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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

Second Thoughts About 'Bring 'em On'

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, January 14, 2005; 11:18 AM

Calling it "a confession, a regret, something," President Bush acknowledged in a round-table interview with regional newspapers yesterday that he has had second thoughts about two of his more swaggering comments from the first term, including his notorious utterance: "Bring 'em on."

There is no official text of the session, but here's how Tom Webb of the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press transcribed the president:

"Sometimes, words have consequences you don't intend them to mean. 'Bring 'em on' is the classic example, when I was really trying to rally the troops and make it clear to them that I fully understood, you know, what a great job they were doing.

"And those words had an unintended consequence," Bush continued. "It kind of, some interpreted it to be defiance in the face of danger. That certainly wasn't the case. Or, you know, 'dead or alive' in referring to Osama bin Laden at the Pentagon. I can remember getting back to the White House, and Laura said, 'What did you do that for?'

"I said, 'Well, it was just an expression that came out. I didn't rehearse it.' . . . I don't know if you'd call it a regret, but it certainly is a lesson that a president must be mindful of, that the words that you sometimes say -- I speak plainly sometimes, but you've got to be mindful of the consequences of the words. So put that down. I don't know if you'd call that a confession, a regret, something."

It was in a July 2, 2003, exchange with reporters, just as the insurgency was starting to inflict serious casualties on American troops, that Bush said: "There are some who feel like -- that the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is, bring 'em on. We've got the force necessary to deal with the security situation." Here's that text.

Critics described it as an irresponsible taunt that invited more attacks on U.S. soldiers. Since then, more than 1,100 U.S. servicemen have died in Iraq.

And it was on Sept. 17, 2001, during a short exchange with reporters at the Pentagon, that Bush was asked if he wanted al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden dead. "I want justice. There's an old poster out west, as I recall, that said, 'Wanted: Dead or Alive,'" Bush said. Here's that text.

Bin Laden, of course, has still not been captured.

Up until now, Bush has been notably averse to expressing anything remotely like regret about any of his actions. At his last prime-time press conference, almost nine months ago, Bush was famously flummoxed when asked to describe his biggest mistake, post-9/11. "You know, I just -- I'm sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hadn't yet," he said.

Just yesterday, even as the White House acknowledged that the search for weapons of mass destruction was over in Iraq, Bush seemed unfazed by the definitive demise of his initial pretext for the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq, saying it was worth it anyway.

And even in yesterday's nearly hour-long session with more than a dozen reporters, Bush ducked the regret question the first time around.

Chris Mondics of the Philadelphia Inquirer writes that when first asked, Bush replied:

"Biggest regret, first term, hmm, let's see," he said. "What was the other [question]? Have I changed? Well you better ask my wife that question. They say my hair is grayer. But I come from a pretty white-haired gene pool. At least half of it is. And I'll get back to you on the regret. I am not a regretful person. I am a look-forward, get-things-done type of person."

Bill Adair writes in the St. Petersburg Times: "At the conclusion of the 50-minute interview, a reporter returned to the 'biggest regret' question. Had he thought of one?

" 'Yeah,' he shot back, 'that the tax cuts aren't permanent.'

"He paused and said he wanted to give a different answer."

That's when he talked about "bring 'em on" and "dead or alive."

Social Security

The group interview was the latest part of Bush's energetic media campaign to win support for his second-term agenda, most notably his plan to introduce private accounts to the Social Security system.

While still refusing to provide details, Bush for the first time yesterday set a deadline.

Paul Barton writes in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette: "President Bush said Thursday that he wants Congress to approve changes in Social Security funding before the end of May and that convincing doubters of the urgency of the issue remains a challenge. 'I would like to get it done in the first five months of this year, and that's what we're aiming for,' he said in a 45-minute White House question-and-answer session with reporters from regional newspapers."

Matt Stearns writes in the Kansas City Star: "Bush wants to allow Americans to put part of their Social Security funds in private accounts, which he said would provide a better rate of return.

