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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

Bush and the Lord

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, January 12, 2005; 12:47 PM

President Bush told the Washington Times yesterday he doesn't "see how you can be president without a relationship with the Lord."

"I fully understand that the job of the president is and must always be protecting the great right of people to worship or not worship as they see fit," Bush said.

"That's what distinguishes us from the Taliban. The greatest freedom we have or one of the greatest freedoms is the right to worship the way you see fit.

"On the other hand, I don't see how you can be president at least from my perspective, how you can be president, without a relationship with the Lord."

Bush has often said that he is a religious man who supports freedom of religion, but yesterday may be the first time he has so clearly suggested in his use of words that he harbors the feeling that these two principles are to some degree in conflict.

You don't use the "other hand" construction for two concepts that complement each other. And his suggestion that someone is not qualified to be president unless they are religious is sure to spark some further discussion.

There's another enigmatic quote from the same interview:

"I think people attack me because they are fearful that I will then say that you're not equally as patriotic if you're not a religious person," Bush said. "I've never said that. I've never acted like that. I think that's just the way it is."

James G. Lakely has those quotes and others about Bush and religion in his story in today's Washington Times, one of three articles arising from Bush's 40-minute Oval Office interview yesterday with reporters and editors from the conservative newspaper.

Joseph Curl leads the Washington Times with his story on an issue that is a particular hot-button one for conservatives: Bush's immigration proposal.

"President Bush yesterday said he plans to spend political capital this year to force a debate in Congress on his immigration-reform proposal, and boldly predicted that he will prevail," Curl writes.

" 'You're probably sitting there saying, has the guy bit off more than he can chew? The answer is, we will work as hard as we can to get as much as we can get done, as quickly as possible,' Mr. Bush said."

Bush also notes that he has the power of "the bully pulpit, which I use and like using, frankly."

Curl describes the scene: "The president, whose second term begins in just eight days, was relaxed and confident throughout the 40-minute session. At times he grew animated, gesturing to make a point, as he laid out an expansive agenda in a brief opening statement before taking questions."

Rowan Scarborough and Joseph Curl write in the third Washington Times story: "Despite extended tours of duties in Iraq for soldiers and an Army examination of women's roles, the president told editors and reporters of The Washington Times yesterday in an interview in the Oval Office that he has no intention of sending women into ground combat, a mission for which they are banned under Pentagon policy."

Most of the time, Bush is not particularly forthcoming when he meets with reporters, preferring to take a defensive course in which he relies heavily on statements recycled from prepared scripts.

But it appears that he's a little more relaxed and loquacious when he talks to the Washington Times, the newspaper widely considered conservative in outlook and founded in 1982 by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a self-proclaimed messiah.

Another example, which I wrote about in my May 10 column, was when Bush spoke to Washington Times reporter Bill Sammon with unusual bluntness about how his father had "cut and run early" from Iraq in 1991 -- and how he wouldn't make that mistake himself.

ABC News's Note reports that Bush's next interview comes this afternoon, when he and the first lady sit down with Barbara Walters. It's Bush's first broadcast interview since the election, and will be on ABC's "20/20" on Friday.

Busted on Social Security

Is Social Security on its way to being flat bust, bankrupt, broke?

Bush certainly wants you to think so. But even the direst projections don't support his assertion. Yes, by mid-century, the system may no longer be able to entirely meet its currently forecast obligations -- technically, I guess, you could call that bankrupt -- but it would still have a lot of money to dispense. That's not broke by any stretch.

Here's the full transcript of Bush's Social Security event yesterday.

Reporters didn't let that particular Bush assertion go unanswered, though some couched it as a partisan argument -- others as a flatly inaccurate statement.

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush yesterday stepped up his campaign to partially privatize Social Security, hosting a talk-show-style conversation with supporters of a plan to allow participants to funnel a portion of their payroll taxes into private investment accounts. . . .

" 'If you're 20 years old, in your mid-twenties, and you're beginning to work, I want you to think about a Social Security system that will be flat bust, bankrupt, unless the United States Congress has got the willingness to act now,' Bush said. . . .

