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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

'Sunny Guy' vs. Grim Realities

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, October 25, 2004; 12:22 PM

On ABC's "Good Morning America" today, Charlie Gibson asked President Bush if he feels his job is burdensome.

"I'm a sunny guy, so I don't feel burdened at all," Bush replied.

Gibson then asked Bush about his decision to attack Iraq -- and whether it was worth more than 1,100 "dead kids."

Bush's response: That they will only have died in vain if the United States doesn't complete its mission -- i.e. if he isn't reelected.

Welcome to the last full week of the presidential campaign, where by all accounts, the president will be smiling cheerfully as he furiously throws everything he's got at Democratic challenger John F. Kerry.

At the same time, there are some signs that the grim realities on the ground -- in Iraq, in a slew of last-minute newspaper stories, and in battleground states -- may finally be grinding down the Bush campaign's optimism.

In the Gibson interview, Bush said he's not thinking about losing.

"I'm not there yet," he said.

But what does he mean, "yet"? Was it just an innocent slip, or a glimpse into his private thinking?

"That's not me," he said. "I believe we're going to win and I'm campaigning as if we are going to win."

As if?

So Much News

In addition to the Gibson interview, Bush also sat down this weekend with Fox News conservative commentator Sean Hannity for an interview to be shown tonight.

In an excerpt released yesterday, Bush went seriously off message on the terror war, saying "whether or not we can be ever fully safe is up -- you know, up in the air."

And it feels almost like major newspapers in America are disgorging stories that could be hugely damaging to Bush in the election -- just under the wire.

You've got a New York Times series on the spectacular and divisive failure of a White House cabal's plans for a new system of justice for prisoners taken in the war on terror.

• There's a Washington Post story about a confidential Justice Department memo that apparently authorized the CIA to transfer detainees out of Iraq for interrogation in violation of the Geneva Conventions.

• There's Knight-Ridder with an expose on Bush's disputed service with an inner-city program in Houston in 1973.

• There's the Wall Street Journal weighing in with a story about how Bush apparently had the chance to kill terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi before the Iraq War, but opted not to.

There's a New York Times story on the American military's failure to secure hundreds of tons of powerful conventional explosives in Iraq.

• And there's a Los Angeles Times story about how foreign governments are flocking to Bush's major fundraisers to improve their access to Washington's corridors of power.

And that's just for starters.

Bush and Gibson

ABC News reports on the Gibson interview, which was taped yesterday with the president and the first lady sitting side by side on a couch at their Texas ranch.

Bush said he was concerned about the possibility of a terrorist attack intended to disrupt the presidential election. But, he said, "We don't have actionable intelligence . . . ...that would say there is an attack and if we did, of course, we would be moving heaven and Earth to stop it."

Asked whether he would pledge not to dispute election results, he replied: "I do not want to have a series of lawsuits that drag an election out. Of course, you know, I'm never going to say never. . . . But I think it is very important for us to have a fair election, a good election and on election night, whoever the winner is."

There's a video excerpt (at least for now) available here.

Bush and Hannity

Here's the exchange everyone -- particularly in the Kerry campaign -- is talking about today:

"HANNITY: Do you or when you think of, for example, what happened in Spain prior to their last election there was an article recently that showed that you were presented with the possibility by your CIA director and others that -- I think September 15 they presented this to you -- it was written up recently -- that this is a potential threat here but we still have area vulnerabilities so we -- is that always going to be the case? Is that something we are always going to have to live with?

"BUSH: Yes because we have to be right 100 percent of the time in disrupting any plot and they have to be right once. We're better. Much better. As a matter of fact the 9/11 commission reports that America is safer under the course of action we've taken but not yet safe. Whether or not we can be ever fully safe is up -- you know, is up in the air."

David M. Halbfinger and David E. Sanger write in the New York Times: "In an interview on Saturday with the conservative commentator Sean Hannity of Fox News, Mr. Bush seemed to forget his lines briefly. . . .'

Kenneth R. Bazinet writes in the New York Daily News about another Hannity question: "Is it a reality that we could turn on our television sets one day, Fox News Channel I hope, and find out that America is ... that a nuclear weapon has gone off here?"

Bazinet writes: "Bush's answer was no surprise, given Vice President Cheney's nuke fright last week. 'Yes it is,' Bush said."

Meanwhile, on the Stump

Mike Allen and Lois Romano wrote in The Washington Post on Sunday: "President Bush turned his Marine One chopper into a campaign prop Saturday and used it to drop in on huge crowds at three stadiums around Florida, at a time of concern in his campaign about his failure to gain a decisive lead in the most crucial battlegrounds."

But the deliriousness of the crowds is not necessarily reflective of the feelings of campaign insiders, they wrote.

