop withdrawals by Dec. 15, 2008. The measure would limit the troops' mission to counterterrorism and the training of Iraqi forces and would extend a torture ban to the CIA.

"In short, the long-awaited battle between Congress and Bush over federal spending and the size and reach of government is now on."

Weisman notes: "Yesterday's action was the 107th override of a presidential veto in the nation's history. Congress overrode two of Bill Clinton's 22 vetoes and just one of George H.W. Bush's 44. At the other end of the spectrum, Gerald R. Ford, who vetoed 66 bills, and Harry S. Truman, who vetoed 250, each had 12 overridden, the most of any president besides Andrew Johnson."

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "The legislature has proved impotent in its efforts to challenge President Bush on such matters as the Iraq war and the waterboarding of prisoners. But the president learned an important lesson yesterday: Don't mess with lawmakers' pet projects."

Budget expert Stan Collender tells Ed Henry on CNN that "it's far too late for the president to declare himself a fiscal conservative and have anyone believe him. Spending in this administration has gone up faster than any since Lyndon Johnson." And yesterday's vote, says Collender, is "going to make the next override and the override after that much easier because the Republicans are going to see the world is not coming to an end when they do it."

Wolf Blitzer aggressively grilled Bush counselor Ed Gillespie yesterday on Bush's fiscal legacy.

Blitzer: "[T]he national debt, when the president took office, it was at $5.8 trillion. It's now, for the first time ever, gone beyond $9 trillion and so much of that is owed to the Chinese, the Saudis, the United Arab Emirates. And our children and grandchildren are going to be saddled with that debt decades to come. How could the president let that happen?"

Gillespie: "Well, Wolf, as you know, on September 11, 2001, the country was struck in the worst attack on our homeland -- a terrorist attack. And it led to, you know, billions of dollars in destruction to the economy --"

Blitzer: "But, you know, he -- all that on domestic spending. He didn't veto anything for the first six years when the Republicans were in control of Congress. And there was this huge bloated domestic spending that had nothing to do with the war, nothing to do with 9/11."

Gillespie: "Well, non-defense, non-homeland security discretionary spending, Wolf, not -- so not Social Security and Medicare -- was actually kept to about 1 percent a year. And the Republican Congress did respond to veto threats by the president and recalibrated their bills and brought them down. That's not what we're seeing in the Democratic-controlled Congress. In fact, the Democratic-controlled Congress proposes to spend $205 billion more over the next five years in their budgets. And they propose to do that by raising taxes."

Blitzer: "But why did it take the president so long to start vetoing these pork barrel spending bills?"

Gillespie: "Well --"

Blitzer: "Why -- why didn't he do it when Republicans were in control of Congress?"

Gillespie: "Wolf, let me -- let me try again. When the Republicans were in control of the Congress, if the president threatened to veto a bill, Republicans in Congress would change the bill --"

Blitzer: "But no that didn't --"

Gillespie: "-- so that they didn't send him a --"

Blitzer: "That didn't always happen --"

Gillespie: "-- bill that they would veto."

Blitzer: "That didn't happen. You know they --"

Gillespie: "It did happen, Wolf."

Blitzer: "You know, they still sent him --"

Gillespie: "I'll get you some examples --"

Blitzer: "-- a lot of those.... They sent him a lot of bloating funding bills, which he signed into law."

Gillespie: "But what I'm telling us -- and this did happen. And I promised you now I'd give you some examples. I don't have them with me right now, but when Republicans controlled Congress, and the president said if you send that bill to me, I will veto it, they would change it to accommodate those concerns."

The Economy and the Dollar

Here's how Bush summed things up in an interview with German television just two days ago: "The economy is in pretty good shape."

But Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "Ben S. Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, told Congress on Thursday that the economy was going to get worse before it got better, a message that received a chilly reception from both Wall Street and politicians.

"On a day when stock prices swung wildly, the dollar hit another new low against the euro and further signs emerged from retailers that consumers are growing more cautious about spending, Mr. Bernanke warned that the economy was about to 'slow noticeably' as the housing market continues to spiral downward and financial institutions tighten up on lending."

