Bush's Third Campaign

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, November 14, 2005 3:33 PM

President Bush on Friday launched his third presidential campaign -- this one to salvage his reputation, and what's left of his second term.

His goal this time is not to win an election; it's to gain back the public trust.

Amid all the tumbling poll numbers of late, Bush's biggest problem is this: A sizeable majority of Americans -- 55 percent according to the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll -- believe that he intentionally misled the American public in making his case for war in Iraq.

So Bush's speechwriters on Veteran's Day added a few fiery paragraphs to his standard war-on-terror address.

Here's the text : "Some Democrats and anti-war critics are now claiming we manipulated the intelligence and misled the American people about why we went to war. These critics are fully aware that a bipartisan Senate investigation found no evidence of political pressure to change the intelligence community's judgments related to Iraq's weapons programs," Bush said.

"[M]ore than a hundred Democrats in the House and the Senate -- who had access to the same intelligence -- voted to support removing Saddam Hussein from power," he noted.

And, he concluded: "The stakes in the global war on terror are too high, and the national interest is too important, for politicians to throw out false charges. (Applause.) These baseless attacks send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America's will."

But Bush's argument is deeply flawed. Far from being baseless, the charge that he intentionally misled the public in the run-up to war is built on a growing amount of evidence. And the longer Bush goes without refuting that evidence in detail, the more persuasive it becomes.

And his most prized talking point -- that many Democrats agreed with him at the time -- is problematic. Many of those Democrats did so because they believed the information the president gave them. Now they are coming to the conclusion that they shouldn't have.

Like other Bush campaigns, this one will inevitably feature the ceaseless repetition of key sound bytes -- the hope being that they will be carried, largely unchallenged, by the media -- and virulent attacks by the White House on those who dare to disagree, even going so far as to question their patriotism.

The Coverage

The coverage in most major papers made it clear that Bush's speech came within the context of a pitched battle over the president's reputation.

Linton Weeks and Peter Baker wrote in The Washington Post: "President Bush and leading congressional Democrats lobbed angry charges at each other Friday in an increasingly personal battle over the origins of the Iraq war."

Richard W. Stevenson wrote in the New York Times: "In responding so aggressively to the criticism, the White House seems to be throwing fuel on a political fire that it may not be able to control."

Warren Vieth and James Gerstenzang wrote in the Los Angeles Times: "Bush's aggressive rhetoric, which coincided with a similar attack on Democrats by the Republican National Committee chairman, reflected growing White House concern over signs that the public's confidence in the president was slipping and that misgivings about Iraq were a principal cause of his problems."

Milbank and Pincus

The contextualizing of Bush's remarks was a welcome change from the more traditional, sometimes stenographic handling of a presidential speech.

But as far as I saw, only Dana Milbank and Walter Pincus , writing in The Washington Post, actually analyzed Bush's arguments -- and found them wanting.

They wrote: "President Bush and his national security adviser have answered critics of the Iraq war in recent days with a two-pronged argument: that Congress saw the same intelligence the administration did before the war, and that independent commissions have determined that the administration did not misrepresent the intelligence.

"Neither assertion is wholly accurate."

Milbank and Pincus explained that "Bush and his aides had access to much more voluminous intelligence information than did lawmakers, who were dependent on the administration to provide the material. And the commissions cited by officials, though concluding that the administration did not pressure intelligence analysts to change their conclusions, were not authorized to determine whether the administration exaggerated or distorted those conclusions."

They also pointed out a few other problems: "Bush, in his speech Friday, said that 'it is deeply irresponsible to rewrite the history of how that war began.' But in trying to set the record straight, he asserted: 'When I made the decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power, Congress approved it with strong bipartisan support.' "The October 2002 joint resolution authorized the use of force in Iraq, but it did not directly mention the removal of Hussein from power."

In response, the White House went ballistic. The press office on Sunday issued a rare and unusual response to the article, entitled: "Setting the Record Straight: The Washington Post On Pre-War Intelligence."

As one example of how Congress had not seen the same intelligence as the White House, Milbank and Pincus wrote that "Bush does not share his most sensitive intelligence, such as the President's Daily Brief, with lawmakers."

The White House responded that the Silberman-Robb commission -- a White House-appointed panel that investigated intelligence failures -- found that the PDBs were actually even more alarmist than other documents that had been made public. An interesting defense.

And the White House again insisted that "congressional and independent committees have repeatedly reported no distortion of intelligence." While that's strictly true, it doesn't in any way refute Milbank and Pincus's point, which is that none of these investigations were authorized to even pursue that question.

