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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

A Question of Credibility

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, January 19, 2005; 11:57 AM

Looking back on the nearly 10 hours of testimony yesterday in which Condoleezza Rice said virtually nothing new, many reporters declared one exchange between Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and the secretary of state-designate to be the highlight of the day.

As Barbara Slavin wrote in USA Today: "In a heated exchange that electrified the hearing room, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., an opponent of the Iraq war, held up a placard of what she called contradictory statements by Rice on weapons of mass destruction as the primary reason for invading Iraq.

Slavin quotes Boxer: "Your loyalty to the mission you were given, to sell this war, overwhelmed your respect for the truth."

And Rice's response: "Senator, I have to say that I have never, ever lost respect for the truth in the service of anything. . . . I really hope that you will refrain from impugning my integrity."

But that doesn't really help the reader who's trying to decide on the merits of the case. What specific evidence was Boxer citing to impugn Rice's credibility? Did it have any substance? And how did Rice respond to those specifics?

You have to go to the transcripts to find that out. Here is the complete transcript. And here, specifically, is the text of that Boxer-Rice exchange.

Boxer started off: "Now, perhaps the most well-known statement you've made was the one about Saddam Hussein launching a nuclear weapon on America with the image of, quote, quoting you, 'a mushroom cloud.' That image had to frighten every American into believing that Saddam Hussein was on the verge of annihilating them if he was not stopped."

Here's the transcript of CNN's "Late Edition" with Wolf Blitzer on Sept. 8, 2002:

"BLITZER: Based on what you know right now, how close is Saddam Hussein's government -- how close is that government to developing a nuclear capability?

"RICE: You will get different estimates about precisely how close he is. We do know that he is actively pursuing a nuclear weapon. We do know that there have been shipments going into Iran, for instance -- into Iraq, for instance, of aluminum tubes that really are only suited to -- high-quality aluminum tools that are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs, centrifuge programs.

"We know that he has the infrastructure, nuclear scientists to make a nuclear weapon. And we know that when the inspectors assessed this after the Gulf War, he was far, far closer to a crude nuclear device than anybody thought, maybe six months from a crude nuclear device.

"The problem here is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly he can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."

Boxer continued: "On July 30th, 2003, you were asked by PBS NewsHour's Gwen Ifill if you continued to stand by the claims you made about Saddam's nuclear program in the days and months leading up to the war.

"In what appears to be an effort to downplay the nuclear-weapons scare tactics you used before the war, your answer was, and I quote, 'It was a case that said he was trying to reconstitute. He's trying to acquire nuclear weapons. Nobody ever said that it was going to be the next year.' "

And here's that transcript.

Boxer then pointed out that at a speech at the Cincinnati Museum Center on Oct. 7, 2002, (here's the text) Bush himself said: "If the Iraqi regime is able to produce, buy or steal an amount of highly-enriched uranium a little larger than a single softball, it could have a nuclear weapon in less than a year."

And, Boxer said: "On October 10th, '04, on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace, three months ago, you were asked about CIA Director Tenet's remark that prior to the war he had, quote, 'made it clear to the White House that he thought the nuclear-weapons program was much weaker than the program to develop other WMDs.' Your response was this: 'The intelligence assessment was that he was reconstituting his nuclear program; that, left unchecked, he would have a nuclear weapon by the end of the year.' "

Here's that transcript.

Boxer concluded: "So here you are, first contradicting the president and then contradicting yourself. So it's hard to even ask you a question about this, because you are on the record basically taking two sides of an issue. And this does not serve the American people."

So did Rice clear it all up?

"MS. RICE: Senator, that was just a question of pointing out to people that there was an uncertainty. No one was saying that he would have to have a weapon within a year for it to be worth it to go to war.

"SEN. BOXER: Well, if you can't admit to this mistake, I hope that you'll --

"MS. RICE: Senator, we can have this discussion in any way that you would like. But I really hope that you will refrain from impugning my integrity. Thank you very much."

