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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

Bush Tackles the 'Bulge'

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, October 26, 2004; 2:48 PM

Well, someone finally wasn't afraid to ask President Bush about the bulge.

But if you were hoping for resolution, no such luck.

As you recall, the bulge, most clearly photographed during Bush's first debate, raised conspiracy theories that Bush was possibly getting audio cues over some sort of wireless device.

This morning, in part two of his interview with Bush on ABC's "Good Morning America," Charlie Gibson spit it out. Brandishing a copy of the photo, he asked: "Final question. What the hell was that on your back, in the first debate?"

Bush chuckled.

Bush: "Well, you know, Karen Hughes and Dan Bartlett have rigged up a sound system -- "

Gibson: "You're getting in trouble -- "

Bush: "I don't know what that is. I mean, it is, uh, it is, it's a -- I'm embarrassed to say it's a poorly tailored shirt."

Gibson: "It was the shirt?"

Bush: "Yeah, absolutely."

Gibson: "There was no sound system, there was no electrical signal? There was --"

Bush: "How does an electrical -- please explain to me how it works so maybe if I were ever to debate again I could figure it out. I guess the assumption was that if I was straying off course they would, kind of like a hunting dog, they would punch a buzzer and I would jerk back into place. I -- it's just absurd."

So it's the shirt? Sure doesn't look like a shirt.

Ignoring the News

Bush was out on the stump talking at great length about national security and Iraq and Democratic challenger John F. Kerry yesterday, but, as is his custom, he didn't say a word about the big news story of the day: In this case, the apparent failure by American troops to safeguard hundreds of tons of high explosives in Iraq. Nor did he respond to Kerry's accusation of "grave incompetence."

It's just like on the previous day, Bush didn't say anything about the slaughter of 49 Iraqi National Guard recruits.

Instead, yesterday, he sent out his aides to try to downplay the story.

And his campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, sent out an e-mail to supporters suggesting that there was actually a virtue in ignoring the news -- or, at least, something wrong with paying too much attention.

Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen write in The Washington Post: "President Bush and John F. Kerry unleashed sharp new attacks over national security on Monday, as Kerry called the president incompetent for failing to safeguard deadly explosives in Iraq and Bush accused his challenger of lacking confidence and resolve in moments of crisis."

While Bush didn't address the explosives issue, "White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the president 'wants to make sure that we get to the bottom of this,' but also said Kerry was exaggerating the danger of the missing weapons and the administration's culpability."

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "In several sessions with reporters, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, alternately insisted that Mr. Bush 'wants to make sure that we get to the bottom of this' and tried to distance the president from knowledge of the issue, saying Mr. Bush was informed of the disappearance only within the last 10 days. White House officials said they could not explain why warnings from the international agency in May 2003 about the stockpile's vulnerability to looting never resulted in action. At one point, Mr. McClellan pointed out that 'there were a number of priorities at the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom.'

"Asked about accusations from the Kerry campaign that the White House had kept the disappearance secret until The Times and CBS broke the story on Monday morning, Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, said the White House had decided 'to get all the facts and find out exactly what happened in this case, and then whether there are other cases.' . . .

"Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, also contended that The Times had chosen to run the article at the end of the campaign, though he argued that the explosives probably disappeared about 18 months ago."

Gregg Hitt and Jacob M. Schlesinger write in the Wall Street Journal: "President Bush is getting hit by a wave of bad news -- including further setbacks in Iraq and slumping financial markets -- just a week before a dead-heat election.

"Mr. Bush's ability to ride out the gloomy headlines hinges on a well-honed strategy that has served him for months: keeping the campaign focused on terrorism while trying to undermine public confidence in Democratic challenger John Kerry's ability to protect the country.

"Yesterday, that approach was on full display."

In the e-mail to supporters, Mehlman criticizes Kerry for issuing attacks "ripped from the headlines. . . .

