By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, May 14, 2008 1:12 PM
The nation is in despair over the war in Iraq and the toll it is taking on our troops and their families. But President Bush shows no outward sign of inner pain.
He is chipper in his public pronouncements. His weekly bike rides and daily workouts have put a perpetual spring in his step. He's always ready with a wisecrack. He just hosted his daughter's wedding at his multi-million dollar estate in Texas. He takes more vacations than any president in history. He has made clear that he doesn't lie awake at nights.
And yet now it turns out that Bush has indeed made a personal sacrifice on account of the war. According to the president yesterday, his decision to stop playing golf five years ago wasn't just an exercise in image control or a function of his bum knee -- it was an act of solidarity with the families of the dead and wounded.
Here's the relevant exchange in an interview Bush gave to Mike Allen of Politico:
Allen: "Mr. President, you haven't been golfing in recent years. Is that related to Iraq?"
Bush: "Yes, it really is. I don't want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the commander-in-chief playing golf. I feel I owe it to the families to be as -- to be in solidarity as best as I can with them. And I think playing golf during a war just sends the wrong signal."
Allen: "Mr. President, was there a particular moment or incident that brought you to that decision, or how did you come to that?"
Bush: "No, I remember when de Mello, who was at the U.N., got killed in Baghdad as a result of these murderers taking this good man's life. And I was playing golf -- I think I was in central Texas -- and they pulled me off the golf course and I said, it's just not worth it anymore to do."
This is the latest in a series of statements by Bush, the first lady and Vice President Cheney illustrating how far removed they are from the consequences of the decision to go to war -- and stay at war.
But giving up golf?
Not only is it a hollow, trivial sacrifice at best, Bush's story doesn't hold water. While he dates his decision to abjure golf to Aug. 19, 2003 -- the day a truck bomb in Baghdad killed U.N. special representative Sergio Vieira de Mello and more than a dozen others -- the Associated Press reported on Oct. 13, 2003, that he'd spent a "cool, breezy Columbus Day" playing "a round of golf with three long-time buddies.
"Bush played at Andrews Air Force Base with Clay Johnson, Office of Management and Budget deputy director, Richard Hauser, Department of Housing and Urban Development general counsel and another friend, Mike Wood."
On that outing, he was typically full of what passes for good humor at the White House. The AP reported: "'Fine looking crew you got there. Fine looking crew,' Bush joked to reporters. 'That's what we'd hope for presidential coverage. Only the best.'
"He hit a couple of practice balls before flaring his tee-off shot into the right rough."
Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "Democrats have criticized Bush for allegedly not requiring Americans to sacrifice enough while waging wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and for urging people to keep shopping as a way to fight terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Bush was also widely criticized in August 2002 when he decried terrorist bombings in Israel while golfing and then told reporters: 'Now watch this drive.'
"Although Bush says he has given up golf, he is a mountain-biking enthusiast who has been photographed taking part in rides. He took up biking after an injury sidelined him from running.
"Presidential historian Robert Dallek. . . said Bush's remarks about Iraq 'speak to his shallowness.' Dallek added: 'That's his idea of sacrifice, to give up golf?'"In the Blogosphere
Jonathan Martin of the Politico called the golf revelation "a striking news nugget" and wrote: "You can be sure that this will launch a thousand liberal jabs and late-night jokes."
Indeed, the reaction in the blogosphere has been blistering.
Even the golfers aren't impressed.
William K. Wolfrum blogs for worldgolf.com: "In an insipid interview with the web site Politico that featured no less than 20 questions about his daughter's wedding, baseball, American Idol and who does the best impersonation of him, President George W. Bush was hit with a haymaker - Has he stopped golfing? . . .
"Bush has spent more time on vacation than any other president. . . . He's never attended a slain soldier's funeral. He's spent time fishing and endlessly clearing brush on his ranch, and attending his daughter's lavish wedding, among other things. But golf? Well, that would just send the wrong signal to the thousands killed in Iraq and Afghanistan and their families.
"War supporters take note - put away your golf clubs. It's just disrespectful."
Kevin Hayden blogs on the American Street: "Military funerals he's attended: 0
"Annual National Press Club comedy routines he's participated in: All of them.
"Times he played guitar while the Gulf Coast was drowning: 1
"Estimated number of returning veterans not being treated for PTSD and other disorders: tens of thousands.
"He's biked, run, worked out, met with members of athletic teams, thrown out first pitches, dismissed the importance of finding Osama Bin Laden, opposed expanding the GI Bill, but our troops and country can go to sleep happily assured that their Commander In Chief is not dissing their sweat and sacrifice, blood and tears by playing any of that dastardly golf stuff."
