Bush's Secret Dinner -- With the Press

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, August 26, 2005 12:00 PM

About 50 members of the White House press corps accepted President Bush's invitation last night to come over to his house in Crawford, eat his food, drink his booze, hang around the pool and schmooze with him -- while promising not to tell anyone what he said afterward.

It's something of a Bush tradition, a way of saying thank you to journalists for whom an extended stay in the Crawford area is anything but a vacation.

And in spite of all the recent press demands for senior administration officials to stay on the record more often, the press corps can't resist an offer of face time with the president, pretty much no matter what the conditions.

Nevertheless, I'm told that several reporters expressed squeamishness about last night's event, particularly as the press-pool vans drove by antiwar protester Cindy Sheehan's "Camp Casey" site. And later, a small handful watched askance as the rest fawned over Bush, following him around in packs every time he moved.

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush played host to the White House press corps Thursday night for a private off-the-record dinner at his ranch.

"The casual affair of fried catfish, potato salad, coleslaw, homemade cheese and chocolate-chip cookies followed a tradition in which Bush and his wife, Laura, have the press covering his annual August vacation out to the their ranch in central Texas as a sort of thank-you.

"The event was not held last year because of the busy campaign season. The invitations to the reporters were issued on the condition that they not discuss conversations at the event."

My sources (in this case, I should point out, not from The Washington Post) provided a few more details.

The president and the first lady greeted everyone personally in an informal receiving line. Both were dressed casually, Bush in jeans.

The dinner itself was held poolside. The reporters and camera crews were invited to bring swimsuits, but no one opted to strip and swim.

The beer, as usual, was a Texas brew: Shiner Bock.

The topics of conversation included the antiwar protests, the twins, sports, and Bush's summer reading list.

Unlike the event two years ago, there was no tour of the property.

Several senior White House aides attended and also spoke to reporters off the record, including deputy national security adviser J.D. Crouch II and deputy chief of staff Joseph Hagin.

One Bush touch particularly appreciated by the working media: Invitations were sent out at the last minute, so that only the reporters and photographers already in the area could attend -- preventing any bigfooting by the media elites in Washington or New York, or on vacation themselves.

Does anybody in attendance want to tell me more? E-mail me at froomkin@washingtonpost.com.

Dana Milbank wrote in The Washington Post about the 2003 barbeque, saying it represented "the time-honored political tradition of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer."

That event later became notorious for an exchange related by Ken Auletta in his seminal 2004 New Yorker article about how the White House keeps the press under control:

"Bush has let it be known that he's not much of a television-news watcher or a newspaper reader, apart from the sports section; and during a conversation with reporters he explained, perhaps without intending to, why his White House often seems indifferent to the press. 'How do you then know what the public thinks?' a reporter asked, according to Bush aides and reporters who heard the exchange. And Bush replied, 'You're making a huge assumption -- that you represent what the public thinks.' "

Incidentally, Bush isn't the only one holding off-the-record dinners with reporters this summer. I'm told senior adviser Karl Rove has held several in the last month himself.

Protesting Limited Press Access

Meanwhile, Ken Herman of Cox News Service writes in a story not available online: "The White House News Photographers' Association, in a letter to top Bush aides, said the administration increasingly is refusing to allow news photographers into some events. Instead, the White House has been releasing photos shot by its staffers, a process deemed unsatisfactory by the photographers association.

"In a letter to White House Counselor Dan Bartlett and Chief of Staff Andy Card, Susan Walsh, WHNPA president, said her organization 'is troubled by the increasing number of photo releases from events involving the president of the United States. . . .

" 'We are quickly losing our ability to gather the news, especially at the White House.' "

As Walsh explained to Herman: "A White House photo release, no matter how accurate the image, provides only one perspective -- one that is carefully screened and approved."

The Antiwar War

Sam Coates writes in The Washington Post: "With six days remaining until Sheehan's self-imposed deadline to leave Crawford, Tex., there seems little sign of her antiwar efforts ending with her departure. In a briefing for reporters, Sheehan said she is planning an antiwar bus tour of the country next month, ending Sept. 24 in Washington, where she plans to set up a permanent vigil until Bush agrees to meet with her, as she has sought in Texas."

Sheehan's group and a group of counter-protesters are both planning major rallies for Saturday.

Coates writes: "Questioned about the Sheehan protest, White House officials invoked words Bush used after Sept. 11 to stress the importance of current overseas operations.

" 'On September 14, 2001, [the president] stood at the National Cathedral and told all of America that this was going to be a very long and difficult war, and that there were going to be some very trying moments, but that because of what happened on 9/11, that we had to view the world in a different way,' White House spokesman Trent Duffy said. . . .

