Friday, October 06, 2006

Foley-watchers, remember that thing overseas? Costs us $2 billion a week? Oh, yeah

The Mark Foley firestorm has diverted attention this week away from a fairly important story with major political implications. If memory serves, it’s that ongoing matter in Iraq.

While Americans were busy reading Foley’s exchanges with underage boys (including the kid who interrupted the congressman’s reverie to say that his mom was yelling for him), 13 American soldiers were killed over a span of three days, the worst three-day mark since the war began.

And while we were all riveted on what House Speaker Dennis Hastert knew and when he knew it or should have known it, the Bob Woodward book about the struggling Bush war team picked up a major endorsement from someone with no links to liberals or George Soros or “Defeatocrats.” This would be Peggy Noonan, the former Reagan and Bush speechwriter.

She writes today on the conservative Wall Street Journal opinion page that “it is a good book. It may be a great one. It is serious, densely, even exhaustively, reported, and a real contribution to history in that it gives history what it most requires, first-person testimony.” She endorses the book’s depiction of President Bush as a “vain and intensely limited man,” accepts its reportage that Bush and his people are mired in “a state of unknowingness” about factual reality in Iraq, and then she twists the knife by contending that the administration hawks have screwed things up in part because none of them have actually served in war:

“I have come to give greater credence to the importance, in the age of terror, among our leaders, of having served in the military. For you need personal experience that you absorbed deep down in your bones, or a kind of imaginative wisdom that tells you even though you were never there what war is like, what invasion is, what building a foreign nation entails.”

It should also be noted today that, while we were all watching the Foley affair, Americans were telling the pollsters that the president’s 9/11 anniversary bounce was over. In the latest Associated Press-IPSOS survey, likely voters said (by 44 to 42 percent) that they now trust Democrats over Republicans to fight terrorism effectively, and that (by 45 to 43 percent) they trust the Democrats to more effectively protect the country. And that sentiment was measured before Republican Senator John Warner of Virginia returned from Iraq and warned yesterday that Congress may need to buck Bush and forge a solution of its own – in his words, make “bold decisions” after weighing all options - if the violence is not reversed within the next 60 to 90 days. Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a former Navy secretary under Richard Nixon, is a barometer of the increasingly restive Republican sentiment.

All this demonstrates why the GOP is hamstrung at the moment. It can’t change the subject from Foley to Iraq, for obvious reasons. And it can’t change the subject from Iraq to the domestic realm, because the Foley scandal is dominant there. And if it tries to dismiss the Foley scandal as a liberal/Democratic/gay/Soros conspiracy, there are now plenty of prominent conservative voices who recognize the GOP leaders’ culpability – and perceive the serious political dangers, on the eve of the ’06 elections.

Consider Myrna Blyth, an author who considers herself a scourge of liberalism. She writes today on the National Review website that the “security moms” of 2004, the married women with children who voted for President Bush, have become the outraged moms of 2006:

What were those guys thinking? That is what every woman I’ve spoken to has said about the Foley mess…Unlike the discussions about the war, this is a very simple story to understand. Most of us don’t know what to do about Iraq or Iran or North Korea. There can be plenty of debate about how to handle these enormous challenges. But we do know how we should act if we were told about someone sending inappropriate messages to a teenager and we were in a position to do something about it. We would ask many more, and tougher, questions than these Congressmen say they did. And we would act to protect the kid and any other youngster whom that overly friendly guy might be tempted to bother. It has nothing to do with politics or policy, but just common sense. And the fact that the Republican leaders didn’t show enough concern, and some basic common sense, is what is most troubling of all.”

The exodus of these women could spell doom at the polls. Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia, one of our most detail-oriented political junkies, today has a new comprehensive rundown of the GOP’s deepening woes, here. No doubt it will be interesting to see what Tom Reynolds, one of the House GOP leaders currently on the hot seat, has to say when he defends himself this Sunday morning on ABC’s This Week; he’s the guy who, as director of the ’06 Republican campaign effort, persuaded Mark Foley to run for re-election even though evidence of Foley’s pursuit of underage House pages had already surfaced. That could be a cringe-worthy interview.