Neil Irwin writes in The Washington Post: "Bernanke said the higher oil prices and weaker dollar 'were likely to increase overall inflation in the short run, and, should inflation expectations become unmoored, had the potential to boost inflation in the longer run as well.'"

Peter Nicholas writes in the Los Angeles Times: "For most of the year, the campaign has been dominated by dueling positions on the war in Iraq, national security, immigration and healthcare. But with gas prices topping $3 a gallon and home foreclosures a deepening concern, the struggling economy could trump other issues in next year's general election campaign.

"President Bush is in his second term and can't face reprisal at the polls. So to the extent there is a voter backlash, it would be aimed at the president's party -- chiefly the Republican candidates vying to succeed him, GOP consultants said."

As for the dollar, Paul Krugman blogs for the New York Times about my column yesterday: "I won't say this often, but Dan Froomkin is wrong here. I blame Bush for a lot of things, but the declining dollar isn't one of them."

Poll Watch

Julie Chazyn writes in the International Herald Tribune: "President George W. Bush is widely unpopular, President Vladimir Putin is gaining admirers," according to a new Harris Interactive survey conducted in five European countries and the U.S.

"According to the 2007 survey, whose results are being released on Friday, Bush's best score internationally was in the United States but still only 36 percent. His worst rating was in France - with 89 percent giving a negative response. Eighty percent disapprove of him in Spain and 71 percent in Britain."

Leon Mangasarian writes for Bloomberg that the poll, "found low support for the use of military strikes against Iran to halt its nuclear program.

"The Harris Interactive Survey said using force against Iran is backed by just 8 percent in France, 7 percent in Germany, 8 percent in Italy, 8 percent in Spain, 11 percent in the U.K. and 21 percent in the U.S.

"Diplomatic efforts aimed at stopping Iran's uranium enrichment program were supported by 50 percent in France, 51 percent in Germany, 52 percent in Italy, 53 percent in Spain, 44 percent in the U.K. and 36 percent in the U.S., the poll showed. . . .

"A majority in all six countries surveyed backed a withdrawal of U.S. and other coalition troops from Iraq. Ninety percent of French nationals support an Iraq pullout, as do 75 percent of Germans, 82 percent of Italians, 84 percent of Spaniards, 82 percent of U.K. nationals and 67 percent of Americans."

The Angry Hardliners

Steven Lee Myers writes in the New York Times: "The White House's effort to challenge Iran's nuclear ambitions has been hobbled by 'four and a half years of failed diplomacy.' Its policy regarding North Korea is a dangerous fraud. It is pursuing an improbable Palestinian-Israeli peace at the expense of its stance against proliferation in the Middle East.

"And that from a longtime Bush loyalist: John R. Bolton, the conservative lawyer who until less than a year ago was President Bush's proudly unwavering ambassador to the United Nations. . . .

"Mr. Bolton's criticisms reflect a growing unease among some conservatives that a weakened White House chastened by the war in Iraq is abandoning core principles in pursuit of a more moderate policy of negotiations."

What Could Congress Do?

Over on NiemanWatchdog.org, where I am deputy editor, I ask what Congress could do to prevent Bush from attacking Iran.

Rove on Congress

The 2006 elections were the undoing of Karl Rove's reputation as a political genius.

So not surprisingly, Rove writes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed today that they will turn out to be just a blip:

"Democrats had a moment after the 2006 election, but now that moment has passed. They've squandered it. They have demonstrated both the inability and unwillingness to govern. Instead, after more than a decade in the congressional minority, they reflexively look for short-term partisan advantage and attempt to appease the party's most strident fringe. Now that Democrats have the reins of congressional power, their true colors are coming out and the public doesn't like what it sees.

"The Democratic victory in 2006 was narrow. They won the House by 85,961 votes out of over 80 million cast and the Senate by a mere 3,562 out of over 62 million cast. A party that wins control by that narrow margin can quickly see its fortunes reversed when it fails to act responsibly, fails to fulfill its promises, and fails to lead."

Rove on Bloggers

Jon Ward writes in the Washington Times: "Karl Rove teed off this afternoon on the liberal netroots, the coalition of far-left blogs and advocacy groups who are a new power bloc in the Democratic party. . . .

