Attaboy From the Albatross

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, October 29, 2008; 12:34 PM

President Bush, widely perceived as an enormous drag on the entire Republican ticket, isn't exactly welcome on the campaign trail these days. But by golly he's still the party leader. So if he wants to stop by GOP headquarters to give a pep talk, who's going to stop him?

Dan Eggen blogs for The Washington Post: "President Bush sneaked out of the White House under gloomy skies [Tuesday] morning to pay a surprise visit to the headquarters of the Republican National Committee, wishing luck to GOP staffers in a year that is shaping up as a potential disaster for the party. . . .

"'He encouraged them to work hard for John McCain and keep turning out the vote until the final ballot is cast next week,' White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said in a statement. 'He also took the opportunity to thank the staff for all of their efforts during this election cycle and for their support of him over the last eight years.'

"Stanzel added that Bush also 'spoke to the staff about the importance of American leadership on the issues of the economy, the war on terror and freedom.'

"The visit, which wasn't listed on the presidential schedule and was closed to an accompanying press pool, was the latest example of Bush's remarkably low profile during this election cycle. Bush has not been seen in public with McCain since May and held his final closed-door fundraiser of the season last week. McCain, meanwhile, has lobbed increasingly harsh criticism at Bush in his attempts to distance himself from the unpopular current president."

Sam Youngman writes for The Hill: "One RNC aide in the meeting said president stressed the importance of Democracy in the Middle East and said that his staff is sprinting toward the end of Bush's administration.

"'He told us Sen. McCain is in striking distance and he expects our organized efforts to push him over the edge,' the aide said.

"Bush acknowledged that 'a lot of people are saying they don't expect us to win,' according to the aide. However, Bush noted that people had also written him off in 2000 and 2004.

"'Then he cracked a joke: "They also said that in 1978 . . . oh wait they were right that one time",' the aide said. Bush was referring to his unsuccessful run for Congress."

John D. McKinnon, blogging for the Wall Street Journal, calls RNC headquarters "some of the only friendly territory left in Washington."

But Joe Sudbay writes for Americablog that for Bush, even RNC headquarters "is a dangerous place these days. There's not a lot of love among the Republicans these days and the daggers are flying. [Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah] Palin is mad at the RNC. The RNC is mad at McCain and Palin. A McCain aide thinks Palin is a 'whack job.' And, just about everyone, including Republicans, blame George Bush."

There was nary a mention of Bush's visit on the RNC Web site.

Campaign Watch

James Gerstenzang blogs for the Los Angeles Times: "The Democratic presidential nominee, who began Saturday saying that McCain trying to distance himself from the president was akin to 'Tonto getting mad at the Lone Ranger,' ended it by saying 'it's like Robin getting mad at Batman.'"

Athena Jones writes for NBC yesterday: "A jean-clad Obama, speaking on a rainy, windy day outside Philadelphia, told the crowd McCain was 'riding shotgun' with President Bush when it came to economic policies that have hurt working people. . . .

"'John McCain's ridden shotgun as George Bush has driven our economy toward a cliff, and now he wants to take the wheel and step on the gas,' he said. 'When it comes to the issue of taxes, saying that John McCain is running for a third Bush term isn't being fair to George Bush.' . . .

"The McCain campaign's response to the speech sought to link Obama to congressional Democrats. One thing Bush and Congress have in common is low approval ratings and McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds wrote that Obama had not articulated any differences with Democrats in Congress."

Rinker Buck writes in the Hartford Courant about Kevin E. Creed, a retired Army officer who was called back to service in the Middle East at age 51: "'On the day that President Bush flew onto that aircraft carrier and declared "Mission Accomplished," [ May 1, 2003],' Creed said, 'I was in a command bunker outside Baghdad with dust flying all over the place from the explosions blasting over our heads. When we heard that Bush had said "Mission Accomplished," all the soldiers in the bunker laughed. This was the beginning of my asking, "Hey, what's happening here? Something isn't right."'

"Today, even though he once voted for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Creed is co-chairman of Connecticut Veterans for Obama, an affiliate of Barack Obama's campaign that is dispatching volunteers to swing states and manning phone banks for Obama."

Entering the Twilight Zone?

