Bush's New Best Friend: Merkel Losing, Sarkozy Gaining?

By Michael Abramowitz
Monday, April 21, 2008

With Tony Blair off the stage, Germany's Angela Merkel has been vying with Nicolas Sarkozy of France as President Bush's favorite European leader. But her candidacy may have suffered a fatal blow last week when the country's environment minister labeled Bush's latest announcement on global warming a "Neanderthal speech."

The president called for the growth in greenhouse gasses to halt by 2025, but did not offer the mandatory reductions and more ambitious targets favored by Germany and other European countries.

"Europe and the United States will have to show leadership here," proclaimed the statement from Sigmar Gabriel, a Social Democrat in the coalition led by Christian Democrat Merkel. "But with his announcements, the President keeps hopelessly falling back behind the problems. His speech reveals losership, not leadership."

The ferocity of the comments took White House officials aback, and one administration official said the chancellor's office assured the U.S. Embassy in Berlin that Gabriel was not speaking for Merkel. Yet a German official noted that there has been no official retraction of Gabriel's statement, and that the government, in fact, thinks the U.S. proposals don't go far enough in addressing global warming.

Sarkozy's government was a bit more tactful. Bloomberg News quoted the French climate change ambassador as saying the Bush administration "woke up, but it's a bit late."

The comments were probably mild enough that one could call it a successful week for Sarkozy in the sweepstakes to be Bush's favorite: Is an invitation to Camp David or Crawford, Tex., in the offing before the president leaves office in January?

Turning on the Heat on Global Warming

Meanwhile, those in the other camp on global warming were breathing easier after what they considered a close call from Bush last week. In an e-mail to his friends and allies, Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute said he learned last Monday that Bush had been planning to give a more aggressive speech, in which he would call for mandatory targets on greenhouse gas emissions and cap-and-trade legislation for electric utilities.

Free-market and conservative groups e-mailed a hastily drafted letter of complaint to the White House, and Republicans on the Hill reacted negatively to the reports, according to Ebell's account, which claimed some credit for getting the White House to back off the cap-and-trade idea. White House spokesman Tony Fratto called Ebell's account "completely and categorically untrue."

In Ebell's view, the administration's position on global warming is incoherent because it is an amalgam of competing factions in the administration. "It's therefore no surprise that the main result of this speech, as of earlier speeches on global warming, was to put a Kick Me sign on the president's back," wrote Ebell, who did say the speech "could have been worse."

Alone, Again

ABC's Martha Raddatz is one of the more enterprising reporters on the White House beat, and quick thinking recently got her some unusual face time with the president. She was finishing up a 20-minute, on-camera interview with Bush at his ranch in Crawford this month when she asked the president if she could have a few minutes alone with him.

Sure, Bush replied, you can have more. So the two of them went into his office, Bush put up his feet on the desk, and they had a discussion about Iraq and foreign policy.

The private conversation lasted about 25 minutes, an extraordinary length of time for a president who always has aides present, even for off-the-record conversations with journalists.

"It was very spontaneous," said Raddatz. "He was very relaxed and candid."

Of course, she isn't providing any specifics on what they talked about.

The episode brought to mind a curious encounter recounted by columnist Robert Novak in his memoirs, published last year. In March 1981, he and his late partner, Rowland Evans, asked for an interview with President Ronald Reagan for a book they were planning to write about the Reagan Revolution. When they arrived at the Oval Office, they were surprised because press secretary Jim Brady was the only aide present and there was none of the White House recording equipment used for presidential interviews.

"Stranger still," Novak writes, "after about five minutes, Brady glanced at his watch and left the room. We were alone with the president."

In all, Evans and Novak spent about 35 minutes alone with Reagan, discussing the people and ideas that shaped his thinking about economic and foreign policy.

Your columnist had assumed they don't do things like that any more at the White House. Evidently, we may be wrong.

George Bush, the Catholic?

With his warm words of welcome for Pope Benedict XVI, dinner Wednesday for Catholic leaders and an appearance Friday at the National Catholic prayer breakfast, President Bush may be raising a question: Will he follow brother Jeb and close friend Blair and convert to Catholicism?

There's no evidence that conversion is in the offing for the Methodist from Texas -- former associates doubt it would happen -- but there's also no question that in words and deeds Bush has evinced a sympathy and respect for the Catholic Church.

"He is a man of faith who speaks our language," said Austin Ruse, president of the Culture of Life Foundation, in introducing Bush at the prayer breakfast Friday.

Greg Tobin, a Benedict biographer, said that he has discussed recently with colleagues and friends in his parish whether the president might convert.

"Some American Catholics are beginning to wonder whether President Bush might be headed into that direction after his term of office expires," said Tobin, a senior adviser for communications at Seton Hall University. Given the president's language and signals of affection and respect, he said, "I would not be surprised."

The Katrina Watch

President Bush has selected a retired general in the Marine Corps Reserves to take over responsibility for Gulf Coast reconstruction for the duration of his term: Maj. Gen. Douglas V. O'Dell Jr. will be taking over the sensitive post from Donald E. Powell . Among other things, O'Dell commanded a Marine division that helped rescue and evacuate civilians during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

The Bush Book Tour

Before she gets married next month, Jenna Bush is going to be busy: This week, she and first lady Laura Bush are kicking off a tour to promote their new children's book, "Read All About It." They will be giving interviews in New York, including on the "Today" show, before heading for bookstores and schools in New Jersey, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Texas, the District, Virginia and California. Proceeds are going to fund teacher projects, Laura Bush said in a web interview about the book.

Quote of the Week

"Thank you, Your Holiness. Awesome speech."

-- President Bush, at the White House arrival ceremony for Pope Benedict XVI on April 16

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company