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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

Bush 'Visits' O'Reilly on Fox News

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, September 23, 2004; 11:24 AM

Don't expect hardballs.

President Bush sat down with Bill O'Reilly yesterday for what Fox News is billing as an interview. But even President Bush said it was "just a visit."

Bush spent about half an hour with the unabashedly conservative commentator, who is a ratings star for the network.


Bush's last on-camera interview with a reporter was with NBC's Matt Lauer in August. That led to a one-day media maelstrom when Bush said he did not think the war against terrorism could be won. He reversed himself quickly.

Before and since, Bush has avoided hostile crowds and tough questioning.

Bush may get grilled a bit today, when he faces off with reporters in the Rose Garden around noon with Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, at his side.

And, of course, you never know. Maybe O'Reilly lulled the president into a false sense of security or something.

Here's O'Reilly himself on the interview, speaking on Fox News yesterday: "It happened this morning in a New York City hotel. There were no ground rules. The president sat across from me for about a half an hour, answered all my questions. I hoped they weren't too dopey, but you can decide that for yourself next Monday.

"We will divide the interview into three sections. On Monday, we'll concentrate on foreign policy. On Tuesday, on domestic policy. And on Wednesday, I have some personal questions for the president.

"This is a second time I've interviewed Mr. Bush and I consider myself lucky."

O'Reilly then showed a brief excerpt from the interview:

"O'REILLY: First of all, I want to thank you for talking with me since so few people will.

"GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, it's a big gamble on my part.

"O'REILLY: No, it isn't, not really though. I mean, we talked 4.5 years ago.

"BUSH: I'm teasing.

"O'REILLY: Yes, when . . .

"BUSH: I enjoy how you interview people. And I appreciate you giving me a chance to come on and have what we say in Texas -- it's just a visit.

"O'REILLY: Yes, we're going to have a visit here."

And that's all he showed.

Then he continued: "And it is my opinion that you will find that visit very interesting. I believe you'll learn something about Mr. Bush you don't know. And even people who don't like him will be surprised how he answered some of the questions.

"I asked him about Iraq, WMDs, [former Iraqi president] Saddam [Hussein], Iran, swift boats, the National Guard, entitlements, the Mexican border and many other subjects. The president was straightforward and I enjoyed the conversation.

"One final note -- the reason we are holding the interview until next week is purely promotional. It's like opening a movie. We want to get a lot of buzz so that people who don't ordinarily watch the news, even the mall people will watch this.

"I understand I'm going to take some heat from all sides. In fact, I got a letter today that told me the interview was dumb, even though nobody's seen it yet.

"But that's fine. It's my job to show you exactly who the powerful people are and what they think in this country. You'll learn something from that upcoming interview with President Bush. I promise."

Flip Flopper in Chief?

John F. Harris writes in a Washington Post news analysis: "The flip-flopper, Democrats say, is President Bush. Over the past four years, he abandoned positions on issues such as how to regulate air pollution or whether states should be allowed to sanction same-sex marriage. He changed his mind about the merits of creating the Homeland Security Department, and made a major exception to his stance on free trade by agreeing to tariffs on steel. After resisting, the president yielded to pressure in supporting an independent commission to study policy failures preceding the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Bush did the same with questions about whether he would allow his national security adviser to testify, or whether he would answer commissioners' questions for only an hour, or for as long they needed."

But of course it is Bush's opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry, who is this year's flip-flopper in the public mind.

Harris writes: "Once such a popular perception becomes fixed, public opinion experts and strategists say, virtually every episode in the campaign is viewed through that prism, while facts that do not fit with existing assumptions -- such as Bush's history of policy shifts -- do not have much impact in the political debate."

And Harris doesn't even mention the flip-flop that seems to annoy some of my readers the most: After at first vowing to bring Osama bin Laden to justice, Bush now says that bin Laden is not that important.

Marc Sandalow writes in a San Francisco Chronicle news analysis: "No argument is more central to the Republican attack on Sen. John Kerry than the assertion that the Democrat has flip-flopped on Iraq. . . .

