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Giving Thanks Inside the Bubble

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, November 20, 2007; 1:04 PM

You might think that a presidential speech on Thanksgiving would be open to all comers. But no, even when President Bush is talking about something as uncontroversial and inclusive as the essential goodness of our country, he wants his audience prescreened for obsequiousness.

Bush traveled to the historic Berkeley Plantation in southeastern Virginia yesterday for an event carefully calibrated to emphasize his compassionate side. In his remarks, he encouraged "all Americans to show their thanks by giving back."

But, as usual, he wasn't talking to all Americans. At least not in person. Admission to the event was tightly controlled by White House and Republican party officials.

Tyler Whitley and Mark Bowes write in the Richmond Times-Dispatch: "President Bush found something to be thankful for yesterday -- a friendly, invitation-only Virginia audience. . . .

"'We love you!' one woman yelled as Bush prepared to deliver a 16-minute Thanksgiving message to a standing-room-only crowd of about 800 people standing at Berkeley under a tent facing the James River.

"Many were state Republican leaders, but the audience included schoolchildren, firefighters, National Guardsmen and participants in the recent Jamestown 400th-anniversary celebration."

It was not always thus. As University of Texas political science professor Jeffrey K. Tulis wrote a while back on NiemanWatchdog.org, where I am deputy editor: "The tradition of presidents traveling the country -- 'seeing and being seen' -- dates back to George Washington. Washington felt that public appearances were important for the president -- and his appearances were indeed open to the public. . . . Washington was intent on establishing the precedent that the president was chosen to represent the whole country, not just his partisan supporters. . . .

"Certainly, in the past, presidential advance teams have on occasion taken steps to assure friendly audiences. It has not been uncommon for presidents to seek invitations to speak at friendly venues. But systematically screening audiences for an array of speaking tours . . . may be a new phenomenon, and one that the president should be asked to defend and justify in terms of his constitutional obligations."

As I've chronicled exhaustively in this column, Bush has adopted a tactic that is barely acceptable during a political campaign and made it standard practice for his taxpayer-funded visits around the nation.

Peter Baker wrote in The Washington Post in August about a White House manual that actually codifies the elaborate procedures aides use to keep dissenters far away from the president.

It's really inexcusable. When was the last time members of the general public were able to see the president without receiving specific invitations from the White House or the Republican party? Was it the inauguration? Will we have to wait until the next one for it to happen again?

Ask This

Here's a question reporters should be asking every one of the candidates running to succeed Bush in the 2008 election: Will you make yourself accessible to all the people, or just to the people who agree with you?

The Soapbox Alliance

Oren Dorell writes in USA Today this morning: "A Pennsylvania college that was the scene of a protest against Vice President Cheney is trying to start a movement to ban politicians from holding closed meetings restricted to supporters on all campuses in the nation.

"The Soapbox Alliance started by professors at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., says it is opposed to allowing politicians of any party to use colleges as a backdrop for their rallies. The alliance has sent letters to 600 other colleges and universities in the hope that they too will refuse to let their facilities be used for such events.

"Colleges have shown little enthusiasm for the idea. And political operatives question whether rallies should include people who don't support the candidate.

"'It's a nice concept, but people tend to misbehave,' says Trent Duffy, former deputy press secretary for President Bush."

From the Soapbox Alliance Web site: "By tightly controlling access to campaign events, modern political strategists are subverting the American tradition of the town hall meeting and undermining the foundation of our democracy."

A Calculated Moment of Reflection

Sherly Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "In a reflective mood as he looks toward his final year in office, President Bush delivered his first official Thanksgiving speech Monday, urging Americans to 'show their thanks by giving back' and to remember that 'our nation's greatest strength is the decency and compassion of our people.'

"For seven years, Mr. Bush has commemorated Thanksgiving with the presidential tradition of pardoning a turkey, a 60-year tradition that he planned to continue Tuesday in the Rose Garden. But this year, the White House hoped to show a more contemplative side of Mr. Bush, who, his aides say, has been struck by the goodness of the many ordinary Americans he meets during his travels. . . .

"It was a call to action, in a sense, from a president whose first instinct after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was to ask the public for 'continued participation and confidence in the American economy,' a request that has been widely interpreted as advice to go shopping.

