Gustav's Silver Lining

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, September 2, 2008; 1:07 PM

As it bore down on New Orleans, Hurricane Gustav evoked powerful memories of President Bush's most colossal domestic failure. But it also did Republicans a giant favor by giving them an excuse to knock Bush off the prime-time lineup at their national convention -- and avoid an appearance by Vice President Cheney altogether.

The two deeply unpopular leaders were both set to speak yesterday, but the hurricane led Republicans to curtail opening-night activities.

Bush is now back on the schedule, set to speak through a video hookup at 9:30 p.m. this evening. But the three major broadcast networks are currently scheduled to be showing Big Brother, Grey's Anatomy, and America's Got Talent instead.

The prime spots, after 10 p.m., are going to TV star Fred Thompson, a former senator, and Senator Joe Lieberman, a former Democrat. Cheney is out of pocket entirely -- winging his way to three former Soviet republics to rally anti-Russian sentiment.

Gustav ended up packing only a fraction of the wallop of Katrina, such that Bush this morning felt comfortable enough to turn a status report into yet another pitch for more off-shore oil drilling.

"What happens after the storm passes is as important as what happens prior to the storm arriving. And so our discussion today is about energy," he said. "This storm should not cause the members of Congress to say, well, we don't need to address our energy independence; it ought to cause the Congress to step up their need to address our dependence on foreign oil."

A Sense of Relief

Steven Thomma writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Although they were reluctant to say it out loud, many Republicans were relieved Monday that President Bush didn't attend the Republican National Convention.

"They didn't like to talk about it on the record, in part because they didn't want to admit an unintended political benefit in Hurricane Gustav, which led both Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to cancel their scheduled speeches Monday to the convention.

"They also didn't want to admit publicly that a president from their own party is a drag on their prospects.

"Yet inside and outside the convention hall, they mostly agreed that Bush is a political problem for Republican presidential candidate John McCain, and that it was better that TV screens Monday evening didn't feature delegates cheering him on. . . .

"'I don't know a single person who is upset about the fact that they won't be appearing,' said one veteran Republican strategist at the convention, speaking on condition of anonymity to freely question the political value of Bush and Cheney."

Doyle McManus and James Gerstenzang wrote in Monday's Los Angeles Times: "Even before Hurricane Gustav forced Bush's decision Sunday, some Republicans said the president could help his party best by staying home this week.

Chris Cillizza blogged for washingtonpost.com yesterday: "The absence of the two most visible -- and controversial -- members of the Bush Administration is seen as a blessing by nearly every Republican not directly tied to the president."

David Lightman writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Not since Lyndon Johnson stayed away from his party's 1968 Democratic convention, after being advised by party officials not to come, has an incumbent president been such a liability to his own party."

Lightman notes that White House spokeswoman Dana Perino last week previewed Bush's speech.

"Perino said, 'Do not expect this speech to define the president's legacy. This is not an opportunity to recap accomplishments of the past seven and one-half years. It will not serve as a farewell to the American people and it will certainly not attack Barack Obama.'

"Asked why not, Perino said, 'Because he's (Bush's) got class.'

"He also can read the polls. His job approval has been around 30 percent in most polls for the last 19 months."

The First Lady Speaks

Republicans were happy to hear from another Bush yesterday, however.

Libby Copeland writes in The Washington Post: "Laura Bush reprised her role as official spirits-booster Monday, taking the stage at a convention stripped of almost any pomp in an effort to convey to Republican delegates -- and the nation -- that things will be okay. . . .

"Bush blitzed the news [Monday] morning, appearing on Fox, CBS, ABC and CNN, and doing her part to smooth over possible problems -- rifts in the Republican Party, delegates disappointed by an abbreviated convention schedule, worries over Gustav. She turned questions about [McCain's vice presidential pick, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin] Palin into a not-so-subtle appeal to women voters. She side-stepped talk of McCain distancing himself from her husband, and spoke about how 'wholeheartedly' she and her husband support McCain."

The Katrina Legacy

President Bush yesterday was still trying to remove some of the tarnish from the Katrina disaster. "The coordination on this storm is a lot better than on -- than during Katrina. A lot of it had to do with the governors," he said after a briefing at an emergency operations center in Austin yesterday. "I feel good about this event."

But Katrina wasn't just about a lack of coordination, although there was that. The lackluster federal response laid bare Bush's failure to pay attention to core functions of government -- and a serious empathy problem.

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "On the day Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans three years ago, President Bush was in the midst of a working vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., and the storm did little to change his schedule.

"He traveled to Arizona, where he shared a birthday cake with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). He gave a speech at the Pueblo El Mirage RV Resort and Country Club, where he talked at length about Medicare and Iraq but offered just a few words on Katrina. He posed for a photo holding a guitar and standing next to someone wearing a sombrero. . . .