The Silberman-Robb commission, for example, found no evidence that the White House overtly pressured intelligence agencies to alter their findings. But, as I reported in April , the panel hinted that the White House still got what it wanted. And the report in no way exonerated the White House from charges that it distorted those intelligence findings when describing them to the public.

The White House's very public attempt to slap down Milbank and Pincus's story may, of course, have been motivated by the desire not just to refute the story but to discourage other journalists from pursuing similar ones.

It will be interesting to see if that works. I don't think it will. To the contrary, I see the press honing in on the lack of solid intelligence suggesting that Iraq had nuclear weapons and might give them to al Qaeda. Because that possibility was central to Bush winning public and congressional approval to attack Iraq.

Bloggers Pull No Punches

From the moment that national security adviser Stephen Hadley first telegraphed Bush's new approach on Thursday, liberal bloggers launched their own furious counterassault.

Blogger Atrios wrote on Friday: "I think that the recent statements of Stephen Hadley are really all we need to put the final nail in the coffin of the Bush administration's credibility on anything. These people are just quite literally loathsome.

"Hadley argues that Democrats had the same intelligence because 'parts of' the NIE 'had been made public.'

"Right, and the parts of the NIE which weren't made public were the parts which suggested that the parts which were made public were full of [expletive]."

Josh Marshall wrote on Saturday that, regarding "the president's new angle that his critics are trying to 'rewrite history', those critics might want to point out that his charge would be more timely after he stopped putting so much effort into obstructing any independent inquiry that could allow an accurate first draft of the history to be written. In any case, he must sense now that he's blowing into a fierce wind. The judgment of history hangs over this guy like a sharp, heavy knife. His desperation betrays him. He knows it too."

Kevin Drum writes today: "The case for manipulation is pretty strong. It relies on several things, but I think the most important of them has been the discovery that the administration deliberately suppressed dissenting views on some of the most important pieces of evidence that they used to bolster their case for war."

By contrast, some conservative bloggers jumped to Bush's defense.

Glenn Reynolds , for instance, wrote: "The White House needs to go on the offensive here in a big way -- and Bush needs to be very plain that this is all about Democratic politicians pandering to the antiwar base, that it's deeply dishonest, and that it hurts our troops abroad.

"And yes, he should question their patriotism. Because they're acting unpatriotically."

Bartlett in the Morning

White House counselor Dan Bartlett did the morning talk show circuit earlier today.

Here he is on CNN, with Soledad O'Brien . Unlike the other morning hosts, she challenged him on a few of his assertions.

Bartlett: "[E]very step of the way, there has been no evidence whatsoever that the president deliberately misled the American people. And the fact that Democrats are willing to advance this type of argument I think shows a deeply irresponsible behavior.

"SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: I'm going to stop you right there because actually the jury's not in yet. The Silberman-Rob Commission, which you mentioned, actually they said very explicitly that it wasn't their job to determine the scope of that investigation that you mentioned. No misleading. That was not the job of that commission. It's stated in the report. So they're still waiting for the select committee on intelligence to come back with their report is really where it stands."

O'Brien also asked about the polls:

"SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: Let's talk a little bit about how all of this is coming or filtering down to the American public. Fifty-three percent of the people polled believe that the Bush administration deliberately tried to mislead the public on weapons of mass destruction. How big of a problem is this for you?

"BARTLETT: Well, this is the very point why President Bush spoke out on Friday. The Democratic Party and their liberal interest groups, outside interest groups, have spent millions upon millions of dollars advancing this false attack. And it's critically important that the record be clear to the American people, and that's why President Bush felt obligated, and other members of the administration will going forward, of setting the record straight."

By contrast, Bartlett found a friend in anchor E.D. Hill, on Fox News.

Hill: "It was the head of the Democratic Party, Howard Dean, that said, you know, the president is the one who misled us all, if not lied to us all, and that's the reason we're in this war, we had no idea that all this stuff was fake, so we trusted him.

"BARTLETT: Well, that's the problem here is that as you know, E.D., members of the United States Senate and Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, had access to the very same intelligence that President Bush had, to make their decision. . . .

"What is deeply irresponsible is when politicians here in Washington advance what they know is false charges, such as that. I mean, that's a critical one, you're saying that the commander-in-chief during a time of war essentially lied to the American people. That's not the type of conduct that we need in Washington, D.C."

Hadley on CNN

On Sunday, national security adviser Hadley spoke to Wolf Blitzer on CNN.

He, even more than Bush, attacked critics as being unpatriotic.

"[I]t is unworthy and unfair and ill-advised, when our men and women in combat are putting their lives on the line, to relitigate an issue which was looked at by two authoritative sources and deemed closed. We need to put this debate behind us. It's unfair to the country. It's unfair to the men and women in uniform risking their lives to make this country safe."

