'Prebutters' Ensure Debate Over 'Way Forward' Is Backward

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) started the latest round of
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) started the latest round of "prebuttals," the act of rebutting an opponent's speech before the speech is delivered, on Tuesday. Last night, President Bush addressed the nation on a new strategy for Iraq. (By Joe Raedle -- Getty Images)
By Dana Milbank
Thursday, January 11, 2007

President Bush's announcement last night of a "New Way Forward in Iraq" began with a step backward.

The White House called a noon briefing to preview Bush's 9 p.m. speech, and reporters entered the room to find a multimedia display, which featured a projection screen, large television and laptop showing a yellow map of Iraq and its neighbors in orange.

But moments before the briefing, four young aides scurried into the room, pulled a blue velvet curtain in front of the projection screen, unplugged the laptop and wheeled the television offstage through the curtains.

"It's curtains for Iraq," a reporter observed.

"What happened to the maps?" a Reuters correspondent asked White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, who had just entered the room.

"Maps?" she replied. "There were maps?"

Bush aides could be forgiven for this confusion. Usually, official Washington chews over a president's speech after he has delivered it. But yesterday, virtually everything in the speech was disclosed, disputed and defended -- hours before the lights went on in the White House library for Bush's address to the nation.

The culprit? The "prebuttal," the act of rebutting an opponent's speech before the speech is delivered, which has been around for years. The term, like the Internet, was apparently invented by Vice President Al Gore, who was quoted by The Washington Post's Dan Balz as using it during the 1996 presidential campaign. But now prebuttals have become so intense that they have forced the victim of the prebuttal to preempt his own speech -- giving the speech itself an anticlimactic feel.

Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) started the latest round of prebuttals Tuesday. "President Bush will address the nation tomorrow about his decision to send tens of thousands of additional American troops to the war in Iraq," he said at the National Press Club, announcing legislation to thwart Bush's still-unannounced plan.

At dawn yesterday, Bush counselor Dan Bartlett attempted to rebut Kennedy's prebuttal by giving a series of morning-show interviews on the White House lawn. "We don't view Ted Kennedy as a hostile enemy," Bartlett graciously told Fox News, then slyly added: "It's really important for the American people to understand that their leaders in Washington, regardless of all the politics, support our troops."

Kennedy, his support for the troops thus challenged, scheduled a news conference in the Senate press gallery to rebut Bartlett's rebuttal of Kennedy's prebuttal.

By then, however, the prebuttals were everywhere. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) alone issued three written prebuttals of the Bush speech and one orally in the White House driveway.

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