"The antiwar protesters responded Thursday with an emotional ceremony, carried live on national television, in which Sheehan was presented with the boots worn by her son before he was killed. She tearfully laid them before a small cross bearing her son's name, surrounded by dozens of supporters. There were sobs from other women whose sons were killed in Iraq."

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Thursday's scene at Camp Casey illustrated how Sheehan's once apparently Quixote-like protest has ballooned, giving war opponents a champion that had been lacking since former Democratic Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont stumbled in his efforts to win the White House on a largely antiwar platform."

The Associated Press reports: "The Rev. Al Sharpton plans to join peace activist Cindy Sheehan, known as the Peace Mom, on Sunday near President Bush's Texas ranch."

The Two-Meeting Mom

The White House has frequently pointed out that Bush already met with Cindy Sheehan once.

Blogger Eli Stephen calls attention to Dawn Rowe, an Iraq war widow, who just met with Bush for the second time.

Poll Watch

Will Lester writes for the Associated Press: "An overwhelming number of people say critics of the Iraq war should be free to voice their objections -- a rare example of widespread agreement about a conflict that has divided the nation along partisan lines. . . .

"More than half of those polled, 53 percent, say the United States made a mistake in going to war in Iraq. That level of opposition is about the same as the number who said that about Vietnam in August 1968, six months after the Tet offensive -- the massive North Vietnamese attack on South Vietnamese cities that helped turn U.S. opinion against that war. Various polls have shown that erosion of war support has been faster in Iraq than during the Vietnam War in the 1960s."

Here are the poll results. Among the findings:

* 58 percent disapprove of the way the Bush administration has conducted the war in Iraq.

* 53 percent think the war was a mistake.

* 50 percent think the war has increased the threat of terrorism worldwide. 20 percent think it has decreased the threat; 28 percent think it's had no effect.

* Respondents were given only two choices about where to go from here: 60 percent favored keeping troops in Iraq until the situation has stabilized; 37 percent favored bringing U.S. troops home immediately.

Constitution Watch

Dexter Filkins and James Glanz write in the New York Times: "Talks over the Iraqi constitution reached a breaking point on Thursday, with a parliamentary session to present the document being canceled and President Bush personally calling one of the country's most powerful Shiite leaders in an effort to broker a last-minute deal.

"Mr. Bush intervened when some senior Shiite leaders said they had decided to bypass their Sunni counterparts, as well as Iraqi lawmakers, and send the document directly to Iraqi voters for their approval. . . .

"A decision by the Shiites to move ahead without the Sunnis would be a considerable blow to efforts by the Bush administration to bring the leaders of the Sunni minority into the negotiations over the constitution."

Filkins and Glanz write that Bush called Abdul Aziz Hakim, a cleric and the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

"The concern that a deal on the constitution was falling apart appeared to have to prompted Mr. Bush to call Mr. Hakim to urge a [compromise]. One Iraqi official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said the Americans, who have already expressed their frustration with the Sunnis, have recently become irritated with what they regard as the stubbornness of the Shiites as well."

White House spokesman Trent Duffy this morning confirmed that Bush called Hakim briefly on Wednesday afternoon (Thursday, Iraq time) "to discuss current developments in Iraq's constitutional process." Duffy explained: "As I said yesterday, this is an Iraqi process, but the United States is doing everything it can to assist them in meeting their own obligations and deadlines under the Transitional Administrative Law."

Violence?

In his Nampa speech on Wednesday, Bush talked about the constitutional process and said that "what's important is that the Iraqis are resolving these issues through debate and discussion, not at the barrel of a gun."

Duffy echoed that in his press gaggle yesterday: "They are working together in -- in a non-violent fashion to achieve a very important objective here," he said.

But there's still plenty of violence outside the fortified Green Zone.

Because Ellen Knickmeyer and Anthony Shadid write in The Washington Post: "Political violence surged Thursday along many of Iraq's ethnic and sectarian fault lines, while Shiite and Sunni Arab political leaders haggled past a third deadline without reaching accord on a draft constitution.

"As the two-day death toll around Iraq reached 100, fighting between two powerful Shiite militias in the southern city of Najaf subsided, with 19 reported dead overall. The clashes Wednesday night and Thursday between the Mahdi Army, loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, and fighters allegedly linked to the government-allied Badr Organization were the deadliest between Iraqi militia forces since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003."

Anyone Care About the Deadline?

The official White House position is now that the blown deadline for the constitution is not important.