"Everyday brings a new charge against the President and every charge is pulled right from the headlines of the New York Times. If you want to know how John Kerry will attack the President in the afternoon, just read the Times in the morning.

"John Kerry will say anything he believes will help him politically, and today he is grasping at headlines to obscure his record of weakness and indecision in the War on Terror. These are the tactics of a candidate who has no message for the future and no positive record to run on.

"The entire country of Iraq was a weapons stockpile. So far, 243,000 tons of weapons and explosives have been secured and destroyed. In addition, 163,000 tons of weapons and explosives have been secured and are awaiting destruction."

When the Broken Record Breaks

If those numbers Mehlman was quoting sound familiar, here's why.

Here's press secretary Scott McClellan in yesterday's gaggle, trying to fend off questions about the story:

"Now, if you go back and look at the Duelfer report that recently has come out, according to the Duelfer report, as of mid-September, more than 243,000 tons of munitions have been destroyed since Operation Iraqi Freedom. Coalition forces have cleared and reviewed a total of 10,033 caches of munitions; another nearly 163,000 tons of munitions have been secured and are on line to be destroyed. That puts this all -- that puts this all in context. . . .

"Q This morning, in Senator Kerry's remarks, he calls this one of the greatest blunders in the Iraq mission and this presidency. How do you respond to that?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Senator Kerry has a strategy of protest and retreat for Iraq. It is essential that we succeed in Iraq, because Iraq is critical to winning the war on terrorism. . . .

"There is not a nuclear proliferation risk. We're talking about conventional explosives, when we talk about these -- and that's why I pointed out the more than 243,000 munitions that have already been destroyed, and nearly 163,000 munitions that are in the process or are awaiting to be destroyed now. . . .

"Q Are U.S. troops under any kind of higher alert because there's enough munitions for like 50 car bombs? Is there, like, any kind of alert going on for them? Are they on any kind of higher standard?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I think you need to look at what we have done in terms of destroying munitions. As I point out, we've destroyed more than 243,000 munitions, we've secured another nearly 163,000 that will be destroyed. . . .

"Q Is there any greater risk to U.S. troops because of these munitions?

"MR. McCLELLAN: When there are munitions missing, it's -- and we learn about it, it's always a priority. And as I pointed out, that's why we've already destroyed more than 243,000 munitions and have another nearly 363,000 on line to be destroyed."

Check those numbers. What's the total destroyed: 243,000 munitions or 243,000 tons of munitions? Different reporters this morning went with the different figures. And what's the total awaiting destruction: 163,000, 163,000 tons or 363,000?

The Bush Record: Overall

Richard W. Stevenson sums up the Bush presidency for the New York Times. His lead is resolute: "As he faces the voters this year as an incumbent, Mr. Bush, 58, has assembled a weighty if polarizing record on foreign and domestic policy that leaves no doubt where he stands on the big issues."

But then comes the nuance: "Yet Mr. Bush is not always ideologically rigid, with a record also marked by what could be viewed as pragmatism, opportunism or failure. He talks about holding down government spending, but has presided over the biggest expansion of the federal government since the Great Society of the 1960's. . . .

"With rare exceptions -- like the 2002 bipartisan education bill that imposed more accountability on schools but also gave them more federal money -- he has pushed for total victory rather than a middle ground. Yet when faced with sure legislative defeat or political setback, he has capitulated and unabashedly claimed victory. Who remembers that Mr. Bush originally opposed the creation of the Homeland Security Department, or the establishment of an independent commission to investigate 9/11?

"He can be impatient, peevish when challenged and, as a national television audience learned during his first debate with Senator John Kerry, he sometimes lets anger manifest itself in a scowl. But he tends to sunny optimism, action over contemplation and instinct over detailed analysis."

Bush Record: Nuclear Proliferation

Barton Gellman and Dafna Linzer, writing in The Washington Post, describe Bush's mixed record in responding to reports about the spread of nuclear weapons technology to unfriendly hands.

