Bush, The Salesman

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 22, 2006 10:27 AM

When President Bush finished his news conference yesterday, most of the TV pundits were using words like "confident," "combative," "passionate" and, as Bob Schieffer put it, "George Bush sort of unleashed."

But some people I chatted with afterward thought it was painfully obvious that the president had done badly--even though he made about as strong as case for the war as he's ever made.

I think we've reached a point where much of the country has tuned out Bush. The people who like him and the people who dislike him aren't changing their minds. The people who support the war and the people who think it's a total disaster are dug into their positions.

Bush did find a useful foil at the presser in calling on liberal columnist Helen Thomas for the first time in three years. She attacked the war and essentially accused him of lying about why he took the country to war, allowing Bush not only to punch back but to show the country that he's up against a left-wing press corps.

Bush is in the unenviable position of saying much the same thing day after day, which is why he's not breaking through. The new tweaks are that he's taking real questions at his town hall meetings, instead of the pre-screened variety, and talking more candidly about the violence in Iraq, to show that he is not detached from the facts.

But the declarations by Bush, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld that things are getting better are contradicted, in most people's minds, by the pictures they see on television--and all the talk in the world about how the media overemphasize the negative isn't going to change that. With even former prime minister Ayad Allawi saying Iraq is in the midst of civil war, the administration's denials are falling flat.

Why, then, aren't we seeing the kind of massive protests that erupted during Vietnam?

Two words: the draft. Then, a growing portion of the country felt not just that the war was immoral but that their sons and daughters could be sent to die in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Now, with an all-volunteer army, the only Americans who are directly affected are those whose relatives and friends signed up for military duty. And since Bush has cut taxes, he has asked no sacrifice of his countrymen in prosecuting this war, which seems rather far away to many folks.

One other point: While LBJ gradually escalated our involvement in Vietnam after the Tonkin Gulf incident, Bush launched an invasion based heavily on a rationale that turned out not to be true. And that has made him even more of a lightning rod than Lyndon Johnson was.

I'm glad the president, after a record low number of news conferences in his first term, is meeting the press more. But he does not seem to be changing many minds.

"Mr. Bush in effect acknowledged that until he could convince increasingly skeptical Americans that the United States was winning the war, Iraq would overshadow everything he did," says the New York Times .

"Later, in response to a question about whether a day would come when there would be no more American forces in Iraq, he said that 'future presidents and future governments of Iraq' would make that decision.

"That statement was one of the few he has made that provides insight into his thinking about the duration of the American commitment in Iraq, and signaled that any withdrawal of troops would extend beyond his term in office . . .

"White House officials are hopeful that the communications offensive by Mr. Bush will stop the decline that has sunk his job approval ratings to the lowest levels of his presidency, but some military analysts said they were skeptical because he announced no new policies in his news conference or in his speeches."

The Chicago Tribune says: "As public confidence in the prospect of success for U.S. military forces in Iraq diminishes, President Bush is displaying increasing frustration with the gulf between Main Street America's perception of the conflict and his own unflinching optimism.

"As part of a renewed campaign to rebuild support for the war, the president is repeatedly pointing to the contrast between his own upbeat vision and images of a strife-torn Iraq portrayed on the powerful medium once known as 'the evening news,' but which has become a 24-hour running stream of television."

Says the Wall Street Journal: "Under pressure from worried Republicans in a congressional election year, Mr. Bush also sought to underscore his record of domestic achievements, including an improved economy, confirmation of two Supreme Court justices, an energy bill, reauthorization of the Patriot Act and a modest tort-reform measure. Mr. Bush didn't rule out the possibility he would bring in a senior adviser -- possibly a former lawmaker -- to help strengthen relations with the Hill."

Actually, he said he had no plans to do it right now, despite the media's obsession with forcing a staff shakeup. If he does appoint someone, is that really going to be more than a two-day story?

Josh Marshall : "His lies are so blatant that I must constantly check myself so as not to assume that he is simply delusional or has blocked out whole chains of events from the past."