"By contrast, Mr. Bush on Monday asked Americans to consider the 'many ways to spread hope this holiday: volunteer in a shelter, mentor a child, help an elderly neighbor, say thanks to one who wears the nation's uniform.'"

Ben Feller writes for the Associated Press: "This is not how the White House usually hails Thanksgiving. Never in his presidency had Bush devoted a speech to the holiday, let alone hours of choreographed travel. . . .

"The soft theme of the day's events also aimed to put Bush in a positive light at a time when the country is in a disapproving mood, soured by war and Washington politics."

Tim Craig writes in The Washington Post: "While Bush vowed that U.S. troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan will continue to make a stand against 'extremists and radicals,' most of his remarks were focused on a message of honoring those who serve others."

From the text of Bush's speech: "Today, America we're blessed with great prosperity. We're blessed with farmers and ranchers who provide us with abundant food. We're blessed with the world's finest workers; with entrepreneurs who create new jobs. We're blessed with devoted teachers who prepare our children for the opportunities of tomorrow. We're blessed with a system of free enterprise that makes it possible for people of all backgrounds to rise in society and realize their dreams. These blessings have helped us build a strong and growing economy -- and these blessings have filled our lives with hope. . . .

"[O]ur nation's greatest strength is the decency and compassion of our people. As we count our many blessings, I encourage all Americans to show their thanks by giving back. You know, I just visited the Central Virginia Foodbank. If you're living in Richmond and you want to give back, help the Central Virginia Foodbank. The volunteers there help prepare thousands of meals for the poor each day. And in so doing, they make the Richmond community and our nation a more hopeful place. And there are many ways to spread hope this holiday -- volunteer in a shelter, mentor a child, help an elderly neighbor, say thanks to one who wears our nation's uniform."

But Bush couldn't just leave it at that -- he had to throw in a little divisive war rhetoric: "Today, the men and women of the United States Armed Forces are taking risks for our freedom. They're fighting on the front lines of the war on terror, the war against extremists and radicals who would do us more harm. Many of them will spend Thanksgiving far from the comforts of home. And so we thank them for their service and sacrifice. We keep their families and loved ones in our prayers. We pray for the families who lost a loved one in this fight against the extremists and radicals, and we vow that their sacrifice will not be in vain."

Critics of the war -- i.e. about two thirds of Americans -- generally agree that the problem is precisely that our troops in Iraq aren't fighting "extremists and radicals who would do us more harm," but instead are trying to tamp down a civil war that has nothing to do with our security interests. And vowing that the troops' "sacrifice will not be in vain" is a particularly manipulative way of making a political statement. Nobody wants to believe that soldiers have died in vain. But if they have, sending more soldiers to die after them doesn't make it better -- it only makes it worse.

The Townsend Departure

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service: "Presidential homeland security adviser Fran Townsend announced her resignation Monday, leaving an opening in a critical slot at a critical time."

Peter Baker and Spencer S. Hsu write in The Washington Post: "Townsend, 45, has been a key player in Bush's circle, earning his trust despite initial Republican suspicion because of her work in the Clinton Justice Department. . . .

"In an interview, Townsend expressed pride in what she called the administration's 'extraordinary record' of security changes since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but said she is ready to pursue private-sector opportunities. She expressed regret at not presiding over the capture or death of al-Qaeda leaders Osama bin Laden or Ayman al-Zawahiri. 'I would be lying if I didn't say I would be disappointed if I weren't there when it happened,' she said.

"Townsend is following other prominent Bush aides out the door, including Karl Rove, Dan Bartlett, Tony Snow, Sara M. Taylor and Harriet E. Miers."

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times: "With 14 months remaining in his second term and Democrats holding a majority in the House and Senate, Bush is struggling to fend off the appearance of a lame duck, insisting he will press ahead with domestic policy priorities and a foreign policy built around fighting terrorism abroad and bringing stability to Iraq and Afghanistan.

"White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said Bush had been able to find worthy substitutes, and she took issue with what she said was the 'story line' that the president's self-proclaimed 'sprint to the finish' would be more difficult with such top aides as Townsend heading for the exits.

"'Look at the people the president has been able to attract to the administration to work in the last little while: Fred Fielding, Ed Gillespie, Judge Mukasey,' she said."

Holly Rosenkrantz writes for Bloomberg: "Frances Fragos Townsend, who announced today she's leaving her job as White House homeland security adviser, said the U.S. must be on guard against the threat of a terrorist attack tied to next year's elections.