But for the moment, at least, the cringe-worthy award goes to whoever wrote the editorial yesterday in The Hill, a serious newspaper that covers Congress. Charting the various conflicting statements that Hastert and House Majority Leader John Boehner have issued about the Foley scandal, the editorial writer concludes with this gift to Leno and Letterman:

“Hastert and Boehner need to get on the same page or Republican troubles will continue to mount.”

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The art of political apologia, which Nixon called "the modified limited hangout route"

Politicians generally take responsibility for errors only when trapped in a corner with no way out. And since such a confession has to be wrung out of them, what value does the mea culpa really have?

So it goes with the House Speaker Dennis Hastert - which is ironic, given the fact that his man in the White House has been trying to paint the GOP as the party of personal responsibility; as President Bush said in 2003, “The culture of America is changing from one that has said, ‘if it feels good, do it’ and ‘if you've got a problem, blame somebody else,’ to a new culture in which each of us understands we are responsible for the decisions we make in life."

Until today, when he realized he was cornered, Hastert apparently didn’t get that memo.

In recent days, while being peppered with evidence that his office took no substantive action against congressman Mark Foley despite repeated warnings, and while being assailed for this inaction by other Republican leaders (who didn’t want to accept responsibility, either), Hastert had been busy trying to blame somebody else.

It’s all a Democratic plot, he said. It‘s all a liberal media plot, he said. It’s a liberal conspiracy, he said. And sometimes it’s all three: “"When the (Republican) base finds out who's feeding this monster, they're not going to be happy. The people who want to see this thing blow up are ABC News and a lot of Democratic operatives, people funded by George Soros,” a reference to the rich liberal philanthropist who has been on the GOP’s bogeyman roster since 2004.

Well, the GOP House leader’s bid to perpetuate the blame-somebody-else culture was foiled today in the wake of reports that the key scandal tipster was actually a former House Republican staffer. And it was becoming increasingly difficult, as well as politically embarrassing, for Hastert to fend off responsibility when the people “feeding this monster” were actually his brethren in the GOP hierarchy. I doubt that Majority Whip Roy Blunt first consulted with George Soros before remarking yesterday that Hastert had been slow to act in the Foley matter (“you have to be curious, you have to ask all the questions you can think of”); and I doubt that Senator John McCain first touched base with “Democratic operatives” before essentially saying yesterday that Hastert cannot be trusted to fully probe the Foley affair (“I think it needs to be addressed by people who are credible”).

Blunt, by the way, put out a new statement this afternoon, insisting that he and Hastert are tight. He said, “There is not, and has not been, any daylight between the Speaker and me” – which is curious, since 24 hours earlier, he had demonstrated precisely the opposite. But such contradictions typically abound during political crises, when the urge is to circle the wagons.

Besides, Hastert was dissed today, in awkward fashion, by one of the Republicans who serves on the House Ethics Committee. Congressman Doc Hastings at first told reporters that Hastert, as House leader, has done “an excellent job.” Then he felt the need to amend himself: “Before I, before we quit here, I just simply want to say the remarks that I made regarding Speaker Hastert is not related to the matter at hand here.”

Meanwhile, Hastert was getting cornered by the adverse public reaction. An Associated Press-IPSOS poll, conducted in the wake of the Foley revelations, shows that half of all likely November voters now view corruption and scandal disclosures as very or extremely important voting factors – and, by a 2-1 margin, they see the Democrats as the party more capable of conducting a cleanup. And, according to a new Time poll, two-third of Americans with knowledge of the Foley scandal believe that the GOP leaders covered it up.

Thus trapped with no exit strategy, Hastert shifted into contrition mode this afternoon, at a press event in his native Illinois: “The bottom line is, I am taking responsibility for it, because ultimately the buck stops here. I'm sorry that this happened.” Whether these remarks are enough to save his speaker job, or trigger a pro-GOP public opinion resurgence, is another matter, of course. If you read between the lines, he’s not saying that he did anything wrong. He’s just saying he has to shoulder the hit because his high standing requires it – and he’s only saying this under duress anyway. Indeed, conservative commentator Larry Kudlow at National Review Online is not impressed: “(Hastert) didn’t take responsibility for the timeline that clearly points to either his knowing about the Foley problem, or his staff knowing, which is all the same thing in my view.”