Andrew Sullivan :

"It seems to me that the American public is rightly losing patience with this crew -- and that itself will affect the war. Patience is essential to pulling through. But is it at all reasonable to expect the American public to be patient with an arrogant, dismissive incompetent like Rumsfeld? There are limits to what human nature can accomplish. If the president wants the country to hang in there, he needs to replace his defense secretary - preferably with a tough-minded Democrat. If Iraq needs a national unity government to get through the next three years, then America needs a least a little bit of one itself. Over to you, Mr. Bush. Are you serious about winning this war? Or are you still winging it?"

Slate's John Dickerson says Bush is trying to show he's in touch:

"For months, White House officials reacted to bad news in Iraq by scheduling another Bush speech and blaming the media for relentless negativity. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney appear still to prefer this approach. But starting last fall, White House aides realized that the country would not follow a president they thought was clueless. As big and bad a wolf as the media may be, if the president didn't acknowledge some of what regular Americans saw on their television screens or read in their newspapers, he'd never be able to rebuild support for his administration and the Iraq war. People wouldn't bother to listen to his plans for fixing the problem, administration aides admitted to themselves, if they thought he didn't know what it was . . .

"For the last four years, George Bush has been ducking Helen Thomas at press conferences, worried that any question the veteran reporter might ask would be too biased. Today, he and his aides were banking on it. 'You're going to be sorry,' Thomas said after Bush picked her. He wasn't. She asked what his real motivation was for going to war, and Bush reiterated his view that the attacks of 9/11 changed his outlook making Saddam an intolerable threat and that the world is safer for his removal from power. The Bush team has recognized what their predecessors did earlier in their terms. Presidents can benefit from direct and even potentially loaded questions. Supporters rally against partisan questioners, and undecided listeners perk up, taking in even familiar talking points a new way."

Arianna Huffington uses the F-word:

"Before the president delivered his sunny-side up speech on Iraq, a senior White House official offered a preview: 'With this speech the president says 'let me tell you why I'm so positive.' " Hearing that, I expected the speech to be one of the shortest on record: 'I'm so positive because I'm a stone-cold fanatic. And God bless America.'

"It was nearly three years ago that I offered the only possible explanation for the ever-widening chasm between what the White House claims is true and what is actually true: we are being governed by a gang of out and out fanatics . . .

"This evidence-be-damned fanaticism has been front and center as the White House tries to put a positive spin on what the president called 'the beginning of the liberation of Iraq.' Which is kind of like saying that my wedding was the beginning of my divorce."

This Daily News headline can't exactly hurt the former first lady: "I'm Boss, Hil Tells Bill":

"After being surprised by her husband's role in the Dubai ports deal, Sen. Hillary Clinton has insisted that Bill Clinton give her 'final say' over what he says and does, well-placed sources said.

"The former President agreed to give his wife a veto to avoid his habit of making controversial headlines that could hurt her chances of returning to the White House, multiple sources told the Daily News."

Speaking of Hillary, she has lost Susan Sarandon , says the Washington Times:

"Susan Sarandon, longtime liberal maven and in talks to play peace activist Cindy Sheehan in a film, is irked by another liberal maven: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. The Hollywood actress doesn't think the New York Democrat lives up to her expectations. 'I find Hillary Clinton to be a great disappointment,' Miss Sarandon told More magazine, for publication today. 'She seems to be a very bright woman. I've met her. But she's lost her progressive following because of her caution and centrist approach. It bothers me when she voted for the war,' Miss Sarandon said."

The Dayton Daily News is fighting back against O'Reilly:

"Managers of the Dayton Daily News have received more than 1,000 e-mails from fans of Fox News talk show host Bill O'Reilly after O'Reilly's Web site and television program slammed the paper for an editorial that he says makes it 'the most friendly (newspaper) to child rapists' in America.