Jonathan Freedland writes in a Guardian opinion piece: "We are about to enter the twilight zone, that strange black hole in political time and space that appears no more than once every four years. It is known as the period of transition, and it starts a week from today, the time when the United States has not one president but two. One will be the president-elect, the other George Bush, in power for 12 more weeks in which he can do pretty much whatever he likes. Not only will he never again have to face voters, he won't even have to worry about damaging the prospects of his own party and its standard bearer (as if he has not damaged those enough already). From November 5 to January 20, he will exercise the freest, most unaccountable form of power the democratic world has to offer.

"How Bush might use it is a question that gained new force at the weekend, when US forces crossed the Iraqi border into Syria to kill Abu Ghadiya, a man they said had been funnelling 'foreign fighters' allied to al-Qaida into Iraq."

(See yesterday's column.)

Freedland continues: "That American move has touched off a round of intense head-scratching around the world, as foreign ministers and analysts ask each other the time-honoured diplomatic query: what did they mean by that? To which they add the post-Nov 4 question: and what does it tell us about how Bush plans to use his final days in the White House? . . .

"He and Cheney might decide, what the hell, we have one last chance to whack Iran - and let the new guy clear up the mess. Not likely, but possible. For in the twilight zone, anything can happen."

The Daily Star of Lebanon editorial board writes: "The raid on Syria . . . has already had the adverse effect of throwing a monkey wrench into negotiations between Baghdad and Washington over a security pact that would govern the presence of US troops in Iraq. Iraqi officials are concerned that the US will seek to use its mandate in their country to carry out additional military attacks on neighboring states, and these fears are all the more pronounced in the wake of the US attack. The raid has also dealt a blow to ongoing efforts to forge a diplomatic coalition among Iraq's neighbors, whose efforts have been as essential to improving Iraq's security as the US troop 'surge.' Contradictory policies such as these - which have been all too common during this presidency - make the military and diplomatic decision-makers in the Bush administration appear as though they are operating in a circular firing squad.

"The internal contradictions also make it impossible for anyone to know what to expect next from Bush. His power would not be nearly as terrifying to the people of this region had it been consistently harnessed throughout his presidency for the purpose of advancing a discernable set of objectives. We might have understood, for example, if Bush had unfailingly used all of the powers of his office to advance the cause of democracy and had worked to topple each and every dictatorial regime across the region. Instead, he has chosen to arbitrarily court some autocrats while ostracizing others and to encourage democratic activism while remaining silent when democratic activists are jailed. The end result of this odd mix of policies is that the Bush administration has become a riddle of jumbled messages that put his motivations in question."

Eli Lake writes for the New Republic: "We have entered a new phase in the war on terror. In July, according to three administration sources, the Bush administration formally gave the military new power to strike terrorist safe havens outside of Iraq and Afghanistan. Before then, a military strike in a country like Syria or Pakistan would have required President Bush's personal approval. Now, those kinds of strikes in the region can occur at the discretion of the incoming commander of Central Command, General David Petraeus. . . .

"The new order could pave the way for direct action in Kenya, Mali, Pakistan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen--all places where the American intelligence believe al Qaeda has a significant presence, but can no longer count on the indigenous security services to act. . . .

"Strikes within Iran could be justified by the order, since senior al Qaeda leaders such as Saif al Adel are believed to have used that country as a base for aiding the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda affiliates in Iraqi Kurdistan. . . .

"[W]ith the clock winding down on the administration, it has a greater appetite for racking up victories against al Qaeda--and less worries about any residual political consequences from striking. Roger Cressey, a former deputy to Richard Clarke in the Clinton and Bush administrations, says, '[W]ith the administration in the final weeks, the bar for military operations will be lowered because the downsides for the president are minimal.'"

The Boston Globe editorial board writes that "the justification given - that Syria sacrificed the inviolability of its territory by failing to eliminate the infiltration of would-be fighters and suicide bombers - exhibits disdain for the principles of international law.

"The next president will have to bring US policy back in compliance with those norms and restore a diplomacy that balances the interests of different powers in the region. We hope the latest Syria operation does not reflect a deliberate effort by Bush and Cheney to foil such efforts."

Thom Shanker writes in the New York Times: "Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Tuesday that the United States would hold 'fully accountable' any country or group that helped terrorists to acquire or use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

"The statement was the Bush administration's most expansive yet in trying to articulate a vision of deterrence for the post-Sept. 11 world. It went beyond the cold war notion that a president could respond with overwhelming force against a country that directly attacked the United States or its allies with unconventional weapons. . . .

"His speech here before the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace was the latest signal that the administration was moving in its closing months to embrace more far-reaching notions of deterrence and self-defense.