"'People in the past who have been on the nutty fringe of political life, who were more or less voiceless, have now been given an inexpensive and easily accessible soapbox, a blog,' Mr. Rove said during a speech about politics and the Web at the Willard InterContinental, a hotel just blocks from his former place of employment."

A Dad's View

Susan Page writes in USA Today: "Former president George H.W. Bush forcefully defended his son's handling of the Iraq war Thursday, saying critics of the current president have forgotten the 'extraordinary brutality' of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

"'Do they want to bring back Saddam Hussein, these critics? . . . Do they want to go back to the status quo ante? I don't know what they are talking about here. Do they think life would be better in the Middle East if Saddam were still there?'

"Bush, 83, was interviewed in a replica of the White House Situation Room at his remodeled presidential library. The Bush Presidential Library and Museum, on the grounds of Texas A&M, is reopening Saturday after an $8.3 million renovation. The added features include the Situation Room and an interactive computer program that allows visitors to consider options Bush weighed during the Gulf War.

"In one key decision, Bush rejected calls to topple Saddam, instead declaring the war over after Iraqi forces withdrew from Kuwait. The program calls the idea of going to Baghdad 'very tempting' but says it ' would have been a disastrous decision,' splintering the international coalition and leaving U.S. and possibly British troops on their own in Iraq."

The House of Bush

Salon publishes another excerpt from Craig Unger's new book, "The Fall of the House of Bush: The Untold Story of How a Band of True Believers Seized the Executive Branch, Started the Iraq War, and Still Imperils America's Future." This one is about the relationship between Bush, Vice President Cheney, and former secretary of state Colin Powell.

Writes Unger: "According to a former Pentagon official who had worked with Cheney during the first Gulf War, 'Cheney's distrust and dislike for Mr. Powell were unbounded.' In other words, Powell was only there for show. Cheney immediately took measures to undermine him. The chess game began. . . .

"According to the former Pentagon official, Cheney was convinced that even though Powell's presence was essential to the Bush administration, he 'would have to be cornered bureaucratically and repeatedly reminded (even in ways involving public humiliation) that foreign policy was not something over which he presided.' To accomplish that task, the official continued, Cheney 'recruited Donald Rumsfeld and the neoconservatives to hammer Secretary of State Powell bureaucratically while Mr. Cheney took upon himself the task of managing the President of the United States.'"

In a previous excerpt, Unger wrote: "Conventional wisdom has it that George W. Bush became a 'born-again' Christian in the summer of 1985, after extended private talks with Reverend Billy Graham. . . .

"There's just one problem with Bush's account of his conversion experience: it's not true."

The Big D for W

John McCaslin writes in the Washington Times: "One thing is for certain about the post-presidency of George W. Bush: 'Under no circumstances' will first lady Laura Bush spend her retirement years living at the much-ballyhooed Texas ranch that she and the president have been 'escaping' to for the past seven years."

It's apparently way too modest -- and dusty.

"Or so one gentleman in the know tells Inside the Beltway, explaining that the Bush family will settle down in Dallas and visit the Crawford ranch for weekend getaways. . . .

"The new Bush home, our source assures us, will be far more extravagant and certainly less dusty."

Bush Rage

Gallup reported earlier this week that 50 percent of Americans now say they strongly disapprove of Bush's performance -- the highest proportion ever measured.

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "It's official: Bush Derangement Syndrome is now a full-blown epidemic. George W. Bush apparently has reduced more of his fellow citizens to frustrated, sputtering rage than any president since opinion polling began, with the possible exception of Richard Nixon. . . .

"Gallup has been asking the 'strongly disapprove' question since the Lyndon Johnson administration. The only time the polling firm has measured such strong give-this-guy-the-hook sentiment was in February 1974, at the height of the Watergate scandal, when Nixon's 'strongly disapprove' number was measured at 48 percent. Bush beats him by a nose, but the margin of error makes the contest for 'Most Reviled President, Modern Era' a statistical tie."

Cartoon Watch

Ben Sargent on Bush's spending priorities; Garry Trudeau on a White House brainstorming session; John Sherffius on the dollar.

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