But just to demonstrate that Hastert is merely one example of the coerced contrition phenomenon, consider one of his foot soldiers, Pennsylvania congressman Donald Sherwood. He got some bad publicity a few years ago when word broke that the veteran campaigner for family values had allegedly tried to choke his longtime extramarital mistress – who then sued him and ultimately settled out of court (the details were sealed). He tried toughing it out, which seemed like a good idea, given the fact that he had long been unassailable in his district.

But now that he’s trailing his challenger by nine points in the polls with just a month left in the campaign (and with only 60 percent of Republicans saying they will vote for him), he wants everybody to know how sorry he feels, and he’s ponying up the money to say it. A new TV ad that went on the air yesterday: “I made a mistake that nearly cost me the love of my wife, Carol, and our daughters. As a family, we’ve worked through this because of my deep regret, our love, and the fact that the allegation of abuse was never true. While I’m truly sorry for disappointing you, I never wavered from my commitment to reduce taxes, create jobs and bring home our fair share. Should you forgive me, you can count on me to keep on fighting hard for you and your family.”

To appreciate the grudging nature of erring politicians, here’s some historical perspective: Richard Nixon said he took responsibility for Watergate (after his aides started getting indicted), but he quit his job without taking the blame. Senator Bob Packwood (remember him?) finally said he was sorry about all the women he had sexually harassed, ``if I did the things that they said I did.'' Lest we forget Chappaquiddick, Senator Edward Kennedy went into contrition mode in a TV address, yet seemed to put the blame on his vehicle: ``The car that I was driving went off a narrow bridge.'' And, of course, there was Bill Clinton, who ‘fessed about Monica Lewinsky in an August 1998 TV address (``a personal failure . . . for which I am solely and completely responsible'') only because she had just cut a deal with the special prosecutor and his avenues of escape had closed.

Undoubtedly, the current defenders of the Hastert regime – mindful of the impending congressional elections – will cite such cases (the Democratic cases, anyway) in an effort to diffuse the Foley issue and contend that sleaze is a bipartisan phenomenon. But only the Hastert GOP establishment is on the ballot next month, and this scandal looms (in the words of columnist George Will) as “a maraschino cherry atop the Democrats' delectable sundae of Republican miseries.”

Former Democratic Louisiana congressman Edwin Edwards once framed the terms of political failure thusly: “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.” And in our techie era, instant messaging can be as politically risky as an actual boudoir.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Hastert seeks shelter with Rush, but it's raining too hard

Quote of the day, from House Speaker Dennis Hastert: “We are the insulation to protect this country.”

One could argue, of course, that Hastert and others in the congressional Republican leadership haven’t exactly excelled at sufficiently insulating certain underage Americans. But Hastert was not referring here to the Mark Foley/GOP leadership scandal. Actually, he was referring to 9/11 – the party’s predictable default defense. Here’s how it works: If anyone suggests that the governing party might have screwed something up (such as, for example, by allowing a veteran Republican congressman to prey on kids), then the party is simply to respond by saying, in effect, “Vote for us if you want to live.”

Just as noteworthy was the venue where Hastert uttered that remark. Under fire from all sides, fighting to hang on to his lofty title, and seeking a friendly place where he knew he could be insulated and protected from serious questions about his own conduct in the Foley matter, he sought refuge yesterday with the most obsequious shouter in the conservative echo chamber.

I am referring, of course, to Rush Limbaugh.

One could make the case that, at a time when Hastert needs to defend his party’s family-values credentials, it might be seem odd to seek out Limbaugh, a guy with a history of bad marriages and drug prescription fraud. But what matters is that he’s such an accommodating host. For instance…

Rush: "Well, it's clear to me that what the Democrats are doing here in some sort of cooperation with some in the media is to suppress conservative turnout by making it look like you guys knew this all along but because you're so interested in holding the House rather than protecting children that you covered it up."
Hastert: "Yeah."

