By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, August 15, 2005; 12:24 PM
Just about now, President Bush is probably wishing he'd built a secret back way out of his ranch.
And maybe something similar for Iraq as well.
Cindy Sheehan and her growing band of followers are camped out for the duration along the only road leading out of Bush's sprawling Crawford estate. The grieving mother of a soldier killed in Iraq has emerged as a powerful focal point for the hitherto amorphous majority of Americans who, according to a recent poll , want to see U.S. troops start leaving Iraq now.
Even as Bush awkwardly keeps Sheehan at bay, administration officials are spinning sometimes conflicting scenarios for an Iraqi endgame. There is talk of possible troop withdrawals -- or not -- amid what appears to be a concerted attempt to significantly diminish the mission's metrics for success.
Meanwhile, Bush remains publicly undaunted -- carefree, even. He took a bunch of journalists mountain-biking around his 1,600-acre property on Saturday and told them that the Sheehan siege is not preoccupying him.
"I think it's important for me to be thoughtful and sensitive to those who have got something to say," he said. "But I think it's also important for me to go on with my life, to keep a balanced life."
But public disapproval of Bush's war -- seemingly bolstered by every incremental piece of bad news from Iraq -- continues to coalesce around Sheehan in a way that he can't ignore.
Remember how everyone marveled at President Bill Clinton's ability to compartmentalize during the Lewinsky scandal? Well, you'd barely know there was a war protest next door judging from the enthusiasm with which Bush threw himself into Saturday's bike ride.
Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service: "President Bush defended his decision not to meet with the grieving mom of a soldier killed in Iraq, noting Saturday that lots of people want to talk to the president and 'it's also important for me to go on with my life.'
"Bush said he is aware of the anti-war sentiments of Cindy Sheehan and others who have joined her protest near the Bush ranch.
" 'But whether it be here or in Washington or anywhere else, there's somebody who has got something to say to the president, that's part of the job,' Bush said. 'And I think it's important for me to be thoughtful and sensitive to those who have got something to say.
" 'But,' he added, 'I think it's also important for me to go on with my life, to keep a balanced life.' "
In a separate story, Herman writes about a question for the ages: Whether Bush is the most physically fit president in U.S. history.
" 'That's up for pundits and historians' to decide, Bush said when asked whether he wants to claim the title as fittest president. . . .
"Americans want their president in shape and 'in a position to make good, crisp decisions,' Bush said.
" 'And part of my being is to be outside exercising. So I'm mindful of what goes on around me. On the other hand, I'm also mindful that I've got a life to live and will do so,' he said."
Bill Adair writes in the St. Petersburg Times: "Standing on the driveway outside his home, President Bush explains the rules for people who go mountain biking with him.
"It will be a vigorous workout. It is not a race. And no one, the president says with a smile, is allowed to pass him."
Adair also publishes some excerpts from the ride.
Sal Ruibal writes for USA Today that at the end of the ride, Bush "pulled out a cardboard box and passed out Peloton One bike socks to the participants, then posed with each rider for the official White House photographer.
"In keeping with his pet name habit, he referred to himself as 'Bike Guy.' It is clearly an identification that has great meaning for him.
" 'For me, this is a chance to feel like I'm outside the bubble,' he said. 'Whether it be here in Crawford, or Quantico, where we ride, or at Camp David or at Beltsville, Md. -- I get the sense of freedom.' "
Sheehan, No; Armstrong, Yes
Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press that Bush has invited seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong to go biking with him in Crawford next weekend.
Note to Readers
Many of you very kindly noticed that I didn't write my column last week. I had an oddly unshakable case of the flu. I'll try to play catch-up a bit today and tomorrow.
Peter Baker writes in Friday's Washington Post: "The Bush administration has sent seemingly conflicting signals in recent days over the duration of the U.S. deployment to Iraq, openly discussing contingency plans to withdraw as many as 30,000 of 138,000 troops by spring, then cautioning against expectations of any early pullout. Finally yesterday, President Bush dismissed talk of a drawdown as just 'speculation and rumors' and warned against 'withdrawing before the mission is complete.'
"If the public was left confused, it may be no more unsure than the administration itself, as some government officials involved in Iraq policy privately acknowledge.
"The shifting scenarios reflect the uncertain nature of the mission and the ambiguity of what would constitute its successful completion. For all the clarity of Bush's vow to stay not one day longer than needed, the muddled reality is that no one can say exactly when that will be."