"Before she leaves President George W. Bush's administration in early 2008, Townsend said she wants to make sure that plans are in place to head off any potential terrorist threat before or after elections for president and Congress and to ensure there is 'no lag in information sharing' between the Bush administration and the next occupant of the White House.

"'We know that al-Qaeda' tends to view elections 'as a period of vulnerability,' Townsend, 45, said in an interview. 'I don't know if there will be a particular threat, but we can't ignore what we have already seen.'"

Here's Wolf Blitzer talking to Townsend on CNN:

Townsend: "I decided it was time for me to take my experience and go onto the private sector."

Blitzer: "Because a few months back, the White House chief of staff, Josh Bolten, said you either leave now or you're with us for the duration. Whatever happened to that?"

Townsend: "You know, it's funny. I talked to Josh about that. I never heard him say that, and Josh doesn't ever recall having said that

Blitzer: "Oh, really?"

Townsend: "So that's become something of an urban myth."

If it's a myth, however, it's one that was spread by both Snow and Rove in explaining the timing of their departures earlier this year.

In an interview with Newsweek reporters Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball, Towsend repeated the "urban myth" line -- but added that "[i]n any case, she said, 'my job doesn't lend itself to artificial deadlines.'"

Blitzer tweaked Townsend by playing back one of her famous lines from a year ago, when Towsend said about the administration's inability to capture or kill Osama bin Laden: "It's a success that hasn't occurred yet. I don't know that I'd view that as a failure."

Liberal blogger Steve Benen looks at some of Townsend's other "greatest hits."

And on his blog, Cox News's Herman Web-posts Townsend's hand-written resignation letter to Bush, which includes this passage:

"In 1937, the playwright Maxwell Anderson wrote of President George Washington: There are some men who lift the age they inhabit, til all men walk on higher ground in their lifetime.

"Mr. President, you are such a man."

Harpers blogger Scott Horton writes: "George Washington served his nation in uniform in two conflicts and was viewed as the obvious candidate to bring the country together and avoid nascent partisanship shortly after the Constitution was adopted. Whatever criticisms may be mounted as to the particulars of his stewardship, he met these expectations: he was a uniter, with a prudential vision, keen to the limitations inherent in the force of arms and determined to avoid foreign entanglements which would undermine the peace and prosperity of his nation.

"George Washington believed that America's credo required that prisoners taken in time of war be treated with dignity and respect. He forbade torture and other acts of abuse. He required that the religious convictions of the prisoners be respected. 'Treat them with humanity, and let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British Army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren who have fallen into their hands,' he wrote in a famous order on January 8, 1777.

"George Washington succeeded against all odds, and his success was bolstered by a brave decision to fight the war in a way that reflected the values of a new republic, which put the dignity of the ordinary man first, repudiating the cruelty associated with tyrannical regimes. In this way Washington stood for a great nobility of spirit. As Maxwell Anderson wrote, he did lift the age he inhabited."

Hot McClellan Sneak Peek

The publisher of former White House press secretary Scott McClellan's upcoming book has caused a stir with a short sneak peek excerpt in which McClellan appears to implicate Bush and Vice President Cheney in a campaign to mislead the public about the leak of Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA agent.

Back in 2003, McClellan repeatedly denied that Rove and White House aide Scooter Libby were involved in the leak. After leaving the White House, McClellan stated publicly that he had been misled, yet offered no details.

Both Rove and Libby were of course involved, and Libby was eventually convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice for his denials.

But one of the enduring mysteries of the case is whether Cheney and Bush knew that the public was being lied to. It's hard to imagine they didn't know. But here, finally, is a hint of hard evidence to come.

Writes McClellan: "The most powerful leader in the world had called upon me to speak on his behalf and help restore credibility he lost amid the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. So I stood at the White house briefing room podium in front of the glare of the klieg lights for the better part of two weeks and publicly exonerated two of the senior-most aides in the White House: Karl Rove and Scooter Libby.

"There was one problem. It was not true.

"I had unknowingly passed along false information. And five of the highest ranking officials in the administration were involved in my doing so: Rove, Libby, the vice President, the President's chief of staff, and the president himself."

