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No New Contrition

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, May 26, 2006 12:51 PM

Reading and watching the coverage of President Bush's joint news conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair last night, you could be forgiven for concluding that Bush had suddenly started acknowledging the error of his ways.

But you would be wrong.

Bush expressed regrets last night for some of the cowboy rhetoric of his first term, and he acknowledged that the horrific prison abuse at Abu Ghraib was a big mistake.

But he wasn't really conceding much. In the former case, he was expressing regret about style, not substance; and in the latter case, the only harm he acknowledged was to America's reputation -- while taking no responsibility for any role he might have had in creating the conditions in which such atrocities could take place.

And even more to the point, none of this was new. Reporters describing this as some sort of Bushian sea change seemed to be suffering from self-imposed amnesia.

Bush first acknowledged regrets about his most outlandish swaggering almost a year and a half ago, in an interview that may have been disregarded by many reporters simply because it wasn't on television -- which of course is no excuse.

See my January 14, 2005 column: Second Thoughts About 'Bring 'em On' . As I wrote at the time: "Calling it 'a confession, a regret, something,' President Bush acknowledged in a round-table interview with regional newspapers yesterday that he has had second thoughts about two of his more swaggering comments from the first term, including his notorious utterance: 'Bring 'em on.'"

Here's what Bush said then: "It kind of, some interpreted it to be defiance in the face of danger. That certainly wasn't the case. Or, you know, 'dead or alive' in referring to Osama bin Laden at the Pentagon. I can remember getting back to the White House, and Laura said, 'What did you do that for?'"

And Bush has several times before addressed Abu Ghraib the same way he did last night: Expressing regret without responsibility. See, for instance, my May 7, 2004 column: About That Apology .

Last night, what got the most attention from reporters was Bush's answer to a perennial question, this time from a British journalist:

"Mr. President, you spoke about missteps and mistakes in Iraq. Could I ask both of you which missteps and mistakes of your own you most regret?"

Bush responded wearily: "Sounds like kind of a familiar refrain here." Back in his last prime-time news conference -- in April 2004 -- he famously was unable to come up with a single mistake, or lesson learned.

Last night, he answered: "Saying 'bring it on,' kind of tough talk, you know, that sent the wrong signal to people. I learned some lessons about expressing myself maybe in a little more sophisticated manner -- you know, 'wanted dead or alive,' that kind of talk. I think in certain parts of the world it was misinterpreted, and so I learned from that. And I think the biggest mistake that's happened so far, at least from our country's involvement in Iraq is Abu Ghraib. We've been paying for that for a long period of time. And it's -- unlike Iraq, however, under Saddam, the people who committed those acts were brought to justice. They've been given a fair trial and tried and convicted.' "

Several reporters saw Bush's answer as potentially the dawn of a new era. David E. Sanger and Jim Rutenberg , for instance, wrote in the New York Times: "For those who trace Mr. Bush's own reluctance to acknowledge errors in Iraq, his statements on Thursday night seemed to mark a crossing of a major threshold."

But for those who remember that Bush has said all this before, there is no reason to see this as a sign that the president is suddenly becoming in any way more reality-based in his views of Iraq -- past, present or future.

Bring 'Em On

It was in a July 2, 2003, exchange with reporters, just as the insurgency was starting to inflict serious casualties on American troops, that Bush said: "There are some who feel like -- that the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is, bring 'em on. We've got the force necessary to deal with the security situation." Here's that text .

Most of the criticism, then and since, has centered not so much on Bush's blustery language as the underlying message. Bush was talking tough when other people's lives were at stake, not his. Many members of the military saw it as a taunt that invited more attacks on U.S. soldiers. And most significantly, Bush was completely underestimating what was still ahead: Well over 2,000 American soldiers have been killed in Iraq since then, with no end in sight.

But the only problem Bush acknowledged with his "tough talk" last night was that "in certain parts of the world" it was "misinterpreted" -- and that he should be "expressing myself maybe in a little more sophisticated manner." There was no regret for his fundamental misunderstanding of the costs to come.

