Bush compromises, sets aside a principle

Testimony: Campaign advisers pressed the White House to give in, fearing that voters might turn away.

March 31, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - For three years, President Bush refused to budge on what he portrayed as a sacred and nonnegotiable principle: His advisers would not testify publicly, so they could always feel secure in giving him candid advice that would remain private.

Yesterday, Bush budged.

Under intense pressure, the president said he would allow Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, to testify publicly and under oath before the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.

White House officials did all they could to stress that Bush still believes that his aides should not have to testify in the public eye. But in the case of Rice, the president and his advisers seemed to calculate that the longer the struggle dragged on, the more likely that voters would conclude that the White House had something to hide.

Analysts noted that any perceived blemish on Bush's image as a leader effectively battling terrorism could inflict political harm. The president, after all, has staked his campaign for re-election on his reputation as a war president who has made the nation safer.

"This came down to a cost-benefit analysis," said John J. Pitney Jr., a government professor at Claremont-McKenna College in California.

"This was all proving a distraction," said Pitney, who served as an aide to Vice President Dick Cheney when Cheney was a member of Congress. "Every day they spent explaining why Condi Rice could not testify was a day they could not spend saying John Kerry will raise your taxes."

Bush aides insisted that the final decision to forge a compromise that will allow Rice to testify was made by the president and his legal counsel.

But the decision followed days of intensive lobbying by Bush campaign strategists, who were growing concerned about potential damage if more voters gained the impression that the White House was concealing information on a matter as deeply emotional to Americans as the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Whenever they came to ask us political types, we said, `Get her up there to testify,'" said a Republican strategist who serves as an informal campaign adviser to the president.

The adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there had been a "rare disagreement in the [Bush] camp" about whether Rice should testify publicly. Some advisers had suggested that whenever terrorism is in the news - even if the news is not decisively positive for Bush - it benefits him because, the advisers believe, the terrorism issue plays to the president's strength.

"But I guess I fall into a second camp," the adviser said, "which says that when you're on defense on any issue, it is a distraction for us. I mean, we may have wanted to be talking about the economy and taxes this week."

Bush's record in confronting terrorism came under assault over the past week, as Richard A. Clarke, his former counterterrorism chief, told the commission that Bush had all but ignored the threat of al-Qaida in the months leading to Sept. 11 and that afterward the president was so obsessed with Iraq that he shifted some of the U.S. focus and resources away from hunting al-Qaida.

The Bush administration has denied Clarke's charges and has aggressively tried to discredit him. But his accusations, coupled with the caustic debate over whether Rice could testify, seemed to be hurting the president. Though Bush's overall poll numbers have improved in recent days - he is slightly ahead of or even with Kerry in various surveys - a growing minority of Americans are casting doubts about his handling of the terrorism issue.

Yesterday was not the first time that Bush has caved in to pressure and reversed course on an issue related to terrorism in hopes of controlling any political damage. The president initially opposed the creation of the independent Sept. 11 commission in 2002. He later changed his mind after being lobbied by the families of victims.

Bush also came out against the creation of a Department of Homeland Security - but then supported the idea and eventually took credit for it. In addition, the president at first opposed appointing a commission to investigate possible intelligence failures over Iraq's alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction - but then appointed one.

And previously, Bush and his aides were adamant about never allowing public testimony from internal White House advisers such as Rice, in contrast to Cabinet members who lead federal agencies and testify often. In 2002, Bush refused to let Tom Ridge, then his White House homeland security adviser, to testify before Congress.

"That's part of the prerogative of the executive branch of government," Bush said at the time. "And we hold that very dear."

The reality for the president, said independent pollster Andrew Kohut, is that voters care little about that prerogative and more about getting to the bottom of what the government knew or did not know before the Sept. 11 attacks.

"I just don't think voters get all worked up" over presidential prerogatives, said Kohut, who directs the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.

"It was in their interest to quell this story. All these events have been raising doubts about Bush's handling of terrorism. And that should be worrisome for them. This is the issue on which Bush defines himself to Americans, more than any other."

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