"[T]he response to Katrina. . . became a turning point in transforming Bush from a remarkably popular president into a remarkably unpopular one. Bush's actions in the days after the hurricane hit on Aug. 29, 2005, quickly became symbols of the administration's sluggish and ineffective response to the crisis.

"In addition to the sombrero picture, there was the infamous flyover, in which Bush surveyed the havoc wreaked by Katrina from the comfort of Air Force One on his way from Crawford to Washington. Then on his first visit to the region, four days after the storm struck, Bush told Michael D. Brown, then head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, that he was doing 'a heck of a job' -- even as tens of thousands remained stranded in New Orleans."

Clive Crook writes in his Financial Times opinion column: "Has George W. Bush, radiating idiotic cheerfulness in the face of a total failure of disaster management, ever seemed such a simpleton, such a figurehead of epic incompetence?"

And don't forget this video from the day before Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, showing Bush sitting passively as senior officials voiced dire predictions including the distinct possibility of severe flooding in New Orleans. He asked no questions. And when he spoke, it was to make an empty promise: "I want to assure the folks at the state level that we are fully prepared," he said.

Bush's Legacy in the Balance

Peter Baker, in an 8,000-word New York Times Magazine story, examines Bush's final days -- and his complicated relationship with McCain.

"Eight years after their epic Republican primary battle of 2000, the first-place finisher desperately needs the second-place finisher to win in order to validate his own legacy. And the runner-up now finds himself saddled with the baggage of a man he never much liked to begin with, forced to live with a record he personally considers deeply lacking and portrayed as if he were a clone of his longtime adversary. As John Weaver, McCain's former chief strategist told me, 'I'm sure McCain is thinking, Is Bush going to beat me twice?'"

By contrast, Baker writes: "Anxious denizens of Bushworld worry that McCain will beat himself and in the process take down their best chance for deliverance when it comes to the verdict of history. . . . [T]he president himself, according to friends and prominent Republicans, privately rails about what he considers McCain's undisciplined approach to the campaign and grouses about McCain's efforts to distance himself from the administration. . . .

"McCain has not called the president for advice, so Bush vents his frustrations and criticisms of Obama during phone calls and get-togethers with current and former advisers. (He and [former senior adviser Karl] Rove still meet for lunch every few weeks.)"

As for the big picture, Baker writes: "Bush's place in history depends on alternate narratives that are hard to reconcile. To critics, he is the man who misled the country into a disastrous war, ruined U.S. relations around the world, wrecked the economy, squandered a budget surplus to give tax cuts to fat-cat friends, played the guitar while New Orleans drowned, politicized the Justice Department, cozied up to oil companies and betrayed American values by promoting torture, warrantless eavesdropping and a modern-day gulag at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for people never even charged with a crime. To admirers, he is the man who freed 60 million people from tyranny in Afghanistan and Iraq and planted a seed that may yet spread democracy in a vital region, while at home he reduced taxes, introduced more accountability to public schools through No Child Left Behind, expanded Medicare to cover prescription drugs, installed two new conservative Supreme Court justices and, most of all, kept America safe after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"Whatever the president's virtues, they remain unappreciated in his own time. To say that Bush is unpopular only begins to capture the historic depths of his estrangement from the American public. He is arguably the most disliked president in seven decades."

As for Bush's state of Mind, Baker writes: "[F]riends say that Bush, who just turned 62, has been looser lately, more relaxed, more willing to joke around and even do a little dance for the cameras from time to time. . . .

"If anything, it may be that the low [poll] numbers have become almost a badge of honor for Bush. Not that he wants to be unpopular, but he sees leadership as a test. 'Calcium' is a favorite term he uses with aides to describe the backbone he admires. 'He does make a lot of references to Truman as the model of his late presidency, and the Truman model is unrewarded heroism -- or "heroism" is not the right word: unrewarded courage,' Michael Gerson, another former senior adviser to the president, told me. 'It fits very much his approach and his self-conception. His view of leadership is defined as doing the right thing against pressure.'"

Robert G. Kaiser writes in The Washington Post: "Tying Bush, Cheney and their dreadful approval ratings around the neck of this year's Republican ticket has been the Democrats' dream all year. . . .

"During their convention in Denver, the Democrats made perfectly clear their intention to run against 'McSame' and 'George W. Bush's third term.' Republicans in St. Paul can't hide the fact that they are picking the person they hope will be Bush's successor.

"Wait -- isn't McCain different from Bush? Tim Russert, the late moderator of NBC's 'Meet the Press,' asked McCain precisely that question three years ago. 'No,' McCain replied firmly, 'no.' . . .

"The McCain camp says tying their man to Bush is unfair. . . . Be that as it may, John McCain does have a George W. Bush problem."

