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Would Bush Rather Be Fishing?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, May 8, 2006 3:03 PM

Is it possible that President Bush doesn't really enjoy his job?

Asked by a German tabloid to name the most wonderful moment of his presidency, Bush on Friday said it came while he was on vacation, fishing on his private lake.

Bush was obviously joking -- to a point. But the thing about Bush is that he has stock answers to all the expected questions. So it's the unpredictable ones where he's the most revealing.

Remember when he was asked to name his biggest mistake and what he'd learned from it -- and he couldn't name any? (He hasn't held a prime-time press conference since.)

So what to make of his response to the German question? Maybe it was just a little innocent clowning. But maybe it emerged from his own candid awareness that historians looking back at his presidency may see an obvious low point (or two or three), but no equally obvious high points.

Or maybe, at heart, he'd rather be fishing.

Here is the transcript of Bush's interview with Kai Diekmann of the pro-Bush, breast-baring German tabloid newspaper, Bild . As it happens, Bush also sheds more light on his delayed reaction on the morning of September 11, 2001.

"Q Three last very short questions. What was the most wonderful moment in your terms of being President so far, and what was the most awful moment?

" THE PRESIDENT: The most awful moment was September the 11th, 2001.

" Q The famous picture when somebody gave you the information?

" THE PRESIDENT: Yes, that. I think, like all of us, it took a while for the -- it was more than a moment. It was the event and the aftermath. On a situation like that, it takes a period to understand exactly what was going on. When somebody says, America is under attack, and -- you've got to fully understand what that meant. And the information coming was haphazard at best for a while. We weren't sure if the State Department got hit. I'd heard the White House had got attacked. Of course, I was worried that -- my family was here.

" And so I would say the toughest moment of all was after the whole reality sunk in and I was trying to help the nation understand what was going on, and at the same time, be empathetic for those who had lost lives.

" The best moment was -- you know, I've had a lot of great moments. I don't know, it's hard to characterize the great moments. They've all been busy moments, by the way. I would say the best moment was when I caught a seven-and-a-half pound large mouth bass on my lake. (Laughter.) "

Bass Fishing in Crawford

Bush's glee over his catch has a definite ring of truth for those of us who watch the president closely. Bush had part of his 1,600-acre estate in Crawford, Tex., dug out and flooded so he could go fishing at his doorstep, and he has taken obvious pride in the growth of the bass he introduced into the lake when they were just tiny "fingerlings."

Back in 2001, Jay Root of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram wrote that Bush stocked the lake with a special strain of largemouth bass from an Alabama fish hatchery. "Don Keller, co-owner of the hatchery and former biologist at the Alabama conservation agency, said the popular Florida strain grows big and fast, but is not always easy to catch. So he bred it with its northern cousin, which is much more aggressive and, hence, easier to hook."

In August 2001 , just a few months into his presidency, Bush bragged to reporters on a tour of his estate that he "didn't put any big bass in to begin with. And I've caught nearly a pound in size."

Two years later, in another walking tour with reporters, he returned to the topic close to his heart.

"Q Is this man-made, sir?

"THE PRESIDENT: Man-made.

"Q How many acres?

"THE PRESIDENT: About 11 acres lake, 17 foot deep. The deepest spot, I put 600 black bass in there a few years ago, and about 30,000 bait fish. And they're about two-and-a-half to three pounds now."

And it's worth noting that from the get-go, Bush was determined not to let work get too much in the way of his favorite pastime.

As Frank Bruni wrote in the New York Times, two days after Bush's first inauguration: "In a recent interview, when the subject turned to the bass in a lake on his ranch, a reporter remarked that he would probably not get to fish there very often.

" 'I bet I do,' Mr. Bush said. 'More than you think.' "

The Coverage and Reaction

Once Bush's fish story went public yesterday, the British press could barely contain itself. Luke Harding writes in the Guardian: "There have been many memorable moments in George Bush's career - invading Iraq, declaring the war 'accomplished', Hurricane Katrina. But the US president recalled that his greatest moment in office had come not on the field of battle but while out fishing."

Michael McAuliff writes in the New York Daily News: "Bush appeared to be joking about the catch, especially since a 7-plus pounder wouldn't wow any angler in the Lone Star state. A largemouth bass has to be more than 15 pounds to crack the top 50 biggest catches, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

"But his answer was a whopper for political observers who have watched his administration stumble over the past year with the war in Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, a CIA leak probe, the sale of port terminals to Dubai and other missteps - all of which have dragged his approval ratings into the low 30% range."

Bush's fish tale is a bit reminiscent of the window into Bush's soul that came during the presidential debates with John Kerry. Facing a vigorous public challenge, Bush appeared peevish and bored. Which is the 'Real' Bush? I asked in my October 2004 column. During that first debate, Bush used the term "hard work" 11 times.

