The initial reaction to President Bush's second inaugural speech, in which he vowed to end tyranny everywhere, was that it sounded awfully ambitious. (See Friday's column.)
But now comes word from the White House that Bush wasn't actually setting out a new agenda at all. He was simply describing what his approach has been all along.
And that has invited additional concerns, among them that revisionism may be pushing aside reality-checking in the Bush White House.
In hindsight, the White House is apparently suggesting, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq weren't so much about bringing Osama bin Laden to justice and destroying Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. They were about lighting the flame of freedom.
And in spite of the mixed success in both countries, Bush continues to express unfaltering confidence in his world view.
Dan Balz and Jim VandeHei wrote in Saturday's Washington Post about the recasting by the White House on Friday.
"White House officials said yesterday that President Bush's soaring inaugural address, in which he declared the goal of ending tyranny around the world, represents no significant shift in U.S. foreign policy but instead was meant as a crystallization and clarification of policies he is pursuing in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East and elsewhere. . . .
"The speech Bush delivered Thursday at the Capitol appeared to set the United States on a new course in foreign policy, a pivot from the focus on terrorism, which has defined Bush's presidency since Sept. 11, 2001, to confronting tyranny as the enemy that threatens global security."
But no, that's not what he meant, apparently.
"Bush advisers said the speech was the rhetorical institutionalization of the Bush doctrine and reflected the president's deepest convictions about the purposes behind his foreign policies. . . .
"'It has its own policy implications, but it is not to say we're not doing this already,' said White House counselor Daniel J. Bartlett."
What caused such a consistent misreading?
"White House officials argued that some observers have read more into the speech than is there. 'The speech was carefully and purposely nuanced,' said presidential speechwriter and policy adviser Michael J. Gerson."
Maybe it's worth reading again, then. Here's the transcript.
"Across the generations, we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave," Bush said. "Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time. So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world."
Still sounds an awful lot like a call to arms, doesn't it?
Fareed Zakaria writes in Newsweek that the speech may call unwanted attention to the gap between the results of Bush's actions and the freedom he spoke of so rapturously.
"The chasm between rhetoric and reality, while inevitable, is striking. The Bush administration has not been particularly vociferous in holding dictators to account -- no more or less, really, than other recent administrations."
And, Zakaria writes: "While Bush has been visionary in his goals, he has not provided much practical wisdom on how to attain them in a complex world. This lack of attention to the long, hard slog of actually promoting democracy might explain why things have gone so poorly in the most important practical application of the Bush Doctrine so far -- Iraq. Convinced that bringing freedom to a country meant simply getting rid of the tyrant, the Bush administration seems to have done virtually no serious postwar planning to keep law and order, let alone to build the institutions of a democratic state."
Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times that "the Iraq invasion has hurt the image in the region not only of the United States, but also of democracy itself. . . .
"The failure to acknowledge this backlash may have been the most important flaw in Bush's speech. Bush declared freedom a universal right; yet apart from a passing reference to allies, he spoke of its spread as an American mission. . . .
"[H]is speech yet again signaled that he sees the spread of democracy as a uniquely American responsibility. He would do better to build a club of democracies that tangibly rewards nations on the path to freedom. America doesn't need to do this job alone. More importantly, it can't."
Looking for Clarification
David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "What he didn't say, in a speech that used the word freedom 27 times in about 20 minutes, was exactly when, where and how he would intervene on liberty's behalf. Exceptionally vague and without a time frame, the standards Mr. Bush set Thursday allow him enormous running room. The White House declined the next day to put specific countries into the speech's specific categories, saying only that Mr. Bush was laying down broad goals and hoping other nations would conduct some self-examination. . . .
"Indeed, any tyrant left untoppled in the next four years can be described as what the president called the 'work of generations.' Meanwhile, the goal of ending tyranny is available as a retroactive rationale for the war in Iraq, where Americans were originally told that weapons stocks were the primary justification for war. It can also be the predicate, should Mr. Bush need one, for action in Iran or North Korea, where even many critics of the Iraq war acknowledge there is a real nuclear threat."
Jill Lawrence writes in USA Today: "Foreign governments and commentators are reacting with alarm, skepticism and defiance to President Bush's inaugural address, in which he promised to draw sharp distinctions between nations based on 'oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right.' . . .
"Republicans denied that Bush had signaled a major shift in U.S. policy. On Friday, Bush's father, former president George Bush, said the inaugural address was meant to clarify existing policies -- not set a new, militaristic course. But elsewhere, commentators characterized the speech as evangelical or militaristic. Others scoffed at what they called a gulf between Bush's rhetoric and the practical demands of thwarting terrorism and nuclear proliferation."
Scott Wilson writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush's inaugural address placing the fostering of democratic freedoms around the world at the center of U.S. foreign policy drew a skeptical reaction Friday in the Arab world, where analysts questioned whether the rhetoric of the speech was consistent with the administration's actions in the Middle East."
