As he readies a prime-time speech Monday to try to repair public support for his Iraq policies, President Bush took a philosophical turn Friday, advising college graduates to "choose your friends carefully."
It was a timely message from the commander in chief, whose administration is publicly feuding with a former ally in Iraq, Ahmed Chalabi, who provided the United States dubious intelligence about weapons of mass destruction. But aides said that was not the president's meaning as he addressed Louisiana State University's Class of 2004. They said it was a heartfelt message.
"On the job and elsewhere in life, choose your friends carefully," the president advised in a 17-minute speech after receiving an honorary doctor of science degree. "The company you keep has a way of rubbing off on you, and that can be a good thing, or a bad thing. In my job, I got to pick just about everybody I work with. I've been happy with my choices -- although I wish someone had warned me about all of Dick Cheney's wild partying."
The advice about friends was one of five suggestions, part whimsical and part reflective, that Bush offered. The others: Be on time, be generous, don't practice moral relativism, and, above all, "listen to your mother."
"I had little choice," the president said of his outspoken mother, Barbara Bush, the former first lady.
Yet even as the president reached for laughs, the Iraq war crept into his speech. The White House has scheduled a major address for Monday night at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., where Bush will try to revive support for Iraq policies hobbled by insurrection and a prison-abuse scandal. In Baton Rouge, Bush praised three graduates who served as Marines in Iraq, and he compared those who fight in Iraq to those who fought in the Second World War.
"Americans are not the running kind," Bush said. "When this country makes a commitment, we see it through."
Bush did not offer new details about Iraq; he ignored a question about Chalabi shouted by a reporter. A spokesman, Trent Duffy, said that in his speech Bush will discuss "a clear strategy on how we need to move forward" in Iraq. "We are approaching a pivotal phase, as we approach the June 30th transfer of sovereignty in Iraq," Duffy said in a briefing aboard Air Force One.
But he indicated that Bush may not provide significant new details Monday. The spokesman said the president will discuss security, Iraqi sovereignty, humanitarian matters, infrastructure and diplomacy.
Asked how specific Bush would be about who will take power in Iraq after June 30, Duffy replied: "This is more about the strategy on those fronts that I outlined." He declined to say whether Bush would have specific announcements to make, describing the speech as an exercise in persuasion. "He realizes, as well as most Americans do, that we have difficult challenges ahead, that the enemies and foes of freedom in Iraq will do anything to stop the progress, but that our resolve is firm," Duffy said.
Bush has a difficult task as he begins a series of speeches designed to regain support for his Iraq policies. A Newsweek poll last week found that 35 percent supported Bush's handling of Iraq, and 42 percent supported Bush overall. As administration officials race to name a new Iraqi government and secure a new United Nations resolution, criticism continues to mount from Bush's Republican Party. In a speech to be delivered Saturday, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, will warn that the United States has not done enough to prevent "catastrophic terrorism" and will call for "a sustained program of repairing and building alliances."
In a speech in Texas on Friday, Vice President Cheney acknowledged that there are "serious challenges on the ground in Iraq," but he raised doubts about the ability of Bush's Democratic opponent, John F. Kerry, to deal with the problems. "These are not times for leaders who shift with the political winds, saying one thing one day and another the next," Cheney said.
Bush received an enthusiastic reception at LSU, where he was hailed for his "enlightened leadership" as he was given his honorary degree. Students gave him several standing ovations and shouted cheers such as "You da man." The applause easily eclipsed some scattered boos and a shout of "Fire Rumsfeld" directed at Bush's defense secretary.
The president's advisers selected LSU for one of his annual addresses to college graduates in part because Kerry has tried to field a competitive campaign in Louisiana. The state is one of 19 targeted by Kerry, who has been here three times in the past two months. Though the state is in the Deep South -- difficult territory for Democrats -- its senators and governor are Democrats.
After the commencement speech at LSU, Bush flew to the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, where he raised $2 million for the Republican National Committee's Victory 2004 program in a reception closed to the public and press.
Bush, spending the weekend on his Texas ranch, is scheduled to visit Austin on Saturday and New Haven, Conn., on Sunday, for graduation parties for his twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara. The daughters are graduating, respectively, from the University of Texas and Yale University. The president will not attend either graduation ceremony, the White House said.