A Ludicrous Denial

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, May 16, 2008; 1:29 PM

What do you call it when White House officials say one thing in public and almost the exact opposite in private?

You might call it lying.

President Bush yesterday took the highly provocative rhetorical step of likening those who support negotiating with our enemies to Nazi appeasers. For most people following the presidential campaign, it was an obvious attack on Democratic frontrunner Barack Obama, who has been particularly critical of Bush's refusal to talk with leaders who disagree with him.

On the record, White House officials issued disingenuous denials that Bush was talking about Obama. But on background, they admitted as much.

CNN's Ed Henry reported that "White House aides privately acknowledged the remarks were aimed at the presidential candidate and others in his party."

Sasha Issenberg writes for the Boston Globe: "White House officials indicated that the criticism applied to Obama."

Brian Williams reported on the NBC Nightly News that "it was clear to those listening that it was in part to make a point about Barack Obama back home." NBC correspondent John Yang then added: "Privately, White House officials said the shoe fits the Democratic frontrunner."

When asked at yesterday's gaggle if Bush's remark was "in any way directed at Senator Obama," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino replied: "It is not." And not only that: She tried to blame Obama for such an interpretation. "I understand when you're running for office you sometimes think the world revolves around you," she said. "That is not always true and it is not true in this case."


Here's what Bush said in Israel yesterday: "Jews and Americans have seen the consequences of disregarding the words of leaders who espouse hatred. And that is a mistake the world must not repeat in the 21st century. Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: 'Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.' We have an obligation to call this what it is -- the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history. (Applause.)"

White House counselor Ed Gillespie offered reporters aboard Air Force One today a new variation on the official denial, suggesting that White House officials thought former president Jimmy Carter -- not Obama -- might be seen as the target. Carter met with leaders of the armed Islamist movement Hamas last month.

Q. "Ed, can you talk to us a little bit about yesterday's speech and how much the White House may or may not have anticipated the reaction that ultimately occurred, where people interpreted this as a reference to Barack Obama?"

Gillespie: "We did not anticipate that it would be taken that way, because it's kind of hard to take it that way if you look at the actual words of the President's remarks, which are consistent with what he has said in the past. . . . There was some anticipation that someone might say, oh, it's an expression of -- a rebuke to former President Carter for having met with Hamas. That was something that was anticipated. No one wrote about that or raised that as a question."

Outrage Watch

Steve Holland writes for Reuters: "Democrats erupted in outrage on Thursday after President George W. Bush suggested a pledge by the party's presidential front-runner Barack Obama to meet Iran's leader was akin to appeasement of Nazi Germany.

"Bush's comments, made in Jerusalem to the Israeli parliament during celebrations for Israel's 60th anniversary, stirred up the campaign for the November election and prompted Obama to accuse him of engaging in 'the politics of fear.' . . .

"Many Democrats slammed Bush and pointed out the words of his own defense secretary, Robert Gates, who said on Wednesday: 'We need to figure out a way to develop some leverage with respect to the Iranians and then sit down and talk with them.' . . .

"'If George Bush believes engagement with Iran is appeasement, the first thing he should do when he comes home is demand the resignation of his own Cabinet,' former Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, an Obama supporter, said."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Jim Rutenberg write in the Times: "The comments created an angry tussle back home, as Democrats accused Mr. Bush of breaching protocol by playing partisan politics overseas. . . .

"Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic leader, called Mr. Bush's remarks 'reckless and irresponsible.' Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said Mr. Bush had behaved in a manner 'beneath the dignity of the office of president.'"

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, used an expletive to describe Bush's comment. He went on to say: 'For this president to leave the country and unleash a political attack on Senator Obama and the Democrats cannot go unanswered. We're not going to tolerate this swiftboating,' he said, referring to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign in 2004 to impugn the war record of Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the Democratic nominee."

Issenberg writes in the Boston Globe: "'I can't imagine there's a precedent for a sitting president to go before the legislative body of a foreign government and launch a political attack on a major-party nominee running to succeed him,' said Brian P. Murphy, a fellow in American history at the University of Pennsylvania."