Doyle McManus and James Gerstenzang write in the Los Angeles Times: "In his nomination acceptance speech, currently scheduled to be delivered at the convention Thursday, McCain is likely to salute Bush for his conduct of the battle against international terrorism, an advisor said. But the main focus of the speech, he said, will be an explanation of how McCain would chart a new course on the economy and other issues. . . .

"Asked how Bush could help McCain win, Republican strategists offered several recommendations:

"First, stay out of the picture. 'Don't make headlines,' said Mike Murphy, a former McCain aide. 'Let us make the noise.'

"Second, raise money from loyal Republican donors -- not for McCain, who will fund his campaign from federal funds as soon as he is formally nominated, but for the national Republican Party and GOP House and Senate candidates.

"'His fundraising skills are still superb,' Reed said.

"Third, the president should do his best to keep the war in Iraq from erupting anew."

Poll Watch

Mark Memmott and Jill Lawrence blog for USA Today that 64 percent of those surveyed in the latest USA Today/Gallup say they are "very" or "somewhat concerned" that McCain "would pursue policies that are too similar to what George W. Bush has pursued."

As for Cheney

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "Even in the twilight of his tenure, Mr. Cheney plays the heavy. . . .

"As Mr. Cheney prepares to make the transition to private citizen, a portrait is emerging of a man who is unapologetic, even defiant, but also thinking about his legacy and perhaps confronting the limits of his own power. . . .

"In recent months, Mr. Cheney's push to expand executive powers was rejected yet again by the Supreme Court. His vision for a free-market economy has been cast aside in favor of government intervention; when Mr. Bush signed housing legislation in the Oval Office, the vice president was not there. Mr. Cheney has taken a hard line against North Korea and Iran, only to be outflanked by advocates of diplomacy. . . .

"Mr. Cheney declined to be interviewed. But those close to him say he approaches retirement with neither reticence nor eagerness, but rather with a Zen-like confidence that even his most controversial moves, like his stance in favor of domestic wiretapping, have been necessary to keep the country safe.

"'It's not suffering defeats, it's not nostalgia, it's not urgency to get stuff done, it's not, "I can't wait to get out of here," ' said Mary Matalin, a longtime adviser, describing Mr. Cheney's state of mind. 'I hate to use yoga terms, but he's really in the moment.'"

Stolberg adds: "Mr. Cheney remains furious over the conviction of his former chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby Jr., after a trial that depicted the vice president as the orchestrator of a scheme to discredit a critic of the Iraq war. Alan K. Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, said Mr. Cheney regarded the trial as 'a grievous distortion,' and would most likely press Mr. Bush to pardon Mr. Libby. . . .

"Critics and even admirers of Mr. Cheney imagine him using his final days in office to work the levers of power and seal his policies in place, though his aides insist no such effort is under way.

"'My guess is that he's been able to put things into motion in the executive branch that transcend the next administration,' said Representative Adam H. Putnam of Florida, chairman the House Republican Conference."

John D. McKinnon writes in the Wall Street Journal: "Vice President Dick Cheney will travel to Georgia and Ukraine this week in a trip that could help lay the groundwork for stiffer Western responses to last month's Russian incursion of Georgia. . . .

"But whether Mr. Cheney will succeed in rallying the world to Georgia's cause -- or rallying U.S. voters to Sen. McCain's hawkish views on Russia -- remains uncertain.

"Many U.S. allies in Western Europe remain wary of escalating tensions with a resurgent Russia, and thus could be reluctant to grant Georgia and Ukraine membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or kick Russia out of the Group of Eight leading nations, as Sen. McCain advocates. As a result, some friendly countries in the region are questioning the West's ability to protect Georgia and its neighbors."

Roger Runningen writes for Bloomberg: "Cheney departs today for Azerbaijan and Georgia, which are crucial to the westward flow of energy via a corridor that bypasses Russia. . . .

"'Cheney's mission is to stiffen the spine' of the countries' leaders, said Mark Parris, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey who also served as a diplomat in Moscow. 'They'll want to know U.S. plans, and what's available, to ensure that Russia isn't able to throw its weight around more broadly in the region.' . . .

"Cheney's first stop, Azerbaijan, is the hub for the development of Caspian Sea oilfields. Its capital, Baku, is the starting point for a U.S.-backed pipeline that ships crude to a Turkish Mediterranean port via Georgia. The U.S. is also supporting the development of gas pipelines to connect Central Asian producers with European countries, skirting Russia.

"'Cheney understands energy,' and 'this is as much about the transportation corridors between East and West as it is about the military threat,' said Ariel Cohen, an expert on Russia at the Heritage Foundation in Washington."

