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Trying to Spin the Truth Away

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, August 17, 2006 12:54 PM

Alarmed at a brief dribble of actual un-spun news from inside the White House, spokesman Tony Snow yesterday tried his darndest to discredit it.

The dribble emerged courtesy of four scholars invited to talk with President Bush about Iraq on Monday. None of them substantively disagreed with Bush's policies -- see my column yesterday, Bush Bubble Alive and Well -- but they did talk to New York Times reporters afterwards about where the president seemed to be coming from.

As a result, Thom Shanker and Mark Mazzetti wrote in the Times yesterday: "President Bush made clear in a private meeting this week that he was concerned about the lack of progress in Iraq and frustrated that the new Iraqi government -- and the Iraqi people -- had not shown greater public support for the American mission, participants in the meeting said Tuesday. . . .

"[T]he president expressed frustration that Iraqis had not come to appreciate the sacrifices the United States had made in Iraq, and was puzzled as to how a recent anti-American rally in support of Hezbollah in Baghdad could draw such a large crowd."

A petulant, dissatisfied president is of course not part of the approved White House narrative on Iraq. As a result, Snow came out swinging at yesterday's press briefing .

"I have spoken with the notetaker in the meeting, I was in the meeting, I've talked to others in the meeting and I've talked to all four scholars today, and all, to a person, take exception to a verb or variations of that verb that appear a number of times at the top of the piece, which is that the President is 'frustrated,' " Snow said. "All the participants said that that did not reflect the meeting they attended."

Bush doesn't get frustrated, Snow said.

The president believes that "when you're facing a situation, you don't sit around and get frustrated. You figure out how to get the job done. And I've said it many times, and I'll say it because it's true: The president is somebody who's intensely practical about these things and not somebody who sits around and goes, ' Nnnnyoo! ' "

That last word, by the way, was the closest the White House transcribers could come to rendering the temper-tantrum-like sound Snow made. (You can listen for yourself, it comes at the 19:10 mark in this video .)

One reporter later asked: "If the president is not frustrated by the situation in Iraq, what is he?"

Snow replied: "Determined."

And that is the official White House position.

But here's Snow's problem: The New York Times story is entirely believable. Snow may not want to call Bush frustrated -- but it's almost impossible to imagine that the president isn't at least a little displeased that things in Iraq aren't working out exactly how he'd hoped.

And furthermore, Bush has -- privately, of course -- made this particular, pouty frustration known before.

As columnist Sidney Blumenthal points out in Salon today: "Bush's demand for expressions of gratitude from the Iraqis is not a new one. In his memoir, L. Paul Bremer III, head of the ill-fated Coalition Provisional Authority, records that above all other issues Bush stressed the need for an Iraqi government to declare its thanks."

Peter W. Galbraith has more in his article on Bremer's book for the New York Review of Books: Bremer "had lunch with the President before leaving for Baghdad -- a meeting joined by the Vice President and the national security team -- but no decision seems to have been made on any of the major issues concerning Iraq's future. Instead, Bremer got a blanket grant of authority that he clearly enjoyed exercising. The President's directions seem to have been limited to such slogans as 'we're not going to fail' and 'pace yourself, Jerry.' In Bremer's account, the President was seriously interested in one issue: whether the leaders of the government that followed the CPA would publicly thank the United States. . . .

"Bush had only one demand: 'It's important to have someone who's willing to stand up and thank the American people for their sacrifice in liberating Iraq.' According to Bremer, he came back to this single point three times in the same meeting. Similarly, Ghazi al-Yawar, an obscure Sunni Arab businessman, became Bush's candidate for president of Iraq's interim government because, as Bremer reports, Bush had 'been favorably impressed with his open thanks to the Coalition.' "

Spin Watch

And that wasn't the only spin Snow was hawking yesterday.

Hearst columnist Helen Thomas asked Snow if the White House considers Iraq to be in a state of civil war.

Snow's response: "No . . . there is not a civil war going on."

So how to explain what's happening?