Bush in 2008

Somewhat lost in all the hubbub was the idea that, for better or worse, Bush finally seemed to be coming out swinging on behalf of presumptive Republican nominee John McCain -- and that he had chosen Israel as the place to do it.

David Lightman and Margaret Talev write for McClatchy Newspapers: "When President Bush on Thursday compared some unidentified political opponents to Nazi appeasers, he seemed to be trying at least in part to woo Jewish voters who've signaled concerns about Barack Obama."

Edward Luce writes in the Financial Times: "Although Mr Bush did not mention Mr Obama by name, many suspect the president's remarks to Israel's parliament offered a foretaste of White House plans to assist John McCain in his goal of painting the likely Democratic nominee as unfit to be commander-in-chief. . . .

"Mr Bush's words, which breached the unwritten US convention that 'partisanship stops at the water's edge', fit into a pattern of Republican criticisms of Mr Obama that have sought to paint him either as too weak to defend America or else as too soft on terrorists."

Christopher Orr blogs for The New Republic that "making an attack this direct on a domestic political opponent while on foreign soil is generally considered out of bounds. But more than either of those responses, I'm struck by how politically foolish this assault appears to be. Bush attacking Obama, and Obama counter-attacking Bush, while John McCain sits on the sidelines, is a disastrous dynamic for the GOP. The more Obama can frame this race as him vs. the most unpopular president in modern history, the easier a time he'll have in the fall."

Massimo Calabresi writes for Time: "In the escalating smackfest between President George W. Bush and Barack Obama it's hard to know who needs whom more. Bush is struggling to keep his presidency relevant, and injecting himself into the presidential campaign is a sure way to do that. At the same time, Obama is happy for any opportunity to tie Bush to Republican nominee-to-be John McCain's side. . . .

"Obama's strategy for the general election is to hammer the idea that John McCain will continue Bush's policies at home and abroad. He made the argument most recently in his victory speech after his win in North Carolina, when he said, 'We can't afford to give John McCain the chance to serve out George Bush's third term.' It helps that Bush is at record public disapproval levels, his Arab-Israeli peace process is near dead, his efforts to prevent Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons appear to be going nowhere, and oil prices are soaring beyond his control."

Appeasement Watch

Stolberg and Rutenberg note: "Thursday was not the first time the term 'appeasement' has cropped up in the Bush administration lexicon. In 2006, in advance of the midterm elections, Vice President Dick Cheney and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld invoked the analogy as a line of attack against critics of the war in Iraq. Then, as now, it was controversial."

MSNBC host Chris Matthews yesterday lectured Kevin James, a right-wing radio host defending the Bush position, on what appeasement really is: "Your problem, Kevin, is, you don't know what you're talking about. And the problem is, you don't understand there's a difference between talking to the enemy and appeasing. What Neville Chamberlain did wrong, most people would say, is not talking to Hitler, but giving him half of Czechoslovakia in '38. That's what he did wrong, not talking to somebody. . . . Appeasement is giving away things to the enemy."

A Talking Points Memo reader writes: "Appeasement - the acceptance of conditions imposed by an aggressor in lieu of open conflict - is not the result of negotiation, but of capitulation. And the inverse proposition - the rejection of all negotiation even at the price of open conflict - is just as rigidly obtuse. We call it war-mongering."

And foreign policy blogger Matt Eckel writes: "Iran is not Nazi Germany. Though the Iranian regime is anti-democratic, and espouses values that are indeed antithetical to those of the liberal West, the notion that Iranian armies and proxies are poised to make a genocidal sweep across the Middle East is absurd. Even the Iranian nuclear threat, though serious, shows every sign of being able to be contained with an intelligent deterrence policy (should things come to that). Iran does not have a particularly impressive industrial base. Its infrastructure is mediocre, its economy is sclerotic (propped up only by high oil prices), and its regime is unpopular. Even the outrageous statements about Israel made by President Ahmadinejad should be taken with a grain of salt, remembering that the Iranian President is not the head of state, and that he is actually at odds with much of Iran's clerical leaders.