Here’s another…

Rush: "This is a strategic political, or politically timed, release of information, particularly based on how long ago it has been known, and there is -- I have to tell you there's -- a hunger and a real craving amongst conservative voters for Republicans in Washington, House and Senate both, to simply refuse to be set back on your heels and accept this defensive position and just go on offense and strike back at these guys. 'Hey, Mark Foley is not what the future of this country is about. It's about protecting the nation, national security, prosperity, ongoing efforts to maintain a good economy, not destroying the health care system,' and this sort of thing. Is there a problem that Republicans in the House and the Senate have about going on offense when these kind of things happen?"
Hastert: "Absolutely not."

And this...

Rush: "Okay. Before I let you go, you know that the Democrats and the media are going to continue to press the Foley issue -- even though you've dealt with it, even though he's gone, even though the mistake has been corrected. What is the battle plan to deal with these continuing allegations and accusations that are going to be designed to depress voter turnout?"

Hastert’s answers don’t even matter, since Limbaugh basically does all the heavy rhetorical lifting. For instance, look again at the latter Limbaugh comment. Especially the part where he says “even though you’ve dealt with it…even though the mistake has been corrected.” There’s something a tad odd about those pronouncements – such as the fact that they’re flat wrong.

It now turns out, according to news reports today, that Hastert’s office had multiple opportunities to deal with the Foley issue starting back in 2003 – and never dealt with it, never corrected the “mistake.” Limbaugh’s initial remark notwithstanding, it’s not “the Democrats” who are blowing the whistle on Hastert; it’s his own side.

Foley’s former chief of staff, Kirk Fordham, said today that he warned senior Hastert staffers more than three years ago that his boss was preying on the House pages. Hastert’s office then put out a statement which contends that Fordham is lying. Fordham then put out a statement saying that Hastert’s office is lying: “"Rather than trying to shift the blame on me, those who are employed by these House leaders should acknowledge what they know about their action or inaction in response to the information they knew about Mr. Foley prior to 2005.”

And sorry, Rush, but if the issue has been “dealt with,” then why are House Republicans weighing the idea of bringing in a high-profile attorney to assess the situation (as the Wall Street Journal reported today), and why has the House Ethics Committee (along with the Justice Department and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement), deemed it appropriate to probe this matter further?

With top officials in the “family values” party now calling each other liars, is it any wonder that clear-headed conservatives are fearing a political debacle? Hastert might not have fared so easily if he had sat down today with Rich Lowry of the National Review:

“The fundamental problem congressional Republicans are experiencing now is that they have almost no moral capital left after the last two years. Again and again, when given the choice to reform their practices or do little or nothing, they always picked the latter. On travel, on Abramoff, on earmarking—you name it. The impression they always gave was that the integrity of the institution and the public interest had to take a back-seat to their own convenience.

“They wanted to squeak by this year on gerrymandering, negative ads, and money, and just might have succeeded—had nothing more gone wrong. Well, now it has and people feel confirmed in what they always suspected: that it is unable to police its own practices and is full of people who don't follow the same rules as the rest of us. This is deadly."

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A crisis for the party of "family values"

The Mark Foley scandal is the Cliff Notes version of the Jack Abramoff scandal.

Even though both share a common theme – Republicans breaching their conservative principles in order to perpetuate their power – the details of the Abramoff scandal can’t be reduced to resonant shorthand. Abramoff, a high-rolling lobbyist who in his youth embodied the conservative revolution, defrauded clients and poured tainted money that was routed through various non-profit front groups into the GOP’s coffers…you see the problem. How many voters can grasp all that in a heartbeat? The Foley case, however, is something else. Here’s the shorthand: “The party of conservative family values knew about a member who was preying on boys, yet did nothing about it.”

Why bother trying to navigate the nuances of federal campaign and lobbying laws, and to figure out how they apply to Abramoff and his GOP golfing buddies, when you can behold the honorable Mr. Foley - as chairman of the congressional Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus, he was the GOP's designated guardian of our nation's youth - taking a leisure break in 2003 from the rigors of House business in order to have Internet sex with an underage male?

Here he is (Maf54), as revealed this afternoon in the latest exchange supplied by a former page to ABC News. Foley had ducked out of the chamber, in the midst of a floor discussion over Iraq war appropriations.