"But some critics say Bush is exaggerating the Social Security problem to build support for his plan for private accounts. For one, they say, the term 'bankrupt' does not apply to Social Security. If nothing is done to the system, Social Security could still pay about 73 percent of promised benefits in 2042, when the system's 'trust fund' of Treasury bonds will be depleted, Social Security's chief actuary has calculated."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "Democratic leaders quickly stepped forward on Tuesday to challenge the president. Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the party's whip, accused Mr. Bush of 'fear mongering,' and Representative Sander M. Levin of Michigan, a senior Democrat on the Social Security Subcommittee, said his party's priority should be to 'prevent the president from wrecking the bedrock of income security protection.' "

Carolyn Lochhead writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Bush failed to mention that his idea for private accounts was expected to include cuts in future retirement benefits, nor did he talk about the trillions of dollars it would cost the government to borrow money to finance the accounts.

"And while the president insisted Social Security would be 'flat bust, bankrupt' by the time workers in their 20s retired, many analysts say even if nothing changes, those workers would still receive three-quarters of the retirement benefits they are promised today."

Larry Lipman sets the scene for Cox News Service: "In a format similar to a television talk show, Bush sat on a high-backed stool, casually wielding a microphone. He bantered with the guests, who had been picked to show how the Social Security issue cuts across generations, genders and races. Among them were an 80-year-old woman and her adult daughter, a dairy farmer, a small business owner and a health care executive."

Fact Checking

In addition to making deceptive claims about the system going broke, Bush continued to perpetuate a myth about life expectancy so misleading that the Social Security Administration's own Web site goes to great pains to explain how wrong it is.

Said Bush: "The problem is, is that times have changed since 1935. Then most women did not work outside the house, and the average life expectancy was about 60 years old, which for a guy 58 years old must have been a little discouraging. (LAUGHTER)

"Today, Americans, fortunately, are living longer and longer. I mean, we're living way beyond 60 years old and most women are working outside the house."

In fact, as the Social Security Web site states: "If we look at life expectancy statistics from the 1930s we might naturally come to the conclusion that the Social Security program was designed in such a way that people would work for many years paying in taxes, but would not live long enough to collect benefits. Life expectancy at birth in 1930 was indeed only 58 for men and 62 for women. But life expectancy at birth in the early decades of the 20th century was low due to high infant mortality, and someone who died as a child would never have worked and paid into Social Security. A more appropriate measure is probably life expectancy after attainment of adulthood."

By that standard, average life expectancy has still grown, but not as much as Bush implied.

The Crisis Problem

The past several weeks, Bush has been calling Social Security at various times a crisis (see my Jan. 10 column) or a problem (see my Dec. 10 column.) And he's been getting a lot of heat for calling it a crisis.

Yesterday, I'm guessing everyone got together and agreed: No more crisis! Say problem instead!

In his talk, Bush only used the word crisis once, when mocking his critics. Problem, he used 29 times.

For instance: "I think that one of the reasons I'm sitting here is because I said to the people of the country, we have an issue with Social Security, we have a problem, I think it's important to be a problem solver; give me four more years, and I intend to work with people of both parties and solve problems. And there is a problem with Social Security."

Here's press secretary Scott McClellan from the text of yesterday's briefing: "We can debate words like, crisis, but -- or not a crisis, but I think it's very clear that this is a significant problem facing the American people. If people want to say otherwise, they're welcome to make that argument. People can look the other way and ignore the problem and hope that it goes away, but that's the same as sticking your head in the sand. This is a very real challenge facing the American people, and now is the time to act. That's why the President is going out talking to the American people; that's why he's meeting with members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, to get this problem fixed now."

Even Chuck Blahous, a top White House economic adviser answering questions on "Ask the White House" yesterday avoided the crisis word like the plague.

Social Security in Context

John Harwood writes in his Wall Street Journal column that "the argument over a transition to private investment accounts isn't an argument about practicality. It is an ideological debate about whether Social Security remains a social insurance safety net, which redistributes a modest amount of income from rich to poor, or moves toward greater individual opportunity, risk and reward."