Not surprisingly, the liberal blogosphere has taken the bait.

Blogger Digby writes: "There are, [in my opinion], only three ways to understand this comment, assuming it's true. Quite possibly it's the pathetic whine of a deeply, perhaps clinically, depressed man who believes himself a total failure. Or maybe this is a man so uninterested in his job, let alone in serving his country, that he has no business whatsoever being president. Or perhaps this is simply an arrogant bastard who holds in utter contempt anyone who dares to ask him a question, so he responds with the stupidest thing he can say. (Obviously, nothing precludes all three or some combination of two.)"

Steve Benen writes: "Oddly enough, this was a softball question. It was a slow, hanging curve, giving Bush a chance to highlight anything he wanted -- his joy at watching the Saddam statue fall, signing one of his tax-cut measures into law, one of his inaugural addresses, a productive meeting with Tony Blair or another head of state, something of substance. Instead, the moment that comes to mind is a 7 1/2-pound largemouth bass."

Jonathan Singer writes in MyDD: "While there is quite a bit of talk of the worst things George W. Bush has done as resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue -- authorizing domestic wiretapping without court oversight; launching a war against Iraq prematurely and without sufficient planning; trying to privatize Social Security; destroying the federal budget; you name it -- scant attention has been devoted on this side of the aisle to George W. Bush's better moments."

The Hayden Nomination

Dafna Linzer and Fred Barbash write on washingtonpost.com: "President Bush named Gen. Michael V. Hayden as CIA director today in the face of heavy criticism from Republicans as well as Democrats. . . .

"Anticipating the fight ahead, the administration began defending the appointment even before it was made. Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, said on NBC's 'Today' show and on ABC's 'Good Morning America' today that Hayden is a 'change agent,' the 'best person' for the job, 'the right man at the right time.'"

Here's the text of Bush's announcement this morning.

Hayden's nomination came on the heels of Porter Goss's abrupt resignation on Friday.

Linzer wrote in Monday's Post: "The Republican chairmen of the House and Senate intelligence panels raised serious concerns about Gen. Michael V. Hayden on the eve of his expected nomination today as CIA director, with Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.) calling him 'the wrong man at the wrong place at the wrong time.'"

The central concern appears to be about an active duty officer leading the nation's civilian intelligence agency.

The Mystery of Goss

So why did Goss resign (and so abruptly)? And what's the core rationale behind the Hayden nomination? Amid the blizzard of rhetoric and unattributed, contradictory backstories from the White House, these questions remain very much unanswered, and therefore the legitimate object of speculation.

For instance, was Goss's departure in any way related to an ongoing federal corruption investigation?

And was the White House unhappy with Goss because he overpoliticized the CIA -- or because he didn't politicize it enough?

Bush's praise for Goss on announcing his departure was less than enthusiastic. "Porter's tenure at the CIA was one of transition," Bush said. "He's led ably."

In an NBC interview , Vice President Cheney was even more lackluster. "He didn't have to take the job. He took it on at a very difficult time, and I think he's done a reasonably good job at it, too."

Richard Sisk and James Gordon Meek write in the New York Daily News: "CIA Director Porter Goss abruptly resigned yesterday amid allegations that he and a top aide may have attended Watergate poker parties where bribes and prostitutes were provided to a corrupt congressman."

A scurrilous rumor? Well, Goss isn't saying one way or the other.

Elaine Quijano reported for CNN on Saturday that "early this morning, outside his home, he told CNN producers, Fran Lewin and CNN photojournalist, Larry Langley, quote, 'it's just one of those mysteries.'

"(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

"QUESTION: Can you tell us why you're leaving?

"GOSS: I think that got played pretty well yesterday, thank you.

"QUESTION: No, nobody knows why.

"GOSS: Well, it's just one of those mysteries.

"QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) mystery, huh?

"GOSS: I've got some things to do."

Hayden and Domestic Spying

Peter Baker and Dafna Linzer write in The Washington Post: "The nomination of Gen. Michael V. Hayden to take over the CIA would trigger a fresh battle over the secret warrantless surveillance program he oversaw on behalf of President Bush, a debate that could help shape the contours of the fall midterm congressional elections, officials in both parties said yesterday. . . .

"Rather than steer away from a Hayden nomination because of the controversy, the White House seems ready for a new fight over it, convinced that it has public support and that Democrats opposing Hayden's confirmation would risk looking weak on terrorism."

Ever ever since December, Hayden has been the public face of Bush's secret domestic spying program.

Bush has said that Hayden designed the program. Hayden has publicly asserted, without offering any evidence, that the circumventing of traditional eavesdropping rules was necessary, that such a program could have prevented the September 11 attacks had it been in place then, and that the disclosure of the program has harmed national security.