" 'There is a problem, and the problem is in the year 2040 it'll be broke. . . . If we do nothing, which some are suggesting we do here in Washington, the system's broke!' Bush said, raising his voice. 'Busted! We're looking at an $11 trillion unfunded liability. Now's the time to address it, and the longer Congress delays in addressing it, the harder it is to solve the problem.' "

Tamara Lytle writes in the Orlando Sentinel: "Bush said he is committed to pushing for Social Security changes quickly because, if the popular retirement program continues on its current course, it will run short of money when baby boomers start retiring in large numbers.

" 'We're really addressing a younger generation of Americans, many of whom believe they will never see a dime in Social Security,' Bush said. Without changes, 'they're going to be right.' "

It would appear that no reporter asked Bush why his representation of Social Security's long-term financial situation is at odds with the experts. The program's trustees estimate that with no changes, the plan would no longer be able to pay full benefits beginning in 2042 but would still provide significant payments.

And in their reports today, I didn't see reporters clearing this up for their readers, either -- they just quoted the president and left it at that.

More Coverage

David Lightman writes in the Hartford Courant: "President Bush is eager. He's a buoyant leader armed with an ambitious agenda fit for someone with the kind of overwhelming mandate he may not have.

"But that has not stopped him in these first days of 2005 from conducting the equivalent of a non-election year political campaign, pitching to constituents and media all over the country as he tries to sell his ideas on Social Security, the war on terror, legal reform and a long list of other items.

" 'We can get more than one thing done,' he chuckled Thursday as he launched his latest drive, a one-hour White House meeting with reporters from The Courant and a dozen other regional newspapers.

Frank Davies writes in the Miami Herald: "He defended his policy on the treatment and interrogation of prisoners in the war on terrorism, saying reports of abuse 'will be investigated.' He said he was 'adamant' in opposing any use of torture.

"But he did not say if he agreed with his White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, who said at his congressional hearing last week to become attorney general that the president had the wartime power to override laws and order harsh interrogation, possibly even torture, in the name of national security.

" 'I'll have to talk to Al about that and make sure where he's coming from,' Bush said."

Adair writes in the St. Petersburg Times that Bush was asked whether it was appropriate to hold a lavish inauguration when people are suffering from the tsunami.

"The inauguration is 'a great festival of democracy,' he said. 'People are going to come from all over the country who are celebrating democracy and celebrating my victory, and I am glad to celebrate with them.' "

On another topic: "Bush said he was unaware that conservative commentator Armstrong Williams had received $240,000 to promote Bush's No Child Left Behind program until the news media recently reported the payment.

" 'Armstrong Williams has been very clear about the fact that he made a mistake,' Bush said. 'There wasn't transparency and there should have been transparency. I appreciate him being forthcoming about the fact that he thought he was wrong to take the money and do what he did.'

"Was it appropriate for the government to pay Williams to promote the education program?

" 'I think there needs to be transparency and a clear line between people who profess to be a reporter and advocacy,' Bush said. 'Obviously there wasn't in this case. And I think we're going to have to look and make sure it doesn't happen again.' "

Billy House writes in the Arizona Republic that Bush spoke at some length about his proposal for a guest-worker program. Here are his quotes from the interview:

"One, it makes sense for the workplace. There are some jobs Americans will not do," Bush said. "A lot of people, if you go out and ask them, 'Can they find workers for certain kind of jobs?' No, they can't.

"Secondly, I think it puts immense pressure on the border not to have a regulated system.

"You've got Border Patrol chasing workers coming across, and they are therefore not able to stay focused really on the smugglers and what we need to be done.

"There's just a mass of people of coming.

"I think a good system is one that will take the pressure off of the borders. I know we need to continue to increase border security and will."

Tom Webb writes in the St. Paul Pioneer-Press: "In light of the state of Minnesota's efforts to ease the purchase of prescription drugs from Canada, Bush was asked, 'Would you and your administration like to see these Canadian drug purchases shut down, or continued?'

"Bush said that his duty is to ensure products are safe, 'and products such as prescription drugs really must be safe. My concern all along is that well-meaning Minnesota citizens won't have adequate protection when it comes to buying drugs' from foreign sources."