"Bush has struggled -- thus far without success -- to roll back significant nuclear advances in North Korea and Iran," they write, in part because his "national security team could not agree on policies to induce or compel those governments to submit."

The Bush administration succeeded in penetrating and closing "the first private marketplace of the atomic age: Abdul Qadeer Khan's Pakistan-based distribution network. . . .

"Bush's partnership with British Prime Minister Tony Blair followed a trail of underground transactions to Libya and persuaded that country to abandon an ongoing nuclear weapons program, a signal success."

But success in securing Russia's stockpiles of nuclear materials, the single biggest, has been limited.

"Securing the materials is laborious, expensive and dangerous work. Bush decided to let two of the major programs lapse because Russia declined to accept a change in the agreement that would shield U.S. firms from liability for worker safety."

Meet the New Speech

Dana Milbank, in The Washington Post, exposes the White House's latest ploy to pump up coverage of Bush's speeches.

"Bush advisers have concluded that an announcement that Bush has a 'new' or 'revamped' or 'retooled' stump speech leads to more coverage of the speech -- much as the White House's promise in the spring of five major speeches about Iraq gave Bush a bigger spotlight for his views.

"As the Bush campaign sells reporters on the 'new and improved' label for each version of the president's stump speech, reporters are struggling to find new adjectives, having described previous speeches as 'blistering,' 'scathing' and the 'harshest yet.' . . .

As for yesterday: "As it happens, Bush's new speech was much like the old speech, albeit with more historical examples of Sen. John F. Kerry's alleged perfidy and pacifism."

Surprise Watch

VandeHei and Allen note in their Post story: "With polls showing a virtual tie nationally and in key states, both sides are bracing for the unknown -- developments in Iraq, the potential capture or catastrophic acts of terrorists, or damaging revelations about one of the candidates -- that could move enough votes to make a difference. For now, Bush and Kerry are talking about a more positive finish, though there were few signs of that Monday."

Howard Kurtz writes for washingtonpost.com this morning: "I could be wrong -- it's happened before -- but William Rehnquist's hospitalization could be the October surprise of this campaign."

Terence Hunt writes for the Associated Press: "An 'October surprise' is part of the political folklore of presidential campaigns, and just eight days before the election, the unexpected is indeed happening.

"Monday's disclosure that 80-year-old Chief Justice William Rehnquist has thyroid cancer immediately propelled the Supreme Court and the hot-button abortion issue onto the front burner, while the revelation about the looting of 377 tons of high explosives in Iraq gave John Kerry an opening to accuse President Bush of 'incredible incompetence.'

"Another troubling issue for Bush was the execution-style slaying of about 50 newly trained Iraqi soldiers, underscoring the chaos that still rages 19 months after the president ordered a U.S.-led invasion. . . .

"In a tight race, Kerry and Bush are both on guard for outside events large and small that could not have been anticipated. Rehnquist's illness and discussions of his legacy recalled his pivotal vote four years ago in the decision that gave Bush the presidency after a disputed election outcome."

Hannity and Bush

Here's the transcript of the first part of Bush's interview with Fox News conservative commentator Sean Hannity. Here's the video, in excerpts one and two.

Calling most of the questions softballs would be an insult to softball players everywhere.

For instance: "I want to ask you a little bit about the debates, because in this campaign, there's so much emphasis on it. Some people thought maybe you were a little flat in the first one. You did a lot better in the second and third. Did you -- do you think that was a fair analysis and do you think we put too much emphasis on it?"

The part where Bush goes off message and says "whether or not we can be ever fully safe is up -- you know, up in the air" I guess is being aired tonight.

More From 'Good Morning America'

Here's video of yesterday's segment, which I wrote about in yesterday's column.

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "President Bush said in an interview this past weekend that he disagreed with the Republican Party platform opposing civil unions of same-sex couples and that the matter should be left up to the states.