Owen Matthews writes for Newsweek that Cheney "will face an audience very different from the one George Bush faced when he visited the Georgian capital in 2005. Then, Bush promised an adoring crowd that 'the path of freedom you have chosen is not easy, but you will not travel it alone . . . Americans respect your courageous choice for liberty. And as you build a free and democratic Georgia, the American people will stand with you.' Yet as Russian tanks rolled into the Georgian cities of Gori, Poti and Zugdidi there was little that the United States could actually do to protect its erstwhile ally."

Cheney "will doubtless praise Georgia's mercurial President Mikheil Saakashvili and promise to stand by him as he faces the same imperial dictatorship, resurgent. But the acid test of the U.S.'s intentions will be whether the U.S. can succeed in advancing NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia--something many European members, such as France and Germany, have balked at as a provocative step likely to push Russia into further aggression."

War Evermore

Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "Tucked deep into a recent proposal from the Bush administration is a provision that has received almost no public attention, yet in many ways captures one of President Bush's defining legacies: an affirmation that the United States is still at war with Al Qaeda.

"Seven years after the Sept. 11 attacks, Mr. Bush's advisers assert that many Americans may have forgotten that. So they want Congress to say so and 'acknowledge again and explicitly that this nation remains engaged in an armed conflict with Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated organizations, who have already proclaimed themselves at war with us and who are dedicated to the slaughter of Americans.'

"The language, part of a proposal for hearing legal appeals from detainees at the United States naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, goes beyond political symbolism. Echoing a measure that Congress passed just days after the Sept. 11 attacks, it carries significant legal and public policy implications for Mr. Bush, and potentially his successor, to claim the imprimatur of Congress to use the tools of war, including detention, interrogation and surveillance, against the enemy, legal and political analysts say.

"Some lawmakers are concerned that the administration's effort to declare anew a war footing is an 11th-hour maneuver to re-establish its broad interpretation of the president's wartime powers, even in the face of challenges from the Supreme Court and Congress.

"The proposal is also the latest step that the administration, in its waning months, has taken to make permanent important aspects of its 'long war' against terrorism. From a new wiretapping law approved by Congress to a rewriting of intelligence procedures and F.B.I. investigative techniques, the administration is moving to institutionalize by law, regulation or order a wide variety of antiterrorism tactics.

"'This seems like a final push by the administration before they go out the door,' said Suzanne Spaulding, a former lawyer for the Central Intelligence Agency and an expert on national security law. The cumulative effect of the actions, Ms. Spaulding said, is to 'put the onus on the next administration' -- particularly a Barack Obama administration -- to justify undoing what Mr. Bush has done."

McCain on Torture

Zachary A. Goldfarb blogged for The Washington Post on Sunday: "Sen. John McCain today issued some of his strongest criticism of President Bush over an aggressive interrogation technique, clearly suggesting that the president has endorsed torture.

"During an assessment of the Bush presidency on 'Fox News Sunday,' McCain discussed the administration's use over 'waterboarding,' a technique that has been used to interrogate terrorist detainees."

Here's McCain's exchange with Fox interviewer Chris Wallace.

McCain: "I obviously don't want to torture any prisoners. There is a long list of areas that we were in disagreement on. But I also think -- "

Wallace: "You're not suggesting he did want to torture prisoners?"

McCain: "Well, waterboarding to me is torture, OK? And waterboarding was advocated by the administration, and according to a published report, was used."

But as Goldfarb notes, McCain earlier this year voted against a measure that would have explicitly ordered the CIA to stop the use of waterboarding and other interrogation tactics widely considered to be torture.

Economy Watch

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush said Saturday that Americans may have cause this Labor Day weekend to start worrying less about the nation's -- and their families' -- economic health.

"'There have been some recent signs that our economy is beginning to improve,' Bush said in his weekly radio address.

"Among the positive signs that Bush referenced was a report Thursday that the overall economy, as measured by the gross domestic product, rose by 3.3 percent in the April-June quarter. This surprised analysts and was a significant rebound from growth of just 0.9 percent in the first quarter of the year. Most credit was given to the $93 billion in economic stimulus payments the federal government has sent to households since May.

"However, other economic news this week showed that right after that second quarter, in July, consumer spending slowed to a crawl and personal incomes plunged.

"With few stimulus payments still to go out, some economists worry consumer spending will continue to falter. Since it accounts for two-thirds of economic activity, that could send economic growth tumbling again in the second half of the year, particularly given rising unemployment, a continuing credit crisis and the deepest housing slump in decades."

Cartoon Watch

Tony Auth on very expensive lemonade, David Horsey on averting disaster, J.D. Crowe on the GOP fist-bump, Victor Harville on Bush's convention speech, Mike Keefe and Jeff Darcy on the prisoner of W., and Lee Judge on changing history.

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