By Dana Milbank
Thursday, December 15, 2005
Lawmakers, diplomats and assorted military types settled into their seats in the Ronald Reagan Building yesterday to watch President Bush's fourth speech on Iraq in a fortnight. A snap poll was conducted in the press section: Would the feature presentation be a new film, a remake with updated effects, or just a rerun?
In the end, everybody agreed: They had seen this movie before.
For the 22nd time in a speech as president, Bush said we would not "cut and run" in Iraq. For the 28th time, he said Iraq was "the central front" in the war on terrorism. And, for the 100th time, Bush promised that "we will prevail" against the terrorists.
The lack of new material in Bush's speech complicated the second act in yesterday's double feature. Jack Murtha (Pa.), the Democratic congressman who has been rebutting each of the four Iraq speeches, had little to work with. "He keeps saying the same thing over and over," Murtha protested during his regular televised rebuttal.
Instead, Murtha opted to rebut the location of Bush's speech. "Let me take a few minutes to remark about the irony of President Bush speaking today in the Ronald Reagan Building," he said. Given "the sorry state of our Army, the erosion of the U.S. credibility in the world, and the deficits far as the eye can see, you've got to believe President Reagan is turning over in his grave."
On the eve of today's elections in Iraq, there was, evidently, nothing left to be said about the matter, as supporters and opponents of the war went into rerun season. Democrats wanted the troops out sooner rather than later. Bush wanted the troops out later rather than sooner. But both sides seemed to be going through the motions as they traded bumper-sticker slogans.
Bush: "We will never accept anything less than complete victory."
Murtha: "American troops have become the targets in Iraq."
Bush: "An artificial deadline would be a recipe for disaster."
Murtha: "You've given them a mission which they cannot carry out."
Bush: "Plant the seeds of freedom."
Murtha: "The Army is broken."
After four engagements, the Bush-Murtha act was getting stale. When Murtha, a hawkish retired Marine, first called for a pullout from Iraq last month, it was standing-room only. Yesterday, only six reporters showed up to see Murtha, who arrived early and stood, silently, at the lectern. Behind him in the House television gallery, titles on a bookshelf were visible: "A History of the American People," "Constitutional Law," and, appropriately for the dyspeptic Murtha, "Diseases of the Stomach."
By contrast, Bush's setting left nothing to chance: 24 flags behind him, four poinsettias in front, and top Cabinet members and supportive lawmakers planted in the audience. Yet for all the passionate words in his text, the president's delivery was muted. At one point he seemed not to be paying attention to what he was reading and ended a thought about the Iraqi elections in the middle of a sentence.
Bush had reason to be dispassionate. His four Iraq speeches, though different in emphasis, were full of numbing repetition. Washingtonpost.com's Adrian Holovaty did a computer analysis of the four Iraq speeches and found dozens of phrases repeated in all four. Bush invoked "democracy" 83 times, "freedom" 68 times and "security" 75 times. The president invoked "victory" 10 times in the 30-minute address -- more than the six victory mentions on Monday but fewer than the 11 on Dec. 7 and the 15 on Nov. 30.
The most noteworthy bit of Bush's speech might be what he didn't say. Heeding Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's advice not to use the word "insurgents" to describe the, er, insurgents, the president dropped the term. "The enemy of freedom in Iraq is a combination of rejectionists and Saddamists and terrorists," he substituted.
Even the White House was not pretending to cover new ground. Later, at the White House briefing, CBS's John Roberts asked White House spokesman Scott McClellan about Bush's statement that "I'm responsible for the decision to go into Iraq."
"I don't think that's new," the press secretary cautioned.
Not much was.
Saddam Hussein failed to meet the "just demands" of the world, Bush said for the 14th time, according to a search of the White House's Web site. Congress saw "the same intelligence" about Iraq's weapons as Bush did, he said for the 102nd time. "Free nations are peaceful nations," he said for the 19th time.
For the 21st time, the president affirmed that the world's most dangerous men should not have the "world's most dangerous weapons." For the 33rd time, he extolled the "spread of freedom." And, for the 126th time in a speech as president, he said capitulation to terrorists will not "happen on my watch."
The audience apparently recognized the boilerplate. Before long, the BlackBerrys came out and many of Bush's listeners were fidgeting. A young woman, leaving the speech, called her father to report on what she'd seen. "Hey dad, guess who I sat next to," she said. "Karl Rove!"