"Yet an examination of Kerry's words in more than 200 speeches and statements, comments during candidate forums and answers to reporters' questions does not support the accusation.

"As foreign policy emerged as a dominant issue in the Democratic primaries and later in the general election, Kerry clung to a nuanced, middle-of-the road -- yet largely consistent -- approach to Iraq. Over and over, Kerry enthusiastically supported a confrontation with Saddam Hussein even as he aggressively criticized Bush for the manner in which he did so."

Bush and the Draft

Kerry raised the possibility yesterday that Bush intends to reinstate the military draft in his second term.

Dan Balz and David Snyder write in The Washington Post: "Kerry was also asked about unsubstantiated reports that have been circulating on the Internet and elsewhere that Bush has a plan to reinstate a military draft after the election, if he wins a second term. Kerry did not knock down that speculation.

" 'If George Bush were to be reelected, given the way he has gone about this war and given his avoidance of responsibility in North Korea and Iran and other places, it is possible. I can't tell you,' he said. 'I will tell you this: I will not reinstate the draft -- unless the United States of America faced the kind of global attack or conflagration where everybody in America understood through an open, democratic process we needed to defend this nation in that means.' "

Here's what Bush had to say on the issue earlier this month, at an "Ask President Bush" event in Sedalia, Mo.

"Q. Mr. President, if the war on terrorism continues, do you feel that there will be a need for the draft? And do you want to start the draft again?

"The President. Yes, first of all, the war on terror will continue. It's going to take awhile. And no, we don't need a draft. What we need to do is -- don't worry about it. What we need to do is to make sure our troops are well-paid and well-housed and well-equipped. . . .

"No, I'm -- we don't need the draft. We don't need a draft at all."

Some critics say Bush has already instated a "backdoor draft," by forbidding thousands of soldiers from leaving military service, under what the Army calls "stop-loss" orders.

Lee Hockstader first wrote about that in December in The Washington Post.

Tribal Sovereignty, Revisited

Bush got a lot of ribbing after he bobbled an answer about tribal sovereignty at a convention of minority journalists in August -- one of the last times he spoke to an audience not made up entirely of supporters. (The United Nations speech this week being the most recent.)

Here's the text. This is how he started off: "Tribal sovereignty means that, it's sovereign. You're a -- you've been given sovereignty, and you're viewed as a sovereign entity. And, therefore, the relationship between the federal government and tribes is one between sovereign entities."

You can even hear an audio clip here. Some people started laughing at him.

Today, the president -- armed with a speechwriter -- got the last laugh.

At this morning's East Room ceremony honoring the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian, here's what Bush had to say: "Native American cultures survive and flourish when tribes retain control over their own affairs and their own future. That is why, earlier this morning, I signed an executive memorandum to all federal agencies reaffirming the federal government's longstanding commitment to respect tribal sovereignty and self-determination. (Applause.) My government will continue to honor this government-to-government relationship."

Lunch With Karl Rove

Stephen Dinan writes in the Washington Times: "White House political adviser Karl Rove said President Bush, if re-elected, will claim a legislative mandate to institute personal Social Security accounts, to simplify and reform the tax code and to extend No Child Left Behind standards into high school.

"Although the election debate has been dominated by foreign policy and national security, Mr. Rove told editors and reporters of The Washington Times at a luncheon yesterday that the president also will claim a mandate to move on domestic issues. . . .

"Mr. Rove yesterday said the administration won't produce specific policy for changing Social Security during this campaign, but it's clear what Mr. Bush wants and, if he wins, he will consider that a mandate to move forward."

Bill Sammon writes in the Washington Times: "President Bush expects to help Republicans gain up to four Senate seats and seven House seats in November and already is running Sen. John Kerry out of states that had been considered battlegrounds, White House political strategist Karl Rove said yesterday."

Rove also joined in the latest White House sport: Trying to raise expectations for Kerry's performance in the upcoming debates.