Blue Girl, Red State blogger Warren Street is skeptical of Bush's explanation: "Actually, it is far more likely that Bush quit playing golf because he was suffering from knee problems throughout the latter half of 2003," he writes.
And a Wonkette commenter suggests: "Has he thought about giving up Iraq for golf?"A History of Cluelessness
In my March 25 column, Cheney's Unforgivable Egotism, I wrote about the vice president's incredible assertion that it is Bush -- not the soldiers and Marines who fight and die, or their families -- who is bearing the biggest burden of the war. Said Cheney: "The President carries the biggest burden, obviously; he's the one who has to make the decision to commit young Americans. But we are fortunate to have the group of men and women, the all-volunteer force, who voluntarily put on the uniform and go in harm's way for the rest of us."
Just a week before that, Tabassum Zakaria of Reuters quoted Bush as telling a group of U.S. military and civilian personnel in Afghanistan that he envied them: "If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed. It must be exciting for you . . . in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger."
Sheryl Gay Stolberg wrote in the New York Times in December 2006: "The nation might despair, but not Mr. Bush; his presidential armor seemed firmly intact."
She noted: "On weeknights, the Bushes watch football or baseball on television, 'to try not to worry a little bit,' Mrs. Bush told CBS."
And Bush has repeatedly made clear that he is not overly troubled. People magazine asked Bush in December 2006 if he had trouble sleeping. As Karen Travers blogged for ABC News, his response was: "I must tell you, I'm sleeping a lot better than people would assume."
In June 2005, Bush told board members of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. "I'd say I'd spend most of my time worrying about right now people losing their life in Iraq. Both Americans and Iraqis." But then he added: "You know, I don't worry all that much, other than what I just described to you. I attribute that to . . . I've got peace of mind. A lot of it has to do with my particular faith, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that a lot of people pray for me and Laura . . . I'm sleeping pretty good. Seriously. I get asked that. There's times when I hadn't been. I've got peace of mind."
There's considerable evidence that Bush, who assiduously avoided combat during the Vietnam War, simply doesn't understand the sacrifices involved in war. In a January 2007 interview with PBS's Jim Lehrer, Bush was asked about shared sacrifice and responded: "Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night. I mean, we've got a fantastic economy here in the United States, but yet, when you think about the psychology of the country, it is somewhat down because of this war."
At a June 14, 2007 White House briefing, then-press secretary Tony Snow insisted that Bush was on the front lines of the war "every day."
And in April 2007, first lady Laura Bush asserted that 'no one suffers more' than the president and she do when watching television footage of the carnage in Iraq.The Moronic Interview
Has there ever been a more moronic interview of a president of the United States than the one conducted yesterday by Mike Allen? The only one I can recall that comes close was in June 2005, when Fox anchor Neil Cavuto asked Bush about John Kerry's Yale grades and the Michael Jackson trial's effect on public policy discourse -- without asking a single question about the war.
Allen's interview started off with seven questions about Jenna Bush's wedding, and went downhill from there.
The only really critical question came from a reader, who asked: "Do you feel that you were misled on Iraq?" Bush predictably ducked it.
Here are some of Allen's own questions:
"Mr. President, I know you're going to hate this, but I'm hoping that we may twist your arm and talk about baseball for just a moment. (Laughter.) Mr. President, you're a Major League Baseball team owner again. Everyone is a free agent. You have a Yankees-like wallet. Who is your first position player? Who's your pitcher?"
"Now, Mr. President, you and the First Lady appeared on American Idol's charity show, 'Idol Gives Back.' And I wonder who do you think is going to win? Syesha, David Cook, or David Archuleta?"
"All right. Mr. President, who does the better impression, Will Ferrell of you, or Dana Carvey of your father?"
"And speaking of impressions, our friend, Robert Draper, author of 'Dead Certain,' said you do a great impression of Dr. Evil from 'Austin Powers'."
Politico headlined its main story from the interview: " Bush warns of Iraq disaster". But Bush didn't actually say anything new to that effect.
Allen asked him: "If we were to pull out of Iraq next year, what's the worst that could happen, what's the doomsday scenario?" And Bush replied: "Doomsday scenario of course is that extremists throughout the Middle East would be emboldened, which would eventually lead to another attack on the United States."
In his dissection of the interview, Shakesville blogger William K. Wolfum calls attention to one particularly telling question. Allen asked: "Mr. President, the one thing we don't see in here is a computer, and we know that you went cold turkey off email for security reasons. What are you looking forward to when you finally get your computer back?"
But as Wolfum points out, Bush has never claimed he stopped emailing for security reasons.