Some Arabs felt that "the words belied the fact that the United States supports several authoritarian governments in the Middle East and would ring hollow to the many Arabs who perceive U.S. policy in the oil-rich region as motivated by financial concerns and support for Israel," Wilson writes.
Father Knows Best
Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush's call for an end to tyranny worldwide should not be interpreted by foreign governments and the American people as a prelude to a more aggressive and bellicose foreign policy in his second term, the president's father told reporters yesterday. . . .
"People 'certainly ought to not read into [the speech] any arrogance on the part of the United States,' the former president said during an impromptu visit to the White House briefing room."
Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "For all the talk of fresh diplomacy and rebuilding frayed alliances, Bush heads into his second term still demanding that the rest of the world meet him on his terms -- and now he has redefined those terms to an even more provocative degree with an inaugural address articulating a grand vision for spreading democracy and 'ending tyranny' in 'every nation.' With his eye on history, Bush wants to change the world. The rest of the world is not necessarily so eager to be changed.
"While administration officials have since tried to tamp down expectations of a radical shift in policy, the inaugural speech reflected a worldview dramatically at odds with that in many parts of Europe and the Middle East, where it has only confirmed the image of Bush as an American unilateralist pursuing his own agenda with messianic fervor."
Bush is off to Europe in less than a month. But he may get a taste of what's in store for him this week. AFP reports that British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw today begins "a visit to Washington amid reported tensions over a US hardline on Iran's nuclear program and British support for lifting the European arms embargo on China."
Just yesterday, David Cracknell and Tony Allen-Mills reported in the Sunday Times that Straw "has drawn up a dossier putting the case against a military attack on Iran amid fears that President George W Bush's administration may seek Britain's backing for a new conflict."
And Now, Some Bush Jokes
David Montgomery of The Washington Post provided exclusive coverage of the goings-on inside the black-tie Alfalfa Club dinner Saturday night.
Founded in 1913, the Alfalfa Club was named for the legume whose roots would "do anything for a drink" and has absolutely no other purpose than to throw a really big, exclusive, no-press-allowed party once a year where people from both political parties tell jokes to show they're all friends.
Bush on Vice President Cheney: "I have this habit of giving out nicknames, but Dick is the only person who's given me a nickname. He calls me 'The Apprentice.'"
On Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice: "People often ask me what Condi is like. Well, she is creative; she is tough -- think Martha Stewart with access to nuclear codes."
On attorney general nominee Alberto R. Gonzales: "As you know, he's replacing John Ashcroft. John's heading home to Missouri -- where he intends to cover up naked statues in the private sector."
On his family: "Because of the inauguration, we have a lot of Bushes here tonight... George Herbert Walker Bush, George W. Bush, Barbara Bush, Jeb Bush, George Prescott Bush, Marvin P. Bush, Laura Bush, William H.T. Bush, Doro Bush Koch and John Ellis Bush Jr.
"Or, as we are known within the family: 41, 43, 44, 45, 47, 49, 50, 51, 52, and Marvin."
The Alfalfa Club feast is the first of four annual Washington dinners full of political "humor." The others are the Gridiron dinner, the Radio and Television Correspondents dinner, and the White House Correspondents Association dinner.
Did Gonzales Cover Up?
Michael Isikoff writes in Newsweek about questions surrounding Alberto R. Gonzales's role "in helping President Bush escape jury duty in a drunken-driving case involving a dancer at an Austin strip club in 1996. The judge and other lawyers in the case last week disputed a written account of the matter provided by Gonzales to the Senate Judiciary Committee. 'It's a complete misrepresentation,' said David Wahlberg, lawyer for the dancer, about Gonzales's account."
At issue is a an off-the-record conference in the judge's chambers. The other participants recall Gonzales asking Bush to be excused, which he was. That allowed Bush to avoid questions that would have required him to disclose his own 1976 arrest and conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol.
Isikoff writes: "Gonzales last week refused to waver. 'Judge Gonzales has no recollection of requesting a meeting in chambers,' a senior White House official said."
Former Presidents on Iraq
The History Channel on Friday broadcast Bob Woodward's interviews with Vice President Cheney and former presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter.
How would past presidents have handled the current situation in Iraq?
Ford says: "I think we have an obligation to be a leader on a global basis, but I don't say that means every time we don't like somebody, we have to go to war about it."
Carter says: "I worship the prince of peace, not the prince of war. And to launch a war that might take 50,000 Iraqi lives and so forth, I think 1,300 American lives, unnecessarily, I believe still unnecessarily, based completely on false premises, does contradict my own standard of religious faith."
Reuters reports: "The White House has scrapped its list of Iraq allies known as the 45-member 'coalition of the willing,' which Washington used to back its argument that the 2003 invasion was a multilateral action, an official said on Friday."