Katherine M. Skiba writes in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that Bush was asked not just about regrets, but about hope.

"As for his hope, the president who declared a global war on terrorism after the Sept. 11. 2001, attacks and led the nation into two wars said: 'Peace.'

" 'Not only short-term peace, but long-term peace,' he said. 'I would hope that it would be said that the seeds of democracy that are being sown around the world will yield long-term peace.' "

The Scene

Lightman writes in the Hartford Courant: "If there's any agonizing soul-searching going on at the Bush residence, it wasn't apparent Thursday. While he was in a serious mood, he offered some of his usual quips and had no notes or briefing papers in front of him. A legal pad in front of him stayed almost blank, he only picked up his black Sharpie once, and he never drank from the 12-ounce glass of water on his right."

Stearns writes in the Kansas City Star: "In the session Thursday, Bush seemed almost disinterested and tired at first, but he appeared to enjoy himself more as the often free-wheeling session continued. . . .

"He was most animated in defending his effort to revamp Social Security."

Adair writes in the St. Petersburg Times: "Bush wore a blue business suit, a blue dress shirt and a gold striped tie. He was animated during the interview, gesturing and challenging reporters as they asked questions.

"When a reporter began a question by saying Bush had cited weapons of mass destruction as his reason to remove Saddam Hussein from power but that the weapons 'didn't exist,' Bush kept interrupting with 'Oooop!'

"Bush said Hussein 'had the capacity to make weapons, the desire to make weapons and he hated America.'

"After several interruptions, the reporter smiled and told the president, 'You've really broken my mojo with this question.' "

The USA Today Interview

Bush also sat down yesterday, separately, with Judy Keen and Richard Benedetto of USA Today, who write: "President Bush says future retirees won't necessarily see smaller Social Security checks if Congress approves his plan to allow younger workers to invest part of their payroll taxes.

Here's the transcript.

Keen and Benedetto chose to concentrate on the politics and logistics of the Social Security plan, rather than try to delve for details or resolve contradictions.

For instance:

"Q: You talk about wanting to revise Social Security. The Democrats seem to be engaged in a political campaign against it right now. They're using the techniques of the campaign and they're using rhetoric that's very hot. How are you going to overcome that? You say you want to reach out and work with them. How can you work with them if that's going on?

"A: Well, I think the first thing that is necessary is for all of us here in Washington to recognize we have a problem. And I will spend time talking to the American people about the problem. And the problem is that there's not enough payers into the system relative to the benefits promised. And it gets worse over time.

"Now, I spoke to a high school yesterday. And I was there to talk about improving education. And I started looking at those students, and I realized that by the time they get to be retired, the system will be bankrupt. And we have a duty to solve the problem now. That's what we have -- and I'm going to remind people of that."

More With Barbara Walters

ABC News's The Note doles out a few more excerpts from tonight's broadcast of 20/20. Barbara Walters interviewed the president and first lady on Wednesday.

On the tsunami:

Barbara Walters: "Do you think that, because of the kind of aid that we're giving, because of the leadership that we're giving, that this could make a difference in the Muslim world?"

Bush: "Absolutely. I think it can. Our public diplomacy efforts aren't . . . aren't very robust, and aren't very good, compared to the public diplomacy efforts of those who would like to spread hatred and . . . and vilify the United States. And, uh, but in the . . . responding to the tsunami many in the Muslim world have seen a great compassion in the American people. Our troops are providing incredibly good service. I mean, we are saving lives, and flying supplies, and I . . . people . . . aside from the propaganda, many people, outcasts, are coming over some of those stations, um, apart from that, or in spite of that, I guess is the best way to say it, people are seeing the concrete actions of a compassionate country."

On his legacy:

Bush: "Well, one piece, I hope that 50 years from now people will look back and say, 'Thank goodness old George W. stuck to his beliefs that freedom is . . . is an agent for change, to make the world more peaceful, and that all people deserve to be free. At home I . . . two legacies. One would be a country in which our education system is the best in the world, and secondly that this concept of civic participation, the great compassion of the country has been re-energized, so that neighbor loves neighbor just like they liked to be loved themselves."

