By: Greg Mitchell
If you’ve ever fantasized about what it would be like to eavesdrop on our president chatting with some of his strongest fans in the media, then your decidedly odd dream has come true. President Bush met with eight leading conservative columnists on Wednesday afternoon, and a transcript has just been released.
It’s a fascinating fly-on-the-wall replay, nearly all on-the-record — as the president explains, “I’m a skeptical off-the-record” guy. Surprisingly, there’s less joking around than at most press conferences, although he does call Larry Kudlow of CNBC “Kuds” and claims he is a “blood and guts” guy. Clearly among friends (Krauthammer, Henninger, Blankley, and the rest), Bush states, “al-Qaeda is lethal as hell,” and then instructs, “scratch the ‘hell’ — it’s lethal.” Later he urges, “don’t be writing — don’t write me down as hopelessly naive and trying to always put lipstick on the pig.”
And there were, for me at least, some surprising revelations. Bush says, for example, that Gen. John Abizaid (“one of the really great thinkers”) was the one who “came up with” the recent construct about the enemy in Iraq, “If we leave, they will follow us here.” Bush then explains that this is what makes the Iraq struggle “really different from other wars we’ve been in.” This completely overlooks the official U.S. line in trying to halt the communists in Vietnam and Korea, not to mention the Nazis and the Japanese in World War II.
“I’m not a good faker,” Bush declares elsewhere, which some may disagree with.
Another revealing moment comes when Bush flatly declares that only “25% or so” of Americans want the U.S. out of Iraq. In fact, a Gallup poll released this week shows that the number is actually 54% who want us out quickly — within a year at most. Bush also mischaracterizes the war opponents, saying they “just don’t believe in war,” as if they are all pacifists.
Then he goes on: “I believe when you get attacked and somebody declares war on you, you fight back. And that’s what we’re doing.” Of course, this ignores the fact that Iraq did not declare war on us — but it’s been so long now, maybe he’s just forgotten.
A critical moment arrives when Bush announces, “And I’m trying to figure out a matrix that says things are getting better. I think that one way to measure is less violence than before, I guess. We’ll have to see what happens here after Ramadan. I believe these people — oh, I was going to tell you Abizaid believes Ramadan, no question, caused them to be more violent because he says there’s some kind of reward during Ramadan for violence.”
Memo to the president: Ramadan ended three days ago and the number of Americans killed continues to surge, with at least five killed in the past day alone.
But Bush calls the war “a struggle of good versus evil,” adding, “Maybe it’s not nuanced enough for some of the thinkers and all that stuff — that’s fine. But that’s exactly what a lot of people like me think.”
Sometimes the columnists offered Bush suggestions on how to sell the war on terror. This happened after the president described the enemy, bizarrely, in the broadest terms: “We will press and press and press to protect ourselves. And this stuff about how Iraq is causing the enemy — whatever excuse they need, they have made up their mind to attack, and they grab on to things to kind of justify. But if it’s not Iraq, it’s Israel. If it’s not Israel, it’s the Crusades. If it’s not the Crusades, it is the cartoon. I’m not kidding you. I’m not kidding you.”
This provokes “laughter,” according to the transcript. But Bush presses on. “They are cold-blooded killers.”
“If it’s not the Crusades, it’s the cartoon — that’s a good slogan,” one of his guests suggests.
Another suggestion comes from “Kuds” Kudlow, who opens his questioning by practically begging the president to let him come away with at least one tiny bit of positive spin about Iraq.
Kuds: “I want to go on the air tonight, I want some good news. I need some good news, sir.”
Bush: “Yes, I do, too.”
Kuds: “I really do.”
Bush: “You’re talking to Noah about the flood. I do, too. …”
Kuds: “You said if we leave Iraq they’ll come after us —
Kuds: “We’ve heard you say that quite specifically. So maybe that’s a sign of victory, is that they haven’t come here.”
With such high quality advice, it’s no wonder Bush closed the meeting, after 63 minutes, by saying, “Okay, guys, I hope you enjoyed it. I enjoyed it. We ought to do this more often.”
Related Pressing Issues column by Greg Mitchell: Rummy Among Friends