"Obama's willingness to talk with the Iranian leadership is not a sign of weakness or delusion. It is a sign that he understands that there are things we want from Iran (cooperation in Iraq, nuclear disarmament, reduced political and material support for Hamas and Hezbollah) and things Iran wants from us (a security guarantee, diplomatic relations, a lifting of sanctions, membership in the WTO), and that a deal might be possible that is more amenable to American interests than the current situation. Clear-headed strategic thinking is sorely needed among American leaders today. It is time to stop letting ideological blinders, reinforced by poor analysis and bad history, get in the way."

The Missing Peace

Dion Nissenbaum blogs for McClatchy Newspapers that "what has been overlooked is what Bush didn't say.

"Bush didn't use his historic address to the Knesset to talk about what is supposed to be a top priority for him in his final year: The peace process he officially launched last November in Annapolis.

"He didn't use the address to speak directly to the skeptical lawmakers who will be asked to support any peace deal with the Palestinians.

"He didn't use the address to speak directly to the Israeli public and urge them to support a peace deal with the Palestinians.

"White House spokeswoman Dana Perino was asked after the speech about the omission and here's what she said:

"'First of all, this is the celebration of Israel's founding. That is the purpose of the event today -- it's not meant to be a 'kitchen sink' speech. In every interview and every opportunity the President has talked about the specifics of the policy. You know what that is. And nothing has changed in the last 36 hours.'"

But, as Nissenbaum writes: "If it was meant to be merely a celebration of Israel's founding, Bush probably would not have spoken about the threats from Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas."

John D. McKinnon writes in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required): "Mr. Bush's comments ran the risk of alienating Palestinians, despite its goal of advancing the White House-led peace initiative to establish a Palestinian state on Israel's borders. Some Palestinians zeroed in on Mr. Bush's language, borrowed from the Old Testament, that described Israel as 'the homeland for the chosen people.' Israeli settlers and right-wing politicians often use those terms as the rationale against giving up land for peace. . . .

"In the process of reassuring Israelis on security, . . . Mr. Bush made little explicit mention of his idea for a Palestinian state, saying only that 'the Palestinian people will have the homeland they have long dreamed of and deserved -- a democratic state that is governed by law, and respects human rights, and rejects terror.' Notably, he didn't specify a timeline for creating the state.

"That omission sparked consternation across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where Palestinians there and in surrounding Arab countries were commemorating the 'Nakba,' or catastrophe, a reference to the approximately 700,000 Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes during the war that led to Israeli independence. 'President Bush's speech was an insult,' said Diana Buttu, a former legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team."

And Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press reminds us: "Bush's second trip to Israel in four months ended without progress.

"The two sides have been negotiating since December, but nothing visible has emerged from the secretive process. Both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are weak among their own constituencies and fresh violence from the Gaza Strip and settlement activity by Israelis are diminishing an already precious supply of trust. The president did no negotiating while he was here. In a much-anticipated Knesset speech on Thursday, he only gently urged Mideast leaders to 'make the hard choices necessary,' but made no mention of concrete steps."

Bush's Gets the Saudi Brush-Off

Loven also writes: "Saudi Arabian leaders made clear Friday they see no reason to increase oil production until their customers demand it, apparently rebuffing President Bush amid soaring U.S. gasoline prices.

"During Bush's second personal appeal this year to King Abdullah, Saudi officials stuck to their position that they are already meeting demand, the president's national security adviser told reporters.

"'What they're saying to us is . . . Saudi Arabia does not have customers that are making requests for oil that they are not able to satisfy,' Stephen Hadley said on a day when oil prices topped $127 a barrel, a record high."

Karl Rove Watch

Ryan Grim writes for Politico about overhearing House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers tell two other people: "We're closing in on Rove. Someone's got to kick his ass."

