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Meet the 'Real Bush'

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, April 3, 2006 12:48 PM

So "let Bush be Bush" appears to be the new rallying cry at the White House. But if this is the "real" President Bush then who has the answers to our questions? Because folksy bantering Bush is as fundamentally unforthcoming as his old scripted self.

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "As he takes to the road to salvage his presidency, Bush is letting down his guard and playing up his anti-intellectual, regular-guy image. Where he spent last year in rehearsed forums with select supporters, these days he is more frequently throwing aside the script and opening himself to questions from audiences that are not prescreened. These sessions have put a sometimes playful, sometimes awkward side back on display after years of trying to keep it under control to appear more presidential.

"Call it the let-Bush-be-Bush strategy. The result is a looser president, less serious at times, even at times when humor might seem out of place. Aides used to dread such settings, worried about gaffes or the way Bush might come across in spontaneous exchanges. But with his poll numbers somewhere south of the border, they concluded that Bush handles back-and-forth better than he once did -- and that they have little left to lose."

But as Baker points out: "To many critics, such forums still feel contrived, and the fratboy towel-snapping humor unbecoming. Nor does the new format mean Bush always answers questions as directly as inquisitors might like."

That's an understatement. As I wrote in last Thursday's column , Bush's typical response is a long, rambling amalgamation of familiar talking points only generally related to what he was asked.

Straight Talk -- or Not?

Michael Reagan , son of the former president, writes in his syndicated column that the nation is seeing "the real George W. Bush emerge . . . being exactly what he knows himself to be: a no-nonsense chief executive who is sure of himself, knows his job, knows how to do it, and doesn't care a whit if the media elite and the desperate Dems don't like it.

"This is Bush being Bush -- and he must keep being Bush. The desperate Dems will hate it, the liberal media will hate [it] and the American people will eat it up. As I wrote, they like a fighter. That's what they are seeing now."

Blogger Teresa Nielsen Hayden writes: "Bush is to public discourse as Three Card Monte is to card game. . . .

"Bush doesn't really talk to us. When it's advantageous or required, he'll go through the motions of talking to us; but that's all. What it 'means' is that he either has to do it, like the State of the Union speech; or he wants something from us, like votes; or he's tossing out a string of words calculated to endear him to some fraction of the citizenry, like 'manned missions to Mars' or 'Constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage.' He doesn't care what he's saying, and afterward he doesn't consider himself bound by what he's said."

Moves Afoot?

Suzanne Malveaux reports for CNN: "Presidential press secretary Scott McClellan and Treasury Secretary John Snow could be next in a shake-up in the Bush administration, according to White House and GOP sources.

"The possible departure of both men could be among 'several senior-level staff' announcements to come within the next couple of weeks, said former White House staff members, GOP strategists and administration officials. . . .

"Under one scenario, Dan Bartlett, counselor to the president, would replace McClellan, Republican officials said.

"But other GOP strategists said they believe McClellan's position is secure because of his close relationship with President Bush going back to Texas. McClellan was a communications aide to the president when he was governor of the Lone Star state."

Peter Baker and Jim VandeHei wrote in Saturday's Washington Post: "The White House is planning additional staff changes that could come as early as next week as part of a broader effort to repair relations with Congress and revive the Bush presidency, according to several Republicans familiar with the emerging strategy.

"Joshua B. Bolten, who takes over April 15 as White House chief of staff, is developing a proposal to overhaul West Wing operations with the twin aims of bringing more voices into the policymaking process and avoiding staff breakdowns such as the slow response to the Hurricane Katrina disaster. . . .

"Bolten is focused on 'making sure there's clear lines of authority and responsibility on issues' and 'making sure the president is provided with stimulating debate on the big issues,' said a senior White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid upstaging Bolten. 'He has a very open mind about looking outside the family.'

"That by itself could indicate a significant shift for a White House known for a tight -- critics say insular -- circle that often does not seem open to outsiders or their advice."

Among the possible departures Baker and VandeHei mention: White House Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin and communications director Nicolle Wallace.

Mike Allen writes in Time: "Bush, who retired to his Texas ranch for the weekend after a summit in Cancún, did not want it to appear that inside-the-Beltway carping had sparked a staff shuffle. Now it can be attributed to Bolten, who will add some meat to an election-year agenda that has disappointed even some of the President's most fervent supporters. Speaking of Bush's team, a Bolten friend said, 'Josh thinks they need to communicate better, and need something better to communicate.' "

The Media's Role

Media critic Howard Kurtz , on his CNN show on Sunday, pursued his theory that the press is actively pushing for these changes.

"KURTZ: Ed Henry, this drumbeat of questions about a staff shakeup, who put the press in charge of White House personnel policy?

"ED HENRY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I don't think anyone did. I think it was really the press more really reacting to the fact that there are a lot of conservatives in the president's own party who are saying, 'Look, there need to be some changes.' They're very frustrated with the president's low poll ratings. I think it's more maybe some people shooting the messenger in the media, because the media was delivering that message to the White House, but the fact is people in the president's own party wanted this change and want more changes."

Well, surely Wall Street Journal opinion columnist John Fund would go along.

