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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

What Bush Really Meant Was. . . .

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2005; 9:36 AM

Watching the White House try to spin the president's inaugural address has been the best spectator sport this side of the NFL playoffs.

The Bushies not only trotted out a "senior administration official" to tamp things down, but the president's own father made an appearance in the briefing room.

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You might think that calling on the United States to spread freedom around the globe and stand against tyranny might have consequences.

It was a statement of ideals.

But what does the president plan to do to carry out those ideals?

There will be no change in administration policy.

But how can Bush call for action against regimes that oppress their people and still do business with the dictators of China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan?

The goals the president set forth can only be met over a generation, not in a year or two.

Then was the speech just meaningless rhetoric?

It was an attempt to lay out his strategic vision about moral choices.

So we shouldn't take his words seriously?

The president believes in bold action to advance the cause of freedom.

But if he doesn't take any practical steps, won't he have failed to clear the bar he set for himself?

It was a statement of ideals.

Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria praises the 21-minute address:

"It was a speech written for the ages, and it will live in history as a powerful affirmation of American ideas and ideals. George W. Bush's second Inaugural Address was the culmination, in style and substance, of a position he has been veering toward ever since September 11, 2001: that the purpose of American foreign policy must be the expansion of liberty. It is not a new theme for an American president. Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan all spoke in similar tones and terms. Bush, however, has brought to the cause the passion of the convert. . . .

"In doing so, however, Bush has also pushed higher on the agenda the question of American hypocrisy. I often argue with an Indian businessman friend of mine that America is unfairly singled out for scrutiny abroad. 'Why didn't anyone criticize the French or Chinese for their meager response to the tsunami?' I asked him recently. His response was simple. 'America positions itself as the moral arbiter of the world, it pronounces on the virtues of all other regimes, it tells the rest of the world whether they are good or evil,' he said. 'No one else does that. America singles itself out. And so the gap between what it says and what it does is blindingly obvious -- and for most of us, extremely annoying.' That gap just grew a lot bigger."

Andrew Sullivan chides the detractors:

"Critics of the president's inaugural speech are, I think, misunderstanding it. It's not a program; it's not a New Year's Resolution that will revolutionize America's relationship with every major country. It was a thematic speech. That's all. It's an attempt to provide the president's own melody to the chorus of his administration. A brief look at the Bush administration's first four years does not reveal naive utopianism with regard to unfree countries. . . .

"The problem with Bush is not his ideals. It's his ability to put those ideals into practice. In the series of screw-ups that was the Iraq war, Bush would have done better to think less about the idea of liberty and more about the nuts and bolts of how to build a nation."

USA Today's Richard Benedetto questions the guts of the speech:

"Presumably, these are not just words strung together to sound nice or draw rave reviews for their boldness. . . .

"What does 'stand with you' mean?

"Does it mean that U.S. military forces will intervene on their behalf whenever a people decides to overthrow their government in the name of freedom?

"Does it mean the United States will send money and arms to support rebel groups seeking to unseat despots?

"Does it mean leaders of tyrannical regimes, if they ease the bonds of repression, can expect a softening of U.S. attitudes toward them and an inflow of money?"

Roger Simon has a good line:

"Just as I was about to borrow a friend's line and call George Bush's recent inaugural address his 'We'll give you liberty or we'll give you death speech', the White House decides that he didn't really mean it that way. He was just kidding. Disregard. Listen to the State of the Union instead."

The Note wonders whether it's been hallucinating:

"It's now tempting to treat the President's inaugural address like the 1986 season of 'Dallas' that was Pam Ewing's dream -- something that we all THOUGHT we experienced, but that -- it turns out -- didn't really happen.

"To review: the very, very meticulous, media-savvy Bush White House had the President give a huge, historic speech in which there was unambiguously only one lead/headline possible -- the President was adapting a new paradigmatic extension of the Bush Doctrine that called for fundamentally remaking America's relationships around the world based on the supreme value of supporting democratization."

Noting the subsequent backtracking, the Notesters ask: "For us, the biggest question begged is one we have been thinking a lot about -- does the Bush politico-governmental operation need the spur of an upcoming Bush campaign to have the drive and discipline to hit on all cylinders?"

The Democrats, who have little power on the Hill, may be slowing down the clock:

"Trying to show that they remain a force despite their reduced numbers, Senate Democrats on Monday threatened new hurdles for President Bush's cabinet choices and expressed deep misgivings about the planned Social Security changes at the heart of this year's Republican agenda," says the New York Times.

"Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota said he was mulling whether to try to stall consideration of Michael O. Leavitt, Mr. Bush's choice for health secretary, unless Mr. Dorgan was guaranteed a vote on allowing importation of cheaper prescription drugs.

"In addition, a growing number of Democrats are raising issues about the selection of Alberto R. Gonzales as attorney general, a nomination initially headed for quick approval."

Is this sheer frustration or the beginnings of a strategy?

The idea that Abu Ghraib was an aberration led by a few bad apples just took a big hit, as the Los Angeles Times reports:

"Pentagon documents released Monday disclosed a series of alleged abuses of Iraqi detainees at a little-known converted palace used as a prison north of Baghdad, including the sodomy of a handicapped man and the death of his brother, whose body was tossed atop his imprisoned sister.