"Yes, you have a number of sectarian violence operations going on," he said, "but you've also seen now in targeted neighborhoods in Baghdad, there has been a notable decrease in violence in three of the neighborhoods that have been targeted in the last week, and that's obviously a promising sign; that's not a victory lap."

So things are getting better? Not a chance.

Michael R. Gordon, Mark Mazzetti and Thom Shanker write in the New York Times today: "Along with a sharp increase in sectarian attacks, the number of daily strikes against American and Iraqi security forces has doubled since January. . . .

" 'The insurgency has gotten worse by almost all measures, with insurgent attacks at historically high levels,' said a senior Defense Department official who agreed to discuss the issue only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for attribution. 'The insurgency has more public support and is demonstrably more capable in numbers of people active and in its ability to direct violence than at any point in time.' . . .

"Taken together, the new assessments by the military and the intelligence community provide evidence that violence in Iraq is at its highest level yet. And they describe twin dangers facing the country: insurgent violence against Americans and Iraqi security forces . . . and the primarily sectarian violence seen in Iraqi-on-Iraqi attacks being aimed at civilians."

And consider this bombshell tossed at the end of that story: "[S]ome outside experts who have recently visited the White House said Bush administration officials were beginning to plan for the possibility that Iraq's democratically elected government might not survive.

" 'Senior administration officials have acknowledged to me that they are considering alternatives other than democracy,' said one military affairs expert who received an Iraq briefing at the White House last month and agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity.

" 'Everybody in the administration is being quite circumspect,' the expert said, 'but you can sense their own concern that this is drifting away from democracy.' "

Ooh. Another dribble.

As for the American Public

Thomas also asked Snow: "[I]s the President frustrated with the lack of American public support for Iraq? "

Snow's response was to denounce opinion polls as an influence on public policy -- while at the same time citing the one recent poll that contained some good news for Bush.

"As far as public opinion polls, I've addressed it many times. He's aware of polls, but he's also more keenly aware of his constitutional obligations, and he takes that first," Snow said.

Thomas: "He doesn't think he needs the support of the American people on the Iraqi endeavor?"

Snow: "I think what's going to happen, as people learn more and more -- as you saw just last week, there was an 11-point pivot just on the basis of the fact that things that people had not seen in terms of behind-the-scenes operations to thwart terror, suddenly said, oh, boy, we do have something -- boom, 11-point jump."

As for that 11-point jump, it came in one Newsweek poll , and it was just in one specific area: Bush's handling of terrorism and homeland security. It also wasn't 11 points in a weekend, it was 11 points in three months. Even according to the Newsweek poll, Bush's overall approval rating languished at 38 percent, and 62 percent of Americans disapproved of his handling of the situation in Iraq (which is what Thomas was asking about).

And rather than being a harbinger of things to come, it turns out the jump was a total outlier. Since then, a CBS poll found Bush's approval rating at 36 percent, with no uptick on the terror issue. A Gallup Poll found approval at 37 percent. And yesterday, a Zogby poll found Bush's job approval at 34 percent.

Setting the Record Straight?

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press about Snow's enthusiastic adoption -- particularly when Bush's approval ratings are down -- of a shoot-the messenger strategy.

"Bush officials say their ' Setting the Record Straight ' memos, which dispute passages in stories aired and printed about the president, are about seeking the truth. Democrats and other targets of the memos say they're more about spin than rebuttal."

Sadly, Riechmann doesn't actually fact-check those memos, leaving it to the reader to decide who to believe.

She also reports: "The administration is hoping the targeted reporter will feel scolded and adapt in a way that pleases the White House and get other reporters to self-censor their stories and broadcasts to avoid being singled out."

But she doesn't say whether it's working.

Bush in His Own Words

Bush spoke, apparently extemporaneously , at a fundraiser for Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Lynn Swann last night.

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "President Bush on Wednesday picked up his party's attack against Democrats for having what the Republicans have called the wrong approach to the fight against terrorism. But his was a kinder, gentler approach than the one used by Vice President Dick Cheney and others in recent days.