"KURTZ: John Fund, when Andy Card was -- stepped down as chief of staff, replaced by Josh Bolten, some of the newspaper coverage, 'New York Times' called it a step unlikely to satisfy calls with the Republican Party for greater -- for fresh thinking. 'Philadelphia Inquirer' said Bush is no Reagan when it comes to shakeups. 'Boston Globe' fell far short of what many in Washington had anticipated. Sounds like the press still wasn't satisfied.

"FUND: Well, again, the press was reporting a lot of the leaks they're getting from inside the White House: people not satisfied there."

Bolten's Challenge

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's next chief of staff is the new broom in the White House and his task is clear: Do some housecleaning or, at least, raise some dust. . . .

"If Bush wanted an overhaul, he would have chosen someone other than Bolten, who is much like Andy Card, his quiet-spoken predecessor. Bolten is seen as reorganizing enough to re-energize the staff and give the perception the changes are more than symbolic. . . .

"Cheney is the real chief of staff in the White House, said Paul Light, presidential historian at New York University. 'I think his first question should be, 'How do I get Dick Cheney to return my phone calls?' "

Edmund L. Andrews writes in the New York Times: "In almost three years as Mr. Bush's budget chief, Mr. Bolten showed a knack for pushing the White House's financial agenda without alienating Republicans on Capitol Hill. As chief of staff starting in mid-April, he will have to employ that skill on a broader basis as he tries to reunify Republicans behind the administration and keep Mr. Bush's presidency from sinking into lame-duck status."

Alexis Simendinger writes for the National Journal that Bolten's considerable challenge is "to revive a White House that is built on Bush's personality and interests without necessarily compensating for the inevitable voids.

"One White House aide observed recently that whether it's habit or hubris, Bush prefers to state rather than debate. 'I hear him say it all the time: "This is what you need to understand," instead of asking, "What do you think I need to understand?" '

"Lawmakers of both parties and their aides on Capitol Hill tell reporters privately that they assume the dismissive treatment they get from Bush's team is learned from Bush himself."

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service that "at the highest levels of the administration, there is not a hint of doubt about whether it has the right policies in place.

" 'Sprinting to the finish line' is the phrase tossed around in the building as the Bush team, with just under three years to go, vows unwavering allegiance to the policies and priorities of a president who doesn't do doubt, at least not publicly."

It's the Credibility, Stupid

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "From Iraq to deficits, from immigration to port security, some of the most pointed criticism leveled at President Bush is coming from within his own party. Republicans these days are almost sounding like perennially divided Democrats.

"The rising GOP angst stems from Bush's deep slump in the polls and the growing unpopularity of the Iraq war.

"But it also reflects a political reawakening as Republicans follow their own political interests in this midterm election year and as would-be 2008 presidential contenders seek ways to set themselves apart -- from each other and from Bush.

" 'It's open season on him. George Bush has lost trust on too many issues,' said presidential historian Thomas E. Cronin of Colorado College. 'We saw it happen with Johnson, we saw it with Nixon. And now, sadly, we're seeing it with Bush.' "

Censure Watch

David D. Kirkpatrick writes in the New York Times: "The Senate Judiciary Committee opened a bitter if lopsided debate on Friday over whether Congress should censure President Bush for his domestic eavesdropping program. . . .

"Five Republicans at the hearing took turns attacking the idea as a reckless stunt that could embolden terrorists. Just two Democrats showed up to defend it, arguing that Congress needed to rein in the White House's expansive view of presidential power. The Democrats' star witness was John W. Dean, the former counsel to President Richard M. Nixon who divulged many of the details in the Watergate scandal.

"Senator Russell D. Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who proposed the censure motion and is considering a 2008 presidential run, argued that the Bush administration's insistence that it needed no Congressional approval for its wiretapping program implied that 'we no longer have a constitutional system consisting of three co-equal branches of government; we have a monarchy.' . . .

"Several Republicans argued that whatever the legal status of the spying program, it did not deserve punishment because, unlike Nixon, Mr. Bush had acted in good faith."

Z. Byron Wolf reported for ABC News on Friday: "The number of Democrats publicly supporting censure climbed today, with Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, coming out in favor of Feingold's resolution.

" 'I have no hesitation in condemning the president for secretly and systematically violating the laws of the United States of America,' Leahy said today in his opening statement. 'I have no doubt that such a conclusion will be history's verdict. History will evaluate how diligently the Republican-controlled Congress performed the oversight duties envisioned by the founders. As of this moment, history's judgment of the diligence and resolve of the Republican-controlled Congress is unlikely to be kind.'

"But with only Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa joining them so far, the list still totals just four."

Gail Russell Chaddock writes for the Christian Science Monitor: "Despite the Senate's cool response to Sen. Russell Feingold's calls to censure the president over his unilateral authorization of domestic surveillance, the issue of executive power worries lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, especially for a war with no end in sight. . . .

"Oversight appears to be the Democrats' leading idea heading into campaign season. 'Because the Republican-controlled Congress has not conducted real oversight, and because the attempts this committee has made at oversight have been stonewalled by the administration, we do not know the extent of the administration's domestic spying activities,' said Senator Leahy at Friday's hearing. . . .