Second Try

Bush yesterday nominated federal appeals court judge Michael Chertoff to head the Department of Homeland Security, after his first pick, former New York police commissioner Bernard B. Kerik, imploded.

Chertoff is seen as a safe pick because he has been confirmed by the Senate three times already.

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "Chertoff, 51, ran the criminal division of the Justice Department for the first three years of Bush's tenure and was instrumental in overseeing the administration's legal response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Some critics charge that Chertoff trampled on the civil liberties of individuals while prosecuting a legal war on terrorism at Justice. . . .

"Chertoff told reporters that he would 'devote all my energy to promoting our homeland security and, as important, to preserving our fundamental liberties.' "

John Mintz writes in The Washington Post: "As an assistant attorney general in the months after the attacks, Chertoff helped oversee the detention of 762 foreign nationals for immigration violations; none of them was charged with terrorism-related crimes. A subsequent report by the Justice Department's inspector general determined that Justice's 'no bond' policy for the detainees -- a tactic whose legality was questioned at the time by immigration officials -- led to lengthy delays in releasing them from prison, where some faced 'a pattern of physical and verbal abuse.' "

But as Richard W. Stevenson and Eric Lichtblau write in the New York Times: "Since leaving the Justice Department, Judge Chertoff has questioned the administration's policy of holding enemy combatants indefinitely without charge or trial.

" 'We need to debate a long-term and sustainable architecture for the process of determining when, why and for how long someone may be detained as an enemy combatant, and what judicial review should be available,' he wrote in The Weekly Standard in December 2003.

Here's the full text of Chertoff's essay.

John R. Wilkie and Gary Fields write in the Wall Street Journal: "Mr. Chertoff is known as an independent thinker -- another reason his nomination came as a surprise in a Bush second-term cabinet replete with loyalists and longtime supporters. While he was an architect and strong supporter of the tactics used against terror suspects after the 9/11 attacks, Mr. Chertoff surprised many former colleagues at the Justice Department by calling for a re-evaluation of this approach."

Mark Leibovich writes in The Washington Post's Style section that Chertoff is a classic fallback choice. "Their job is not to dazzle or thrill. Kerik was widely described as 'colorful' and 'charismatic.' No one ever describes fallback choices as colorful or charismatic. . . .

"The chief virtue of the fallback is to be confirmable, to quiet things down, glide through the Senate with an ease that anesthetizes the pain from the embarrassing first choice."

Whitewater Flashback

Here's conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh's immediate reaction to the Chertoff nomination: "Michael Chertoff to the Clintons and to a lot of Democrats is like flashing Dracula the cross. . . . I mean this guy tried to nail their former president. So this is like showing Dracula the cross, nominating this Chertoff guy, and what this guy, his nomination, aside from the qualifications he has -- assume that Bush nominated him for that -- but there's a side-bar to this, and that is that this guy is going to cause the left to have a reaction, a conniption fit that will keep them displaying their ultra-kookism left wing."

So here's a little Whitewater flashback. In this 1996 story, The Washington Post's David Maraniss looks back on the just-ended Whitewater committee hearings, which "ended much as they began: The Republicans, in their final report, accused the Clinton White House of stonewalling and obfuscating; and the Democrats, in a minority rebuttal, claimed that the president and first lady had been victimized by a modern-day witch hunt."

Maraniss calls Chertoff, the Whitewater committee's counsel, the "alter ego" of committee chairman Al D'Amato.

"The long hearings and equally long final majority report are quintessential Chertoff products. In both cases he sought to establish motivations for the Clintons and the people around them, and then to show a pattern of how they withheld information and documents or claimed to forget things in a coordinated effort at damage control. Democrats said it was cynical and venomous of Chertoff to apply a sinister motive to every act . . . [although] the Whitewater hearings indeed disclosed curious patterns of behavior by the Clintons and the people around them, and put them out for public consideration. . . .