Whenever Bush or his aides have been questioned about the program, they cite Hayden.

Has the disclosure of the program harmed national security? Objectively, it's hard to see how it matters to terrorists if their phone calls are being tapped with or without warrants -- although it does matter to people who care about civil liberties.

Hayden and the Fourth Amendment

One thing we do know is that Hayden didn't only misinterpret the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution during a January speech at the National Press Club; he sanctimoniously tried to correct a reporter who got it right.

Here's the Fourth Amendment : "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

When Jonathan Landay of Knight Ridder Newspapers properly characterized it, Hayden insisted, incorrectly, that that requirement for search and seizure was reasonableness, rather than probable cause.

Said Hayden: "Just to be very clear -- and believe me, if there's any amendment to the Constitution that employees of the National Security Agency are familiar with, it's the Fourth. And it is a reasonableness standard in the Fourth Amendment. And so what you've raised to me -- and I'm not a lawyer, and don't want to become one -- what you've raised to me is, in terms of quoting the Fourth Amendment, is an issue of the Constitution. The constitutional standard is 'reasonable.' And we believe -- I am convinced that we are lawful because what it is we're doing is reasonable."

Hayden and the War on Terror

If in fact Hayden's nomination is motivated in part by a desire to get people talking about the danger of terrorism again, there are a few other signs that this is the emerging White House strategy as well.

Here's video of a largely overlooked interview Bush had with conservative CNBC host Lawrence Kudlow on Friday.

Kudlow asked Bush to comment on the new movie, "United 93," about the September 11 uprising on a United Airlines plane before it crashed in a Pennsylvania field.

Bush said he hadn't seen the movie, but said he agreed with the description of David Beamer , whose son Todd died in the crash, and who recently called the uprising the "first successful counterattack in our homeland in this new global war--World War III."

Said Bush: "I believe that. I believe that. I believe that it was the first counter-attack to World War III."

This was not the first time Bush has described the war on terror as World War III. As I wrote in my June 29 column , he publicly endorsed Osama bin Laden's assertion that "This Third World War is raging" in Iraq.

That's pretty fiery rhetoric -- especially considering that the term "World War III" is generally reserved for the sort of avoid-at-all-costs nuclear catastrophe that would presumably destroy the world.

In fact, Bush had lots of curious things to say about war this weekend.

In the Kudlow interview, Bush continued, somewhat unintelligibly: "War is terrible. But it, war brings out, you know, in some ways it it it it touches the core of Americans who volunteer to go in to combat to protect their, their souls. It touches something unique I think about our country that there are people who in the face of danger say 'I want to help. I want to, I want to save lives. I want to, uh, serve my country.' And, um, we see that here. We've seen that throughout our nation's history. And we're seeing it here in the 21st century."

And in the Bild interview, Bush reprised the theme: "For some people around the world, September the 11th was just a terrible moment. For me, and a lot of other people in America, September the 11th was a change of attitude; it was a call to arms in the sense that this is the first -- for America -- the first battle of the war in the 21st century."

And then Bush implied that Americans are somehow less opposed to war than Germans.

" Q Taking a look at the past, do the Americans feel that the Germans abandoned them when they went to war with Saddam Hussein?

" THE PRESIDENT: I've come to realize that the nature of the German people are such that war is very abhorrent, that Germany is a country now that is -- no matter where they sit on the political spectrum, Germans are -- just don't like war. And I can understand that. There's a generation of people who had their lives torn about because of a terrible war."

Rove in Trouble?

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "Special Counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald is wrapping up his investigation into White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove's role in the CIA leak case by weighing this central question:

"Did Rove, who was deeply involved in defending President Bush's use of prewar intelligence about Iraq, lie about a key conversation with a reporter that was aimed at rebutting a tough White House critic? . . .

"Rove expects to learn as soon as this month if he will be indicted -- or publicly cleared of wrongdoing -- for making false statements in the CIA leak case, according to sources close to the presidential adviser."

Rove's Strategery

Meanwhile, Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "The prospect of the administration spending its last two years being grilled by angry Democrats under the heat of partisan spotlights has added urgency to the efforts by Karl Rove and Mr. Bush's political team to hang on to the Republican majorities in Congress.

"Newly shorn of the daily policymaking duties he took on after the 2004 campaign and now refocused on his role as Mr. Bush's chief strategist, Mr. Rove is facing an increasingly difficult climate for Republicans, and an increasingly assertive Democratic Party."

Scooter Libby Watch

Charles Lane writes in Saturday's Washington Post: "A federal judge dealt a setback to I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby's defense in the CIA leak case yesterday, telling the former vice presidential aide's attorneys that he is likely to deny their request for a vast trove of government documents."

