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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

When Cheney Met Edwards

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, October 6, 2004; 1:00 PM

The pundits on television last night were calling it the most memorable line of the vice presidential debate -- even before they knew the half of it.

Vice President Cheney, in full dudgeon, was lecturing John Edwards for his poor Senate attendance when he brought out the long knife.

"Now, in my capacity as vice president, I am the president of Senate, the presiding officer. I'm up in the Senate most Tuesdays when they're in session.

"The first time I ever met you was when you walked on the stage tonight."

But it turns out that it's just not true.

The story started to unravel as soon as the debate was over, when the two candidates' families gathered on stage to smile for the photographers. Edwards's wife, Elizabeth, reportedly told Cheney he was wrong.

And within hours, the Kerry campaign had distributed this picture, showing Cheney and Edwards standing side by side at the 2001 National Prayer Breakfast.

Cheney's accusation also started to backfire once his nemesis, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), started giving interviews explaining that when Cheney visits, the vice president only meets with Republicans.

As Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Although Cheney is the Senate's presiding officer, he actually sits in the chamber only on rare occasions, such as to break a tie vote and to swear in new senators.

"He does attend the GOP senators' weekly luncheons to discuss party strategy. But only Republicans attend, and Cheney usually breezes into the building, goes to the meeting, then leaves without hobnobbing with Democrats."

Wallsten writes: "Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt described the prayer breakfast photo as evidence of an 'inconsequential meeting.' "

The Associated Press actually found three known meetings between Cheney and Edwards:

• "On Feb. 1, 2001, the vice president thanked Edwards by name at a Senate prayer breakfast and sat beside him during the event.

• "On April 8, 2001, Cheney and Edwards shook hands when they met off-camera during a taping of NBC's Meet the Press, moderator Tim Russert said Wednesday on Today.

• "On Jan. 8, 2003, the two met when the first-term North Carolina senator accompanied Elizabeth Dole to her swearing-in by Cheney as a North Carolina senator, Edwards aides also said."

Who Will the Voters Believe?

As Dana Milbank writes in a Washington Post news analysis this morning, last night's debate was like a courtroom drama.

Here's my take:

John Edwards laid out his case starting with his opening argument that Vice President Cheney and President Bush utterly lack credibility. "Mr. Vice President, you are still not being straight with the American people," he said.

Using his trial-lawyer skills, Edwards then sunnily piled up the evidence, more clearly and more distinctly than John Kerry ever has.

He landed a few personal punches, attacking Halliburton for dealing with "sworn enemies of the United States" when Cheney was its CEO, and mocking Cheney's congressional record, which includes voting against funding for Meals on Wheels for seniors.

His closing argument was that Bush and Cheney are not on your side. "Mr. Vice President, I don't think the country can take four more years of this type of experience," he said.

Cheney's opening argument was that Iraq is a central front in the war on terror. "It's important to look at all of our developments in Iraq within the broader context of the global war on terror," he said.

Cheney hit that point dourly but more effectively than Bush did last week. He was defensive at times, but clearly never in doubt.

He landed some personal punches, heavy with disdain for Edwards. "Senator, frankly, you have a record in the Senate that's not very distinguished," he said.

And his closing argument was that Edwards and Kerry are a bunch of weak wafflers. If the changed views under pressure from primary challenger Howard Dean, he asked, "How can we expect them to stand up to al Qaeda?"

Courtroom sketch artists would not be kind to the hunched, hand-wringing Cheney.

But what will the jury think?

The spinning offered no clue. Whereas last Thursday, many Bush supporters tellingly couldn't muster full Dervish mode, last night both sides were unstinting in their declarations of victory.

The media pundits generally called it a draw, or in some cases a win for Cheney.

But the question is not how it played among the partisans or even the talking heads. Cheney and Edwards were vying for the swing voters. That's the jury that matters.

So did Edwards persuade them not to believe Cheney and Bush? Or did Cheney persuade them that Kerry and Edwards aren't fit for the job?

The one insta-poll of undecided voters suggest Edwards may have made the better case.

A CBS News poll of uncommitted voters found that 41 percent said Edwards won the debate, versus 28 percent who said Cheney won. Thirty-one percent said it was a tie.

An ABC News poll of registered voters who watched the debate called it for Cheney, 43 percent to 35 percent, but that split closely reflected their pre-debate preferences: 38 percent of respondents were Republicans, 31 percent Democrats, the rest independents.

Here's the full debate text, annotated with Washington Post and washingtonpost.com fact-checking.

The Analysis

Milbank writes: "The Democratic challenger, reprising his former career as a trial lawyer, challenged Cheney mercilessly, as if prosecuting a cagey and possibly untruthful defendant, all the while charming the jury -- the viewing public -- with a winning smile. The Republican incumbent, obviously disdainful of the prosecutor, responded by questioning the prosecutor's credentials, as if lecturing a dense student.