"One Republican official described the mood at the top of the campaign as apprehensive. ' "Grim" is too strong,' the official said. 'If we feel this way a week from now, that will be grim.' . . .

"The Republican official said polling for Bush showed him in a weaker position than some published polls have indicated, both nationally and in battlegrounds. In many of the key states, the official said, Bush is below 50 percent, and he is ahead or behind within the margin of sampling error -- a statistical tie.

" 'There's just no place where they're polling outside the margin of error so they can say, "We have this state," ' the official said. 'And they know that an incumbent needs to be outside the margin of error.' "

Adam Nagourney and Katherine Q. Seelye write in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush returned to the theme of terrorism during a campaign stop here in Fort Myers on Saturday, roaring into a rally in a procession of machine-gun-toting helicopters escorting Marine One as it settled, in a swirl of wind, in the middle of a field. It was a display of the power of incumbency and a reminder of a dominant theme of Mr. Bush's campaign. On television stations here this week, it was all terrorism all the time: images of the smoldering World Trade Center and Republican claims that Mr. Kerry would be weak in the face of terrorist threats."

The Trappings of Office

Scott Lindlaw writes for the Associated Press: "Campaigning in Florida on Saturday, Bush pulled out all the presidential stops. He made dramatic entrances to three successive rallies by landing in his gleaming, specially outfitted helicopter -- accompanied by the soaring theme song from the movie 'Air Force One' -- on the outfields of baseball stadiums packed with cheering supporters. Not to be outdone for the day's last rally, Bush had Air Force One buzz the NFL stadium where thousands awaited his arrival. By evening, aides were gloating that Kerry would never be able to match such theater. . . .

"Bush has traveled more heavily aboard Air Force One than any predecessor in a campaign year, logging 191,373 miles this year as of Oct. 20, and automatically inserting himself into millions of living rooms. The jumbo jet's landings and departures are frequently covered live on television and radio."

Here's a picture of the chopper -- landing in front of a picture of the chopper. Not subtle.

Here's how it played on NBC 2 in Fort Myers.

Airspace Watch

The Associated Press reports: "Two small private aircraft violated restricted air space Saturday over two of President Bush's campaign rallies in central Florida, authorities said.

"In both incidents, fighter jets escorted the planes to nearby airfields. . . .

"The F-15s were in the air at the time, a standard practice when the president makes an appearance. Reporters covering Bush's campaign event at Space Coast Stadium in Melbourne said the military jets drowned out Bush's words at one point. The activity in the sky repeatedly distracted the crowd from Bush's speech, but Duffy said the president continued speaking through the incident."

The White House Plan for Prisoners

Tim Golden writes in the New York Times: "In early November 2001, with Americans still staggered by the Sept. 11 attacks, a small group of White House officials worked in great secrecy to devise a new system of justice for the new war they had declared on terrorism. . . .

"White House officials said their use of extraordinary powers would allow the Pentagon to collect crucial intelligence and mete out swift, unmerciful justice. 'We think it guarantees that we'll have the kind of treatment of these individuals that we believe they deserve,' said Vice President Dick Cheney, who was a driving force behind the policy.

"But three years later, not a single terrorist has been prosecuted. . . . In fact, many officials contend, some of the most serious problems with the military justice system are rooted in the secretive and contentious process from which it emerged."

Today, in part two, Golden writes: "Interviews with dozens of officials show that the myriad problems ignited an often fierce behind-the-scenes struggle that set the Pentagon and its allies in the White House against adversaries at the National Security Council, the State Department and Justice Department. The friction among officials like Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld; the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice; and Mr. Ashcroft sheds new light on the internal dynamics of an administration that has shown a remarkably united public front."

CIA, Justice, and the Geneva Conventions

Dana Priest writes in The Washington Post: "At the request of the CIA, the Justice Department drafted a confidential memo that authorizes the agency to transfer detainees out of Iraq for interrogation -- a practice that international legal specialists say contravenes the Geneva Conventions.

"One intelligence official familiar with the operation said the CIA has used the March draft memo as legal support for secretly transporting as many as a dozen detainees out of Iraq in the last six months. The agency has concealed the detainees from the International Committee of the Red Cross and other authorities, the official said."

Was Bush Pushed into P.U.L.L.?

Meg Laughlin reports in Knight-Ridder Newspapers on the dispute about Bush's work in 1973 with a now-defunct inner-city program called P.U.L.L., the Professional United Leadership League.

Bush has often cited his work for the group as the source for his belief in "compassionate conservatism."

" 'I was working full time for an inner-city poverty program known as Project P.U.L.L.,' Bush said in his 1999 autobiography, 'A Charge to Keep.' 'My friend [P.U.L.L. Executive Director] John White . . . asked me to come help him run the program. . . . I was intrigued by John's offer. . . . Now I had a chance to help people.'