Grim writes: "Asked a few minutes later for a more official explanation, Conyers told us that Rove has a week to appear before his committee. If he doesn't, said Conyers, 'We'll do what any self-respecting committee would do. We'd hold him in contempt. Either that or go and have him arrested.'

"Conyers said the committee wants Rove to testify about his role in the imprisonment of former Alabama Gov. Don Siegelman, among other things.

"'We want him for so many things, it's hard to keep track,' Conyers said."

Assets Watch

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "The millions of dollars in assets reported by Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynn, nearly triple those held by President Bush and the first lady, Laura Bush, according to newly released financial disclosure forms. . . .

"The reports show that the assets of the president and his wife totaled at least $7.2 million, including the 1,583-acre ranch in Crawford, Texas, valued at $1 million to $5 million. . . .

"The assets of Cheney and his wife, Lynne, amounted to at least $20.8 million last year. . . .

"Because the forms only require public officials to report their income and assets in imprecise ranges, the actual numbers can vary widely.

"If their incomes and assets are at the upper end of the range, the Bushes would be worth nearly $20 million and the Cheneys would be worth nearly $100 million.

"The president and vice president also reported receiving a number of gifts last year. . . .

"The Greenbriar Lodge of Carlisle, Ark., hosted Cheney for two days of hunting and gave the vice president a hunting vest and a hardcover book, 'Duck Calls: An Enduring American Tradition,' all valued at $1,600."

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush's financial fortunes appear to have declined over the past seven years, with his family assets dropping as low as $6.5 million, according to disclosure forms released yesterday. . . .

"[The] Cheneys are at least as wealthy as they were when the vice president entered office, and may have added as much as $29 million to their net worth during his tenure."

Military Analysts Watch

Tim Dickinson blogs for Rolling Stone: "The White House has denied knowledge of Donald Rumsfeld's military analysts propaganda program.

"That is clearly untrue. This memo from page 2 of this batch of documents from the Pentagon dump, shows Rumsfeld personally briefing White House National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley on the progress of the program."

The July 2005 memo reads: "Attached is a summary of the military analysts we took down to GTMO earlier this month."

Joseph L. Galloway writes for McClatchy Newspapers that "alarm bells should be ringing all over Washington about The New York Times' disclosure that then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld encouraged a secret Pentagon program to care for and spoon-feed more than 50 retired senior military officers whom the administration deemed reliable friends who could be counted on 'to carry our water' on the television and cable networks. . . .

"There's little doubt that this program violated the laws against covert propaganda operations mounted against the American public by their own government. But in this administration, there's no one left to enforce that law or any of the other laws the Bush operatives have been busy violating.

"The real crime is that the scheme worked. The television network bosses swallowed the bait, the hook, the line and the sinker, and they have yet to answer for it."

Bush and the GOP

Peggy Noonan writes in her Wall Street Journal opinion column: "The Bush White House, faced with the series of losses from 2005 through '08, has long claimed the problem is Republicans on the Hill and running for office. They have scandals, bad personalities, don't stand for anything. That's why Republicans are losing: because they're losers.

"All true enough!

"But this week a House Republican said publicly what many say privately, that there is another truth. 'Members and pundits . . . fail to understand the deep seated antipathy toward the president, the war, gas prices, the economy, foreclosures,' said Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia in a 20-page memo to House GOP leaders.

"The party, Mr. Davis told me, is 'an airplane flying right into a mountain.' Analyses of its predicament reflect an 'investment in the Bush presidency,' but 'the public has just moved so far past that.' 'Our leaders go up to the second floor of the White House and they get a case of White House-itis.' Mr. Bush has left the party at a disadvantage in terms of communications: 'He can't articulate. The only asset we have now is the big microphone, and he swallowed it.'"

Eugene Robinson writes in his Washington Post opinion column: "The Reagan era in American politics is about to end, and we have George W. Bush to thank for its demise. . . .