"Mr. Bush has previously said that states should be permitted to allow same-sex unions, even though White House officials have said he would not have endorsed such unions as governor of Texas. But Mr. Bush has never before made a point of so publicly disagreeing with his party's official position on the issue."

In today's segment, Gibson also asked if terrorist leaders Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab Zarqawi "pray to the same god you and I do."

"I think they pray to a false god," Bush said. "Otherwise they wouldn't be killing innocent lives like they have been."

Gibson: "Do Christians and nonchristians and Muslims go to heaven in your mind?"

Bush: "Yes, they do. We have different routes of getting there. But I will -- I want you to understand, I want your listeners to understand, I don't get to decide who goes to heaven. The almighty God decides who goes to heaven. I am on my personal walk."

Gibson also asked Bush about the use of the word "crusade" to describe the war on terror.

"I said it once, and probably shouldn't have used that word," Bush said.

Just for the record, Bush has actually used it twice.

On Sept. 16, 2001, at the White House: "This crusade, this war on terrorism is going to take a while, and the American people must be patient. I'm going to be patient.

And on Feb. 16, 2002, at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska: "We've got no better friends than Canada. They stand with us in this incredibly important crusade to defend freedom, this campaign to do what is right for our children and our grandchildren."

Bush and Faith

Laurie Goodstein writes in the New York Times: "When it comes to understanding the president's religious convictions and the role they have played in his presidency, there appears to be a disconnect between Mr. Bush's personal beliefs and his public policy.

"On his personal faith, the president appears to be far from doctrinally dogmatic, and even theologically moderate. It is not hard to find evidence that he is out of sync with the conservative evangelical Christians who make up his political base. . . .

"When it comes to policy, however, his opponents and supporters agree that he has done more than any president in recent history to advance the agenda of Christian social conservatives."

Goodstein also notes that "in recent interviews, dozens of conservative religious leaders, including evangelical Christians, Catholics and Jews, exulted at the unprecedented access they had had to this White House and the ways in which Mr. Bush had found common cause with them."

Fact Check-o-Rama

David E. Rosenbaum provides highlights of the New York Times campaign fact-checking. Allow me to summarize some of his summaries:

• Bush says Kerry continually shifted positions on Iraq: Not true.

• Bush says the war in Iraq was being waged by a large coalition. Not so true.

• Bush says that 75 percent of Osama bin Laden's "people have been brought to justice." Not documented.

• Kerry says the administration had put "not one nickel" into protection for vulnerable tunnels, bridges and subways. An exaggeration.

• Kerry says Bush's was the first presidency in 72 years in which the number of jobs had fallen. Correct--although the figures Kerry quotes are not right.

• Bush says most of the tax reduction in his presidency had gone "to low- and middle-income Americans." Not true.

• Bush says Kerry voted for tax increases 98 times. Probably true, but misleading.

• Kerry says the budget had a projected $5.6 trillion surplus over 10 years when Mr. Bush took office and now has large deficits for the foreseeable future. True.

• Kerry says he has shown "exactly how" he intended to pay for all his spending proposals. Not true.

• Kerry maintains that Bush plans a "January surprise" that could cost retirees up to 45 percent of their monthly checks. Not supported.

• Kerry says "the great potential of the draft" if Mr. Bush won a second term. Bush denies it.

The Importance of Common Understanding

Peter S. Canellos writes in the Boston Globe: "Common understanding is the bedrock of national unity, and mistaken assumptions can ratchet up emotions. After all, if one believes that Iraq helped attack the United States, then any quibbles with the war seem cowardly at best, treasonous at worst. Likewise, if one believes that soldiers were sent to Iraq to steal oil, no further hostilities can be justified.

"The candidates deserve a lot of blame for furthering misperceptions. Kerry increasingly has been giving winks to conspiracy theories, declaring in stump speeches that 'I will never go to war over oil.' Ostensibly, he's talking about the need to reduce dependence on foreign oil, so the United States would never feel the need to fight for oil. But this declaration, made with righteous anger in his voice, seems to suggest that Bush has, in fact, taken the country to war over oil.

