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Whitehouse Notebook: Dana Milbank

'Full Confidence'? Uh-Oh.

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, December 14, 2004; Page A25

"We have full confidence in his integrity," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said of would-be homeland security secretary Bernard B. Kerik on Friday afternoon -- mere hours before the nomination was doomed by reports of unpaid taxes to an undocumented nanny, unreported gifts from an unsavory company and an unpleasant lawsuit linked to an unseemly assignation.

The White House's rapid distancing from and disparaging of Kerik suggest that McClellan and his colleagues had something less than "full confidence" in Kerik from the start. But that logic implies that when White House officials say "full confidence," they mean "full confidence." In fact, the phrase has become a Bush euphemism, a warning to the person in question that this might be a good time to circulate the résumé.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan will not speculate about the president's "full confidence." (Kevin Lamarque -- Reuters)

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Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer had President Bush's "full confidence" -- but his incautious admission that more U.S. troops were needed in Iraq later cost him a top job in the second term. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft enjoyed the "full confidence" of the president before a series of tussles with the White House made many Bush aides eager for him to depart. George J. Tenet, too, had the "full confidence" of Bush when he quit as the embattled director of central intelligence. And Bush was "fully confident" in American relations with Spain -- before the pro-U.S. Spanish government fell.

Clearly, "full confidence" does not inspire confidence. So it should be seen as good news for Alberto R. Gonzales, Bush's choice to replace Ashcroft and the man responsible for vetting Kerik's nomination, that the president has not yet lavished "full confidence" on him.

The phrase is one of several creative euphemisms the White House has adopted to get it through awkward moments. Death in Iraq is gently described by the "folded flag" given to parents and spouses. Federal borrowing for Social Security is called "upfront transition financing." The absence of forbidden weapons in Iraq has become the presence of "weapons of mass destruction program related activities."

Tort reform is now "reducing lawsuit abuse." Abortion melts into "a culture of life." Drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is softened as part of "a comprehensive energy plan." And just as surely as a "frank exchange" has always been used to describe a testy meeting, woe to the person described, as U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan was recently by McClellan, as "someone we will continue to work closely with."

At times, Bush inadvertently drops the euphemism, as he did in 2002 when he declared, accurately but prematurely: "The policy of my government is the removal of Saddam." Moments later, he amended: "Maybe I should be a little less direct and be a little more nuanced, and say we support regime change."

At the moment, the most favored euphemism is "We never speculate." Of course, Bush and his aides speculate all the time, about democracy in Iraq, improvement in the economy and victory at the polls. But when McClellan declines to speculate -- as he did an impressive 13 times in Monday's afternoon briefing -- he's merely stating, "I will not answer."

Was the White House aware of Kerik's trouble? "There's certainly some speculation going on, but that's all it is. It's speculation." Was the nanny problem just a cover for the bigger problems? "I'm not going to try to speculate from this podium. . . . There's speculation out there, but I'm not going to try to speculate." Was McClellan dismissive of the charges against Kerik? "I've seen speculation in the media. Like I said, I don't think it serves anyone to get into the speculation from this podium."

Of course, for much of this "frank exchange," McClellan was not being asked to "speculate," only to discuss events that had already occurred. But it would be unproductive to complain about McClellan's retreat to euphemism, because he is "someone we will continue to work closely with."

After all, nobody expects "regime change" in the White House press office -- unless, that is, Bush was trying to send McClellan a hint when he said in June 2003: "I've got the full confidence in my new press secretary."

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