"[T]he paradigm that reigned for nearly three decades -- the notion that government is useless, if not inherently evil -- is no longer operative."

Bush "has interpreted Reagan's small-government mandate as an excuse -- or an instruction -- to abdicate government's most fundamental responsibilities. Anyone who wants to argue this point need simply remember the 'heck of a job' our government did in handling the devastation from Hurricane Katrina. . . .

"Evidence suggests that Americans are tired of a government that is slavishly beholden to a rigid do-nothing ideology -- and that they're ready to punish the president's party for its ineptitude and lassitude."

Torture Watch

The Washington Post editorial board writes: "The ghosts of interrogations past have come back to haunt the Bush administration. This week, the legal officer supervising the military trials at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, dismissed capital charges against Mohammed al-Qahtani, who allegedly would have been the 20th hijacker during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks had he not been prevented from entering the country. The decision has been widely reported as a serious setback for the administration's quest to bring terrorists to justice. It is much more and much worse than that: It is a palpable reminder of the inhumane acts committed by U.S. personnel and sanctioned by top officials in the name of protecting Americans from extremists."

Legacy Watch

Michael Hirsh writes for Newsweek: "In a month of horrific natural disasters . . . it's instructive to consider what one of the biggest unnatural disasters in memory looks like. That is the decline in America's position in the world from where we were when George W. Bush inherited power on Jan. 20, 2001, to what he will bequeath to the next president eight months from now. . . .

"The issue goes way beyond Bush's decision to invade Iraq in the middle of the war in Afghanistan. U.S. government literally broke down during the Bush years. The interagency process was destroyed as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld set up what was effectively a 'black' alternative government. . . . The White House treated its coequal branch, Congress, like an interloper (to the annoyance of Republicans as well as Democrats). Junk science infected the policy-making apparatus on key issues of importance to our allies in Europe and Asia, like global warming. Junk legal reasoning by White House and Justice Department lawyers was used to publicly justify torture, decimating our once high moral stature around the world. Junk economics--an excess of free-market fervor--infected the Federal Reserve and other regulators, who slumbered while Wall Street ran amok selling fraudulent mortgage securities to foreign markets. Congress went to sleep while the administration ran up record deficits. . . . The Department of Homeland Security, misconceived and oversized even at its birth, grew into an unmanageable monstrosity, leading directly to the disaster of the Hurricane Katrina response. . . .

"But what was most unnatural of all about what we Americans did to ourselves was that we missed the grand opportunity staring us in the face. September 11 was an awful day, but in strategic terms it had a silver lining. The sympathy that the rest of the world sent our way post-9/11 was not just good fellowship, it was a recognition that virtually every country around the globe faced the same kind of threat. This was an extraordinary chance for American leadership to renew itself at a time when the international community was adrift. . . .

"Instead precisely the opposite happened."

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno, via U.S. News: "Huge political fireworks today after President Bush went to Israel and he talked about American politicians who might want to talk with Hamas or other leaders. Politicians who would sit down and appease terrorists. He said he would not do it. He would not put up with it. He would never talk to terrorists. And then he flew to Saudi Arabia to spend a couple of days with the Saudi royal family."

Jon Stewart last night took note of Bush's decision to give up golf in solidarity with the families who have lost loved ones in the war in Iraq: "You know what? Pictures matter," he said (rolling footage of Bush mountain biking). "Image is everything," he said (showing Bush fishing). "And when you ask military families to sacrifice so much -- through stop-loss, or multiple tours without proper stateside rest," (showing Bush biking again) "or refusing to fund a proper GI Bill" (showing Bush dancing) "the least you can do is not force them to see you dicking around like you don't have a care in the world." (Bush keeps dancing.)

Cartoon Watch

Mike Luckovich, Mike Keefe, J.D. Crowe and Ann Telnaes on Bush's sacrifice; Tom Toles on political radioactivity; Victor Harville on the Republican dark cloud; David Horsey on Bush and the polar bears; and Walt Handelsman on Bush's not-so-secret message yesterday.

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