washingtonpost.com
Spinner in Chief

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, August 29, 2005 12:21 PM

President Bush is trying to turn the completion of a divisive and disappointing draft constitution for Iraq into a cause for celebration.

But the facts keep getting in the way.

In brief remarks yesterday, Bush said the drafting process was "an inspiration to all who share the universal values of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law."

In his Saturday radio address , Bush said: "Iraq's main ethnic and religious groups made the courageous choice to join the political process. And together, they have worked toward a democratic constitution that respects the traditions of their country and guarantees the rights of all their citizens."

But among the many challenges facing the draft constitution, Sunni Arabs are coming out against it -- and U.S. officials have long maintained that Sunni participation in the political process was crucial to establishing stability that would allow for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Steven R. Weisman writes in the New York Times that in the context of "the disarray in Baghdad that was becoming evident, with Sunnis and some Shiites vowing to defeat the constitution and others angrily predicting a surge in anti-government violence, statements by the president and others in his administration had the air of making a case that the situation was not as bad as it looked."

Weisman gets an unusual peek behind the curtain:

"Several administration officials acknowledged deep regret and frustration that all their efforts had failed to produce a document that could not only establish human rights but also bring a huge disaffected element into the political process, as the Americans had hoped and predicted. . . .

"Lowering their sights, administration officials said Sunday that their task now was to keep the political process alive, even if the constitution was rejected in October, and thereby keep the disaffected Sunnis from helping to stoke more violence."

Weisman spots something missing: "[I]t was notable that on a day when many Iraqis expressed concern that the document could limit women's rights by empowering Shiite clerics, the administration made little or no reference to that issue."

And he questions the use of one of Bush's most cherished metaphors, likening the fractious debates in Iraq to those among America's founders.

"I want our folks to remember our own constitution was not unanimously received," Bush said.

Notes Weisman: "What he left out of his analogy is that while the Constitutional Convention of Philadelphia was convening, there was not an insurgency in the countryside that seemed to be growing because of disaffection with the political process."

Jonathan Finer and Omar Fekeiki , in The Washington Post, describe the scene at a ceremony in Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's home.

"As the event concluded, several people celebrated with high-pitched ululations. But some attendees were in no mood for festivities.

" 'It was a nice show for the president of the United States as he wakes up now, but for us it was very bad,' said Mishan Jabouri, one of four Sunni Arab assembly members among the dozens of lawmakers at the event. None of the Sunnis expressed support for the constitution."

Barrel of a Gun, or Not?

Bush on Saturday : "What is important is that Iraqis are now addressing these issues through debate and discussion -- not at the barrel of a gun."

Bush on Sunday : "The negotiators and drafters of this document braved the intimidation of terrorists and they mourn the cowardly assassination of friends and colleagues involved in the process of drafting the constitution."

Brace for More

One thing Bush has absolutely stopped doing is issuing optimistic predictions for Iraq's near term.

Here's what he said yesterday: "As democracy in Iraq takes root, the enemies of freedom, the terrorists, will become more desperate, more despicable, and more vicious."

Bush's Good News

The good news for Bush is that in spite of a growing antiwar movement sparked by "Peace Mom" Cindy Sheehan, Democratic Party leaders are still by and large supporting the war.

Sam Coates writes in The Washington Post: "Senior Democrats sought to distance themselves Sunday from Sheehan's protest. On 'Fox News Sunday,' Byron L. Dorgan (N.D.), a member of the Senate Democratic leadership, said: 'If we withdrew tomorrow, there would be a bloodbath in Iraq. We can't do that.' "

Doyle McManus writes in the Los Angeles Times: "After a summer of mounting discontent over the war in Iraq, President Bush will face renewed criticism from Democrats and Republicans when Congress returns to work next week. But he appears unlikely to come up against an effective challenge to his policy -- because his critics in both parties are deeply divided over what change in course to propose. . . .

"Most of the public may be 'uneasy about the war,' said Dan Bartlett, a counselor to the president who serves as Bush's top communications strategist, 'but they don't support the precipitous withdrawal of troops.' . . .

" 'If you look at the criticisms,' Bartlett added, 'a lot of them are, "Do it faster, do it better." A lot of our critics are literally saying the same thing we are.' "

McManus also notes: "Administration officials say they believe the antiwar protests led by Sheehan have largely misfired in the wider public, because Sheehan criticized not only the war in Iraq but also the more popular war in Afghanistan. Her remarks have allowed Bush and other officials to charge that their critics want the United States to withdraw from the entire Middle East, not just Iraq."

Camp Casey Watch

Coates writes in The Post: "Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist and former presidential candidate, rallied antiwar protesters here Sunday, drawing comparisons with the civil rights movement on this anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I Have a Dream' speech.

"Speaking at a Sunday morning prayer meeting, he called Cindy Sheehan, who first arrived here 22 days ago to protest the war in Iraq, 'the conscience' of the nation."