Dead or Alive

And it was on Sept. 17, 2001, during a short exchange with reporters at the Pentagon, that Bush was asked if he wanted al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden dead. "I want justice. There's an old poster out west, as I recall, that said, 'Wanted: Dead or Alive,' " Bush said. Here's that text .

More than four and a half years later, Bin Laden, of course, has still not been captured in either condition.

About Those Missteps

Bush did also vaguely refer last night to "setbacks and missteps" in Iraq -- but then he described those missteps as small-bore, purely tactical errors, related to the training of Iraqi security forces and reconstruction efforts.

In fact, it was only Blair who acknowledged a serious policy error -- though it was not his own. He said that "in retrospect" de-Baathification -- which resulted in the dismantling of Iraq's existing military and government structure -- was a mistake. That decision was made by top Pentagon and White House officials, over objections from many other U.S. civilian and military officials.

None of this, of course, puts either leader anywhere near mainstream American opinion. According to the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll , almost 60 percent of Americans think going to war in Iraq was -- fundamentally -- a mistake.

Quite to the contrary, the main intention of Bush's press conference was to have Blair endorse Bush's insistence that it was all worthwhile, and to show that his views -- while frequently undermined by the facts on the ground -- are shared by at least one other world leader.

The Coverage

Glenn Kessler and Michael A. Fletcher write in The Washington Post: "President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair last night acknowledged a series of errors in managing the occupation of Iraq that have made the conflict more difficult and more damaging to the U.S. image abroad, even as they insisted that enough progress has been made that other nations should support the nascent Iraqi government. . . .

" 'No question that the Iraq war has, you know, created a sense of consternation here in America,' Bush said. 'I mean, when you turn on your TV screen and see innocent people die day in and day out, it affects the mentality of our country.' He added: 'I can understand why the American people are troubled by the war in Iraq. I understand that. But I also believe the sacrifice is worth it and it's necessary.' "

The aforementioned Sanger and Rutenberg write: "President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, two leaders badly weakened by the continuing violence in Iraq, acknowledged major misjudgments in the execution of the Iraq war on Thursday night even while insisting that the election of a constitutional government in Baghdad justified their decision to go to war three years ago."

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair once bestrode the globe as powerful leaders who spoke boldly of bringing democracy to the Middle East. Now, dragged down by popular discontent over their adventure in Iraq, both have reached the lowest point of their careers."

Blogger Views

Americablog's John Aravosis writes: "Last night, the media went gaga because they think Bush admitted a mistake. As if. The big admission: he shouldn't have said 'bring it on' or 'dead or alive.' Wow. The president said he shouldn't have talked like he was in a drunken bar fight. The media, of course, is lapping it up. Russert just said that was 'remarkable.' Huh?

"Bush still hasn't admitted any real mistakes. Bush didn't apologize for any of his actions -- like starting the war or lying to the American people or not providing enough support for our troops. When that happens, it will truly be 'remarkable.' Instead, he's played the media again. Perfectly. How pathetic are the media if they can still be played by George Bush?"

Blah3 blogger dedalus asks: "What was the 'right' signal or the 'right' interpretation to 'bring 'em on' and 'wanted dead or alive'? What gentle spirit of poesy did Our Leader attempt to bring into the world, and to which the rude masses in their unwashed ignorance did not attend? I look forward to the debut of George's new and improved sophisticated manner."

Reality Check

Once again, Bush asserted that it's the incessant images of death on TV that are getting the country down. Can someone tell me what Bush is talking about? I don't think I've seen people in Iraq dying on my TV screen hardly ever, not to mention day in and day out.

Empirically, how often are the major network evening news shows actually showing footage of the carnage in Iraq? How often do they even mention the ceaseless American and civilian casualties?

I would suggest that, quite to the contrary, through a combination of circumstances, the vast, vast majority of the horror in Iraq is in fact being hidden from the American public -- certainly its television viewers.