"Up to 90 alleged cases of mistreatment of detainees at the Ademeyah palace were among dozens of incidents described in hundreds of pages of Pentagon documents obtained in a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union. The documents released also include investigative reports that indicate possible involvement in abuses by secret Pentagon counterterrorism units."

The Iraqi elections are Sunday, and we're seeing more stories like this Chicago Tribune report:

"Schoolteacher Rajah Musa was perhaps a little too enthusiastic about Sunday's election in Iraq. He talked frequently about it, he urged all his neighbors to vote, and at the local high school where he teaches, he lectured his students about the benefits democracy brings to a society.

"Three weeks ago, a car pulled up outside his home as he set out for work and a gunman opened fire. Musa ducked--one of the bullets grazed his head--but he has gone into hiding, terrified for his life, and he has ordered all the members of his family not to vote. . . .

"Across Baghdad and wherever insurgents are present, Iraqis are asking the question that many regard as the overriding issue of this crucial election campaign: Will it be safe to vote?"

And the war isn't getting any cheaper, either:

"The Bush administration will ask Congress for about $80 billion in new funds for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, administration and congressional officials said yesterday," reports the Philadelphia Inquirer.

"The package, which administration budget officials were expected to present as early as today, would be in addition to $25 billion approved for fiscal 2005."

This is about the sickest thing I've heard in quite awhile:

"Hip-hop radio station HOT 97 has sparked outrage across the city by airing a twisted song that shockingly mocks the 200,000 victims of the South Asian tsunami," says the

New York Daily News. "The radio station, WQHT, was forced to air an apology yesterday after the insulting song - whose lyrics include racial epithets aimed at Asians - was played for four days last week by morning deejay Miss Jones.

"'We are absolutely appalled, saddened, outraged and angered,' said Kai Yu of Asian Media Watch.

"The nasty parody, sung to the tune of 'We Are the World,' makes light of how the killer tsunami 'washed your whole country away.'"

Fred Barnes likes the ambition of Bush's second term:

"President Bush has chosen the hard route. The lessons he seems to have learned from his first term are: set the bar very high, don't do things halfway, forget opinion polls, use every bit of political capital and personal influence you have to achieve your goals, never play small ball, and be ready to take chances. So, instead of relaxing and savoring the achievements of his first term, Bush has laid out a formidable agenda for the next four years: the democratization of Iraq, the spread of freedom around the world, the passage of sweeping tax reform, and making Social Security solvent and sustainable for the rest of this century. For Bush, this could lead to spectacular success. Or, if things don't work out, he could end up relegated to the bitter ranks of failed presidents.

"Why is Bush doing this? One explanation is he hates to fool around with small measures. They bore him. Another explanation, offered half-seriously by a White House aide, is that he's a Texan. For Texans, the aide says, the bigger the project, the better. In addition, the president regards himself as a problem-solver."

One of the most frequently asked questions in Washington is whether Hillary is running. I don't know, but those who see her mapping an '08 strategy will make much of this New York Times report:

"Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton said on Monday that the opposing sides in the divisive debate over abortion should find 'common ground' to prevent unwanted pregnancies and ultimately reduce abortions, which she called a 'sad, even tragic choice to many, many women.'

"In a speech to about 1,000 abortion rights supporters near the New York State Capitol, Mrs. Clinton firmly restated her support for the Supreme Court's ruling in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationwide in 1973. But then she quickly shifted gears, offering warm words to anti-abortion campaigners and praising the influence of 'religious and moral values' on delaying teenage girls from becoming sexually active."

Was this a Sister Souljah moment with the sisters?

Most articles about the DNC race reflect skepticism toward Dean, but not this piece in Salon by Mark Hertsgaard:

"Florida Democrats' decision to unanimously back Howard Dean as the new chairman of the DNC (Democratic National Committee) shows two things: first, there are still some Democrats out there -- including in the supposedly hopeless South -- who have brains and guts and aren't afraid to think for themselves; and second, Dean now has a real shot at winning the DNC job and launching a much-needed makeover of the Democratic Party.

"Political and media elites in Washington are at once horrified and dismissive of Dean's quest. They insist that Democrats would be crazy to pick a raving liberal like Dean as their next party chairman. But as is so often the case, this inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom is based on dubious 'facts' and assumptions about how ordinary Americans relate to politics. Dean is exactly the leader Democrats need to become relevant again.

"The Florida Democratic chairman's statement to the New York Times reveals just how out of touch the Washington establishment is: 'I'm a gun-owning pickup-truck driver and I have a bulldog named Lockjaw,' said Scott Maddox. 'I am a Southern chairman of a Southern state, and I am perfectly comfortable with Howard Dean as DNC chair.'

"Dean, after all, was right about the central issue of the 2004 election -- the Iraq war. Nowadays, a majority of the American public believes that attacking Iraq was a bad idea. Dean was saying this -- and being criticized for it -- in the fall of 2003."

Finally, a farewell column wasn't enough for Bill Safire. So he wrote four of them yesterday, here, here, here and here. One parting shot: "When infuriated by an outrageous column, do not be suckered into responding with an abusive e-mail. Pundits so targeted thumb through these red-faced electronic missives with delight, saying 'Hah! Got to 'em.'"


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