"In one dramatic moment at the hearing, John Dean, former White House counsel in the Nixon administration, called the Bush team's expansion of presidential powers 'even more serious' than that of the Nixon years. 'I can tell you, from the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, that [presidents] take note of that when they're not being called to the mat,' he said. 'They push the envelope as far as they can.' "

Behind the Indian Nuclear Deal

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "Beyond the invasion of Iraq, few of Bush's decisions have as much potential to shake the international order than his deal with India, supporters and opponents agree. The debate over the deal has pitted against each other two powerful national security goals -- the desire to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and the desire to counter the rise of China, in this case by accelerating New Delhi's ascent as a global power. . . .

"The story behind the agreement also sheds light on how foreign policy is conducted in Bush's second term. For an administration frequently criticized for not being nimble, the India deal highlights the flexibility of Rice's foreign-policy team, which has also shifted policies toward Europe, on Iran and other areas in the past year. It demonstrates how, in contrast to the first term, foreign policy is largely driven by Rice and a close circle of advisers, not the White House staff.

"But the India deal also shows the drawbacks of this approach, critics say. The agreement is in trouble partly because -- in what some critics say is an echo of the Iraq invasion -- there was little consultation with Congress or within the foreign-affairs bureaucracy before it was announced. Last month in New Delhi, Bush and Singh reached agreement on how India will implement the deal. But nuclear specialists in the U.S. government say their concerns about weapons proliferation also were overridden in final talks."

What Intelligence Oversight?

Andrew Zajac writes in the Chicago Tribune: "When a privacy-rights group requested records to show how many times a secretive presidential oversight board had asked the Justice Department to investigate possible violations of intelligence-gathering laws since 2001, the answer that came back last month was as simple as it was startling.

"Zero."

Afraid of the Home Team Crowd?

Frederic J. Frommer writes for the Associated Press: "For most of the last century, when Washington was home to a baseball team known as the Senators, presidents typically took center stage on opening day. . . .

"When the capital got a team (the Washington Nationals of the National League) back last year, President Bush resumed the tradition, taking the pitcher's mound at RFK Stadium.

"This season, the president is throwing the first pitch at the Reds' opener Monday in Cincinnati. The White House has not said whether Bush will do the honors at the Nationals' home opener April 11."

Joe Kay writes for the Associated Press: "A personal connection is bringing him to Cincinnati.

"Local produce magnate Bob Castellini bought control of the Reds last January. Castellini was part of Bush's ownership group with the Texas Rangers, and invited him to attend his first opener as the Reds owner."

Twins in the Running

Shawn Fenner writes in the Richmond Times-Dispatch about two incognito runners in this weekend's Monument Avenue 10K footrace in Richmond.

"President Bush's twin daughters -- Jenna and Barbara, 24, participated in Saturday's seventh annual event. The duo ran under aliases for security reasons. . . .

"The twins, who completed the race in under 55:00, were escorted throughout the race by Secret Service agents."

Here's the list of women finishers , aged 20-24. Can anyone identify their aliases?

Crawford: Ain't What It Used To Be?

Dan Genz writes in the Waco Tribune-Herald: "President Bush calls the 1,600-acre ranch he owns outside Crawford with his wife, Laura, 'our little slice of heaven,' but some experts question whether anti-war demonstrators are making the Western White House a less attractive getaway. . . .

"Waco Police Chief Alberto Melis said Bush has returned noticeably less often since the hurricanes struck last August and September, with fewer visiting dignitaries. He also said he was told Bush is 'not coming' to Crawford for the Easter holiday weekend April 16, when he has annually gathered with his family there."

MSNBC's Bush-Basher

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "Night after night, President Bush is being kicked, punched, slapped, poked, stomped and otherwise disrespected in one small corner of the cable television world.

"And Keith Olbermann doesn't deny it has been good for ratings."

MSNBC President Rick Kaplan "says Olbermann is 'incredibly aggressive' toward anyone in power: 'In the same way that people who think the president needs to be supported more have turned to Fox, a lot of people who think the president needs to be taken on more have found a friendly voice in 'Countdown.' "

Roses for Helen Thomas

Albert Eisele write in The Hill: "The roses kept coming - and coming - and coming - to the Hearst Newspapers office in downtown Washington on Thursday, until they filled a large conference room to overflowing.

"By the time the Federal Express delivery was complete, there were 108 dozen roses, nearly 1,300 in every color. They were the result of an e-mail campaign to show support for Hearst columnist Helen Thomas after she grilled President Bush about his Iraq policy at last week's White House news conference. . . .

"Asked about Bush's response to her pointed question about his Iraq policy, she said, 'He could not answer my question. He kept referring to Afghanistan. He never articulated the reasons we're in Iraq. I don't think there's any justification for an unprovoked war against somebody who did nothing against us.' "

There's more on the Democratic Underground Web site.

Cartoon Watch

Doonesbury , Stuart Carlson , Tony Auth , Mike Luckovich , Tony Auth , Ann Telnaes .

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