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The fog of war

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 8, 2009 10:29 AM

Did the press botch the president's speech on Afghanistan?

Or was Barack Obama being rather Clintonian in his language?

For days, the media chatter revolved around the president saying he would send another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan but begin withdrawing forces in the summer of 2011. Analysts said he was trying to placate both the right (by launching a surge) and the left (by promising an exit strategy). Critics said it made no sense to beef up the force while signaling to the Taliban that the clock is ticking. And the White House didn't go out of its way to knock down that interpretation.

But on the Sunday shows, the administration's new line seemed to be: What exit strategy? We never said that.

Either our parsing skills failed us -- it all depends on the meaning of the word "withdraw" -- or the administration is backing away from last week's announcement.

"Perhaps only a 'handful' of American troops will be leaving Afghanistan in July 2011, the date President Obama has set to begin a gradual withdrawal, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in an interview broadcast Sunday. 'We will have 100,000 forces, troops there,' Mr. Gates said on ABC's 'This Week,' 'and they are not leaving in July of 2011. Some, handful, or some small number, or whatever the conditions permit, will begin to withdraw at that time. '" Gates said this was a "transition," not an "exit strategy."

Ho-kay.

Now it's true that if you examine the president's words, he said his approach will "allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011," and that this would involve "taking into account conditions on the ground." Which is the kind of thing that George W. Bush used to say about Iraq. Maybe journalists just didn't read the body language correctly.

But here's what CBS's Chip Reid told me on "Reliable Sources" about his dealings with Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman: "Gibbs called me as I was writing the sentence in my script for that night that said, 'It appears that this date is not etched in stone,' which makes me think maybe they're reading my scripts as I write them -- I don't know.

"But he called me at that moment, and he said, 'Could you come to my office?' And I went to his office, and he said, 'It is etched in stone and I have the chisel.' He went to the president after the briefing, and the president said, absolutely, it is not flexible."

But was this like modern art, where we didn't realize what was being chiseled?

Commentary's Jennifer Rubin says the Obama team had no choice but to change emphasis:

"The contradiction between the need for a full commitment to a critical war and an artificial date for withdrawal is too vast and unsustainable, both logically and politically. It is a tribute to conservatives who have argued strenuously against the imposition of such a deadline -- and those lawmakers who have grilled the administration on the point -- that the administration is essentially saying, 'Never mind.' "

Beat the press

Obama's dissatisfaction with the press surfaced during last week's jobs summit, as Time's Michael Scherer points out:

"Frankly, this town and the way the political dialogue is structured right now is not conducive to what we need to do to be globally competitive. And all of you are leaders in your communities -- in the business sector and the labor sector, in academia, we even have a few pundits here -- it is important to understand what's at stake and that we can't keep on playing games.

" I mentioned that I was in Asia on this trip thinking about the economy, when I sat down for a round of interviews. Not one of them asked me about Asia. Not one of them asked me about the economy. I was asked several times about had I read Sarah Palin's book. (Laughter.) True. But it's an indication of how our political debate doesn't match up with what we need to do and where we need to go.

"Pretty pointed stuff, and I have little doubt that the president was actually irked by this at the time. [He also remembers the content of the interviews inaccurately. Through both the campaign and his presidency, Obama has made little secret of his disdain for some of the horse-race, tabloid elements of the press corps -- though his political and communications staff are not above sometimes exploiting those same tendencies for their own benefit. Obama meets regularly off-the-record and on-the-record meals with columnists who his advisers see as more intellectually substantive (or politically influential). But he has not done the same with beat reporters, whom, as he suggested Thursday, sometimes do a disservice to the country with the journalistic equivalent of ambulance chasing. (In fairness, one man's ambulances -- Town Hall shoutfests! Sarah Palin Facebook posts! etc. -- are another man's news, and columnists also chase them.). . . .

"UPDATE: Over Twitter, reader MayBeeTweet points out that Obama did not accurately characterize his interviews in Asia. Fox News' Garrett asked both about the jobs bill Obama has proposed and the South Korean trade agreement. NBC's Chuck Todd asked about the jobs summit and Chinese relations on human rights."

Baucus's private option

The news that Max Baucus recommended his girlfriend to be the top federal prosecutor in Montana prompts the Wall Street Journal editorial page to question whether there's a double standard:

"Suppose a public official is accused of recommending his girlfriend for a promotion, though he was the one who first flagged the potential conflict of interest and officials had refused to let him recuse himself from decisions about the woman. Should he lose his job?

"That's precisely what happened in 2007 to Paul Wolfowitz, who was run out of the World Bank on the pretext that he had given his girlfriend a raise. In fact, Mr. Wolfowitz had made bank officials aware that his girlfriend already worked at the bank before he accepted the job as president, and bank officials had raised no objection to the job change that removed his girlfriend from any direct reporting to Mr. Wolfowitz. The ethical uproar was a politically convenient excuse, fanned by the media, to oust Mr. Wolfowitz when his real offense was that he was too hard on corruption.

"So it's going to be fascinating to see how the press corps and political class react to the news that Montana Senator Max Baucus recommended a staff member who was his girlfriend for the plum job of U.S. Attorney. . . .

"As Senate Finance Chairman, Mr. Baucus is a crucial player in health-care reform, and our guess is that neither Democrats nor their media allies will want to explore this nepotistic near-miss lest it interfere with that greater political goal."