Why do reporters endlessly quote this talking point in their news reports -- without any indication that it is fantasy?

Blair's Still Got It

Blair may have been listless by Blair standards -- but he's still got it. His opening statement, unlike Bush's, was not something he read dutifully, but was extemporaneous and personal.

And his rhetorical flourishes, to the end, remain passionate. Asked if the Iraq conflict had damaged both Blair and Bush's political and moral leadership, Blair let loose. The climax of his response:

"[I]f the idea became implanted in the minds of people in the Arab and Muslim world that democracy was as much their right as our right, where do these terrorists go? What do they do? How do they recruit? How do they say, America is the evil Satan? How do they say the purpose of the West is to spoil your lands, wreck your religion, take your wealth? How can they say that? They can't say that.

"So these people who are fighting us there know what is at stake. The question is, do we?"

Bush looked on in amazement, then said: "I'm going to say, that was a great answer."

Standing Up and Down

Possibly the most revelatory exchange of the night was prompted by a question from ABC News's Martha Raddatz. At heart, it was a question about Bush's credibility.

"Q Mr. President, you have said time and time again, and again tonight, when Iraqi forces stand up, coalition forces can start standing down.

"PRESIDENT BUSH: Right.

"Q But the fact is, you have been standing up Iraqi forces in great numbers. The administration says you have hundreds of thousand trained and equipped, tens of thousand leading the fight. And yet, during the same period they've been standing up there has not been a substantial decrease in U.S. and coalition forces. So what does that tell us about how meaningful the figures are on Iraqi troops? And what does that tell us about a potential for a draw-down?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: It tells you that the commanders on the ground are going to make the decision, that's what that tells you. And when they feel comfortable in recommending to me fewer troops, I will accept that. . . .

"All I can report to you is what General Casey -- in whom I have got a lot of confidence -- tells me, and that is the Iraqis are becoming better and better fighters. And at some point in time, when he feels like the government is ready to take on more responsibility and the Iraqi forces are able to help them do so, he will get on the telephone with me and say, Mr. President, I think we can do this with fewer troops."

So in other words: As the Iraqi forces stand up, we will stand down (but not literally).

CNN's Good Idea

Wolf Blitzer last night unveiled a new CNN policy for press conferences: "When the reporters ask their questions. . . . we're going to put up on the screen what the question actually was, so that we can pay attention and see if either leader really answers the question that was asked, sort of a spur to make sure they don't try to dodge it."

I think it's a great idea. But it would have worked a lot better if reporters asked simple, one-part questions.

And maybe CNN should also have a timer, showing how much time Bush eats up with his rambling, familiar-sounding responses that don't actually answer the question.

Another Waas Scoop

Murray Waas writes in the National Journal about early suspicions among prosecutors in the CIA leak case that columnist Robert Novak and White House political guru Karl Rove concocted a cover story at the first sign of a criminal investigation.

"On September 29, 2003, three days after it became known that the CIA had asked the Justice Department to investigate who leaked the name of covert CIA officer Valerie Plame, columnist Robert Novak telephoned White House senior adviser Karl Rove to assure Rove that he would protect him from being harmed by the investigation, according to people with firsthand knowledge of the federal grand jury testimony of both men."

Another "reason that federal investigators were suspicious, sources said, is that they believed that after the September 29 call, Novak shifted his account of his July 9, 2003, conversation with Rove to show that administration officials had a passive role in leaking Plame's identity.

"On July 22, 2003 -- eight days after the publication of Novak's column on Plame -- Newsday reporters Timothy Phelps and Knut Royce quoted Novak as telling them in an interview that it was White House officials who encouraged him to write about Plame. 'I didn't dig it out, it was given to me,' Newsday quoted Novak as saying about Plame. 'They thought it was significant. They gave me the name, and I used it.' . . .

"Novak did not speak publicly on the matter again until September 29 -- later on the same day as his conversation with Rove."

"Nobody in the Bush administration called me to leak this," Novak said on his now-cancelled CNN show .