Maraniss adds: "Chertoff's deliberative style of questioning was occasionally harpooned by unfriendly witnesses.

"Betsey Wright, Clinton's former chief of staff when he was governor of Arkansas, spent eight hours before the committee one day, bobbing and weaving with Chertoff in her sarcastic and colorful fashion.

" 'Go ahead and talk,' she told Chertoff at one point, when he was asking an especially long and intricate question. 'And then sometime next week I'll come back and answer.' "

Just a Few More to Go

VandeHei writes in The Post: "Bush still must appoint a director of national intelligence, an Environmental Protection Agency chief and a U.S. trade representative, as well as a few senior White House policy advisers. Retired Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks is considered a top candidate to become the first-ever director of national intelligence, but, as Bush demonstrated with his surprise selection of Chertoff, only a small and tight-lipped group of White House officials has any clue about the president's short list."

Robert Timberg writing in the Baltimore Sun hazards a few more names: "Those said to be under consideration for the new intelligence post include former Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr., a member of the commission that studied the Sept. 11 attacks; retired Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who commanded the Iraq invasion force; retired Adm. William O. Studeman, a former deputy CIA director now serving on a presidential panel looking at intelligence failures before the Iraq war; Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, head of the National Security Agency; and former Republican Rep. Porter J. Goss, the current CIA director, who took office in September."

After All That

Scott Lindlaw writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's second-term Cabinet will look roughly like his first -- overwhelmingly male and mostly white, though Hispanics double their representation, to two.

"There would also be two blacks and two Asian-Americans, but no Arab-American replacing Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, a Lebanese-American."

Today's Calendar

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush is beginning his push to require high school seniors to take the math and reading tests now required of younger students under the No Child Left Behind law, the most ambitious item on the president's slate of second-term education proposals."

Bush outlines his proposals for high schools today at J.E.B Stuart High School in Falls Church.

Under His Name

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "In a newspaper opinion piece signed by President Bush and offered to newspapers around the globe, a White House eager to lessen anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world is trumpeting U.S. efforts to help tsunami victims in the Indian Ocean region."

You can read it in its entirety in the Jakarta Post, among other places.

Valerie Plame Watch

Washington lawyers Victoria Toensing and Bruce W. Sanford have a Washington Post op-ed today about the federal investigation into columnist Robert D. Novak's exposure of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

"It's time for a timeout on a misguided and mechanical investigation in which there is serious doubt that a crime was even committed," they write.

"As two people who drafted and negotiated the scope of the 1982 Intelligence Identities Protection Act, we can tell you: The Novak column and the surrounding facts do not support evidence of criminal conduct."

Toensing and Sanford are Live Online today at 2 p.m. ET taking your questions.

Live Online

And I'm Live Online myself today at 1 p.m. ET. Send me your questions and comments.

Armstrong Williams Watch

Liberal blogger Daily Kos points out that Armstrong Williams, the syndicated columnist and TV personality who accepted a $240,000 contract from the Education Department to plug its policies, is a member of the President's Commission on White House Fellowships.

In fact, he was appointed just this past March.

Another member of the commission, William McGurn, the chief editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal, will shortly be named Bush's chief speechwriter for the second term, Tamara Lipper reported on Newsweek.com last week.

The liberal Media Matters Web site is abuzz with Williams items.

Late Night Humor

"The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" takes on the CBS/National Guard story:

"You might remember that the story in question concerned 30-year-old memos that alleged Bush got favorable treatment in the Guard during the Vietnam War. The memos turned out to be fake. So there's no longer proof Bush got favorable treatment.

"Well, except for the gaps in his payroll record, a deposition by Texas speaker of the house Ben Barnes that he called Guard officials seeking a slot for Bush after a friend of Bush's father asked him to do so. There's also the fact that Bush was grounded during his service for failing to show up for a physical, there's also no record at all of him showing up for any duty at all between May 1972 and April 1973, and despite the posting of cash rewards, not one person has come forward to say he served with Bush during his stint in the Alabama National Guard.

"But none of that matters now. You see, Mary Mapes has been fired."


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