The Coverage

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "Secretary of state-designate Condoleezza Rice signaled yesterday that the Bush administration will seek to rebuild alliances and work with multilateral institutions as it tries to move beyond the military campaigns of President Bush's first term, declaring twice that 'the time for diplomacy is now.' "

"Rice struck the distinctly internationalist tone in her opening statement at her Senate confirmation hearing and then, in nearly 10 hours of cordial but occasionally pointed questioning, stuck largely to well-known White House positions on Iraq, Middle East democracy, North Korea and a range of other issues. Rice will return for more questions this morning, after which the Senate Foreign Relations Committee plans to quickly approve her nomination. Legislative leaders plan to bring the nomination to the full Senate tomorrow. . . .

"Senate Democrats tried repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, to pin down Rice on the specifics of the administration's exit strategy for Iraq and on whether the administration now concedes fault with the way it handled the Iraq war or interrogations of terrorism suspects."

Nicholas Kralev writes in the Washington Times: "Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice yesterday branded six countries . . . as 'outposts of tyranny,' coining a term reminiscent of President Bush's 'axis of evil' three years ago. . . .

" 'To be sure, in our world, there remain outposts of tyranny, and America stands with oppressed people on every continent,' she said, naming Cuba, Burma, North Korea, Iran, Belarus and Zimbabwe."

Here are the "outposts of tyranny at a glance" from the BBC.

Steven R. Weisman and Joel Brinkley write in the New York Times that Rice "declared that the United States was making 'some progress' in training Iraqi security forces."

But they note that Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the committee, "dismissed as 'malarkey' Ms. Rice's assertion that 120,000 Iraqi troops had been trained. He said that based on his own interviews on trips in Iraq, the actual number of fully trained Iraqis was closer to 4,000."

Paul Richter writes in the Los Angeles Times: "In a sometimes stormy 9 1/2-hour session, Rice signaled little overall change in the Bush administration's approach to dealing with other countries. Rice said that as secretary she would strive to work through alliances, but only if the efforts were productive."

Tim Grieve writes in Salon: "Nothing changes at noon on Jan. 20, at least not this year. And if there was any lingering question about that -- any vague hope that the president's second term might be different than his first -- Condoleezza Rice put the matter to rest during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday. The United States will have a new secretary of state Thursday. It will not have a new foreign policy."

Social Security Plan: A Dead Horse?

Mike Allen and Jonathan Weisman write in The Washington Post: "House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) predicted yesterday that partisan warfare over Social Security will quickly render President Bush's plan 'a dead horse' and called on Congress to undertake a broader review of the problems of an aging nation.

"Thomas, one of Capitol Hill's most powerful figures on tax policy, is the highest-ranking House Republican official to cast doubt on the president's plan for creating individual investment accounts. . . .

"Thomas's comments, which took the White House by surprise, reflected some Republicans' view that the White House has mishandled the plan's rollout and that a fresh start is needed to allow a chance for getting Democratic support."

A Divided Country

Susan Page writes in USA Today that Bush "will be leading a nation that is less optimistic about the future than it was when he was inaugurated for his first term. Then, 56% of those surveyed by USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup were generally satisfied with the way things were going in the USA; now 46% are. He'll face a public that is deeply divided over his leadership.

"That divide has solidified over the past four years, costing him the honeymoon that presidents -- even second-term presidents -- typically enjoy at inauguration. He takes office with a job-approval rating of 51%, the consistently lowest of any re-elected president in modern times. Partisan divisions eased when Presidents Clinton, Reagan and Eisenhower were sworn in a second time. They haven't for Bush.

"What's more, he'll be pursuing an agenda that differs from the challenges most Americans identify as top priorities. Their most urgent concerns: education and health care costs."

Here are those poll results.

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Americans remain deeply divided over President Bush's performance and priorities as he begins his second term, a new Los Angeles Times poll has found.