Politico says the explanation lies "in a clubby Washington, where political connections are the coin of the realm when it comes to landing the next big job, Baucus's move is almost par for the course -- even if it smacks of cronyism to those outside the Beltway. Senators of both stripes have long advocated former aides, family members, friends and fundraisers for key government slots -- and that alone could be enough to spare Baucus any punishment from the Senate Ethics Committee.

"For Baucus, pushing a former aide is far from unusual. The powerful Finance Committee chairman has seen at least 17 former aides join the Obama administration, taking on key roles in the White House, the office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the Health and Human Services Department and other federal agencies. . . .

" 'You know plenty of wives have worked in administrations,' Kerry told POLITICO. 'Was it a conflict of interest for Liddy Dole to [work as a Cabinet secretary in two Republican administrations] when Bob Dole was in the Senate? Please, c'mon. You don't think he recommended her? By the way, Mitch McConnell's wife was in the [Bush] administration -- don't you think he wanted her to do that?'. . . .

"What makes the Baucus case unusual is that Hanes was neither his wife nor just another staffer. Baucus was in a romantic relationship with Hanes -- and was still married to his wife -- when he submitted Hanes's name, along with two others, for the White House to consider for the U.S. attorney position."

Mediaite picks up on the discussion on my program -- Chip Reid, David Frum and Michelle Cottle -- in concluding that "the scandal wasn't sexy enough. . . .

Frum was "the lone voice asserting that there was a problem with Melodee Hanes' appointment: he called the scandal 'enormous' 'because the U.S. attorney there is the chief anti-corruption officer in that district. And what are the odds that that anti-corruption officer would ever investigate anything Max Baucus doesn't want to investigate?'

"Reid and Cottle weren't so sure that there would ever be a Baucus-gate. Reid: 'I don't think it has legs because there's no sex scandal, and it's not like Vitter. It's not like Ensign. There's no scandal here.' Cottle: 'as far as scandals go, there's no hookers, there's no payments, there's no, you know, this doesn't rise to the level of juiciness.' "

Meet the new standard: whether there are hookers.

Tiger's troubles multiply

It's official: "Tiger Woods' popularity is dropping faster than his pants," the Daily News reports.

"A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll shows Wood's favorable rating among the public has dropped 24 percentage points since June.

"The world's greatest golfer, who has been linked to at least a half-dozen mistresses since Thanksgiving, was viewed as 'favorable' by 60% of those surveyed in the new poll, compared to 84% in June. His 'unfavorable' rating has climbed up to 25% from 9% in the same period."

Well, 60 percent is pretty good for a politician. But Tiger had been in the stratosphere.

Meanwhile, I've lost count of the number of Alleged Mistresses, but the New York Post puts it at 9:

"One of Tiger Woods' latest mistresses, an unnamed former Florida cocktail waitress, says the world's best golfer's marriage is a sham.

" 'It's only for publicity,' Michael O'Quinn, attorney for the unidentified Florida cocktail waitress, told TMZ.com she said of Woods' marriage to Elin Nordegren.

"The 26-year-old -- who is the seventh woman to brag about dallying with Woods -- claims to have carried on a nearly two-year affair with him before and during his marriage to Nordegren. She was 20 when the affair started."

TMZ has a photo gallery with the golf-themed Alleged Mistress No. 4, who posed for something called CaddyChicks.com, and a shot of Alleged Mistress No. 2 wearing a tiger outfit. Seriously.

Racism watch

How do people like this get elected to office? Here's TPM on the bizarre case of a Tennessee mayor:

"According to a rather unsettling report in The Commercial Appeal, Arlington Mayor Russell Wiseman posted a racist rant on his Facebook page about President Obama -- apparently triggered by President Obama's Afghanistan speech interfering with the annual broadcast of the 'Peanuts' Christmas Special.

"The second term mayor wrote, 'Ok, so, this is total crap, we sit the kids down to watch 'The Charlie Brown Christmas Special' and our muslim president is there, what a load. . . . try to convince me that wasn't done on purpose. Ask the man if he believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and he will give you a 10 minute disertation (sic) about it . . . when the answer should simply be "yes" '. . . .

"According to the Commercial Appeal, Wiseman's extensive Facebook post went on to continue attacking the president, his supporters, and Muslims. ' . . . you obama people need to move to a muslim country . . . oh wait, that's America. . . . pitiful. . . . you know, our forefathers had it written in the original Constitution that ONLY property owners could vote, if that has stayed in there, things would be different.' "

The new 'NewsHour'

No happy talk as Gwen Ifill co-anchored with Jim Lehrer for the first time. In fact, very little talk at all. They came on camera separately, were never in the same shot and didn't acknowledge each other until deep into the program. Well, at least they didn't yammer on about what they did over the weekend.

Twitter talk

This is a breakthrough for social networking:

"Unveiling significant changes to its dominant search engine on Monday, Google said it would begin supplementing its search results with the updates posted each second to sites like Twitter, Facebook and MySpace.

"As part of its much-anticipated entrance into the field known as real-time search, Google said that over the next few days its users would begin seeing brand-new Tweets, blog items, news stories and social networking updates in the results for certain topical searches."

So much for Twitter being a fad. Assuming you all want to see what The People are saying.

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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