Presidential credibility

October 31, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - President Bush is a man who obviously has little love for full-blown news conferences. He clearly prefers the quickies, often with a visiting foreign leader in tow. So when he held only the 10th in his 33 months in office the other day in the Rose Garden, you had to think he had a clear purpose in mind.

It didn't take long to figure out what that purpose was. In the wake of the latest disconcerting news from Iraq, where opponents of his occupation were making their feelings known in acts of bloody retaliation, he declared what nobody doubted: "We're not leaving."

The president's credibility on other matters, however, continues to be compromised by other remarks he has been making regarding Iraq. His insistence that such attacks only confirmed the progress being made by the occupation in restoring the Iraqi economy and society invited ridicule from the Democrats.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, a presidential candidate, asked: "Does the president really believe that suicide bombers are willing to strap explosives to their bodies because we're restoring electricity and creating jobs for Iraqis?"

Even Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona suggested that Mr. Bush was trying to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. "This is the first time that I have seen a parallel to Vietnam, in terms of information that the administration is putting out vs. the actual situation on the ground," he told Newsweek.

That sort of comparison with the deceptions of the Johnson and Nixon administrations on Vietnam is precisely what the Bush administration wants to avoid, knowing how such subterfuges crippled the credibility of the two earlier presidents.

The credibility issue surfaced at Tuesday's news conference. A reporter noted that "in recent weeks, you and your White House team have made a concerted effort to put a positive spin on progress in Iraq," at the same time a leaked memo by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had revealed "a more somber assessment in private."

The reporter added: "There are people out there who don't believe that the administration is leveling with them about the difficulty and scope of the problem in Iraq."

Mr. Bush replied: "I can't put it any more plainly. Iraq's a dangerous place. That's leveling."

But even on relatively insignificant things, the president leaves himself open to accusations of dissembling. When another reporter reminded him of that banner aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in May proclaiming "Mission Accomplished" when "you declared major combat operations were over," he disavowed having anything to do with the banner.

It was put up by the ship's crew, he said, "saying that their mission was accomplished" and was "attributed somehow to some ingenious advance man from [my] staff." Mr. Bush's press secretary, Scott McClellan, later said that the White House had indeed produced the sign at the crew's request and that it was meant to refer to the crew's accomplishment of its mission "after a lengthy deployment."

But again the Democrats pounced on the misstatement, not so much on grounds of deception as on charges that the president had tried to pass the buck to the crew members. More an embarrassment than a serious deception, the incident nevertheless provided the opposition with another chance to challenge Mr. Bush's credibility.

The more pertinent matter regarding his believability is the continuing failure of American inspectors in Iraq to find those weapons of mass destruction, whose existence the president used as a prime rationale for launching his invasion.

The war in Iraq is no carbon copy of the war in Vietnam, but it is stirring the same questions about the validity of U.S. involvement that tortured LBJ and Richard Nixon and eventually challenged their credibility on their optimistic reports of progress in Vietnam. Mr. Bush is getting a taste of the same doubts, and not surprisingly is moving early to counter them.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau and appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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