Did the President really just say that?
Is George Bush going mad? Losing his grip on reality?
In a photo op in the Oval Office with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan yesterday, Bush made a comment at the very end of the event that didn’t quite jibe with the collectively agreed upon reality:
The larger point is, and the fundamental question is, did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is, absolutely. *And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn’t let them in.* And, therefore, after a reasonable request, we decided to remove him from power, along with other nations, so as to make sure he was not a threat to the United States and our friends and allies in the region. I firmly believe the decisions we made will make America more secure and the world more peaceful. (Emphasis added.)
Now, I don’t know about you, but I distinctly remember Hans Blix et al. running around Iraq while Saddam was in power, often accompanied by Iraqi minders who were there, one would suspect, on the orders of Saddam Hussein.
Joe Conason over at Salon has a good take on this, including this nugget: “Another recent president once said something that was blatantly untrue, if fairly trivial, and the videotape of his statement was replayed again, and again, and again, and again…” He also points to Dana Milbank’s _Washington Post_ coverage of the event, which has this marvelously understated passage:
The president’s assertion that the war began because Iraq did not admit inspectors appeared to contradict the events leading up to war this spring: Hussein had, in fact, admitted the inspectors and Bush had opposed extending their work because he did not believe them effective.
I can just imagine the uncomfortable shuffling of feet in the room as reporters glanced to each other. “Did he just really say that?” they may have whispered to each other once Bush was out of earshot.
Actually, I take that back. Judging from a quick Nexis search, most reporters yesterday completely missed the comment. Nexis reveals just 10 hits on the quote, and five of them are the same Knight-Ridder story, one is a story in the Irish Times, which gives Bush’s comment headline treatment, and another is a CNN transcript of the event. The last three are government transcripts. Newsday has something on it, and CNN’s Wolf Blitzer quotes it, but — astonishingly — doesn’t address it all. “The best way for the White House to resolve the matter once and for all — of course — is for the Bush administration actually to locate weapons of mass destruction,” writes Blitzer. “Short of that, the debate will not only continue but is likely to intensify in the weeks and months to come.”
Shame, shame, you guys in the D.C. press corps.
[UPDATE On his first day on the job, new White House press secretary Scott McClellan had to respond to Bush’s “he wouldn’t let them in” statement. He said this:
*Q* Two quick questions, one on Iraq. When the President said of Saddam Hussein, we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in and he wouldn’t let them in, why didn’t he say that, when the inspectors went into Iraq?
*MR. McCLELLAN:* What he was referring to was the fact that Saddam Hussein was not complying with 1441, that he continued his past pattern and refused to comply with Resolution 1441 of the United Nations Security Council, which was his final opportunity to comply. And the fact that he was trying to thwart the inspectors every step of the way, and keep them from doing their job. So that’s what he’s referring to in that statement.
*Q* But that isn’t what he said.
*Q* Just quickly on a different subject, on North Korea. …
Argh! Why the hell did someone not keep up on that line of questioning?]
Anyway, statements like Bush’s are truly freaky, and remind me of his Social Security line in the closing days of the 2000 election (“They want the federal government controlling the Social Security like it’s some kind of federal program!”) He often says stupid things when he’s under stress, and when he’s coming up with whoppers like this, Ari Fleischer’s assertions that the president has “moved on” don’t quite ring true. And it’s playing havoc with the Bush White House’s aura of inevitability.
Much of Team Bush’s success has been because officials are adept at presenting a _fait accompli_ to opponents and the public. They also like to imbue Bush with some kind of Pope-like infallibility, sort of like he’s the Gipper’s vicar. THis technique worked in Florida, when he assumed a presidential stance in the days after the election, even though everyone knew by that point that it was very much up in the air. It worked for a while after May 1, when Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln and declared the Iraq war as a “mission accomplished.”
As long as the Washington press corps and an apathetic public allowed the White House to do this, it worked like a charm. Unfortunately — for Bush — it now looks like that era is over. There’s blood in the water and tossing DCI George Tenet over the side won’t do much to calm the churn, especially after the White House has made contradictory declarations regarding the CIA.
There’s no doubt the White House is in disarray and in full damage control mode. The uranium story may be the spark to ignite a full-on forest fire of media scrutiny licking at Bush’s toes as he makes convoluted statements regarding Iraq. And if that happens, the larger story about the reasons for war might get so hot, it will be radioactive.