"On Monday, senior officials justified a weekend attack against a suspected Iraqi insurgent leader in Syria by saying the administration was operating under an expansive new definition of self-defense. The policy, officials said, provided a rationale for conventional strikes on militant targets in a sovereign nation without its consent -- if that nation were unable or unwilling to halt the threat on its own. . . .

"Early this year, in a little-noticed speech at Stanford University, Stephen J. Hadley, Mr. Bush's national security adviser, also spoke of how the president had approved an expanded deterrence policy."

Iraq Watch

Mary Beth Sheridan and Karen DeYoung write in The Washington Post: "The Iraqi cabinet decided Tuesday to reopen negotiations on a security pact intended to give U.S. forces the legal authority to stay in the country beyond Dec. 31, further delaying an agreement that American officials had hoped to conclude by now.

"The call for changes in the proposed accord came as the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki criticized an attack by Iraq-based U.S. forces on alleged al-Qaeda operatives inside Syria last weekend. The cabinet now wants the agreement to include language to 'confirm that Iraqi land would not be the center for aggression' against its neighbors, said Planning Minister Ali Baban, who attended Tuesday's meeting.

"Ministers also want the pact to grant Iraq more legal authority over U.S. soldiers accused of crimes, to harden a tentative 2011 departure date for U.S. troops and to allow Iraqi inspection of U.S. military shipments. . . .

"Bush administration officials have said repeatedly that the current text of the document, concluded just weeks ago after nearly eight months of difficult negotiations, reflects the limit of U.S. concessions. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said that the administration had not yet examined the new Iraqi proposals but that the bar for changes was 'very high.'"

Bush's Judges

Charlie Savage writes in the New York Times that the Bush administration "has transformed the nation's federal appeals courts, advancing a conservative legal revolution that began nearly three decades ago under President Ronald Reagan.

"On Oct. 6, Mr. Bush pointed with pride to his record at a conference sponsored by the Cincinnati chapter of the Federalist Society, the elite network for the conservative legal movement. He noted that he had appointed more than a third of the federal judiciary expected to be serving when he leaves office, a lifetime-tenured force that will influence society for decades and that represents one of his most enduring accomplishments. While a two-term president typically leaves his stamp on the appeals courts -- Bill Clinton appointed 65 judges, Mr. Bush 61 -- Mr. Bush's judges were among the youngest ever nominated and are poised to have an unusually strong impact.

"They have arrived at a time when the appeals courts, which decide tens of thousands of cases a year, are increasingly getting the last word. While the Supreme Court gets far more attention, in recent terms it has reviewed only about 75 cases a year -- half what it considered a generation ago. And Mr. Bush's appointees have found allies in like-minded judges named by Mr. Bush's father and Reagan.

"Republican-appointed judges, most of them conservatives, are projected to make up about 62 percent of the bench next Inauguration Day, up from 50 percent when Mr. Bush took office. They control 10 of the 13 circuits, while judges appointed by Democrats have a dwindling majority on just one circuit."

Pardon Watch

Keith Koffler writes for Roll Call: "President Bush has three months left to issue his final round of pardons, a process that could bring him to consider whether to forgive a list of administration officials, soldiers and operatives engaged in the war on terror -- and even just-convicted Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). . . .

"Stevens has been defiant in the face of his conviction Monday on seven counts of filing false financial statements, proclaiming his innocence and charging prosecutorial misconduct. It presumably would be difficult for Bush to pardon someone for crimes he does not admit to having committed. But if the Senator loses his re-election bid and faces the prospect of a Democratic president, it is possible that the soon-to-be 85-year-old would seek a get-out-of-jail-free card from the president.

"Whether Bush's strong sense of loyalty could lead him to consider pardons for former administration and military officials is unclear. . . .

"Much speculation has centered on whether Bush will pardon Vice President Cheney's former aide Scooter Libby, convicted of obstruction of justice in the federal investigation of the leak of former CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity. . . .

"Bush could -- in the manner of President Gerald Ford's pardon of President Richard Nixon -- decide to issue pre-emptive pardons for crimes that may have been committed in some cases."

Paul Kane and Del Quentin Wilber write in The Washington Post regarding "speculation in political and legal circles about whether . . . President Bush might pardon [Stevens] or commute his sentence.

"Stevens could seek a pardon from Bush before he nears sentencing. Bush also can delay court proceedings, such as sentencing, and commute sentences, according to legal scholars.

