This is the second of three reports based on the new book “Misunderestimated: The President Battles Terrorism, John Kerry and the Bush Haters” (Regan Books) by Bill Sammon, senior White House correspondent for The Washington Times.
President Bush’s top advisers think Democratic opponents and the press have an unhealthy obsession with the Vietnam War that threatens to dominate the re-election campaign against Sen. John Kerry.
White House political strategist Karl Rove said the Massachusetts Democrat and Vietnam veteran is trying to use his service to negate the president’s national-security credentials.
“He’s blatant about it,” Mr. Rove said of Mr. Kerry in a lengthy interview with The Washington Times. “He says: ‘Our Democratic Party has appeared weak on defense, and I can deal with that by demonstrating that I was a war hero in Vietnam.’ Which he was. I mean, the guy served with honor.”
But, the president’s most trusted political adviser added, “This is a guy who opposed every major weapons system we used to win the war on terror. This is a guy who, after we were struck in ‘93 at the World Trade Center bombing, said: ‘Let’s cut the intel budget.’
“This is a guy who says the war on terror is primarily a law-enforcement and intelligence matter. It ain’t. It’s a war.”
The press, meanwhile, raced to brand that war — first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq — a Vietnam “quagmire.” This mentality exasperated Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, a two-tour veteran of Vietnam.
“The press is fixated on Vietnam,” Mr. Powell said in an interview. “Everybody says, ‘Powell and all those generals still suffer from Vietnam Syndrome.’ No, I don’t.”
The Vietnam comparison by the press is “an incorrect characterization of the thinking within the U.S. military,” the secretary of state said. “I think the press is more sycophantic with respect to Vietnam than any general I’ve ever served with.”
White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., another military veteran, has his own observations on the phenomenon.
“I don’t think the press learned as much by what happened in Vietnam as the government did,” he said. “The people who are governing learned from what wasn’t done well in Vietnam — starting with political leadership making tactical decisions of war.”
Mr. Card added: “The media, in my opinion, kind of wants to relive the Vietnam experience.”
No one in the White House understands this predilection of the media better than National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, former provost of Stanford University. She is convinced that most Americans do not share the media’s view of Vietnam as some mystical “open wound.”
“I don’t think there’s an open wound for the country,” Miss Rice said. “I think the country has moved on.”
The left, on the other hand, seems stuck in place, she added.
“I come out of the university. And look, for the intelligentsia, there’s still an open wound about Vietnam. It’s a huge deal, and it’s like it’s unresolved still. I see it in my colleagues at Stanford. I see it in the press. It’s just unreconciled.”
To liberals, Miss Rice said, Vietnam symbolizes more than just an unsuccessful military venture.
“For people of that generation,” she said, “it became the lodestar for the questioning of authority. And authority was never to be trusted again.
“And so whenever people say ‘Vietnam,’ what they mean is ‘Authority is not to be trusted. Because the government had lied about the Gulf of Tonkin, they must be lying about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq’ — despite the fact that every reasonable person who knew anything about Iraq said there were weapons of mass destruction there.”
In 1992, Mr. Kerry defended presidential candidate Bill Clinton on the Senate floor against draft-dodging accusations leveled by a Democratic rival, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, himself a Vietnam veteran.
“I am saddened by the fact that Vietnam has yet again been inserted into the campaign,” Mr. Kerry said at the time. “Leadership requires that one help heal the wounds of Vietnam, not reopen them.”
He added: “We do not need to divide America over who served and how.”
But in his campaign for president this year, Mr. Kerry repeatedly has criticized not just Mr. Bush, but also Vice President Dick Cheney and Mr. Rove, for not serving in Vietnam. He even challenged the president to a debate on Vietnam.
In February, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe accused Mr. Bush of having been “AWOL,” or absent without official leave, from his duties in the Air National Guard more than 30 years ago. When Republicans countered that Mr. Bush received an honorable discharge, Mr. Kerry was not impressed.
“Was he present and active on duty in Alabama at the times he was supposed to be?” the Democratic challenger demanded. “Just because you get an honorable discharge does not, in fact, answer that question.”
But Mr. Kerry soon abandoned that line of attack, at least temporarily.
“He backpedaled from the AWOL thing,” Mr. Rove said earlier this year. “He began to distance himself from that because at some level he realized, or the people around him realized: ‘Hey, this is backfiring.’”
Mr. Kerry renewed his challenges to the president to “prove” his service after new questions arose in April about whether the Democratic candidate threw away his own “medals” or “ribbons” during a war protest in 1971.
Mr. Bush shrugs off the media’s fascination with Vietnam.