"Mr. Rove, who interrupted the interview for a few moments to take a call from Mr. Bush, pointed out that Mr. Kerry helped form an organization in high school so that he could indulge his passion for debating, which has endured for decades."

And at that same lunch, Stephen Dinan and Rowan Scarborough write, Rove "mocked the suggestion" that he was somehow behind the release of faked documents to CBS that attacked President Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard.

" 'Obviously, you know the answer is no. Do you feel good about asking that question?' he said before repeating, 'The answer is no, obviously.' "

Debate Prep

Mike Allen and Lois Romano write in The Washington Post: "President Bush will try to project an air of routine by retiring to his ranch in Crawford, Tex., after two campaign events in Wisconsin on Friday. He will barnstorm in Ohio on Monday and then will be out of sight again in Crawford on Tuesday. He will make a stop in Florida on the way to the debate site in Coral Gables. . . .

"Bush began debate preparation in late July in secret sessions at the White House residence, an aide said. The role of Kerry has been played by a fellow New Englander, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who played Gore in Bush's debate preparations in 2000.

"Bush officials would not discuss details of his preparation on the record, but aides said it has been heavily focused on Kerry's record and past statements. The aim, they said, is for Bush to correct what they consider omissions or distortions from the lectern, rather than having campaign officials do so afterward in the chaotic 'spin alley.' Bush is not known for diligence with homework, but aides said he has devoured the Kerry material."

Also in The Washington Post, Paul Farhi and Mike Allen marvel at the minutiae in the "memorandum of understanding" the two campaigns hashed out for the debates.

"In its precision and seeming fussiness, in its attempt at control, it often reads like an agreement between a concert promoter and a particularly demanding pop diva."

I Web-published the memo on Tuesday and wrote about it in my Tuesday column.

The Allawi Gambit

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Iraq's visiting prime minister, Ayad Allawi, says he shares a hopeful view with President Bush that things are getting better in Allawi's tumultuous nation, a conviction the president is putting on full display to persuade doubting U.S. voters."

Allawi makes a high-stakes appearance with Bush today when the two leaders hold a joint news conference from the White House Rose Garden.

Allawi also addressed a joint meeting of Congress today.

Warren Hoge of the New York Times writes: "Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, using his robust self-confidence to try to counter growing pessimism over conditions in his country, said in an interview on Wednesday that the rise in the number and ferocity of terror attacks in the country by insurgents was proof that they were getting not stronger, but weaker."

Tom Brokaw spoke with Allawi yesterday on the NBC Nightly News. "I think what troubles a lot of people in this country is that the threat always seems to be underestimated and progress seems to be overstated," Brokaw said.

Allawi replied: "Not really. The threat is not underestimated. On the contrary, the threat is quite real."

Who is this Allawi?

David Ignatius wrote this profile of Allawi in The Washington Post in January.

Joel Brinkley wrote in the New York Times in July that Allawi "ran an exile organization intent on deposing Saddam Hussein that sent agents into Baghdad in the early 1990's to plant bombs and sabotage government facilities under the direction of the C.I.A., several former intelligence officials say."

Here's a May profile from the Guardian and one from July in the Christian Science Monitor.

About That News Conference

I was Live Online yesterday. (Sorry for not mentioning it in yesterday's column; I forgot.)

Here are some questions readers suggested for today's news conference:

• "Given that major population centers are in the hands of insurgents, how will it be possible to hold elections? Will elections be held if these areas remain out of government control, and if so, how can the elections be considered legitimate?"

• "What will happen to the war on terror if John Kerry is elected President?"

• "Mr. President, How come when you change your mind it's adjusting to changing situations, but when John Kerry changes his mind, it's 'Flip-flopping'?"

• "I would ask President Bush if he thinks we will be in Iraq as long or longer than we have been in the Balkan states. As a follow-up I would ask him, why were voices that said it would take that much time in the administration played down before the invasion."