Maf54: I miss you
Teen: ya me too
Maf54: we are still voting
Maf54: you miss me too
(The exchange continues in which Foley and the teen apparently describe their orgasms.)
Maf54: ok..i better go vote..did you know you would have this effect on me
Teen: lol I guessed
Teen: ya go vote…I don't want to keep you from doing our job
Maf54: can I have a good kiss goodnight
Teen: :-*

No wonder the governing GOP is in full panic mode today. Midterm elections are all about party base turnout; if partisan Republican voters are more motivated than their Democratic counterparts, then the GOP wins (see the Newt Gingrich election of 1994), and vice versa. The Foley scandal, which more accurately might be called the House Republican leadership scandal, has the potential to depress turnout among the social and religious conservatives who, despite all their frustrations with the ruling GOP, have at least been secure in their belief that the leaders were protecting family values.

But now conservative voters know that House Speaker Dennis Hastert was informed months ago about Foley, yet did nothing to investigate further. (Hastert’s story is that he says he doesn’t remember the warning, and he’s sticking to it).

And the conservative voters know that John Shimkus, the Republican congressman who oversees the House Page Board (which runs the teenage page program) was told about Foley in 2005, yet kept the matter under wraps by failing to share the information with the only Democrat who serves with him on the Page Board.

And the conservative voters are wondering why the warning about Foley didn’t immediately spur the GOP hierarchy to action – given the fact that Capitol Hill denizens have known for years about Foley’s interest in underage males. One possible answer is that Foley was a cash cow for the party. He raised a ton of money for the ’06 House re-election campaigns, a credential that was useful to GOP congressman Tom Reynolds, chairman of the ’06 House campaign effort – who also knew this past spring about some of Foley’s emails, yet did nothing to investigate further…beyond telling his boss.

Reynolds, in other words, is the guy who says he passed the tip about Foley to Speaker Hastert. This is the tip that Hastert says he doesn’t remember, even though Hastert conceded yesterday on CNN that he might have heard it “in the context of maybe a half a dozen or a dozen other things.” (I suppose this means that, if a House leader is told that one of his top members is preying on underage kids, it’s just not very memorable.)

Anyway, the weight of this affair is starting to crack the conservative coalition. This morning, the editorial page of the Washington Times, a staunch defender of the faith, demanded that Hastert vacate his job: “Either he was grossly negligent for not taking the red flags fully into account and ordering a swift investigation, for not even remembering the order of events leading up to last week's revelations -- or he deliberately looked the other way in hopes that a brewing scandal would simply blow away. He gave phony answers Friday to the old and ever-relevant questions of what did he know and when did he know it? Mr. Hastert has forfeited the confidence of the public and his party, and he cannot preside over the necessary coming investigation, an investigation that must examine his own inept performance."

Conservative commentator Brendan Miniter writes in today’s Wall Street Journal that “it's the implication of willful ignorance that will plague the GOP…Republicans were unwilling to take a closer look at something that long ago demanded a much more detailed inspection. If the GOP had uncovered Mr. Foley last year or even this past spring, the party wouldn't now be facing a full blown sex scandal in October. Heading into this election year, Democrats knew they had a chance to retake the House, if everything broke their way. What no one predicted is that they'd be handed so many breaks by Republicans.”

Conservative activist Bay Buchanan, sister of Pat, excoriated the GOP leadership on CNN yesterday: “They had an obligation, that same day (when they were first informed), to investigate him further, to call in the FBI, if that was an appropriate action, and also to call in those pages and make certain that every one of them was interviewed to see if there (are) any problems here that go deeper than what (the leaders) are already knew. They failed the parents of this country, is what they did.”

Failed the parents of this country…There’s the Democrats’ bumper-sticker message, courtesy of the opposition.

It should be noted, of course, that not all conservatives and Republican leaders profess to be upset or worried about the Foley scandal and its potential impact on the ’06 elections. A number of rebuttals have already been floated:

1. The “all in good fun” defense. Tony Snow, the White House press secretary and one-time conservative commentator, tried this one yesterday. He dismissed Foley’s chatter with the kids as “simply naughty.”