Here's what Bush told CNBC in October 2006: "I tend not to email or -- not only tend not to email, I don't email, because of the different record requests that can happen to a president. I don't want to receive emails because, you know, there's no telling what somebody's email may -- it would show up as, you know, a part of some kind of a story, and I wouldn't be able to say, 'Well, I didn't read the email.' 'But I sent it to your address, how can you say you didn't?' So, in other words, I'm very cautious about emailing."
And here's what he told the American Society of Newspaper Editors in April 2005: "You know, I don't email, however. And there's a reason. I don't want you reading my personal stuff. There has got to be a certain sense of privacy. . . . And so I've made -- I've made an easy decision there. I just don't do it. Which is said, really, when you think about it."Lashing out at Carter
One moment of real drama, however, came when Allen asked Bush about a recent comment by Jimmy Carter.
Allen: "Now, Mr. President, President Carter recently told Charlie Rose the next President could change America's image in 10 minutes. Here's what he said: 'I think the next President could change the image of this country around the world in 10 minutes by making an inaugural speech that would start off and say, "As long as I'm President we will never torture another prisoner, as long as I'm President we will never attack or invade another country unless our own security is directly threatened."'"
Bush: "Yes, well, what he ought to be saying is, is that America doesn't torture. If the implication there is that we do now, then he's wrong. And you bet we're going to protect ourselves by the use of military force. What he really is implying is -- or some imply -- you can be popular; if you want to be popular in the Middle East just go blame Israel for every problem. That will make you popular. Or if you want to be popular in Europe, say you're going to join the International Criminal Court.
"Popularity is fleeting, Michael. Principles are forever."Tougher Questions
The White House yesterday also released transcripts of interviews Bush gave Monday to members of the foreign press.
Here's the transcript of his interview with Mona Shazli of Egyptian Dream TV.
Q. "You will be in the region very soon -- Israel, Saudi Arabia, then Egypt. The question is, maybe there are 250 million Arabs who think that President Bush has added to their suffering and problems during his administration. How would you adjudicate this?"
Bush: "I would just ask them to wait for history to answer the question. There's an advent of a young democracy in Iraq. Ask those people what it's like to live under a freer society, rather than the thumb of a tyrant or a dictator; or the people that we're trying to help in Lebanon by getting the Syrians out through a U.N. Security Council resolution; or the Palestinians who -- for whom I've articulated a state.
"In other words, I understand people's opinions. All I ask is that when history is finally recorded, judge whether or not I've been a contributor to peace or not."
Q. "Do you think history will be in your side?"
Bush: "I think history will say George Bush clearly saw the threats that keep the Middle East in turmoil, and was willing to do something about it, was willing to lead, and had this great faith in the capacity of democracies and great faith in the capacity of people to decide the fate of their countries; and that the democracy movement gained impetus and gained movement in the Middle East. Yeah, I think people will say, he had a difficult set of circumstances to deal with, and he dealt with them, with a sense of idealism."
And here's Bush talking to Lukman Ahmed of BBC Arabic.
Q. "You are calling both Iran and Syria to halt their support to Hezbollah. But in the absence of any direct contact with Iran and Syria, your administration -- how do you think both countries should stop doing this? You are not negotiating with them, you are not exploring other means to have them halt their support."
Bush: "So what's there to negotiate? I mean, they know my position. . . . "
Q. " Syria is -- last question, last question. Mr. President, seriously the end question. Obviously the people have in mind that the presentation at the U.N. with regard to the Iraqi weapon of mass destruction, so how do you see that?"
Bush: "Look, the difference was, in this case, there was concrete examples. I mean, everybody that analyzed the data realized it was true."Bush in Israel
Bush arrived in Tel Aviv today to a warm welcome.
Here's Israeli President Shimon Peres: "Mr. President, you have demonstrated toward us a Biblical attitude, which is very rare; a warm friendship; a determined dedication to the promotion of peace and security in the entire region. . . . Mr. President, you stood like nobody else on our side in sunny mornings and stormy weather. So thank you, Mr. President."
Here's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: "Since assuming office almost eight years ago, President George Bush has been our closest ally and partner. Your decision to celebrate this historic milestone with us is an extraordinary gesture of friendship, and is further evidence of your unending commitment to the security and well being of our country."Editorial Watch
From the Jerusalem Post: "Of all the US presidents over the past 60 years, it is hard to think of a better friend to Israel than George W. Bush. No president has been more committed to steering the Middle East toward the values of liberty and tolerance which Americans naturally cherish, and presuppose to be universal. . . .
"While Bush may have been wrong on Iraq, he is dead right about Iran - though an ungrateful, sometimes spiteful world appears in denial."