"Referring to the war in Iraq, Mr. Bush said: 'There's some good people in our country who believe we should cut and run. They're not bad people when they say that, they're decent people.'

"But he added, 'I just happen to believe they're wrong, and they're wrong for this reason: this would be a defeat for the United States in a key battleground in the global war on terror.' "

Bush also expanded on how he sees the geopolitical stakes of a defeat in Iraq -- or at least how we wants others to see them.

"This would be a defeat for the United States in a key battleground in the global war on terror. It would create a -- leaving before we complete our mission would create a terrorist state in the heart of the Middle East, a country with huge oil reserves that the terrorist network would be willing to use to extract economic pain from those of us who believe in freedom.

"If we were to leave before the mission is complete, it would hurt U.S. credibility. Who would want to stand with the United States of America if we didn't complete the mission, and a mission that can be completed and will be completed? (Applause.) If we cut and run, if we don't complete the mission, what would that say to those brave men and women who have volunteered to wear the uniform of the United States of America? (Applause.) If we leave before the mission is complete, if we withdraw, the enemy will follow us home. (Applause.)

"By defeating the enemy in Iraq, jihadists who try to spread sectarian violence through brutal suicide bombings, jihadists who have declared openly that their mission is to convert that country into a safe haven for them to launch attacks -- when we defeat them, there will be a major defeat for the terrorists. It will strengthen the spread of democracy in the Middle East. . . .

"Look, our strategy is this: We will stay on the offense -- and we are. Any time we get a hint that somebody is going to hurt us, we respond. And we're keeping the pressure on the enemy. By the way, anybody who follows me should always understand you must keep the pressure on the enemy; otherwise, they will put the pressure on us. They still exist. It's important to understand this is a global war on terror -- not an isolated moment of law enforcement. This is the first war of the 21st century, and the United States of America must lead that war. And we must be firm, and we must be resolved. . . .

"You know, when you have resentment and anger, that breeds hatred; that breeds recruiting grounds for people to become a suicider. Imagine the mentality of somebody willing to kill for an ideology that just doesn't -- is not hopeful, and yet I believe a lot of it has to do with the fact that parts of the world breed resentment. And I believe that is due in part to the nature of the governments. I believe a system of government that encourages people to participate, and a government that says, we respond to your will, ends up creating a hopeful alternative to resentment and hatred."

Does Bush not realize that most of the violence in Iraq is no longer committed by jihadists, but by rival Muslim factions and Iraqis opposed to occupation? Or is he just pretending ignorance?

What would he say to the argument that staying the course in Iraq hurts U.S. credibility -- and its ability to inspire positive change in the region -- more than leaving?

What would he say to those who argue that the war in Iraq has detracted from our ability to keep the pressure on the real enemy?

What would he say to the argument that his Middle East policy is creating more resentment and hatred, rather than inspiring people to strive for freedom?

We don't know, of course, because he won't confront his critics.

Some Precedent

The White House on Tuesday made it official: Bush is not endorsing the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Connecticut. That, of course, is tacit encouragement to Republicans to vote for incumbent Joe Lieberman, who is continuing to run even though he lost to Ned Lamont in the Democratic primary.

Mark Silva blogs in the Chicago Tribune: "The White House had been pressed for examples of the last time a president had decided against supporting one of his own party's candidates. And today the Bush administration came up with examples -- the last involving the president's father, and that onetime Republican candidate for governor in Louisiana, racist David Duke."

Skimping on Pardons

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush pardoned 17 minor criminals yesterday.

"Most had not served time in prison. The longest sentence any of the 17 had received was five years.

"Bush has issued 99 pardons and sentence commutations during five years and seven months in office, mainly to clear the names of people who committed minor offenses and served their sentences long ago.

"He remains the stingiest of postwar presidents in this regard."

Here's the full list .

Josh Gerstein writes in the New York Sun: "A former soldier who went AWOL during the Vietnam War era is among 17 individuals granted pardons recently by President Bush, the Justice Department announced yesterday. . . .