Abramoff Watch

John Solomon writes for the Associated Press about some "e-mails showing Rep. Tom DeLay's office knew lobbyist Jack Abramoff had arranged the financing for the GOP leader's controversial European golfing trip in 2000 and was concerned 'if someone starts asking questions.' "

Among the e-mails: some back and forth between Abramoff's team and DeLay's office about low-balling cost figures. And one of the Abramoff players? None other than Susan Ralston, who now works at the White House for Rove.

McClellan: Out Like a Liar

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "White House press secretary Scott McClellan's final turn at the lectern yesterday proved to be something like a greatest hits album. For 45 minutes, he trotted out all the old standbys, then gave a jaunty wave and bid farewell."

Yes, but it's worth noting one particular assertion by McClellan on his last day that was incredible, even by his standards.

Halfway through the briefing , he suddenly "remembered" that Goss was being sacked that afternoon.

"MR. McCLELLAN: Can I -- one thing I forgot to mention at the top -- and I know this will stir some interest, but the President -- I do need to back up, it just popped back in my head and I apologize for not mentioning it at the top -- at 1:45 p.m., the President does have a pool coverage announcement. That will be in the Oval Office, so the pool will need to assemble after this briefing."

John Dickerson writes in Slate: " 'We're losing our piñata,' said one correspondent, 'and we never got any candy.' "

The Fat Lady Sings?

Eric Pianin and Chris Cillizza write in The Washington Post: "The recent White House shake-up was an attempt to jump-start the administration and boost President Bush's rock-bottom approval ratings, but have those efforts come too late to salvage the presidency? A prominent GOP pollster thinks that may be the case."

More From Bild

It really was an amazing interview Bush had with Bild.

After talking about his rug (see Peter Baker 's classic story from the Post in March) and even before getting a single question, Bush started venting.

"The interesting thing about Washington is that they want me to change -- they being the -- and I'm not changing, you know. You can't make decisions if you don't know who you are, and you flip around with the politics. You've got to stay strong in what you believe and optimistic about that you'll get good results.

"And so --the other thing I want you to know about me is that no matter how pressurized it may seem, I'm not changing what I believe. . . . I'm not changing. I don't care whether they like me at the cocktail parties, or not. I want to be able to leave this office with my integrity intact."

And he referred to the Oval Office as "a shrine to democracy. And we treat it that way. When people walk in here, they -- they don't come in here in bathing suits and flip-flops. They come in here dressed like they'd come to a shrine."

The Other German Interview

Noah Barkin writes for Reuters: "President George W. Bush said he would like to close the U.S.-run prison at Guantanamo Bay -- a step urged by several U.S. allies -- but was awaiting a Supreme Court ruling on how suspects held there might be tried."

That news came during Bush's interview with ARD German television , which included many tough questions.

A Cheney Interview

Cheney sat down with Kelly O'Donnell of NBC News in Croatia. Here's the transcript ; here are some video excerpts .

Agence France Presse reports: "Was it a slip of the tongue, a backhanded payback for callous jokes about him, or a sign of a deeper chill in relations between two most powerful men in the United States? . . .

"During an interview with NBC News, Cheney was asked to comment on persistent rumors that he may retire following the November congressional election, allowing the president to appoint his heir apparent. . . .

"But the vice president was skeptical.

" 'Well, I'm not sure it would be an advantage,' he said with a coy smile."

My conclusion from the interview is that even if Bush wanted Cheney out, he ain't going.

"Q You have said you will not seek the presidency. You will complete your term. When you consider what it might mean for the Republican Party, would there be any benefit if you were to retire, to allow the President to choose someone else who might then have an advantage in 2008?

" THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, I'm not sure it would be an advantage. But that's not my concern. I, in effect, took on the obligation when I put my name on the ballot at the request of the President -- both in 2000 and again in 2004 -- that if elected to serve out my term, I feel I've got a contract, if you will, with the American people, a constitutionally elected officer, my term ends in January of 2009, and barring some unforeseen disaster, that's what I'll do. "

When in Doubt, Get a Puppy

Paul Bedard writes for U.S. News about how two White House staffers secretly agreed to rescue two of the 17 abandoned puppies Bush was shown during his trip to Mississippi last week.

"On his visit, Bush told Hands On coordinator Erika Putinsky that he sympathized with families who lost dogs in Katrina. 'He thought about his dog, Barney, and how upset he would have been if he lost his dog,' she recalls. He snuggled a few pups. She said he was taking two home. He said no--unaware of the secret rescue mission. That was the cue for the two staffers to seize their dogs, Biloxi and Scrappy. First stop, Air Force One, where a now informed and supportive president ignored the howls. Then came the motorcade and, finally, the White House, where they were unveiled the next day. Aides swooned. Some pledged to rescue more when Bush visits the area again. 'It made the White House a very happy place,' says an insider."

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