From the Daily Star of Lebanon: "Bush is the delinquent foreign-policy maestro of an otherwise great country. He has failed to deal honestly and rationally with the realities of the region, preferring wishful thinking and simplistic black-and-white threats to the hard work and nuanced sensibilities that are needed to grapple with the problems, challenges and opportunities of the Arab-Asian region. His desperate, last minute, pull-the-rabbit-out-of-the-hat attempt at Annapolis to achieve Palestinian-Israeli peace was clearly insincere - because he did not invest the required political capital to get it done, and did not have the required intellectual clarity and moral gumption to make it happen. He hoped to ride a runaway horse to the finish line, and ended up in a horror house of mirrors. His peace partners have proved illusory, his necessary impartiality nonexistent, and his sense of how Palestine-Israel fits into the wider picture in the Middle East totally absent."Lebanon Watch
Alistair Lyon writes for Reuters: "Hezbollah's humbling of Lebanon's U.S.-backed government has dealt a further blow to American credibility in the region less than a year after Hamas Islamists seized Gaza from Palestinian leaders supported by Washington. . . .
"Three years ago, compelling images of Lebanese demonstrators demanding -- and winning -- the withdrawal of Syrian troops who had dominated Lebanon for 29 years provided Bush with a rare moment to relish amid the disasters of the U.S. war in Iraq.
"Now the anti-Syrian ruling coalition he backs is in disarray after an 18-month-old power struggle with Hezbollah and its allies led to the violence that has cost 81 lives in the past week, nudging Lebanon closer towards sectarian civil war."
Lyon writes that the White House may have unwittingly precipitated the crisis -- potentially another classic Bush Middle East backfire.
"The crisis erupted after [Prime Minister Fouad] Siniora's government decided to outlaw Hezbollah's private telephone network and to fire Beirut airport's security chief, who is close to the Shi'ite group.
"Denouncing these moves as an attack on the 'weapons of the resistance' to Israel, Hezbollah went on the offensive against its Sunni and Druze foes in and around Beirut. . . .
"With no clear explanation of why the cabinet embarked on a provocative course, some analysts suggest the United States and its Arab allies pushed for the hard line against Hezbollah.
"'Perhaps U.S. policy to raise the pressure against Iran and its allies, and President Bush's impending visit to the Middle East impelled the government to do something,' wrote Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Endowment's Middle East programme."
Christopher Dickey writes for Newsweek: "If you want to know what Iraq will look like 25 years from now, look at Lebanon today. The similarities and differences -- but mainly the similarities -- raise a lot of painful memories and questions for Americans."Putting It on Autopilot
Massimo Calabresi writes for Time: "Bush's missteps in the region have tied his successors hands, committing the U.S. to a stabilizing presence in and around Iraq and strengthening Iran to the point that it does not need to deal. But in negotiating a long-term military relationship with Baghdad and backing Israel's redrawing of its borders, Bush has committed the U.S. to positions it will be difficult, if not impossible, for his successor to change. Privately, administration officials admit they are trying to lock in some of their policies. Which means by this time next year, Bush's successor will be the one struggling to address public discontent with the U.S. approach to the region."Mississippi Watch
Paul Kane writes in The Washington Post: "A Democrat won the race for a GOP-held congressional seat in northern Mississippi yesterday, leaving the once-dominant House Republicans reeling from their third special-election defeat of the spring."
Adam Nossiter writes in the New York Times: "Having lost a similar Congressional race this month in Louisiana, Republicans had worked desperately to win this contest, sending Vice President Dick Cheney to campaign for Mr. Davis. . . .
"Mr. Davis had been hoping for a large turnout in his home of DeSoto County, where roughly 15 percent of the district's voters live, and which is solidly Republican and mostly white. But a last-minute appearance for him by Mr. Cheney on Monday apparently failed to rally his base sufficiently; indeed a modest room at a local convention center was hardly packed."India Watch
Heather Timmons writes in the New York Times from New Delhi about "a growing number of politicians, economists and academics in this country, who are angry at statements by top United States officials that India's rising prosperity is to blame for food inflation."
Bush on May 2 said India was partly responsible for rising global food prices: "When you start getting wealth, you start demanding better nutrition and better food, and so demand is high, and that causes the price to go up."
Timmons writes: "In response to the president's remarks, a ranking official in the commerce ministry, Jairam Ramesh, told the Press Trust of India, 'George Bush has never been known for his knowledge of economics,' and the remarks proved again how 'comprehensively wrong' he is.
"The Asian Age, a newspaper based here, argued in an editorial last week that Mr. Bush's 'ignorance on most matters is widely known and openly acknowledged by his own countrymen,' and that he must not be allowed to 'get away' with an effort to 'divert global attention from the truth by passing the buck on to India.'"Live Online
I'm Live Online today at 1 p.m. ET. Tell me what else Bush should give up.Cartoon Watch