2. The “yeah, well, what about Bill Clinton?” defense. This one was to be expected. Commentator Ben Stein wrote yesterday that Foley is just “a poor misguided Republican man who had a romantic thing for young boys,” but that’s nothing compared to “a man named Bill Clinton who did not send suggestive emails as far as we know, but who had a barely legal intern give him oral sex…”

3. The “who’s out to get us?” defense. Mark Levin, an attorney for a conservative legal foundation, blogged Sunday that the real outrage in the Foley case is that somebody was leaking about Foley to the press on the eve of the ’06 elections: “The timing of this revelation has more to do about helping Nancy Pelosi and the House Democrats than protecting teenagers.” (But Brian Ross, who broke the saga late last week on the ABC News website, indicated in a New York Times story today that his sources were Republican.)

4. The “homosexual agenda” defense. One top religious conservative group, the Family Research Council, broke its silence on the story late yesterday by arguing that, even though “the slow response” of House leaders is noteworthy, “the real issue” is that Foley is proof of the depravity of gay behavior – because he demonstrates “the link between homosexuality and child sexual abuse.” (Actually, many abuse experts have long concluded the overwhelming majority of men who sexually abuse children live their lives as heterosexual men.)

Nevertheless, it’s noteworthy that a number of religious conservative groups haven’t lifted a finger to defend the Republican leaders. Not a word about the scandal has appeared thus far on the websites of the Traditional Values Coalition, the Christian Coalition or Focus on the Family. And it’s noteworthy that conservatives who normally train their fire at liberals and the Democrats are instead invoking the Foley scandal as just the latest example of the GOP’s culture of corruption.

Witness Richard Viguerie, the legendary conservative activist who pioneered direct mail fundraising back in the days when the movement was in the wilderness. Last night on CNN, he rebuked the GOP leadership for the Foley scandal by resurrecting the old Watergate question: “Who knew what, and when did they know it?”

Then he said: “This is not an issue standing alone by itself. We have many years of these Republican leaders engaging in whatever type of activity…simply for the sole, immoral, corrupt purpose of holding onto power….They use conservative voters, conservative issues, conservative donors, in order to get elected, and then they abandon those voters.”

In other words, the same voters who were already fed up with the GOP’s deficit spending, troublesome war, and the failure to outlaw gay marriage now have another potential reason to stay home on election day.

Conservative commentator Tod Lindberg remarked with wry sarcasm this morning that the GOP had actually been gaining ground during September, passing some decent bills, capitalizing on the 9/11 anniversary, and anticipating success in November… “Why, it would take something on the order of a Capitol Hill Republican sex scandal involving minors plus a leadership coverup to undo such fine political handiwork. And what are the chances of that?”

Monday, October 02, 2006

The "Woodward is terrific" talking point is now inoperative

The Bush administration has apparently come up with a set of rules designed to help Americans determine how they should feel about journalist and author Bob Woodward:

1. If Woodward writes a book which paints the president as a wise, steely-eyed, resolute, and well-informed Decider, and if he depicts the top presidential aides as seamless cogs in a wise, steely-eyed, and resolute war team, then he is to be lauded as a credit to his craft, as a paragon of objectivity, and his books are to be praised by the Republican party as must-reads for all good citizens.

Hence the decision by the Republican National Committee in 2002 to promote Woodward’s Bush at War on the official RNC website. Hence the gushing praise from Condoleezza Rice two years later, upon the publication of Woodward’s Plan of Attack, when she told CNN that Woodward “is terrific, he’s a great journalist." Hence the happy talk from White House counselor Dan Bartlett, who in 2004 seemed ready to join the publicity team at Simon & Schuster: “We’re urging people to buy the book.”

2. But if the same Bob Woodward writes a book that depicts Bush as a clueless commander-in-chief who seems incapable of telling the full truth about the Iraq war in part because he seems incapable of processing factual reality; and if the same Bob Woodward shows the supposedly vaunted war team to be increasingly dysfunctional as the occupation of Iraq drags on…well, that means he is not a “great journalist” at all. Quite the contrary, in fact.

The aforementioned Dan Bartlett, who praised Woodward for doing a “good job” in 2004, has now suddenly decided that – brainstorm - the guy is really bad at his job. The new Woodward book, State of Denial, is in the stores today, and it doesn’t exactly burnish the Decider’s image; for instance, while chronicling Iraq administrator Jay Garner’s disenchantment with his bosses, Woodward writes (clearly from Garner’s perspective) that “in these moments where Bush had someone from the field there in the chair beside him, he did not press, he did not try to open the door himself and ask what the visitor had seen and thought. The whole atmosphere too often resembled a royal court with Cheney and Rice in attendance, some upbeat stories, exaggerated good stories and a good time had by all.”