"The Dayton Daily News editorial, which ran Sunday, cautioned against those who have called for removing Judge John Connor of Franklin County Common Pleas Court, without a formal complaint or investigation, after Connor gave probation and house arrest instead of prison to a man convicted of sexual battery against two boys . . .

"Jeff Bruce, editor of the Dayton Daily News, defended the paper's editorial Tuesday and took O'Reilly to task for inflammatory journalism. 'We never defended Judge Connor's decision to sentence a child molester to a year of house arrest and five years' probation,' Bruce said Tuesday in a prepared statement." Hey, shouldn't the reporter interview his boss rather than accepting a statement?

" 'What we said is that if the judge deserves to be removed from office, then due process should be followed-- the same sort of due process that Bill O'Reilly relied upon when he was sued (for sexual harassment) and, ultimately, settled out of court.'

"O'Reilly was sued in 2004 by his former producer. When the suit was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, O'Reilly called the lawsuit and the media lashing he took for it 'a brutal ordeal' and thanked his listeners for having 'given me the benefit of a doubt when some in the media did not.'

"Bruce wondered why O'Reilly won't give Connor the same benefit of a doubt . . .

"O'Reilly, through a producer of his TV show, The O'Reilly Factor, said, 'Personal attacks launched on me disqualify the Dayton Daily News from any serious debate. We believe that Jeff Bruce is not an honest individual.' "

David Frum rejects the Condi-for-veep scenario:

"Maybe . . . Condoleezza Rice has the character and ideas to lead the Republican party to its next presidential victory. But if so, she should earn that leadership through the democratic test of the primary process, contending on an equal footing with the party's other would-be nominees.

"Installing one candidate who has never run for office in the vice presidency overtop all the party's other leadership contenders cuts short a necessary process of renewal, reinvention, and regeneration. It will buy a few days of positive publicity at the price of longer-term stagnation and ultimate failure and defeat.

"Worse, it will confirm a destructive internal tendency toward royalism in party affairs. The 2008 presidential nomination is not George Bush's prize to bestow."

The Post has a new conservative blog, called Red America . "This is a blog for the majority of Americans," writes former Bush aide Ben Domenech.

This has created an "uproar," says Editor & Publisher , although said uproar turns out to be a bunch of people complaining on Tom Edsall's online chat.

John Amato at Crooks and Liars says: "The Washington Post continues to become more and more a mouthpiece for the GOP by hiring a rightwing blogger."

I don't get it. One conservative blogger? It's not like The Post doesn't have a left-leaning blogger, or liberal columnists. Is the New York Times a GOP mouthpiece because it employs David Brooks and John Tierney? If people don't like what Domenech has to say, don't click on him. It's not like you can say "cancel my subscription!" since the Web site is free.

Newspapers, now seen as in perpetual crisis, were just too fat and happy for too long, says Columbia Journalism Review :

"How much did the condition of editorial monopoly quietly undermine the journalism?

"Competition is good, remember. It nourishes aggressive reporting and distinctive, creative approaches. With a lack of competition in the local news and information business, too many papers, even some of the more ambitious ones, allowed their voices and personalities to wither. Too many editorial pages toned it down and slid into the inoffensive and boring. Too few embarked on crusades. Corporate owners, too, encouraged a play-it-safe culture. Too many newspapers rounded off their ragged edges, but lost the spark. When the advertising and readership began to recede, so did resources, and those weak habits and attitudes began to reveal themselves like the fish on the beach before the tsunami.

"Whether editors used it well or wasted it, the golden age of monopoly is gone. Newspapers are in competition with everything now, and they have fewer troops to deploy. Editors know this. But it's not yet clear at some papers that they know it deeply enough to try to lift those troops to levels of creativity that this loss of a news monopoly requires, to help time-pressed reporters make sharper choices, and to remind them over and over that they have qualities that few bloggers or radio jabbermouths or cable talkers come close to supplying: a visceral knowledge of the turf and an ability to report deeply and write with both voice and authority, given time and a little encouragement."

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