"But White's administrative assistant and others associated with P.U.L.L., speaking on the record for the first time, say Bush was not helping to run the program and White had not asked Bush to come aboard. Instead, the associates said, White told them he agreed to take Bush on as a favor to Bush's father, who was honorary co-chairman of the program at the time, and Bush was unpaid. They say White told them Bush had gotten into some kind of trouble but White never gave them specifics."

Zarqawi Watch

Scott J. Paltrow writes in the Wall Street Journal: "As the toll of mayhem inspired by terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi mounts in Iraq, some former officials and military officers increasingly wonder whether the Bush administration made a mistake months before the start of the war by stopping the military from attacking his camp in the northeastern part of that country.

"The Pentagon drew up detailed plans in June 2002, giving the administration a series of options for a military strike on the camp Mr. Zarqawi was running then in remote northeastern Iraq, according to generals who were involved directly in planning the attack and several former White House staffers. . . .

"But the raid on Mr. Zarqawi didn't take place. Months passed with no approval of the plan from the White House, until word came down just weeks before the March 19, 2003, start of the Iraq war that Mr. Bush had rejected any strike on the camp until after an official outbreak of hostilities with Iraq."

Explosive Allegation

James Glanz, William J. Broad and David E. Sanger write in the New York Times: "The Iraqi interim government has warned the United States and international nuclear inspectors that nearly 380 tons of powerful conventional explosives -- used to demolish buildings, make missile warheads and detonate nuclear weapons -- are missing from one of Iraq's most sensitive former military installations. . . .

"The White House said President Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, was informed within the past month that the explosives were missing. It is unclear whether President Bush was informed."

Buying Influence?

Lisa Getter writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Foreign governments have played the Washington influence game for years, paying large fees to lobbyists, especially those with connections to the White House. Those connections often have stemmed from past government service, either in elective or appointive positions. But now, the growing cadre of fundraisers in presidential politics are increasingly influential players for countries seeking to improve their access to Washington's corridors of power. . . .

"The trend of foreign countries relying on lobbyists who also serve as political fundraisers troubles government watchdog groups. Issues such as trade and immigration drive U.S. foreign policy, they say, and should not be influenced by those with fundraising links to decision makers."

Karen Hughes Watch

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "People wonder if Ms. Hughes is as important as she was before she left the West Wing for Texas, and what exactly it is that she now does for the president. Well, all you have to do is listen to him. . . .

" 'I'm the sound-bite lady, I guess,' Ms. Hughes said last week."

Cheney Today

Jamie Gangel has an interview on NBC's "Today" show with Vice President Cheney and his wife.

"Gangel: You know the criticism that the administration has not admitted when mistakes were made has resonated with some voters.

"Cheney: Well, Jamie, I don't think we were wrong. On the big issues, I think we got it right as the president himself has said. If I go back and look at what we did in Afghanistan, I think we got it pretty right and did exactly the right thing. In Iraq we're dealing with a situation somewhat different, but again, I think we did exactly the right thing. . . .

"Gangel: Give me a prediction for November 2?

"Cheney: 52-47, Bush."

Here's the video.

Cheney's Imagination

Michael Laris writes in The Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney, on a stop here Saturday, continued his role as the campaign's point man for delivering ever-sharper attacks on John F. Kerry, asserting that if the Massachusetts senator had been president in recent history, the Soviet Union might not have fallen, a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein could be in control of the Persian Gulf and the United States might have ceded its national defense to the United Nations."

Matt Stearns writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Call it Dick Cheney's doomsday campaign.

"In the frantic final days of the campaign of his life, with political attacks on all sides more and more strident, the vice president is pounding harder than ever at Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry on national security."

Lynne Cheney Watch

James Gerstenzang writes about Lynne Cheney in the Los Angeles Times: "In their campaign appearances, the vice president plays the central role, to be sure. But when his wife speaks up, more often than not her commentary -- offered as he finishes his response to a question -- sharpens his answer."

Missing from the Web

Is the White House scrubbing its Web site?

Helen Dewar and Brian Faler write in The Washington Post about the mystery of the disappearing Coalition of the Willing -- and more.

"Blogger Brad Friedman, who noticed the disappearance, believes this is part of a widespread 'scrubbing' of documents on the government site. Gone are links to the audio and video of President Bush's statement that 'I'm not that concerned' about Osama bin Laden, a Q&A when Bush said 'misunderestimate' and Bush's acknowledgment that his decision making on stem cell policy was 'unusually deliberative for my administration.'