And, of course:

• "Why didn't you follow direct orders and take your physical in 1972? And did you or didn't you show up for the May-August dates in which you were required?"

Guard Documents Online

The Department of Defense, by the way, has finally Web-posted all of the Bush National Guard documents it has released to date right here.

Pakistan Watch

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "President Bush spoke for an hour with President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan yesterday morning in a conversation devoted largely to the hunt for Osama bin Laden and terror groups, administration officials said, but he made little effort to persuade General Musharraf to hold to his promise to step down as the chief of the army. . . .

"General Musharraf and Mr. Bush discussed Mr. bin Laden, according to an official who briefed reporters afterward, an interesting acknowledgment because Mr. Bush no longer speaks of Mr. bin Laden in public. Asked if Mr. bin Laden was believed to be in the area near Afghanistan where General Musharraf said his military had suffered more than 900 casualties recently, the official said it was very possible. 'They talked about the series of terrorist leaders who threaten both Pakistan, the United States and most of the neighborhood,' the official said."

Europe on Bush's U.N. Speech

Patrick E. Tyler writes in the New York Times: "European newspapers, including some that supported the American military campaign in Iraq, were largely critical of Mr. Bush's address on Tuesday to the United Nations, accusing him of being unrealistic about the worsening situation in Iraq."

Yesterday's Salvo

Jonathan Finer writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush on Wednesday accused Democratic challenger John F. Kerry of demoralizing Iraqis and U.S. troops by sending 'mixed signals' about the war in Iraq. . . .

"In Washington, Vice President Cheney amplified Bush's message on a visit to Capitol Hill. 'John Kerry gives every indication that his repeated efforts to cast and recast and redefine the war on terror and our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan -- of someone who lacks the resolve, the determination and the conviction to prevail in this conflict,' Cheney said."

James O'Toole writes in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "President Bush offered solace for flood victims and scorn for Sen. John Kerry yesterday as he inspected the ravages of last weekend's flooding in Allegheny County before heading to a campaign rally in Latrobe."

Here's the text of Bush's remarks in King of Prussia. Here's the text of his campaign speech in Latrobe. Here's the text of his remarks after seeing flood damage.

Protester Watch

Here's the latest Sue Niederer update.

Chris Hedges writes in the New York Times: "The mother of a soldier killed in Iraq who was arrested last week for interrupting a speech by Laura Bush is being investigated by the Secret Service for threatening remarks she made about President Bush, a Secret Service official confirmed yesterday. . . .

"The federal officials are apparently investigating comments made by Mrs. Niederer in May on the Web site counterpunch.org, a political newsletter. In the Web postings, she is quoted as saying she 'wanted to rip the president's head off' and 'shoot him in the groined area.' . . .

"Mrs. Niederer's son, Second Lt. Seth Dvorin, 24, was killed in February while trying to defuse a roadside bomb in Iraq. Mrs. Niederer charges that her son was untrained for bomb disposal work and lacked proper equipment. Army officials reached at Fort Drum, N.Y., dispute the allegations, insisting he was trained."

Here is the interview from counterpunch.org, which appeared in May. Niederer's comments came in response to the question: "What is your response to the recent evidence that this war was waged on the basis of 'misinformation'?"

In another interview, on indymedia.org, Niederer is quoted as saying: "I wouldn't fantasize, I would do it."

Kevin Shea of the Trenton Times broke the story yesterday.

He wrote: "Niederer confirmed she gave both interviews but said the September posting wasn't presented the way she thought it should have been. She acknowledged that when she gave the interviews she was 'angry, frustrated and upset' because of the death of her son, Army Lt. Seth Dvorin.

"And she added she does not want to shoot or kill President Bush. 'Absolutely not,' she told The Times yesterday."

Shea writes today that the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey is offering Niederer their assistance.

Are Your Ready for a Recount?

Sharon Theimer writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's campaign is urging election regulators to allow it and rival John Kerry to raise unlimited individual donations to cover costs for a possible recount, as Bush and rival Al Gore could in 2000."


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