Agence France Presse , however, saw bigger news in Hadley's comments about torture.

"In an important clarification of President George W. Bush's earlier statement, a top White House official refused to unequivocally rule out the use of torture, arguing the US administration was duty-bound to protect Americans from terrorist attack," AFP reported "Hadley elaborated on the policy, making clear the White House could envisage circumstances, in which the broad pledge not to torture might not apply.

" 'The president has said that we are going to do whatever we do in accordance with the law,' the national security adviser said. 'But . . . you see the dilemma. What happens if on September 7th of 2001, we had gotten one of the hijackers and based on information associated with that arrest, believed that within four days, there's going to be a devastating attack on the United States?' "

Torture Watch

Evan Thomas and Michael Hirsh writes in Newsweek: "Since 9/11, torture lite has been used by the Americans in the war on terror." Torture lite consisting of " 'enhanced' interrogation techniques, like placing a smelly hood over a prisoner and making him stand or squat naked for hours in a cold and dark room."

In tracking the genesis of the administration's torture policy, Thomas and Hirsh describe this scene: "In July 2002, the president's counsel, Alberto Gonzales, convened his colleagues in his cozy, wood-paneled office in the White House. Present were top Justice Department and Defense Department lawyers. Significantly missing were lawyers from the State Department and uniformed military, whose views on interrogation were known to be a good deal more cautious. (The military worries what will happen to captured American POWs in return.) According to a participant at the meeting who declined to be identified discussing private deliberations, Gonzales emphasized that it would be wrong to go over the line, but that America was at war, and it was necessary to 'lean forward.' (Gonzales has declined to comment.) "One by one, the lawyers went through five or six pressure techniques proposed by the CIA. They approved 'waterboarding,' dripping water onto a wet cloth over the suspect's face, which feels like drowning. But they nixed mock burials as too harsh."

Thomas and Hirsh write that so far, "Bush has floated above the fray, blithely declaring that the 'United States doesn't do torture,' without getting entangled in debates over torture lite."

But they also provide the first sign that Bush has gotten personally involved in fighting Senator John McCain's attempts to ban torture entirely.

"A White House official who did not wish to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter claims that Bush has personally reached out to McCain to seek a compromise. McCain told Newsweek that he had briefly spoken with the president by phone."

Poll Watch

More lousy numbers for Bush.

Marcus Mabry writes for Newsweek: "Only 36 percent of Americans approve of the job he is doing as president, and an astounding 68 percent of Americans are dissatisfied with the direction of the country -- the highest in Bush's presidency. But that's not the worst of it for the 43rd president of the United States, a leader who rode comfortably to reelection just a year ago. Half of all Americans now believe he's not 'honest and ethical.' " Fox News also has Bush's approval at 36.

The Associated Press , which has it at 37, lists reasons why people approve or disapprove of the way he's doing his job.

Top positives: Approve of Bush's work/agree with his policies; Approve of Bush/like him (because he is Christian, values etc.); Agree with Iraq/Afghanistan policy; Has improved national security; Has had to deal with a lot of issues.

Top negatives: Foreign affairs generally; Economy generally; Has not kept his promises/dishonest/misrepresentation of facts; Incompetent leader/not qualified to be president/don't like him.

Cheney Watch

Mike Allen writes in Time: "The signs, apparent to insiders for months, surfaced at a quick clip. Vice President Dick Cheney, once viewed as training wheels for a President who was a novice on the world stage, was becoming less essential. . . .

"Friends say Cheney is well aware that his unique bond with the President, while not broken, is diminished. 'He has become,' said a former aide still close to the White House, 'one adviser among many.' Renewing his relationship with a troubled President, the friends say, has become a more urgent mission for the 64-year-old Vice President than bolstering his own sagging public image. The President's poll ratings remain at a five-year low, and two of the big reasons are a discouraging war for which Cheney served as head hawk, and the indictment of Cheney's chief of staff in an investigation that sprang from a heavy-handed White House effort to discredit an annoying critic."

Rove Watch

Anne E. Kornblut writes in the New York Times: "The architect, it seems, is back.

"Hunkered down for almost all of October while a grand jury considered his fate, Karl Rove has rebounded as a visible presence at the White House over the last two weeks, according to administration officials and Republican colleagues. He is running meetings and pursuing candidates for the 2006 elections - and, associates say, devising long-term political plans that suggest he does not believe he will face future legal trouble despite the C.I.A. leak investigation in which he has been involved."

Alan Cooperman writes in The Washington Post on Saturday: "White House adviser Karl Rove, speaking in public for the first time since a prosecutor's report on the CIA leak case, received a standing ovation last night from a conservative legal society and passionately defended President Bush's effort to change the courts."