The Happy President

US News reports that Bush advisers say "that President Bush's spirits are getting a lift because of his new focus on unilateral actions to circumvent Congress. He is described by these advisers as delighted that he can move beyond butting heads with Democratic leaders and can get things done through executive orders and administrative actions.

"'He is always "up" but he's been in a very good mood lately,' says a senior White House official. 'He likes the feel of things right now.' At a meeting last week to discuss his use of unilateral actions to get around Congress, he said happily, 'This is the kind of thing we should be doing' -- a particular reference to his moves to reduce aviation congestion over Thanksgiving. He feels it's important to address such 'kitchen table' issues that affect Americans in their daily lives, rather than get bogged down with endless battles with Congress, an aide said. More broadly, Bush is also encouraged by what he considers positive developments in Iraq, especially the recent reduction in the level of violence. And he thinks that Democrats are in such disarray on Capitol Hill, over Iraq policy and other issues, that they appear unable to govern effectively -- an impression that he thinks will turn voters against them in next year's elections."

Middle East Conference Watch

David Wood writes in the Baltimore Sun: "A White House-sponsored conference on Middle East peace is to be held in Annapolis next Tuesday, with senior representatives from Arab and European capitals expected to attend in support of Israeli and Palestinian leaders, a U.S. official familiar with planning for the event said yesterday. . . .

"The tentative schedule calls for a dinner at the State Department on Monday evening with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as host, followed Tuesday by sessions at the U.S. Naval Academy, where Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other diplomats will make presentations.

"A White House ceremony is expected to be held Wednesday morning, the official said."

Anne Gearan writes for the Associated Press about the event's host: "The rock star diplomat has become the workaday American secretary of state, with all the advantages and all the baggage that the title and Rice's long association with President Bush and the Iraq war entail."

Pakistan Watch

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "Like many autocrats before him, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has confused his own fortunes with those of his country. Over the weekend he told a visiting U.S. envoy that only he could save Pakistan from terrorism and lead it toward democracy. In fact, the opposite is true: It is increasingly clear that Gen. Musharraf has become the foremost obstacle to ending Pakistan's state of emergency and revitalizing what has been a losing battle against Islamic extremists. The Bush administration, which has been trying to rescue Gen. Musharraf, needs to accept that Pakistan's rescue can begin only with his departure."

Iran Watch

Gerald F. Seib writes in the Wall Street Journal: "A series of conversations with top Bush administration officials in the past few weeks suggests the strategy now being employed is different, and more subtle, than the one that preceded the war in Iraq. That hardly means an attack isn't possible, but it suggests today's approach has different purposes and goals.

"At the moment, there is no discernible appetite for a military strike among either top civilian or military leaders at the Pentagon. On the other hand, there is greater support elsewhere, including among Vice President Dick Cheney's advisers at the White House, for considering the military option.

"At the State Department, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice likes keeping the military option on the table because that gives some urgency to American diplomatic efforts to shut down Iran's nuclear program.

"But the most important action isn't in this simmering internal debate. The action to watch is financial and diplomatic."

Signing Statements Watch

Charlie Savage and James W. Pindell write in the Boston Globe: "Republican presidential candidate John McCain denounced yesterday President Bush's use of 'signing statements' to reserve the right to violate certain laws, and he vowed to abandon the practice if he becomes president."

Federal Government Incompetence Watch

AFP reports: US contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan more than doubled from 2004 to 2006 to over 25 billion dollars but government oversight of the firms involved has slackened, a watchdog group said Monday.

'While the billions of dollars involved and the complexity of these war-related contracts has only grown, the lack of oversight has been staggering,' said Bill Buzenberg, head of the Center for Public Integrity.

The study by the independent center said government outsourcing for the two war theaters was marred by issues such as a lack of competitive bidding, missing contracts and unidentified companies.

The Turkey Pardon

Bush's pardon of a Thanksgiving turkey (two, actually, including the back-up) went off without a hitch this morning. From transcript: "I also thank everybody who voted online to choose the names for our guests of honor. And I'm pleased to announce the winning names. They are 'May' and 'Flower.' They're certainly better than the names the Vice President suggested, which was 'Lunch' and 'Dinner.'"

Online Video Watch

23/6 brings you "The World Through Bush-Colored Glasses."

Cartoon Watch

Tom Toles on Bush's strongman envy.

Froomkin Watch

I'll be off for the next three days. The column will resume on Monday, Nov. 26. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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