"Bush arrives at his second inaugural Thursday buoyed by a public preference for smaller government, continued confidence in his efforts against terrorism and support for some of his top goals -- such as simplifying the tax code, limiting medical malpractice claims and proceeding with Iraq's Jan. 30 election.

"But the poll also found most Americans skeptical about his call to restructure Social Security, unhappy about his handling of the Iraq war and opposed to making his first-term tax cuts permanent if they would produce further federal budget deficits, as almost all projections show they would."

Another finding: "In the days leading up to Bush's inaugural, the poll found that 75% believed he should scale back the celebration amid the war in Iraq and the tsunami disaster in Southern Asia."

And Doyle McManus writes that, in the same poll, "the percentage of Americans who believed the situation in Iraq was 'worth going to war over' had sunk to a new low of 39%."

Here is the polling document; here are some highlights.

A Bold Agenda

James Harding writes in the Financial Times: "This week, amid an inauguration that mixes presidential majesty, pricey lobbying opportunities and a partisan victory thrash, giddy Republicans are hailing the 43rd president as a man poised to become their party's own Franklin Delano Roosevelt. . . .

"On his first victory, Mr Bush said in his famously mangled language that he had been 'misunderestimated'. The Dubya detractors deemed him an inconsequential 'shrub', just as commentator H.L. Mencken dismissed FDR as 'Roosevelt Minor'. Now Mr Bush is held up not only as a war president in the Roosevelt mould but also a leader set to rewrite government's compact with Americans and, with it, the bonds of party politics."

So what are his prospects? Harding writes: "The leaderless and cowed opposition in Washington -- a Democratic party in disarray over its message, the moral values debate and its future standard-bearer -- may give Mr Bus . . . room to exploit the power of the presidential bully pulpit.

"But the concern that has rapidly crept up on Republicans in Washington is that Mr Bush, a president with an unrivalled record of deficit spending, has pledged more political capital than he has accumulated."

An Important Speech

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "In a 17-minute inaugural address that has undergone 13 revisions, President Bush on Thursday plans to broadly spell out his second-term goals of promoting freedom abroad and an 'ownership society' at home.

"Bush will save a more detailed blueprint of his agenda, which includes overhauls of Social Security and the tax code, for his State of the Union address in early February, according to the White House.

"The address Thursday will outline the philosophical foundation of some controversial policies Bush will pursue, such as allowing younger workers to invest some of their Social Security taxes in private savings accounts for retirement, officials said."

From yesterday's press briefing with Scott McClellan:

"Q So the word 'Social Security' is not going to come up?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you'll be there to cover the speech, so stay tuned. But this is -- I'm trying to point you in the right direction, that this is really a speech that will lay out the philosophy and principles that guide us, moving forward. And he'll talk about the ideals and values of America, the ones that we hold so dearly, the ideals of self-governance and human rights and human dignity for all, and the ideal of freedom and how freedom is important to making the world -- advancing freedom is critical to making the world a safer place and making America more secure."

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "With deep deficits, a lackluster job market, no exit strategy from Iraq and skepticism of the United States abroad, Democrats say they will be listening for humility in Bush's speech.

"Bush was humble in his first inaugural address when he said, 'We'll show purpose without arrogance.'

"Nevertheless, that's not the impression Bush has conveyed around the world."

A Distant President

Linton Weeks writes in The Washington Post: "These days the president has no accessible presence: His public life has been privatized. Celebrations like the inauguration underscore the point. . . .

"Maybe it's the sense of uncertainty in the world around him; maybe it's the sense of certainty in the heart within him, but this president has become further and further separated from everyday American life.

"On the one hand, this year you have a wartime president who, in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, requires more protection; on the other, a second-term president who believes that he has been commissioned to make tough, unpopular decisions.

"The result is a perfect storm of remove."

Dangerous Times?

The BBC reports: "More than half of people surveyed in a BBC World Service poll say the re-election of US President George W Bush has made the world more dangerous.

"Only three countries -- India, Poland and the Philippines -- out of 21 polled believed the world was now safer.