On Florida Gov. Jeb Bush:

Bush: "He's a wonderful guy. I don't think he wants to run for President. . . . Because I know he's loved being the Governor of Florida. But I don't think he's interested in running."

The Social Security Campaign to Come

Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "President Bush plans to reactivate his reelection campaign's network of donors and activists to build pressure on lawmakers to allow workers to invest part of their Social Security taxes in the stock market, according to Republican strategists.

"White House allies are launching a market-research project to figure out how to sell the plan in the most comprehensible and appealing way, and Republican marketing and public-relations gurus are building teams of consultants to promote it, the strategists said.

"The campaign will use Bush's campaign-honed techniques of mass repetition, never deviating from the script and using the politics of fear to build support -- contending that a Social Security financial crisis is imminent when even Republican figures show it is decades away. . . .

"The same architects of Bush's political victories will be masterminding the new campaign, led by political strategists Karl Rove at the White House and Ken Mehlman at the Republican National Committee."

The Washington Post

Howard Kurtz writes in his washingtonpost.com Media Notes blog writes today about the "awful" appearance of The Washington Post Co.'s $100,000 contribution to the Bush inauguration.

And he notes: "By the way, The Washington Post just got an interview with the president for publication this weekend."

The Backfire in Iraq

Dana Priest writes in The Washington Post about the conclusions of a report released yesterday by the National Intelligence Council, the CIA director's think tank.

"President Bush has frequently described the Iraq war as an integral part of U.S. efforts to combat terrorism. But the council's report suggests the conflict has also helped terrorists by creating a haven for them in the chaos of war. . . .

"Bush described the war in Iraq as a means to promote democracy in the Middle East. 'A free Iraq can be a source of hope for all the Middle East,' he said one month before the invasion. 'Instead of threatening its neighbors and harboring terrorists, Iraq can be an example of progress and prosperity in a region that needs both.'

"But as instability in Iraq grew after the toppling of Hussein, and resentment toward the United States intensified in the Muslim world, hundreds of foreign terrorists flooded into Iraq across its unguarded borders. They found tons of unprotected weapons caches that, military officials say, they are now using against U.S. troops. Foreign terrorists are believed to make up a large portion of today's suicide bombers, and U.S. intelligence officials say these foreigners are forming tactical, ever-changing alliances with former Baathist fighters and other insurgents."

The report is online. See in particular the chapter on Pervasive Insecurity.

Cheney's Speech

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "Vice President Dick Cheney struck back on Thursday at critics of the administration's plan to overhaul Social Security, saying the cost of doing nothing was greater than the price of transforming the 70-year-old centerpiece of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal....

"Mr. Cheney also asserted in his speech that the projected shortfall in Social Security "exceeds $10 trillion," which is the amount of promised benefits that will exceed revenues. But that figure refers to a calculation of the shortfall over what economists call "an infinite time horizon," a concept that is the subject of intense debate. The standard figure for the shortfall, used by the Social Security trustees, is $3.7 trillion over 75 years....

"The vice president did not address what is emerging as the central political issue of the Social Security debate: whether the creation of investment accounts would be accompanied by a substantial reduction in the guaranteed benefits paid by the government to future retirees."

Here is the text of Cheney's speech.

Today's Calendar

Bush travels to Jacksonville, Fla., to talk about job training and education.

Meet Roland Betts

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times about New York Democrat Roland Betts, "one of the president's closest and most unusual confidants."

Inauguration Watch

Faye Fiore writes in the Los Angeles Times: "With the war in Iraq steadily claiming American lives and the world in mourning over the tsunami disaster, planners of the 55th presidential inauguration face an awkward challenge: how to throw the traditional four-day celebration without appearing to have too much fun. . . .

"[T]he result will be a spectacle that pays greater homage to the armed forces than any inaugural in recent memory.

"Officials say they will do that without spoiling the revelry that is Washington's version of the Oscars."


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