Angela K. Brown writes for the Associated Press: "Cindy Sheehan hasn't achieved a meeting with the president during her three-week war protest, but she met a man who plays one on TV. Martin Sheen, who portrays the president on NBC's 'The West Wing,' visited Sheehan's makeshift campsite Sunday.

" 'At least you've got the acting president of the United States,' Sheen said as the crowd of more than 300 people cheered. 'I think you know what I do for a living, but this is what I do to stay alive.' "

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Pent-up fervor fueling both sides of the national debate over President Bush's Iraq policies erupted Saturday near his vacation home, with thousands of protesters venting frustrations and using parents of fallen soldiers as icons of their dueling movements."

Poll Watch

Frank Newport and Jeff Jones of the Gallup Organization writes: "A new Gallup Poll reflects further erosion in President George W. Bush's job approval rating, continuing the slow but steady decline evident throughout the year so far. The poll -- conducted Aug. 22-25 -- puts Bush's job approval rating at 40% and his disapproval rating at 56%. Both are the most negative ratings of the Bush administration."

Gallup reports that the only second-term president with an approval rating this low at this time in their presidency: Richard Nixon, at 34.

"The drop in President Bush's job approval rating has been accompanied by a continuing drop in the American public's overall satisfaction with the way things are going in the United States today.

"Just 34% of Americans are satisfied with the way things are going in this country in the Aug. 22-25 Gallup Poll, while 62% are dissatisfied. This is the lowest satisfaction level of the entire Bush administration to date and is the lowest recorded by Gallup since January 1996."

What to Do?

Matthew Cooper writes on Time.com about how the White House is contending with "declining public opinion polls (that are echoed by 'even worse' internal polling, says one Bush adviser), high oil prices and a recognition that things are not likely to turn around anytime soon. A senior Bush official attributes the president's collapsing poll numbers to 'high gas prices and a lot of anxiety about the war' and acknowledges 'that's not likely to change anytime soon.' . . .

"So what's the White House plan? There really isn't much of one. If anything, there's a certain sense of fatalism among Bush staffers, a belief that the difficult moments in Iraq just have to be toughed out and that there is no ready cure at hand other than to make the case to stay the course as he did last week when he addressed National Guard troops in Idaho. As for the president himself, Bush is hyperresolute about the situation in Iraq according to advisers. 'One of the things that's real consistent about this President is that he doesn't spook,' says Bush's media advisor Mark McKinnon.

"When it comes to Iraq, White House officials recognize that there are not a lot of options other than to keep training Iraqi troops and hope that they can assume more of the responsibility for defending their own country. Increasingly though that seems like a pipe dream even to conservatives who have supported the war. Last week no fewer than three conservative columnists expressed disappointment with the president."

Today's Calendar

Richard Benedetto writes for USA Today: "After a weekend in which the countryside near his ranch was dominated by demonstrations both in favor of the Iraq war and against it, President Bush travels to Arizona and California today on domestic business: promoting the new Medicare prescription-drug benefit for seniors."

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Leaving his Texas ranch for two days, Bush attends 'conversations' with experts and the elderly in El Mirage, Ariz., and Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.

"After spending the night in San Diego, he speaks on Tuesday at the Naval Air Station North Island there to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II. His remarks focus on fighting terrorists and the ongoing campaign in Iraq. They recall the Aug. 14, 1945, Japanese surrender that came just days after the United States incinerated the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs."

C.J. Karamargin writes in the Arizona Daily Star: "El Mirage?

"Given that little flap about weapons of mass destruction that didn't exist, you'd think President Bush might be a bit more picky about the towns he visits.

"El Presidente is to host a quick chat about Medicare this morning at a seniors-only RV resort in the tiny Phoenix-area town of El Mirage. Top adviser Karl Rove must be distracted. He could have sent Bush to Goodyear."

Hurricane Watch

Bush spoke briefly about the hurricane in his remarks yesterday: "I urge all citizens to put their own safety and the safety of their families first by moving to safe ground. Please listen carefully to instructions provided by state and local officials," he said.

How Bush conducts himself in the hurricane's aftermath may have big political ramifications. If he were to remain cloistered on his Crawford estate, that might not look good. So you can safely expect a very presidential-looking tour of the damage as soon as practically possible.

Right now, Bush's public schedule after tomorrow's events in California is very light.

He returns to Crawford Tuesday night, makes a statement Thursday morning about identity theft, then returns to the White House Friday, where he has no public events until Monday.

Press Dinner Redux

I wrote in Friday's column about the off-the-record party Bush threw for the White House press corps last week, earning me my first-ever mention in a Maureen Dowd column in the New York Times.

Only two of the reporters actually present at the dinner seem to have had enough courage to actually write about it.

Julie Mason of the Houston Chronicle writes that "as it often can be when strange bedfellows find themselves at a party, the evening had a somewhat awkward atmosphere. Was it work or social? Neither side seemed sure.

"Nothing the president said could be quoted, but it's rare that reporters get uninterrupted access to him for 90 minutes, particularly when beer is served. Bush, who gave up drinking years ago, drank a non-alcoholic Buckler."