"The survey found that 47% of the 21,953 people questioned now see US influence in the world as largely negative, and view Americans negatively as well.

"None of the countries polled supported contributing their troops to Iraq."

Here are some of the poll results.

More Pre-Inaugural Interviews

Bush told CNN's John King yesterday that the United States needs better "human intelligence" to defeat terrorists.

King: "If they came to you and said, Mr. President, you can fix one thing, what do you think is the greatest thing you need to focus on?

Bush: "The human intelligence, the ability to get inside somebody's mind, ability to read somebody's mail, the ability to listen to somebody's phone call, that somebody being the enemy.

"We have got a commission up and running that will determine why things -- why we didn't find any stockpiles in Iraq. And out of that commission, coupled with the new national director of intelligence, hopefully, the president, this president and future presidents will get the best possible intelligence, both human and, of course, signal intelligence."

Here's the transcript of the interview. Here's video of part one and part two.

On the bad reputation of the United States among Muslims:

"The propagandists have done a better job of depicting America as a hateful place, a place wanting to impose our form of government on people and our religion on people. And it's -- and we're behind when it comes to selling our own story and telling people the truth about America.

"On the other hand, I believe that we're beginning to make progress. And Condi is going to work hard to reform and strengthen the public diplomacy efforts. But I made some very difficult decisions that made public diplomacy hard in the Muslim world. One was, obviously, attacking Iraq. But when a free country emerges in Iraq, I think people will begin to see the wisdom of the policy."

Bush also sat down with Jim Angle of Fox News. Here's the lead of the Fox News story: "Voters in America re-elected President Bush in spite of troubles in Iraq because they understand the American objective to establish democracy around the world, Bush told FOX News on Tuesday.

"Bush said that brave Iraqis are 'fighting off these thugs who want to stop the elections' and they need the support of the coalition. . . .

" 'And when a democracy emerges -- a democracy, by the way, that reflects the cultures and habits of the Iraqi people -- the dynamics in the world will change. Think about the influence a free society in Iraq will have on Iran.' "

Here's video of Angle's interview.

Some quotes:

• "I'm no longer a threat politically. In other words, since I'm not going to run for office again, people don't have to view me as a threat, and hopefully that will enable people from both parties to come together and get some big things done for the country."

• "We're a nation that condemns others for torture, and so we ourselves can't -- shouldn't -- torture and won't. . . . I think it may be useful for people to discuss the relevancy of the Geneva Convention, but as far as this administration goes, we will adhere to the spirit, and treat people with respect."

The Big Parties

Timothy Dwyer writes in The Washington Post: "The nation's 55th inaugural celebration began yesterday amid cold and blustery weather, with a salute to the military past and present, a private reception for deep-pocketed supporters of President Bush and a youth event at the D.C. Armory hosted by the president's twin daughters and featuring teen-centric entertainers and a call to service for the country's youth. . . .

Here's the text of his speech to about 7,000 at the salute to the military at the MCI Center: "You, those who wear our uniform, have given much, and much more will be asked of you in the months and years ahead. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the liberty that has been won at great cost now must be secured. We still face terrorist enemies who wish to harm our people, and are seeking weapons that would allow them to kill on an unprecedented scale. These enemies must be stopped, and you are the ones who will stop them. (Applause.)

"The road ahead will be difficult and dangerous, but we can proceed with courage and with confidence. History moves toward freedom because the desire for freedom is written in every human heart. And the cause of freedom is in the best of hands -- the hands of the United States Armed Forces. (Applause.)"

Teresa Wiltz writes in The Washington Post that "the juxtaposition of 'Saturday Night Live's' Darrell Hammond cracking jokes about the Two Donalds -- Trump and Rumsfeld -- switching bodies in a 'Freaky Friday twist,' and David Letterman, via video, musing about the 'Top 10 ways to tell your commanding officer is nuts,' with praise from President Bush and solemn missives from dead soldiers from wars come and gone made for a strangely dissonant afternoon of entertainment."