"Jimmy Orr, who handles the content for the White House site, said nothing nefarious was intended. 'We have some 80,000 pages and 3,000 video and audio links,' he said. 'When we republish pages and move files, some links are bound to go down, and there are bound to be dead pages.' "

For the record, the March 2001 press conference where Bush first said "misunderestimate" is in fact on the site; the transcript just says "mis-understimate" instead. Using Google, I found another version of the coalition list on the Web servers, for those of you who are curious. And the July 2001 press conference where Bush spoke about his unusual deliberation is in fact also on line. But the other stuff is indeed missing.

The Week Ahead, per Dan Bartlett

White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett spoke to the press pool yesterday. I can't find it reproduced anywhere, and you should read it. So here goes:

"As we head into the last week of travel, as you heard the President outline Friday and over the weekend, this is a direct appeal to voters who are still making their decision about who they're going to support in this election -- by directly appealing to America's families -- all of America's families, by talking about President Bush's vision and plans to make us safer, to grow our economy, to improve the quality of life on education and health care, to talk about the values that make our country strong.

"In the early part of this week, the President's going to highlight some of the biggest ones, tomorrow giving a speech on the war on terror. As he has said, the biggest responsibility we have is the security of our families, and the way you do that is to have a comprehensive strategy to win the war on terror.

"So President Bush tomorrow will be speaking in a new speech tomorrow, talking about the war on terror and talking about his vision for winning the war on terror and protecting our families and how that differs from Senator Kerry's approach. There'll be new language. There are many different arguments to be made to make the same point. He'll be making the case, as well, tomorrow about why the war on terror is important in protecting America's families, how you approach the war on terror, and the differences.

"On Tuesday, we will speak directly to the issue of the economy. It's a big issue: protecting America's families' budgets. So he will speak to his approach and what he sees -- the real strength of our economy is in small businesses and what his agenda will do to grow the economy and create jobs and why his approach is superior to Senator Kerry's. As you've heard today and as you'll hear all week, as we're broadening our coalition, we're reaching out to Democrats who are supporting President Bush. We'll continue to be highlighting them in various states and at various stops this week -- talk about how we are reaching out to people across the aisle to support this President.

"The President, toward the end of the week, will continue to talk about the leadership qualities that make our country strong, what you're looking for in a President when it comes to leading our country during these times in which we need to grow our economy and protect the American people -- particularly in a speech in which he'll talk in very personal terms how he views this war and what we need to do to win the war on terror, through the eyes of people he's met with, and who have shaped his experiences as President during these historic times we live in. That will be on Friday. We'll keep you posted on where. Mostly on the war on terror, but done in a very personal way -- done in a way he hasn't before.

"Tomorrow, he's going to spend the lion's share of his time talking about the number one issue of security for the American family and how we do that. He has five points, so we'll be talking on the second day on the family budget. So he'll shine a focus on some of these individual steps he's been talking about over the weekend as part of our closing pitch to undecided voters and other people who are still making up their mind, might be persuadable in changing their vote. He'll be talking more specifically about these big issues. Education and health care will the focus of some events later in the week. He will be touching on all these issues broadly.

"As you know, the advertising campaign is coming to a close, as well. As you know, we've had the advertising that was released on Friday. We have an advertisement tomorrow that very much will highlight, almost very similar to this speech, where we talk about the big choices and the big differences there are. It'll talk about the big choices facing the American people and what we need to do to make our country safe, to make sure we have a sound health-care system that is patient-driven, not government-run. Then the closing ad will be an ad in which President Bush I think in 60 seconds, he captures what the American people not only like but also trust in this president during the times we live in, the leadership qualities they're looking for in a president and I think in a very emotional, heartfelt way that they see why they rallied around this President in a post-9/11 world. It's going to be all about President Bush -- nothing about Senator Kerry. That will be released later this week. It's footage of President Bush speaking, so it's already happened and it's being captured in this last, 60-second ad. It'll be the last one that's released. It'll be seen all over America."

Protest Watch

Mary Villa of New Port Richey writes in a letter to the editor of the St. Petersburg Times that she and two Kerry supporter were turned away at the gate of the Bush rally in her home town.

"We were told, 'You may not come in. You are protesters. This is a private party, we paid for this park, and you do not have happy faces on.' "

Everybody But Rove

Judy Keen and Jill Lawrence write in USA Today: "Bush hates the sound of ringing cellphones and pagers and usually snaps at anyone, including his top aides, whose electronic devices bleat in his presence. But Bush has eased the restriction for his top political adviser, Karl Rove."

Here's a scene from Jacksonville: "Rove is at Bush's side almost all the time now, and his phone rings constantly. Bush teases him in the limousine. 'Yes, Karl, don't worry about it,' Bush says when the adviser's phone rings again."


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