"Bush also could offer a conditional pardon, requiring, for example, that Stevens give up his Senate seat in exchange for clemency."

At yesterday's press briefing, Perino ducked questions about Stevens entirely.

Q. "Dana, Senator McCain today said Senator Stevens should resign. Does the President believe Senator Stevens should resign?"

Perino: "Well, given that Senator Stevens has said that he is going to fight his conviction and that he is going to appeal -- and that is his right to do -- since it's going to be a matter of ongoing litigation, we'll decline to comment for now."

Blogger emptywheel writes: "Dana Perino's no comment sounds remarkably like the 'no comment's we got just before Bush commuted Scooter Libby's sentence."

Gilbert Cranberg blogs for NiemanWatchdog.org: "As George W. Bush prepares to exit the White House, are more preemptive pardons on the way? The press ought not wait to be presented with a fait accompli but should be asking hard questions now: 'Mr. President are you planning to pardon any of the people responsible for carrying out your administration's interrogation policies?'

"'Enhanced interrogation techniques' -- simulated drowning, prolonged stress positions, lengthy sleep deprivation -- was the administration's euphemism for torture. A lot of administration officials have their fingerprints on these policies, not least Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Cheney, his chief aide David Addington and a flock of other lawyers. A recent book, ' Torture Team,' by international lawyer Philippe Sands, makes a forceful case that high-level lawyers had a big hand in fashioning the administration's torture agenda and ought to be held especially to account."

Gitmo Watch

David H. Schanzer writes in a Raleigh News and Observer opinion piece: "President Bush said last year that 'it should be a goal of the nation to shut down Guantánamo,' but it now appears this goal will be unfulfilled when he leaves office. His recent decision not to close the prison at Guantánamo Bay for aliens accused of being terrorists is regrettable.

"Bush's decision represents a victory for Vice President Dick Cheney, who, according to reports, believes that keeping the prison open under a new administration would 'validate' Bush's detention policies. But there is no redeeming the detention and prosecution system at Guantánamo -- a system that has produced only two convictions in seven years, has been rebuked by the Supreme Court three times and has caused four military prosecutors to step down in disgust."

The Toledo Blade editorial board writes that "in a neat but cynical move, Mr. Bush has decided that the problem of Guantanamo will be kicked down the road to the administration of either Barack Obama or John McCain.

"All that can be done now is to give Mr. Bush points for witless consistency and hold out hope for greater wisdom by the next president. It is not a fine day for American justice."

W., the Conversation

Slate continues to host a conversation about Bush's presidency, prompted by Oliver Stone's film W, with Stone and Bush book authors Bob Woodward, Ron Suskind and Jacob Weisberg. (See Thursday's column for my previous synopsis.)

Weisberg takes issue with Woodward's assertion that we know why Bush went to war in Iraq, saying "basic mysteries about the decision remain. Among the questions I'd like to have answers to:

" -- On what date did Bush make the decision?

" -- Where was he when he made the decision?

" -- Who else was in the room?

" -- What did he think his reason was at the time?"

Woodward writes that it's all in his books, and that Bush made the decision sometime between Christmas 2002 to Jan. 13, 2003.

Weisberg responds: "But I think some significant evidence points to Bush making his decision to depose Saddam much earlier, in late June or early July 2002."

Suskind says his book traces the decision to as early as January 2002.

Fellow author Michael Isikoff chimes in, dating it to sometime before May 2002, citing a scene from his book: "The scene in question takes place May 1, 2002. Bush, while whacking tennis balls to his dogs on the White House lawn, is being briefed by press secretary Ari Fleischer and another communications aide, Adam Levine, for a History Channel interview he is about to give that afternoon about the life of Ronald Reagan. (That's the real setting as reported in Hubris. In the movie, Stone substitutes Karl Rove for the somewhat obscure Levine, and Fleischer walks in midway through the discussion.) Fleischer relates the pesky questions he was getting at the press briefing that day from Helen Thomas about why Bush seems so intent on starting a war and getting rid of Saddam Hussein. Bush lets a loose with a string of expletives.

"'Did you tell her I don't like [expletives] who gas their own people?'

"'Did I tell you I don't like [expletives] who lie to the world?'

"'Did you tell her I'm going to kick his sorry [expletive] ass all over the Mideast?'"