For the record, here's Bush on June 25: "Prime Minister Jafari has assured me that his Government is committed to meeting its deadline to draft a new constitution for a free Iraq."

Here's Bush on June 28: "By taking these critical steps and meeting their deadlines, Iraqis will bind their multiethnic society together in a democracy that respects the will of the majority and protects minority rights."

Here's Bush on August 11: "We have made it clear that we believe that constitution can be and should be agreed upon by August 15th. And so I'm operating on the assumption that it will be agreed upon by August the 15th."

Roberts Watch

Jess Bravin writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The Navy attorney assigned to represent a Guantanamo prisoner facing war crimes charges before a military commission is confronting a dilemma: How to proceed now that the case has been injected into the Supreme Court nomination battle?

"A three-judge appeals court panel last month rejected Lt. Cmdr. Charles Swift's challenge to the commission's legality. One of the judges was John Roberts, who in April heard arguments about the Bush administration's policy as he was discussing a Supreme Court appointment in private conversations with the White House. On July 15, when Judge Roberts met with President Bush for the job-clinching interview, he joined a ruling in favor of the defendants, who included Mr. Bush. . . .

"Now, Cmdr. Swift has until Sept. 2 to decide whether to file a formal challenge to Judge Roberts's participation in the case with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit where Judge Roberts has served for two years."

Dog Wags Tail

Blogger Taegan Goddard yesterday called attention to a recent story by Edward Barrera in the San Bernardino Sun about Bush's expected visit to Rancho Cucamonga next week.

Barrerra wrote that White House spokesman David Almacy said the reason that Bush is in Crawford, Tex., for five weeks is due to the renovation of the West Wing of the White House.

I spoke to Almacy yesterday, who said that, in fact, the renovations of the West Wing -- including the replacement of the Oval Office floor -- are taking place because he's away, not the other way around.

Almacy explained that he was just taking exception to the notion that Bush is on a five-week vacation. "The only week he had no public events was this past week," Almacy said.

Meanwhile, back at the White House, "the staff is still working and the country is still being run," he said, but some staff are on vacation and it's "fairly quiet."

Westward Ho

George E. Condon Jr. writes for the Copley News Service: "President Bush plans to take his campaign to shore up sagging support for the war in Iraq to San Diego next Tuesday with a speech at North Island Naval Air Station.

"The Coronado speech will be the third and final Iraq pitch during the president's five-week vacation as Bush attempts to blunt the growth in anti-war sentiment and a drop in his approval ratings. . . .

"Bush will leave his ranch again Monday, traveling first to Arizona and then Rancho Cucamonga for events related to Medicare. He will spend Monday night in San Diego before his address at North Island."

Lance Watch

Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, who went biking with President Bush last week, now faces an accusation that urine samples he provided during his first championship in 1999 tested positive for the red blood cell-booster erythropoietin, or EPO.

Here's Armstrong with Larry King last night on CNN:

"ARMSTRONG: When I peed in that bottle, there wasn't EPO in it. No way.

"KING: Did anything like this come up when you rode with President Bush? Was any discussion of this?

"ARMSTRONG: You know, this all came out a few days after that.

"KING: I know, a little after. But because of all the allegations over the years, did it ever come up?

"ARMSTRONG: No. It never came up once."

Bush and Mother Teresa

What's the difference between President Bush and Mother Teresa? Serious question.

Caroline Daniel profiles Jim Towey, the director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, in the Financial Times.

"It is hard to ignore the giant picture of President George W. Bush praying -- head bowed, fingers clenched -- in Jim Towey's office," she writes.

But Towey, who handled Mother Teresa's legal work for 12 years, "notes differences between his two bosses. 'President Bush doesn't portray himself as a super-Christian. He is very private about his faith. I work with people who are very devout Christians who say let's pray together. He doesn't do that. He is all business in the Oval Office. With Mother when you got in a car, the first thing she would say is, let's say a prayer. In a plane with her you would pray half of the flight.' "

What's in Karl's Bag?

In Wednesday's column, I called attention to this photo of Karl Rove arriving in Idaho, and I asked what might be in his bag.

A few of the responses from readers:

"FBI report on Cindy Sheehan." (Roger Wolvington, Boulder, Colo.)

"If you followed the wires that seem to be coiling out of the bag, you'd find the device that is responsible for the suspicious bulge seen on Bush's back that made so much news during the campaign." (Dan Catlin, Potsdam, New York)

"Dirty tricks." (Frank Higgins, Arlington)

The Corrente blog is soliciting even more suggestions.

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