Social Security Watch
Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "With their push to restructure Social Security off to a rocky start, Bush administration officials have begun citing two Democrats -- former President Bill Clinton and the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan -- to bolster their claims that the retirement system is in crisis.
"But the gambit carries some risk, Bush supporters say. Clinton's repeated calls during his second term to 'save Social Security first' were specifically to thwart what President Bush ultimately did: cut taxes based on federal budget surplus projections. Likewise, internal Treasury Department documents indicate that Moynihan, a New York Democrat who was co-chairman of Bush's 2001 Social Security Commission, expressed misgivings about the president's push to partially privatize Social Security."
Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, a moderate on the Finance Committee who will be at the center of negotiations over Social Security legislation, yesterday became the latest Republican to express reservations about President Bush's plans, saying that voters are leery and Congress must act cautiously. . . .
"From the Capitol's other chamber, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) used an appearance on NBC's 'Meet the Press' to elaborate on his call for a far broader review of Social Security than the White House envisions."
Here's are the transcripts of Snowe on CNN and Thomas on NBC.
Adam Nagourney and Richard W. Stevenson write in the New York Times: "President Bush begins his second term with the Republican Party in its strongest position in over 50 years, but his clout is already being tested by Republican doubts about his domestic agenda, rising national unease about Iraq and the threat of second-term overreaching, officials in both parties say."
Mike Allen also had a story in Sunday's Washington Post about the White House's attempt to not use the word "private" in relation to Bush's Social Security Plans.
"This is difficult because, after all, they would be 'private' accounts, and Bush's plan would 'partially privatize' Social Security. . . .
"Bush and his supporters have started using 'personal accounts' instead of 'private accounts' to refer to his plan to let younger workers invest part of their payroll taxes in stocks and bonds. Republican officials have begun calling journalists to complain about references to 'private accounts,' even though Bush called them that three times in a speech last fall."
I have an article today over at niemanwatchdog.org, in which I'm suggesting that reporters still aren't getting at the meat of the Social Security story, in part because they're not asking themselves the obvious follow-up question: What's the motive? If indeed the program isn't in trouble, and private accounts won't make things better -- then why are Bush and associates so dead-set on transforming it?
Part of the answer, of course, is that it's an element of Bush's vision of an "ownership society." But what does that mean? Who are the winners and losers in an ownership society?
Sonni Efron writes in the Los Angeles Times: "In the months since the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the administration has insisted that America does not and will not use torture. At the same time, the government has tried to preserve maximum leeway in the interrogation of terrorism suspects by not drawing a clear line between where rough treatment ends and torture begins."
Meet Dan Bartlett
Ken Herman of the Cox News Service profiles Dan Bartlett, the "battle-tested political veteran at age 33" who takes over Karen Hughes's old title, as counselor to the president.
"During his first four years at the White House, longtime Bush aide Dan Bartlett majored in crisis communication with a minor in damage control," Herman writes.
"For the next four years, Bartlett, recently elevated from communications director to counselor to the president, hopes to 'be able to look around the corner a little bit more.'"
Mark Silva of the Chicago Tribune writes: "Bush faces three events in just over two weeks that could provide a dose of cold reality: an Iraqi election that few expect to be problem-free, a State of the Union speech that will provide more policy details for critics to attack and a budget proposal including cuts sure to be controversial even within his party."
Mark your calendars: Iraqi election, Jan. 30; State of the Union, Feb. 2; 2006 budget proposal, Feb. 7.
U.S. News and World Report reports in its Washington Whispers column: "Their first date was during President Bush 's 2001 inauguration, and it must have gone well. Because White House Communications Director Nicolle Devenish, 32, and former Bush-Cheney Deputy Campaign Manager Mark Wallace, 37, finally got engaged last week. And not on just any day. Wallace picked the couple's fourth anniversary and Bush's second inauguration to pop the question and offer a huge diamond."
Rioters at the White House
Al Kamen writes in his Washington Post column: "As we begin the second Bush administration, let's take a moment to reflect upon one of the most historic episodes of the 2000 battle for the White House -- the now-legendary 'Brooks Brothers Riot' at the Miami-Dade County polling headquarters.
"This was when dozens of 'local protesters,' actually mostly Republican House aides from Washington, chanted 'Stop the fraud!' and 'Let us in!' when the local election board tried to move the re-counting from an open conference room to a smaller space."
Kamen finds that some of those pictured have gone on to other things, including stints at the White House.
Here's the famous photo. And here's Kamen's column from four years ago on the topic.
Here's an AP photo of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, holding up a U.S. dollar bill while challenging Bush to take a wager.
"I challenge you to a bet Mr. Bush, one dollar, who will last longer? You in the White House or me in Miraflores?" said Chavez, who has repeatedly accused the United States of conspiring to oust him.
Bush vs. the Press?
Washingtonian columnist Harry Jaffe unleashes his predictions for the "second round of warfare between the White House press corps and the Bush team."
Among them: "Sure bet: The White House will continue to bully reporters."