Then it was off to party number two.

Sean Daly writes in The Washington Post that in spite of on "refreshing blast of profanity," the event was "a two-hour show that at best felt like a lame-o prom night and at worst felt like a cable-access telethon."

Here's the text of Bush's speech there: "And today, at this concert, we're particularly thrilled that we're honoring service.

"You know what that means? It means love a neighbor just like you'd like to be loved yourself. Take time -- (applause) -- take time out of your life to make somebody else's life better. By helping heal a broken heart, or surrounding a friend with love, or feeding the hungry, or providing shelter for the homeless, you can help change America for the better, one heart, one soul, one conscience at a time."

Today's Calendar

Scott Lindlaw writes for the Associated Press that Bush will be "shuttling between private events for supporters and big, semipublic celebrations marking his inauguration" today.

"The president and first lady Laura Bush were beginning the day with a tour of the National Archives. White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the Bushes would be viewing important historical documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and George Washington's first inaugural address.

" 'A Celebration of Freedom,' complete with musical performances and fireworks, was scheduled for dusk on the Ellipse south of the White House. Bush's schedule was ending late Wednesday night with the first of the week's inaugural galas, the Texas State Society's Black Tie and Boots Ball.

"In between those two events, Bush was making a dash through three 'candlelight dinners' with the heaviest donors to the inauguration. All were closed to journalists.

"Tickets for the candlelight dinners were distributed to those who chipped in $250,000 or $100,000 to the inauguration."

Gonzales Watch

Dan Eggen and Charles Babington write in The Washington Post: "Attorney general nominee Alberto R. Gonzales, responding to questions about his role in setting controversial detention policies, told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that any form of torture by U.S. personnel is illegal, according to new documents released yesterday.

"But Gonzales, the White House counsel who is expected to be confirmed by the Senate in coming weeks, declined to identify the techniques allowed under U.S. interrogation policies, citing restrictions on classified information. He also reiterated his view that a president could theoretically decide that a U.S. law -- such as the prohibition against torture -- is unconstitutional, though he dismissed the question as irrelevant under President Bush."

Same-Sex Marriage Watch

Jim VandeHei and Michael A. Fletcher write in The Washington Post: "President Bush came under fire from some social conservatives yesterday for saying he will not aggressively lobby the Senate to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage during his second term.

"Prominent leaders such as Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, and many rank-and-file Bush supporters inundated the White House with phone calls to protest Bush's comments in an interview published Sunday in The Washington Post. . . .

"The president is sensitive to the concerns of social conservatives and has tried to reassure them over the past two days that he remains as committed as ever to outlawing same-sex marriage, according to White House officials. Privately, some Bush advisers say the president is uncomfortable picking divisive political fights over abortion and same-sex marriage that cannot be won."

Live Online

The Live Online staff at washingtonpost.com has arranged virtually nonstop live chats today and tomorrow related to the inauguration. Among today's guests: Evan Thomas of Newsweek at 2:30 p.m., discussing the book "Election 2004: How Bush Won and What You Can Expect in the Future," and Washington Post staff writer David von Drehle at noon today, discussing the history of presidential inauguration speeches

Trip Down Memory Lane

Scott Lindlaw shares some of the insights into the man that he's gathered while covering Bush for four years for the Associated Press:

"He cried when he resigned as Texas governor. He fidgets in church. He's quick to throw an aide a good-natured insult, or flash a cold stare when challenged. He spits while he's working out. When the spotlight dims and George W. Bush steps away from the lectern, he drops his guard a bit and allows rare glimpses into the man. Just offstage, the carefully disciplined public figure with the blue-blood pedigree sometimes yields to an everyman character."

Internet Humor

The good folks at JibJab are back with another of their signature animated parodies (remember "This Land"?) This one is called "Second Term." It's set to the tune of "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain," as in: "Yes I'm coming back to serve a second term."


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