NBC News producer Antoine Sanfuentes blogged: "Over a fare of fried catfish, potato salad, coleslaw, and chocolate-chip cookies, reporters were offered a brief glimpse inside the presidential retreat as well as an opportunity to speak informally with the President."

Meet Frances Fragos Townsend

Susan B. Glasser and Peter Baker profile Frances Fragos Townsend in The Washington Post.

"From the low-ceilinged, windowless confines of a basement office in the West Wing, Townsend runs President Bush's far-flung campaign against terrorism. Her two predecessors were four-star generals who brought decades of experience to the fight. Townsend, 43, a former mob prosecutor, has a different credential -- the president's ear. . . .

"But by all accounts, Townsend has impressed Bush with a tough efficiency and a bit of a swagger that resembles his own. Her influence has grown to the point that Cabinet secretaries and agency directors who do not normally return media calls about White House staff members rush to phone with lavish praise for a profile.

" 'She obviously has the confidence of the president, and that has a huge impact on her ability to influence the process,' said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. She is the 'coordinator, the facilitator, the bridge,' as FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III put it, between the powerful institutions and clashing egos of a war cabinet. Townsend is both 'honest broker' in the many internal debates, said national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, and 'crisis manager' during terrorist attacks such as the recent London bombings."

Social Security (Non) Watch

Joel Havemann and Warren Vieth write in the Los Angeles Times that Bush has "been notably silent on a subject he pushed hard the first half of the year: his Social Security plan for creating private investment accounts.

"In July and August, Bush has made one appearance to plug his Social Security proposal, which he's described as the top domestic priority of his second term. In the first six months of the year, by contrast, he made 36 appearances focused primarily on restructuring Social Security -- a dozen such events in March alone. . . .

"But members of the Bush administration insist he has not given up. . . .

"White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the lull merely reflected the congressional recess, which ends Sept. 6. 'This is one of our priorities when Congress returns,' he said."

Scrappleface for Speechwriter!

K. Daniel Glover writes in National Journal's Beltway Blogroll that some conservative bloggers think that Scott Ott, the conservative voice behind the ScrappleFace blog, should be hired by the White House as a speechwriter.

"Their praise came this week after Ott penned the response that Ott's fans think President Bush should give to grieving mother and anti-war protestor Cindy Sheehan.

An excerpt: "Mrs. Sheehan, everyone dies. But few experience the bittersweet glory of death with a purpose -- death that sets people free and produces ripples of liberty hundreds of years into the future. Casey Sheehan died that freedom might triumph over bondage, hope over despair, prosperity over misery. He died restoring justice and mercy. He lived and died to help to destroy the last stubborn vestiges of the Dark Ages."

Rangel on Cheney

Michael Saul writes for the New York Daily News: "Rep. Charles Rangel, dean of the city's congressional delegation, blasted Vice President Cheney yesterday as a 'sick man' who 'grunts a lot.'

" 'Sometimes I don't even think Cheney is awake enough to know what's going on,' Rangel (D-Harlem) said during an interview on New York 1 last night. . . .

"When asked if Bush takes too much vacation time, Rangel replied, 'Oh, no, it makes the country a lot more safe -- the further Bush is away from Washington the better it is.'"

The Bush Institute

In U.S. News, Paul Bedard answers the question on everyone's lips: What will Bush's presidential library be like?

" 'The Hoover Institution,' reveals Bush's chief library scout and former Commerce Secretary Don Evans , 'is the model. That's what will differentiate our library.' No kidding. Based at Stanford University, Hoover's team includes over 150 big thinkers who have shaped major national policies and still influence Washington. . . .

"And that's not all. In a letter to seven colleges and the city of Arlington, all vying to build the George W. Bush Presidential Library, Evans and Bush brother Marvin say the prez also wants a high-tech library and museum, including an IMAX theater, gift shop, and apartment."

That's No Ranch

Warren Vieth writes in the Los Angeles Times about Bush's Crawford place.

"[W]ith a handful of cattle now on the property, some Texans suggest that calling the place a ranch could be considered a stretch.

" 'There are some guys that are all hat and no cattle. The president's not that way; he's hat and five cattle,' joked Austin lawyer and former U.S. Rep. Kent R. Hance, who as a Democrat beat Bush in a 1978 congressional race by portraying him as an Ivy League interloper. . . .

"Bush prefers bicycles to horses and never claimed to be a cattleman. He has described himself as a 'windshield rancher' who likes to escort such visitors as Russian President Vladimir Putin around his property in a pickup. He once told a visiting journalist he had become an avid amateur arborist.

" 'I am,' he said. 'Tree man.' "

Bike Watch

Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong apparently was the first person to break Bush's first rule of biking: Don't pass the president.

Matthew Cooper writes on Time.com: "When he went biking with Lance Armstrong in Crawford earlier this month, the two, at one point, approached a particularly steep and rocky hill. Bush 'wouldn't even contemplate going up it,' recalls a senior Bush official. For his part, Armstrong cruised up the incline. A White House military aide made it part of the way up but 'Lance just buried him' and Bush was in awe of his stamina."

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