The Blair House Witch Hunt Project

Readers of the Sydney Morning Herald saw this yesterday.
Readers of the Sydney Morning Herald saw this yesterday. (Courtesy Of Cathy Wilcox -- Sydney Morning Herald)
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By Al Kamen
Thursday, January 8, 2009

The morning after a leading member of President Bush's coalition of the willing was exposed as a member of Washington's coalition of the homeless, former Australian prime minister John Howard defended his role in keeping President-elect Barack Obama and his family from checking in early at Blair House.

The Aussie press was abuzz yesterday after we revealed that Howard will be Bush's only overnight visitor during the first two weeks in January, when the Obamas had hoped to occupy the presidential guest manse.

Howard will be there Monday, the day before Bush awards the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Howard, former British prime minister Tony Blair and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe -- all close political allies of the current president. Blair and Uribe have made other accommodations and will not stay at the 119-room Blair House.

Howard, through a spokesman, told the newspaper the Australian that he would pick up his own tab to travel to the United States. The newspaper noted, however, that since Howard was "turfed from office" he has run up more than $186,164 (in U.S. dollars) in taxpayer-funded travel expenses.

"Mr. Howard will be staying for one night as per the invitation," his spokesman told the Aussie paper. "There's no entourage; it's just Mr. and Mrs. Howard. None of it is at the expense of Australian taxpayers."

Even so, Aussies appeared to be decidedly opposed. A Melbourne newspaper, the Age, in an online poll, found that, of 11,360 respondents, 82 percent said he didn't deserve the medal. (Prior winners were Tommy Franks, George J. Tenet and J. Paul Bremer.)

And of 2,170 respondents, 76 percent said Howard should "give up his rooms" for the Obamas. Giving up the rooms might be a way for Howard to, as Bush might put it, "unthaw" his non-relationship with Obama after saying in 2007 that Osama bin Laden should be "praying as many times as possible" for an Obama victory.

(Meanwhile, dedicated Loop readers pointed out that we referred yesterday to Howard and Blair as former heads of state. They are merely heads of government, as Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state. We regret having bestowed such a lofty title on the former prime ministers.)

Adviser for Clinton?

Job announcements seem to be coming from everywhere these days. For example, yesterday the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the pro-Israel think tank, put out a news release saying it was delighted that one of its senior officials, Dennis Ross, was going to be "ambassador-at-large and senior advisor to Secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton."

The institute said that the job, "designed especially for him," will make him Clinton's top adviser on a "wide range of Middle East issues, from the Arab-Israeli peace process to Iran."

But there's more detail. Ross is not going to "reprise his previous role as special Arab-Israeli peace envoy," a post he held in the Clinton administration. Someone else, of lesser note, will get that. Rather, "he will be working closely with both the special envoy and the secretary."

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