"In 1968, an Army court-martial found William Frye of Indianapolis guilty of two counts of absence without leave and one charge of escape from confinement. He was sentenced to a year of hard labor and a bad-conduct discharge. . . .

"Mr. Bush's political opponents have asserted that he was AWOL for six months or more in 1972 while in the Air National Guard. He was never charged with a crime and has insisted that he fulfilled the military's requirements."

Kevin O'Neal of the Indianapolis Star caught up with Frye: " 'I was a young 19-year-old man who made a mistake,' Frye said Wednesday. 'A lot of people made mistakes when they were young. I've made up for that mistake.' "

Gerstein also quotes Margaret Love, a lawyer who oversaw clemency matters for the Justice Department between 1990 and 1997, as saying that Bush's reluctance to grant pardons is at odds with his bold view of presidential power. "The one place where he really has it, where could do anything he wants, where there is no check, he completely trivializes it," she said.

Signing Statement Watch

Tony Mauro starts his analysis of presidential signing statements in the Legal Times with this fascinating anecdote:

"It was an otherwise routine oral argument before the Supreme Court in April.

"Justices were debating the meaning of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, with Justices Stephen Breyer and Antonin Scalia jousting, as usual, over the significance of the legislative history of the statute. . . .

"Suddenly, Scalia piped up with a question. 'What about the president? When he signed it, did he indicate an interpretation?'

"It was a startling inquiry, especially coming from a justice who fervently insists that he cares only about the words of a statute, not the spin that legislators -- and presidents, presumably -- put on those words."

Bush Talks Trade

David J. Lynch writes for USA Today that he interviewed Bush for 25 minutes yesterday, mostly about trade and globalization.

Lynch writes: "[A]s President Bush flew here Wednesday to cultivate support for free trade, he did so against darkening sentiment at home and abroad. Negotiations over a new global trade deal are moribund.

" 'My concern is that this kind of fear of globalization causes a reaction that will cause us to lurch toward protectionism. That's my biggest concern,' the president said."

And while many other nations blame the United State for the recent collapse of global trade talks, in the so-called Doha Round, Bush sees it otherwise.

"The way I view the way Doha has worked is that the whole round was fairly stagnant until I went to the United Nations last fall and made a very generous offer. Now I think the best way for us to proceed is for all of us to continue making offers simultaneously."

In a separate story, USA Today reports: "President Bush said Wednesday that he believes flying is safe and not a big inconvenience, even after an alleged terrorist plot to blow up jets headed to the USA was thwarted and new security measures were put in place."

Bush on a Harley

Bush made time for a photo op on his way to the Pennsylvania fundraiser.

The York Daily Record reports: "At Harley-Davidson's Springettsbury Township plant, George W. Bush may as well have been a rock star.

"Donning sunglasses similar to the ones worn by U2 front man Bono, President Bush strutted into the motorcycle maker's Softail plant Wednesday afternoon for a two-hour foray."

Meet Joe Cotchett

So who is this new lawyer representing Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame in their civil suit against Cheney and other administration officials?

Tim Simmers writes for the Oakland Tribune that Joe Cotchett "has won a number of high-profile cases, including a $1.75 billion jury verdict against Charles Keating in the Lincoln Savings & Loan scandal, and a $200 million jury verdict that prompted the collapse of the Technical Equities Corp. in San Jose. He's known for representing bilked investors in white-collar fraud cases."

Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross write in the San Francisco Chronicle that "with the ex-Army Special Forces Col. Cotchett's take-no-prisoners approach to lawyering, you can bet this case will be a doozy."

What's the Word?

Colin Brown writes in the Independent that British Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott "has given vent to his private feelings about the Bush presidency, summing up George Bush's administration in a single word: crap. . . .

"The remark is said to have been made at a private meeting in Mr Prescott's Whitehall office on Tuesday. . . .

"The Deputy Prime Minister's office said last night that the meeting was private and would not confirm or deny his use of the word 'crap'."

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