"The jury is still out, of course. But Cheney and Edwards represented their sides forcefully in the 90-minute session, engaging in a sharp and frequently bitter exchanges. Unlike the presidential debate, the barbs were not only about Iraq and terrorism but also about more personal matters, such as Cheney's tenure at Halliburton Corp. and Edwards's attendance record in the Senate."

Adam Nagourney writes in a New York Times analysis: "For most of the 90-minute encounter with his rival, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, Mr. Cheney tried to reassure Republicans unsettled by President Bush's debate performance against Senator John Kerry last week, while hammering home the case against Mr. Kerry that polls now suggest Mr. Bush failed to make. . . .

"Indeed, if Mr. Cheney came into the debate seeking to reverse the slippage the Republicans have witnessed since Mr. Bush's answers and demeanor Thursday night distressed many supporters, Mr. Edwards succeeded in blocking him for much of the night, although certainly not all."

Dick Polman writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "They threw everything at each other except the kitchen sink. Then they threw the kitchen sink.

"Vice President Cheney essentially said John Edwards is a liar. Edwards said Cheney is a liar. Cheney said Edwards is a feckless weather vane. Edwards said Cheney is a heartless warmonger. Cheney said Edwards is a showhorse, not a workhorse. Edwards said Cheney is more plutocrat than public servant.

"So went the vice presidential debate last night, a bare-knuckled duel between drawl and monotone. Whether it changes the dynamics of the 2004 race is doubtful. There was no single galvanizing moment, nothing that exposed either man as an empty suit, and attention will soon turn to the next presidential debate. But the snarling last night was significant, because it epitomized the strong ideological and personal tone of this campaign. And there were surely enough insults to sate the emotions of both sides."

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Had Dick Cheney or John Edwards stood on their chairs and shouted 'liar, liar pants on fire,' it might have surprised viewers, but it would not have changed the tenor of Tuesday night's debate.

"Reflecting the intensity and tightness of the campaign a month before election day, the candidates challenged not only each other's positions but the very legitimacy of their statements on matters ranging from why the United States went to war in Iraq to which Americans deserve a tax cut. . . .

"Beyond the familiar messages, each candidate displayed a contempt for the other side that is rarely seen in a face-to-face confrontation. While both kept their tempers in check, and neither openly grimaced or smirked as President Bush did in his debate last week, it was clear that Edwards -- who practiced the art of debate for 20 years as a trial attorney -- got under Cheney's skin."

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times that "behind the heated rhetorical battle, a clear strategy emerged on each side -- one that signaled the two campaigns' broader goals in the election's final month. . . .

"Cheney's unstinting attacks on Kerry's voting record -- not only on national security but on taxes and even medical liability reform -- dramatized the priority the Bush campaign placed on moving the spotlight back onto Kerry; that emphasis is likely to be apparent again today when Bush delivers a major speech that sources say will broaden his critique of Kerry's record.

"But Edwards cheered Democrats with a sweeping indictment of Bush's record -- not only on Iraq but on domestic issues such as the deficit, job creation and healthcare -- that probably previewed the arguments Kerry intended to stress in the next two presidential debates."

Jeff Zeleny writes in the Chicago Tribune: "From the first breath of the candidate's joint televised appearance here, Cheney offered an unyielding defense of Bush. From the prosecution of the Iraq war to the global fight against terror to the failed pursuit of Osama bin Laden, the vice president refused even a moment of second-guessing, saying: 'We did exactly the right thing.'

"But as Edwards relentlessly took aim at the Bush administration's record, he boiled down familiar Democratic criticisms into a crisp argument that pointedly questioned the president's truthfulness."

Fact Checking

It was another fact-checking extravaganza in the morning papers. Each story I'm linking to below is lengthy and detailed. Pick a few and read them to the end.

Glenn Kessler and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "Early in the debate, Cheney snapped at Edwards, 'The senator has got his facts wrong. I have not suggested there's a connection between Iraq and 9/11.' But in numerous interviews, Cheney has skated close to the line in ways that may have certainly left that impression on viewers, usually when he cited the possibility that Mohamed Atta, one of the hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001, met with an Iraqi official -- even after that theory was largely discredited. . . .

David E. Rosenbaum in the New York Times writes: "The vice president went furthest along these lines on Sept. 8, 2002, on 'Meet the Press' on NBC.

" 'I'm not here today to make a specific allegation that Iraq was somehow responsible for 9/11,' he said. 'I can't say that. On the other hand,' he went on to say, since a previous interview on the show, 'new information has come to light,' adding 'there has been reporting that suggest that there have been a number of contacts over the years.' "

Rosenbaum also writes: "Mr. Edwards suggested an improper relationship between the Bush administration and Halliburton, the company with large contracts in Iraq that Mr. Cheney led before he ran for vice president.