“That’s an inevitable part of this culture we’re in, which is there’s a lot of writers that remembered Vietnam and were legitimately concerned that the nation would get bogged down in another Vietnam,” Mr. Bush said in an interview with The Times. “On the other hand, I’ve got a different perspective.”
The president vowed never to repeat the central blunder of Vietnam-era politicians — trying to micromanage military operations. In the liberation of Iraq, for example, he allowed the use of decisive force.
“I want ‘decisive,’ ” said Mr. Powell, a retired Army general. “Why wouldn’t you want ‘decisive’? You want to go in with indecisive force? If you can gang up on somebody, don’t you gang up on somebody? Why do we buy all this stuff?”
‘Aware of the facts’
The media’s questionable Vietnam analogies are just one reason Mr. Bush does not pay much attention to press coverage of his administration.
“I don’t watch the nightly newscasts on TV, nor do I watch the endless hours of people giving their opinion about things,” the president said. “I don’t read the editorial pages; I don’t read the columnists.”
Yet Mr. Bush regularly monitors the news pages of a select few daily publications.
“I get the newspapers — the New York Times, The Washington Times, The Washington Post and USA Today — those are the four papers delivered,” he said. “I can scan a front page, and if there is a particular story of interest, I’ll skim it.”
The president prides himself on his ability to detect bias in ostensibly objective news stories.
“My antennae are finely attuned,” he said. “I can figure out what so-called ‘news’ pieces are going to be full of opinion, as opposed to news. So I’m keenly aware of what’s in the papers, kind of the issue du jour. But I’m also aware of the facts.”
Those facts are extracted from news stories each day and presented to the president by a half-dozen aides, Mr. Card among them.
“Since I’m the first one to see him in the morning, I usually give him a quick overview and get a little reaction from him,” Mr. Card explained. “Frequently, I find that his reaction kind of reflects [first lady] Laura Bush’s take.”
Indeed, the president often cites articles that Mrs. Bush flags for greater scrutiny, even when he has not personally slogged through those stories. Mrs. Bush routinely delves more deeply into the news pages than her husband, who prefers other sections.
“He does not dwell on the newspaper, but he reads the sports page every day,” Mr. Card said with a chuckle.
‘A clear outlook’
Mr. Bush thinks that immersing himself in voluminous, mostly liberal-leaning news coverage might cloud his thinking and even hinder his efforts to remain an optimistic leader.
“I like to have a clear outlook,” he said. “It can be a frustrating experience to pay attention to somebody’s false opinion or somebody’s characterization, which simply isn’t true.”
Although the president is not steeped in the minutiae of individual news articles, he is mindful of the press’ collective power as a political force. So he makes it his business to keep track of broad news trends, even if he doesn’t plow through all the details.
“I’m aware if there is yet another story about X, Y, Z in the newspaper,” Mr. Bush said. “I’m aware if there is seven straight days of a certain news story being run. I’m aware if there is three days of something.”
The president regularly strategizes with his spokesmen, including communications director Dan Bartlett and press secretary Scott McClellan, about how to best manage the news.
“I’m in constant touch with Dan and Scott about how to handle a particular story,” Mr. Bush said. “I help fashion responses — ‘Are you comfortable with us saying this about that?’ — on a regular basis.”
Mr. Rove is particularly wary of the press because it frequently caricatures the political strategist as the Svengali of the White House, a diabolical genius who pulls the strings of a puppet president. And yet he acknowledges a certain political utility in this characterization, because it allows him to function as Mr. Bush’s lightning rod.
“The president has what he calls the better-you-than-me theory,” Mr. Rove explained. “Look, this town runs on myths. It’s a convenient myth.”
Mr. Powell, by contrast, is something of a media darling because he is less conservative than Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney, Miss Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.
In fact, the secretary of state is almost liberal when compared with his own undersecretary, John Bolton, or Rumsfeld deputy Douglas Feith.
“I’m not as conservative as some of my other colleagues in the administration,” Mr. Powell said. “If you looked at all the things I believed in, from the social side of the ledger to the economic and military side of the ledger, and if you put, say, Cheney up around 90, and Don and Condi and company between 80 and 90, and you put Bolton and Feith at about 98, then I’d be somewhere around 60, 65.”
This disparity fuels countless press portraits of Mr. Powell as the lonely voice of reason in an administration teeming with right-wing extremists. He routinely is portrayed as a dove struggling mightily against hawks such as Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Cheney.
“The media, from the very first day I took the job, used this difference to create a stereotype,” Mr. Powell said. “It’s a stereotype that I fought for two and a half, three years.
“And now I just say: That’s the way it is, and here I am. You know, I’m 67, and I can’t be sent back to Vietnam for a third tour.”
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