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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Tsunami Politics

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 4, 2005; 6:45 AM

Was it a smart bit of political stagecraft for Bush to name his dad and Bill Clinton to head a relief effort for tsunami victims?

Well, let's see. You had Clinton out there calling charges that his successor was too slow in reacting a "bum rap," while Bush 41 called it "malarkey." What could be bad?

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And I do mean "out there." The two ex-presidents sat for interview after interview with TV types to defend the American response. Just seeing them together, the two men who ran against each other a dozen years ago, sent a bipartisan message. I don't recall Bush ever asking Clinton's help on anything before. Indeed, he came to office determined to be the un-Clinton, the stylistic opposite of his impeached predecessor. If Clinton said something was round, Bush would say it was flat. So this reaching out--which followed some nice remarks at a portrait-hanging ceremony and at the opening of Clinton's Little Rock library--shows that Bush understands the symbolism of including Democrats, at least on something like this.

But it also represents an effort for Bush to dig himself out of a hole--almost as if his advisers returned from vacation and realized they needed to do something fast.

Like it or not, Bush fostered the impression that he was painfully slow to react to the post-Christmas disaster while at the ranch. Three full days with no appearance before the cameras? What else did he have to do that was more important? I mean, even the early estimates were that tens of thousands of people had died.

And the initial U.S. contribution of $15 million--which administration officials crowed about raising to $35 million--was, in retrospect, strikingly small. Certainly it was small compared to the current $350 million, and it did not exactly send the greatest message to Muslims, who made up the majority of the victims in Asia. All that "we have to assess the damage" stuff wasn't cutting it. Now, however, Clinton and the elder Bush can help deflect the flak, and the early hesitancy will likely be forgotten.

Every TV interviewer I saw asked Bush 41 and Clinton 42 whether a major relief drive would help the tattered American image abroad. Bush said that wasn't the reason for the effort, and Clinton said it would help but shouldn't be viewed as the motivation. (Clinton told Larry King they had raised millions by nightfall, with Bush getting a million-dollar pledge on his BlackBerry--who knew he had one?)

Meanwhile, the anchors are back from vacation. Brian Williams reported last night from Indonesia, interviewing local residents in a tan workshirt--a smart move for the new kid on the network block who wants to show he's an on-the-go anchor. Dan Rather set up shop in Thailand, typical for him and also a way of changing the subject from his lame duckness and that looming CBS report on the National Guard mess. In watching John Roberts interviewing Dan, I couldn't help but wonder if Rather's successor was conducting the interview--at least his likely successor until all the gossip about CBS going outside for a big-name replacement.

The coverage has been pretty relentless, and the truth is, it's hard to watch for very long, so heart-rending are the individual stories. (The New York Post got around this problem yesterday by fronting a piece on an injured supermodel who survived the tsunami and is now trying to raise money for the cause.) It's been a bit easier in recent days as the media focus has turned to relief aid and helping the survivors, which is a more optimistic plot line.

The talk show gang is back too. Bill O'Reilly attacked "the liberal press which hates Bush never really tells the story of how much money he's spent abroad." And Sean Hannity asked whether the U.N. could be trusted with relief efforts.

The print world doesn't give the Clinton/Bush effort quite the same play as television, perhaps because the two former leaders spent most of the day in front of the cameras. Some papers merely include the appointments as an element in overall aid stories.

"The unusual pairing of two former presidents -- George H.W. Bush, a Republican, and Bill Clinton, a Democrat -- provides the White House with a high-profile display of public compassion after complaints that Bush was late in offering sympathy and money to the Indian Ocean nations affected by the disaster," says the Boston Globe.

"Mr. Bush's announcement," says the Wall Street Journal, "meshed with his philosophy of limited government and could help him further deflect criticism that the administration responded too slowly to the humanitarian disaster sparked by the underwater earthquake, which produced massive waves that struck nations bordering the Indian Ocean. . . .

"The inclusion of Mr. Clinton, a vocal critic of Mr. Bush during the election, could take some of the partisan edge off the debate over the U.S. relief and reconstruction role."

The Los Angeles Times sees a pattern in Bush's immediate reaction:

"President Bush's initial, halting response to the Indian Ocean tsunami catastrophe, followed within days by strong expressions of concern and decisive action, spotlighted a governing style that sometimes finds its stride only after stumbling at the gate. This seems especially true when Bush is confronted with a cataclysmic event and must improvise quickly -- as with the Dec. 26 tsunami or the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. . . .

"Slow to speak out, Bush first offered $15 million in financial aid, then $35 million. But now, having upped the aid package to $350 million and dispatched both Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Bush's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, to survey relief efforts, the president may capitalize on an opportunity to provide world leadership and improve his image among Muslims opposed to the Iraq war. Many of the tsunami victims are Muslim."

The Washington Times report includes the Hill:

"Mr. Bush also met at the White House yesterday with new members of the House and Senate and said the first order of business for Congress will be to approve disaster aid for the millions of people affected in Asia. 'This town is sometimes too partisan and too political," he said. "My hope is, is that we can show the nation that we can come together to achieve big things for the good of the country.'"

Too partisan? Wasn't this the guy who ran a campaign based on the notion that terrorists would come to your bedroom if Kerry was elected?