The White House spent most of the past weekend trying to knock the book down, and to depict its author as just another biased scribe with an unfair agenda. Bartlett told ABC yesterday that, even though White House officials had cooperated with Woodward as usual, “from the outset, he had already formulated conclusions before the interviews began.”

It’s easy to see what happened: Woodward, who in recent years has been assailed by Bush critics as the administration’s court stenographer, was returning to his favorite subject – Bush at war – at a time when long years of conflict in Iraq had clearly taken their toll on the president and his team. The violence was getting worse, and the private assessments at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill did not square with the sunnier public assessments about the war. (During the same week that the Joint Chiefs of Staff circulated a secret memo warning about the potential for increasing violence in Iraq through 2007, the administration, via Donald Rumsfeld’s office, told the public that the violence was likely to “wane.” Woodward also strongly suggests, in his book, that Rumsfeld remains entrenched at the Pentagon because Bush is reluctant to confront him.)

The track record of failed promises and the growing mountain of documentation (already mined by many other authors) were impossible for Woodward to ignore. So he asked questions about these things, and the White House didn’t like that; as Bartlett sees it, Woodward had already “formulated conclusions.”

On the Sunday shows yesterday, Bartlett also left open the possibility that Woodward may have simply concocted some explosive material – such as his description of a meeting, two months before 9/11, between national security adviser Rice and CIA chief George Tenet. In the book, Tenet hurried to the White House with a top aide in tow, hoping to share his urgent concerns about an imminent terrorist attack on American soil, but Rice reportedly blew him off. Bartlett told CBS yesterday that Rice doesn’t remember such an encounter. When host Bob Schieffer asked Bartlett if he thought Woodward would make up such a scene, Bartlett said, “I just don’t know. It leaves us somewhat puzzled.”

But it’s not puzzling at all. Clearly, Tenet was Woodward’s source, and that’s the point: When government insiders start fighting in print with other insiders, that’s a sign of serious trouble.
When the wheels come off in Washington, when major policies go awry and message discipline breaks down, insiders often flee the wreckage while trying to salvage their own reputations. They typically do this by dishing to reporters. That’s clearly what has happened in State of Denial. But what I also detect, after reading several book excerpts, is that some of the insiders dished to Woodward because they were deeply frustrated by an administration that seems determined not to confront its shortcomings on the war. As Woodward said on CBS last night, “There is a concern that we need to face realism (and not be) the voice that says ‘Oh no, everything’s fine.’ Well, it’s not.”

It was noteworthy yesterday that the administration’s rebuke of Woodward was basically polite. It didn’t brand Woodward with the liberal label, or link him to Michael Moore, or imply via insinuation that he was somehow helping the terrorists. That would have never worked. Three times the White House has welcomed Woodward into the fold, thereby vetting his credentials.

And he is also a brand name in America. Scores of books critical of the Bush administration have been published this year; very few will influence the ’06 political climate, on the eve of important congressional elections. Woodward’s might be the exception. He and his book will be publicized all week on everything from Charlie Rose to Larry King, and the White House will be stuck in response mode.

Woodward in a sense may be late to the game – documents showing the fact gap between Iraq reality and White House rhetoric have been available, and abundantly reported, for much of the past four years – but Woodward potentially confers extra credibility, if only because he was so solicitous of the administration’s viewpoint in his earlier works.

Some Bush defenders insist that the Woodward episode will simply blow over; in the words of conservative radio host and blogger Hugh Hewitt, "the public will grow bored quickly, and Woodward will clip another set of royalty coupons and the (2006) campaign will be right back where it has been since the July arrests surrounding the London bombing plot: A choice between serious and surrender on the issues surrounding security and the war."

Perhaps. But Woodward's damning critique can also be viewed in an historical context. Back in 1968, Lyndon Johnson knew he was in political trouble over Vietnam when Walter Cronkite reported critically on the war; LBJ reportedly said that when he lost Cronkite, he knew he had lost the center of the electorate. It would now appear that President Bush has lost Bob Woodward.