"Mr. Edwards was right that Halliburton holds a no-bid contract for services in Iraq, is under investigation for overcharges and is still being paid by the government. But there is no evidence Mr. Cheney has pulled strings on Halliburton's behalf since becoming vice president. And the independent Government Accountability Office concluded that Halliburton was the only company that could have provided the services the Army needed at the outset of the war and was thus justified in having received the noncompetitive contract."

But Jonathan S. Landay and Seth Borenstein note that some of Edwards's claims about Halliburton are supported on Halliburton's own corporate Web site.

Janet Hook writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Edwards reiterated the claim Kerry made in Thursday's debate that the United States had 'taken 90% of the coalition causalities' in the war in Iraq. Cheney called that assertion 'dead wrong' and said the figure was 'closer to 50%' when Iraqis are included.

"As of Tuesday, 1,061 American service members had been killed and 7,700 wounded. Edwards' figure appeared correct when Iraqi forces were omitted, analysts said. Non-U.S. coalition forces have identified 136 deaths to date, which would make American casualties account for 88.5% of the total.

"But there are no reliable figures on Iraqi deaths. As a result, Cheney's assertion is nearly impossible to verify."

CBS News notes: "Cheney said Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry voted for the Iraq war, but the reality was more complex. The senator backed a resolution that allowed the war to happen but said he took President Bush at his word that he'd exhaust weapons inspections and build a true coalition first."

USA Today's fact-check includes a critical look at Cheney's assertion that the 17% increase in Medicare premiums for 2005 was required by a formula set by a 1984 law that Kerry supported.

Bob Deans writes for Cox News Service that Cheney inflated at one point the financial contributions of the international community.

Mark Matthews and Julie Hirschfeld Davis write in the Baltimore Sun that Cheney misrepresented Kerry's "global test" comment.

They also write: "Edwards accused the Bush administration of being 'for outsourcing jobs.'

"Gregory Mankiw, a top Bush economic adviser, said in February that outsourcing is 'something that we should realize is probably a plus for the economy in the long run.' But later, Mankiw and other Bush administration officials said he was merely saying that outsourcing is a byproduct of trade expansion, which is a positive trend."

Calvin Woodward writes for the Associated Press that Edwards "asserted, 'They sent 40,000 American troops into Iraq without the body armor they needed,' a comment that might suggest they had no body armor at all, when in fact they did." It just wasn't always the brand-new, improved armor.

Punditry

Howard Kurtz writes on washingtonpost.com: "Who 'won'? Despite their differing styles, the answer was not immediately obvious, at least not to me. Each had a job to do -- scoring points on behalf of the presidential candidates and cleaning up their messes -- and got it done."

Tom Shales writes in The Washington Post that "Cheney, like President Bush last week, maintained a kind of annoyed posture throughout the debate, as though all this were beneath him and the Bush-Cheney administration had nothing to answer for and no one to answer to. If he thought going in that he could flick Edwards off like a pesky fly, however, he was mistaken. Edwards was composed and clearly ready."

Alessandra Stanley writes in the New York Times: "Both men had awkward moments, and both scored a few rhetorical points last night. Mr. Edwards was warmer and more engaging, but Mr. Cheney had a better night: Mr. Edwards did not succeed in goading Mr. Cheney into scary rage, nor did he manage to look presidential."

The Wall Street Journal online provides a compendium of debate reaction, including a summary of views expressed on the major networks last night.

Joseph Curl of the Washington Times collects quotes from pundits who gave Cheney the win.

Andrew Sullivan, who thought Edwards won handily, takes a quick look around the blogosphere and writes: "Jeff Jarvis says Edwards won. Mickey says it's a draw. Polipundit says Bush won big. Drezner kinda cops out on his own view but says most people will think Cheney won. All the online polls show a huge Edwards win -- but they might be hijacked."

Factcheck.Com

Kevin Drum is one of many bloggers getting a kick out of this today: "During the debate, Dick Cheney mentioned that you could go to factcheck.com to get the real scoop on Halliburton. What he meant was factcheck.org, a nonpartisan site run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania."

Factcheck.com takes you the home page of billionaire Bush-hater George Soros.

Editorial Roundup

Washington Post: "Debates are partly about momentum, and if Democratic nominee John F. Kerry was on the upswing after last week's debate, nothing that happened last night is likely to stop that. If they are also partly about highlighting differences, this debate would have to be judged a success: In style and substance, the vice presidential candidates were about as distinct as two contenders could be. "

New York Times: "[I]f those famous few undecided voters were waiting for a real debate about different positions and philosophies, they got it last night."

Los Angeles Times: "As in last week's presidential debate, the Democrat was a clear winner in the atmospherics. . . . On the merits of the campaign's central theme, however, the debate was a closer call."