Stone responds: "I think we make too much of Iraq specifically. I think Bush's anger needed a larger pasture in which to graze. If it had not been Iraq, I think he would just as easily have turned us against Iran or, for that matter, Venezuela or Cuba or North Korea, another co-star in his 'Axis of Evil' speech. The mindset is there from the beginning -- of 'us vs. them,' the 'evil-doers,' the 'terrorists' (which is really an undefinable term in the perspective of history). This is the essence of the Bush Doctrine, which allows the chief executive to tell us, Orwellian-style, who our enemy of the moment is. . . .

"Our next terrible president will not come wearing wolf's clothing or twisting a mustache. He -- or she -- will seem benign, friendly, and patriotic; someone who can convince us that the nuance of international relations is actually quite simple; someone with whom we'd want to have a beer. This is one of the main lessons I hope the film conveys: Will we recognize the next George W. Bush who enters national politics? Will we see the train wreck coming before we are in it?"

Suskind also raises the issue that access journalism hasn't been a good deal for journalists in this administration: "Bob, clearly, has sat in what journalists generally consider 'access heaven' in his unmatched colloquies with Bush. You have witnessed Bush jumping out of his chair to make a point, and many other moments from your interviews provide some signature scenes of this period. But, I wonder, Bob, if you think, looking back, that access to Bush has not been as valuable -- hour for hour -- as it has been with other presidents whom you've interviewed. I think it's fair to say that Bush and his team don't believe that truthful public disclosure and dialogue are among their central obligations. Other presidents have railed against the troublemakers in the press, but they felt, often reluctantly, that letting the American people know their mind -- the good-enough reasons that drive action -- was part of their job description."

Propaganda Watch

David Hume Kennerly, a Pulitzer-Prize winner who was President Gerald Ford's personal photographer, tells Holly Stuart Hughes of Photo District News: "One part of the job [of White House photographer] is to educate his or her boss, the President, on the value of having other people's points of view so you don't get accused of being a pawn or a lackey for the administration.

"Put this in big, bold headlines: Limit the number of photo releases from the White House.

"The current administration has been a confetti machine of hand-outs. They have, in my estimation, tried to supplant outside photography by releasing photos almost on a daily basis of stuff that other photographers should be able to cover. That doesn't include classified meetings - I understand that. But the more photos the White House releases, the less valuable they become, and the more suspect they become. [Using hand-outs] also, I think, erodes the integrity of the White House photo office and of the White House photographer. They make that person look like a PR tool of the administration. The way to offset that is to have a healthy relationship with the White House press photographic press corps and with photographers if they ask for access.

"The current White House photographer doesn't have the relationship with the president that I did, and has not lifted a finger to help his colleagues, by the way. That has been to the detriment of his boss, I think. By the way, [White House photographer] Eric Draper is a damned good photographer. I'm not taking away from his ability as a photographer, I'm just criticizing his reluctance to help his colleagues. Granted, he doesn't have that close relationship with the president that I had."

First Lady Watch

There is a Bush on the campaign trail this week. Just not the president.

Kate Magandy writes for the Sun Herald of South Mississippi: "First Lady Laura Bush will visit the Coast on Thursday to help campaign for Sen. Roger Wicker."

Kathleen Parker writes in her syndicated opinion column about attending Monday's legacy luncheon with the first lady: "Her mission has been anything but modest: to save women, educate girls, end poverty, reduce disease, expand democracy and promote freedom.

"Women may not save the world -- at least not without the help of enlightened men -- but history will judge that one Laura Bush did her part."

Guns Drawn

Jon Ward writes in the Washington Times: "An unarmed 23-year old Baltimore man was arrested Tuesday after jumping a fence at the Treasury Department as President Bush's motorcade was pulling onto the White House grounds nearby. . . .

"Mr. Bush remained inside his limousine for two to three minutes, instead of immediately exiting upon arriving outside the Oval Office.

"The handful of plainclothes Secret Service agents protecting the president retrieved automatic weapons from their vehicles and took up positions in front of the limousine, facing the South Lawn. The scene, though unusual, was not frantic.

"After the brief delay, Mr. Bush emerged from the limousine and walked with aides past the heavily armed agents into the Oval Office. The agents do not normally carry weapons openly."

Late Night Humor

Stephen Colbert on Ted Stevens: "Nothing is going to break this man. Because he knows that he has what it takes to be pardoned by President Bush."

Cartoon Watch

Larry Wright on filling Bush's shoes, and Bruce Beattie on McCain's baggage.

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