Here's the video from c-span.org.

Rove Out of Danger?

Murray Waas writes for the National Journal: "Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald delayed a decision on whether to seek criminal charges against Karl Rove in large part because he wants to determine whether Lewis (Scooter) Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, can provide information on Rove's role in the CIA leak case, according to attorneys involved in the investigation.

"Even if Fitzgerald concludes in the near future that he does not have sufficient evidence to charge Rove, the special prosecutor would not rule out bringing charges at a later date and would not finish his inquiry on Rove until he hears whatever information Libby might provide -- either incriminating or exculpatory -- on Rove's role, the sources said."

John D. McKinnon writes in the Wall Street Journal, however, that "some lawyers believe that with each passing day, the odds of further indictments are diminishing."

Libby Watch

Carol D. Leonnig and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post that, to his critics, vice presidential aide Scooter Libby's testimony "suggests an attempt to obscure Cheney's role, and possibly his legal culpability. The vice president is shown by the indictment to be aware of and interested in [Valerie] Plame and her CIA status long before her cover was blown. Even some White House aides privately wonder whether Libby was seeking to protect Cheney from political embarrassment. One of them noted with resignation, 'Obviously, the indictment speaks for itself.' "In addition, Cheney also advised Libby on a media strategy to counter Plame's husband, former ambassador Wilson, according to a person familiar with the case. . . .

"But to Libby's defenders, the timing of Libby's alleged lies supports his claims of innocence. They say it would be supremely illogical for an intelligent and highly experienced lawyer to mislead the FBI or grand jury if he knew the jurors had evidence that would expose his falsehoods. Libby, they say, is guilty of nothing more than a foggy memory and recollections that differ, however dramatically, from those of several witnesses in the nearly two-year-old investigation."

Asia Trip

Lots of different takes on Bush's trip to Asia, which starts today.

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Preparing for a possible bird flu pandemic. Boosting global free-trade talks and tackling sticky trade issues with China. Promoting democracy. Keeping U.S. partners on track in ridding North Korea of its nuclear weapons programs. President Bush embarks Monday on an eight-day Asian trip with a full plate.

"White House officials predicted that Bush's visits to Japan, South Korea, China and Mongolia would produce few tangible breakthroughs. Analysts said that was appropriate, since the trip's value lies in countering a drift in the region away from the United States."

Ron Hutcheson writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "President Bush heads to Asia Monday to reassert American leadership in a region increasingly dominated by China."

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "Just a few years ago, rival and allied nations alike fretted that a cocky Bush administration was attempting to impose its will around the world.

"Such swagger is harder to find these days."

Richard Wolffe and Christian Caryl write in Newsweek: "Aides say Bush is hoping to be a reconciler on this trip. The plan is to shake a lot of hands and show the cameras a friendly American face all the way from Japan to Mongolia."

Burt Herman writes for the Associated Press: "Even with Asian hostility toward some U.S. policies, President Bush's trip to the region this week is not expected to turn as acrimonious as his recent visit to Latin America."

Bryan Bender writes in the Boston Globe: "As President Bush prepares for his state visit to Beijing this week, tensions between the two defense establishments bubble just beneath the surface of diplomatic and economic cooperation."

Judy Keen has a country by country preview in USA Today.

Helen Thomas Bites Back

Helen Thomas writes in her Hearst Newspapers opinion column: "Presidential press secretary Scott McClellan says he can be trusted. But I don't think he should take a poll in the White House press room on that claim. He might lose.

"McClellan has lived up to his self-described role as an 'advocate' for President Bush.

"It's only recently that he admits to wearing another hat -- one that is obligatory, as he put it -- that requires him 'to make sure the American people are getting an accurate account of what is going on here in Washington.' That will be the day."

She adds: "I used to get phone calls from television viewers asking why I posed such tough questions to the powers that be. Now I get calls -- and I presume other members of the media do, too -- denouncing the 'softball' questions they hear during news briefings."

Tabloid Watch

Blogger Atrios posts the cover of the latest issue of the Globe supermarket tabloid, with its huge feature headline: "Bush's Secret Breakdown."

Democratic Underground has the first few paragraphs of the story.

Repetition

Anyone who sits through a lot of Bush's' speeches knows that they are hugely repetitious.

The Sadly No! blog illustrates this well, showing how big chunks of Friday's speech lifted almost in their entirety from a speech last month.

The Ultimate Bush Questions

Jason Kellett writes in McSweeneys with helpful advice regarding 'how the liberal media can finally ask the questions they're dying to ask.'

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