New York Daily News: "Sen. John Edwards' critiques of the Iraqi war effort fast became off-point, and a collected Vice President Cheney bested him last night, calmly establishing the administration case that, granted, President Bush did not himself so formidably establish last week."

San Francisco Chronicle: "This debate was a draw, more likely to rally the partisans on both sides than to change minds before the next Kerry-Bush debate Friday night."

Zarqawi Watch

Missed this yesterday.

Warren P. Strobel, Jonathan S. Landay and John Walcott wrote for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "A new CIA assessment undercuts the White House's claim that Saddam Hussein maintained ties to al-Qaida, saying there's no conclusive evidence that the regime harbored Osama bin Laden associate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

"The CIA review, which U.S. officials said Monday was requested some months ago by Vice President Dick Cheney, is the latest assessment that calls into question one of President Bush's key justifications for last year's U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. . . .

" 'Zarqawi's the best evidence of connection to al-Qaida affiliates and al-Qaida. He's the person who's still killing. He's the person, remember the e-mail exchange between al-Qaida leadership and he himself about how to disrupt the progress toward freedom,' Bush said in the Rose Garden in June."

The Latest on WMDs

Mike Allen and Dana Priest write in The Washington Post: "The government's most definitive account of Iraq's arms programs, to be released today, will show that Saddam Hussein posed a diminishing threat at the time the United States invaded and did not possess, or have concrete plans to develop, nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, U.S. officials said yesterday.

"The officials said that the 1,000-page report by Charles A. Duelfer, the chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, concluded that Hussein had the desire but not the means to produce unconventional weapons that could threaten his neighbors or the West. President Bush has continued to assert in his campaign stump speech that Iraq had posed 'a gathering threat.' "

Bremer Watch

The former U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, said Monday that the United States needed more troops after the invasion to stabilize Iraq.

Dan Balz and Robin Wright write in The Washington Post: "Bremer's comments triggered widespread political fallout and escalated public debate over U.S. policy in Iraq. They also reflected the growing number of challenges from key government quarters about the Bush administration's original assessments of Iraq and justifications for invading.

"In an effort at damage control, the administration disclosed yesterday that top U.S. officials handling Iraq were split over troop strength. After two years of denying internal divisions, the administration confirmed that Bremer had pushed for additional troops. The statement acknowledging the divide, however, came not from the White House but from the Bush-Cheney campaign."

Elisabeth Bumiller and Jodi Wilgoren write in the New York Times: "If administration officials were defending Mr. Bush's decisions in public, in background conversations they were clearly furious with Mr. Bremer, who in recent weeks they have blamed for much that has gone wrong in Baghdad.

"Still, two senior officials confirmed Tuesday evening that Mr. Bremer had sought more troops before he took up his post as the head of the coalition authority in Iraq, and that once he arrived in Baghdad he repeated his belief that the United States and its allies had committed insufficient forces to the task. . . .

"Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, seemed to suggest in a briefing for reporters on Tuesday that Mr. Bremer had never raised his concerns about troop levels with Mr. Bush, but Mr. McClellan did not entirely rule out that such a conversation had occurred."

Here's columnist Al Kamen in The Washington Post: "This left White House aides scrambling Monday night to deny he said that, or if he did say it, that it was off the record or that he was misquoted or that it really wasn't Bremer but someone claiming to be Bremer."

Live Online

I'm Live Online today at 1 p.m. taking your questions and comments. Let me know what's on your mind, White-House-wise.

Another Missing Physical?

Olivier Knox reports for AFP: "After undergoing his annual medical check-up in August 2001, 2002 and 2003, US President George W. Bush has put the procedure off this year until after the November 2 election, his spokesman said."

National Guard Watch

Matt Kelley writes for the Associated Press: "More than a week after a court-imposed deadline to turn over all records of President Bush's military service, the Texas Air National Guard belatedly produced two documents Tuesday that include Bush's orders for his last day of active duty in 1973.

"The orders show Bush was on 'no-fly' status for his last days of duty because he had been grounded almost a year earlier for skipping an annual medical exam."

Today's Calendar

Matea Gold and Edwin Chen write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush, facing a new report on Saddam Hussein's weapons programs, criticism from the former U.S. administrator in Iraq and new attacks from Sen. John F. Kerry, today will aim to redirect the campaign debate as he gives an abruptly scheduled speech on terrorism and the economy.

"The president rarely makes last-minute changes to his schedule, but the White House announced Monday that Bush would give what it calls a 'significant' speech in Pennsylvania. Bush originally was slated to speak there on medical liability reform."

How significant? Well, here's an early Associated Press story: "Bush, repeating much of the rhetoric from his previous campaign visits, sharply criticized Democratic rival John Kerry and even offered an explanation for his frequent scowls and grimaces during their debate last week in Miami.

" 'You hear all that you can understand why somebody would make a face,' the president told cheering supporters in Wilkes-Barre, Pa."


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