"Kerry, however, may have honed his skills at insinuation from listening to Bush and Cheney, whose repeated references to Hussein's 'history of supporting terrorism' seemed to suggest the Iraqi leader had aided attacks against the United States; in fact, Hussein supported Palestinian suicide bombers against Israel."

Closing Arguments

Jeff Zeleny writes in the Chicago Tribune: "As President Bush and Sen. John Kerry enter the final week of a deadlocked race for the White House, the mood at their campaign rallies, the sound of their messages and the images in their television ads underscore a starkly different closing argument to voters.

"Both candidates have been trading unrelenting attacks for months, but Bush has turned up the volume on his critique, belittling Kerry as ill-suited to protect the nation. Kerry continues to offer sharp criticism, but his remarks are now infused with a positive vision as he strives to show what his Democratic administration would look like."

Rice Watch

Michael Christie writes for Reuters: "President Bush's national security adviser touted the president's foreign policy to a Jewish group on Monday in a speech Democrats said was as a blatant foray into Bush's re-election campaign."

Today's Calendar

Bush is set to talk about economics today on a bus tour, with stop in three Wisconsin towns -- Onalaska, Richland Center and Cuba City -- as well as Dubuque, Iowa.

Cheney Watch

Michael Laris writes in The Washington Post: "Vice presidential candidates often play the role of attack dog for their bosses, and Cheney has long been more aggressive and certain than President Bush in asserting controversial claims, such as the ties between al Qaeda and Iraq, and Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction. During the campaign, Bush often dispatches his jabs with mocking humor and incredulous expressions; Cheney and his advisers, including wife Lynne -- who helps write many of his sharpest lines -- tend toward more sweeping pronouncements that can evoke alarm.....

"Cheney's advisers love the attention their man gets when he says things his opponents call outlandish. They say Cheney's decades of experience and expansive, unprecedented role as vice president have made him the perfect person to issue the toughest warnings about the dangers of terrorism and a Kerry presidency."

Raymond Hernandez writes in the New York Times: "Democrats often portray Vice President Dick Cheney as the power behind the throne -- a man who is rarely seen or heard, but who has a big hand in everything from promoting the war in Iraq to shaping the Bush administration's energy policy.

"While that image of Mr. Cheney is a caricature to some, Democrats and Republicans agree that it does contain an element of truth: The vice president is one of the most -- if not the most -- influential advisers in President Bush's inner circle."

Misdirected E-mails

Apparently, the parody Web site, georgewbush.org, has been getting some e-mails intended for georgewbush.com.

Rove's Sense of Humor

Finally, an example of a Karl Rove practical joke.

Rick Klein of the Boston Globe informed his colleagues in a pool report yesterday: "Karl Rove attempted to play gatekeeper at foot of stairs and told pooler that his seat was already taken, but your intrepid correspondent ignored this high-ranking federal government official and walked up the stairs anyway."

More White House Humor

Bush, in Davenport, Iowa, apparently making a joke about Iowa Republican Senator Charles E. Grassley's last name.

"So I was telling Laura, I said, you know something, the South Lawn at the White House has got a lot of grass on it and we need somebody to come and mow it. (Laughter.) I can't think of anybody better than the Chairman, Chuck Grassley, to be mowing our lawn. (Applause.) What a good man Chuck Grassley is. He's a great United States Senator. I know you're proud of him. (Applause.)"

Update: Several readers from Iowa have e-mailed me to explain that Bush was actually making reference to a campaign ad run by Grassley in which the senator says that one of the things that keeps him honest is coming home to Iowa every weekend and mowing his acreage. You can see the ad here. It shows Grassley hooking up two walk-behind lawnmowers to his John Deere lawn tractor, and then mowing his yard.


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