It's a wonderfully complicated story, with lots of great details. And unlike previous Waas blockbusters, which other media outlets ignored, this one is getting at least a tiny bit of pickup, due to Richard Keil 's corroborative story for Bloomberg.

Anyone else out there working on a follow-up?

The Seal of the President

Dan Eggen and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "President Bush ordered the Justice Department yesterday to seal records seized from the Capitol Hill office of a Democratic congressman, representing a remarkable intervention by the nation's chief executive into an ongoing criminal probe of alleged corruption.

"The order was aimed at quelling an escalating constitutional confrontation between the Justice Department and the House, where Republican and Democratic leaders have demanded that the FBI return documents and copies of computer files seized from the office of Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.)."

Cheney Watch

Toni Locy writes for the Associated Press: "If a prosecutor calls him as a witness, Vice President Dick Cheney probably can't avoid testifying in his former chief of staff's perjury trial, legal experts said Thursday."

On MSNBC's Hardball last night, legal analyst Jonathan Turley said: "Everything ends up at Dick Cheney`s desk. His right hand man is indicted, he's intimately involved in the Niger allegation with weapons of mass destruction, he's the one that seems to have instructed Libby. The biggest question is not whether he'll be called as a witness, but why he wasn't a co-conspirator."

Kenny Boy

Zachary A. Goldfarb writes in The Washington Post: "He started as 'Kenny Boy.' Then he was a 'supporter,' an acquaintance who had not talked to President Bush in 'quite some time.' Now he is a man convicted of conspiracy and fraud, and a symbol of corporate corruption.

"This is former Enron chief Kenneth L. Lay's transformation in the words of President Bush and his spokesmen -- going from a personal and political ally to someone the White House sought to keep as distant as possible as his role in the multibillion-dollar collapse of the energy giant became clear."

Howard Fineman writes for Newsweek: "If you want a date to mark the beginning of the end of the Bush era in American life, you may as well make it this one: May 25, 2006. The Enron jury in Houston didn't just put the wood to Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling. The jurors took a chainsaw to the moral claims of the Texas-based corporate culture that had helped fuel the rise to power of President George W. Bush."

From the White House to the Court House

Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press: "White House aide Brett Kavanaugh won Senate confirmation as an appeals judge Friday after a wait of nearly three years, yet another victory in President Bush's drive to place a more conservative stamp on the nation's courts."

Old Snow

Peter Baker and Paul Blustein write in The Washington Post: "Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, who has presided during a period of strong economic growth but at times seemed out of sync with President Bush, has informed the White House that he will resign in the coming days after three years as the nation's chief economic officer, a source close to Snow said yesterday. . . .

"Bush, when asked about the Treasury secretary at his news conference last night, indicated only that he had not spoken directly with Snow and quickly changed the subject to positive economic indicators."

New Snow

Steve Inskeep had a contentious interview with press secretary Tony "Is the Honeymoon Over Yet?" Snow on NPR.

Inskeep: "I have to say I've read the entire transcript of that briefing from Tuesday. I found it entertaining, engaging, funny at times, and I learned very little about how the government actually works or what the government is doing. Is that what you intend?"

Snow: "Well, that's a pretty broad statement. It strikes me as more of a snarky comment than informative." He also shot back: "Quite often the drama in the press room has to do with the reporters knowing that there is a question that the press secretary cannot answer, but asking it anyway."

The Zinsmeister

Josh Gerstein writes in the New York Sun: "A magazine editor named to a top White House policy post, Karl Zinsmeister, altered his own quotes and other text in a published newspaper profile of him posted on the Web site of the magazine he has edited for more than a decade, the American Enterprise."

Here's the Syracuse New Times version. Here's the altered version published on the American Enterprise Web site.

Gone, not surprisingly, is Zinsmeister's quote that "People in Washington are morally repugnant, cheating, shifty human beings."

Froomkin Watch

I'm off for an extended Memorial Day/birthday weekend. The column will resume Thursday.

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