The New York Post notes the absence of one ex-occupant of the Oval Office known for his global relief efforts:

"Former President Jimmy Carter, who has blasted Bush over the Iraq war and hosted Bush-bashing filmmaker Michael Moore in his box at the Democratic convention, wasn't asked to join the relief push."

New York Post columnist John Podhoretz is appalled by the criticism:

"Don't we owe the dead, dying and injured the minimal grace not to convert their suffering into a chat-show segment - the latest left-right clash over the Bush presidency? And couldn't the editorialists at The New York Times have forborne - even just for a week - making use of the tsunami to complain about U.S. government spending on 'development aid'? Development aid is the blanket term for American grant money handed out to other countries, supposedly to help their economies grow. Development aid has nothing - nothing - to do with what has happened. The aid at issue now is disaster relief.

"Secretary of State Colin Powell found himself in the position of having to remind the world that over the past four years the United States has provided more such aid than all other nations on the planet combined. It is appalling that he had to mention this, and that President Bush was compelled to cite the same information on Wednesday, because you're not supposed to brag about how charitable you are. But once a United Nations official decried the American aid pledge as 'stingy,' the administration had little choice."

If you listen closely, you can hear the sound of a horde of House GOPers beating a hasty retreat:

"Stung by criticism that they were lowering ethical standards," says the New York Times, "House Republicans on Monday night reversed a rule change that would have allowed a party leader to retain his position even if indicted."

The press had gone haywire over the move, you may recall, and a few brave Republicans had criticized it.

"Lawmakers and House officials said Republicans, meeting behind the closed doors of the House chamber, had acted at the request of the House majority leader, Representative Tom DeLay, who had been the intended beneficiary of the rule change.

"When they rewrote party rules in November, Republicans said they feared that Mr. DeLay could be subjected to a politically motivated indictment as part of a campaign finance investigation in Texas that has resulted in charges against three of his associates. The decision, coupled with other Republican proposals to rewrite the ethics rules, drew fierce criticism from Democrats and watchdogs outside the government, who said the Republican majority was subverting ethics enforcement.

"Lawmakers said the party had also abandoned a proposed ethics change that would have effectively eliminated the broad standard that lawmakers not engage in conduct that brings discredit on the House, a provision that has been the basis for many ethics findings against lawmakers."

Andrew Sullivan has insta-reaction: "Here's a sign that the Republican leadership on the Hill know that hubris is a real danger. DeLay is ruthless. But he's not dumb. The Republicans know that their public support is tenuous; that their increased numbers were primarily a function of gerrymandering. Bending ethics rules for their own purposes was never going to fly."

Days after the election, the candidate formerly known as John Kerry gave an interview to Newsweek, and here are the most striking passages:

"In conversation with NEWSWEEK, Kerry seemed particularly interested in trying to find a way to speak to ordinary voters that didn't sound too grandiose or 'political.' Though Kerry did not directly criticize his friend Shrum, it's clear he did not feel well served by his message makers and speechwriters."

That is interesting, because some of them didn't feel too well served by him. In the same piece, one unnamed adviser is quoted thusly: "If he wants to come back," meaning in '08, "he'll have to come back as a different candidate, not the stiff who plays it safe and takes four sides of every issue."

The Evan Thomas piece concludes: "The deeper problem may be Kerry's personality, which may be too distant or reserved to win mass affection. As this reporter left his house in November, Kerry called out and followed him down the street. He wanted to show a letter from a schoolgirl that had been left on his stoop. The letter read, in part, 'John Kerry, you're the greatest!' Kerry looked into the reporter's eye. 'The pundits have never liked me,' he said. 'Is it the way I look? The way I sound?' He seemed vulnerable for a moment, then caught himself, smiled and walked home to his empty house."

Well, Kerry's right. The pundits have never liked him, in part because he's something of a cold fish who never made much effort to charm the press. (This is a guy who went six weeks without talking to his traveling press corps, you may recall.) But what's struck me since the election is how some liberal commentators have come out and said what they would not say during the campaign, that Kerry was a lousy candidate. It's sort of the flip side of conservatives like Bill Kristol calling for Rummy's head once the election is safely in the bag.

Here, for example, is Kos, a big Kerry backer, lamenting how Bush should have lost:

"What makes me angry was Kerry and his gang's inability to take advantage of the situation. I may regret saying this later, but [screw] it -- they should be lined up and shot. There's no reason they should've lost to this joker. 'I voted for the $87 billion, then I voted against it.' That wasn't nuance. That was idiocy. And with a primary campaign that consisted entirely of 'I'm the most electable', Kerry entered the general without a core philosophy or articulated vision for the job."

Which is more or less what the Republicans were saying.

It's not very often that newspaper editors admit screwing up, so I thought it noteworthy when Dennis Ryerson of the Indianapolis Star did just that:

"How can a football game be more important than the earthquake and tsunami that claimed thousands and thousands of lives a week ago?

"Good question, and it has been asked of me by several readers.

"They were reacting to Monday's Star, which provided more Page-One space to Colts quarterback Peyton Manning's NFL touchdown pass record than it did to Sunday's epic disaster in Asia.

"I signed off on that page. I confess to having been caught up in the Indy moment that was Manning's record, which capped an unusually thrilling game. I reasoned that this was the big story of the day in Indianapolis, and that readers would appreciate the major presence of the story and related photos on Page One. . . .

"We should have changed course and given much stronger play to a story of incredible, almost unthinkable, human toll."


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