Robin Wright and Ellen Knickmeyer write in Sunday's Washington Post: "The Bush administration is significantly lowering expectations of what can be achieved in Iraq, recognizing that the United States will have to settle for far less progress than originally envisioned during the transition due to end in four months, according to U.S. officials in Washington and Baghdad.
"The United States no longer expects to see a model new democracy, a self-supporting oil industry or a society in which the majority of people are free from serious security or economic challenges, U.S. officials say."
Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "Cindy Sheehan vaulted into national consciousness this month on the power of her story as the grieving mother of a fallen soldier.
"But what began as a solitary campaign to force a meeting with President Bush by setting up camp along the road to his ranch has quickly taken on the full trappings of a political campaign. Sheehan is working with a political consultant and a team of public relations professionals, and now she is featured in a television ad. . . .
"The rising profile of Sheehan's vigil has proved awkward for the president's staff, which has been reluctant to publicly refute the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, even as they do not wish to be seen as bowing to what they view as an orchestrated publicity campaign."
Martha Mendoza writes for the Associated Press: "Sheehan's peaceful vigil, her unstoppable anguish, her gentle way of speaking, have captured attention for an anti-war movement that until now hasn't had much of a leader. Over the past week she appeared on every major television and radio network and in newspapers around the world. . . .
"For the record, here's what she said she wants to tell [Bush]: 'I would say, what is the noble cause my son died for? And I would say if the cause is so noble has he encouraged his daughters to enlist? And I would be asking him to quit using Casey's sacrifice to justify continued killing, and to use Casey's sacrifice to promote peace.' "
Amanda Ripley writes for Time: "Sheehan is unflinching about why she's here. She says George W. Bush killed her son. She demands that U.S. troops come home now, and she insists on telling that to Bush personally. She speaks without caveat. 'I'm not afraid of anything since my son was killed,' she says. . . .
"Conservative commentator Michelle Malkin has called the protesters 'terrorist-sympathizing agitators.' But at a time when 56% of the respondents in a CNN poll say they think the war is going poorly, this wandering mother has tapped into a national well of worry: Are our troops dying in vain? . . .
"Once Sheehan starts acting like a politician, say some Republicans and even some Democrats, she will become just another voice in the debate -- easy, in other words, to neutralize. But until then, Bush's team cannot fire back hard, as it usually does when it is criticized. Sheehan must be handled, as an adviser to the President put it, 'very carefully.' And that's what it has been struggling to do."
Anne E. Kornblut writes in the New York Times: "The sleepy summer air has been punctured by a blast of antiwar energy, with carloads of activists appearing every afternoon to join a vigil begun by the mother of a soldier who died in Iraq.
"Flowers are delivered by the dozen at Camp Casey, as the muddy outpost established by the mother, Cindy Sheehan, near the Bush ranch is now called. White crosses have been hammered into the dirt, pink banners strewn across the trees, the police posted at bends in the road to wave gawkers along. . . .
"But even before Ms. Sheehan arrived, this sort of challenge was not entirely an unexpected one for Mr. Bush, who by the end of this summer will have spent more time away from the White House than any other president in history. His five-week sojourn at his 1,600-acre ranch offers the protesters ample opportunity to camp out for extended periods in front of the national media at a time of sharp spikes in the casualties in Iraq, and as public polling data suggests the lowest support for the war since it began."
In brief remarks to the press on Friday, Bush responded to Sheehan this way: "Part of my duty as the President is to meet with those who've lost a loved one. And so, you know, listen, I sympathize with Mrs. Sheehan. She feels strongly about her -- about her position. And I am -- she has every right in the world to say what she believes. This is America. She has a right to her position. And I've thought long and hard about her position. I've heard her position from others, which is, get out of Iraq now. And it would be -- it would be a mistake for the security of this country and the ability to lay the foundations for peace in the long-run, if we were to do so."
Previous Meetings With Grieving Families
Responding to Sheehan's request for a meeting, the White House trumpeted the fact that Bush has already met with her once, along with about 900 other family members of 272 soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Amanda Ripley writes in Time: "A senior aide who was present at many of the meetings estimates that a little less than 10% of the relatives tell Bush their loved ones died in vain. 'He's had a couple wives who were very upset,' says the aide. 'They didn't yell at him or hit him or anything like that. But on more than one occasion, they've made very clear their position.' "
Holly Bailey and Evan Thomas write in Newsweek that, based on reports from a few grieving family members, the president sometimes appears quite stricken in those private meetings. But what's not at all clear is "whether Bush's suffering is essentially sympathetic, or whether he is agonizing over the war that he chose to start."
Bailey and Thomas describe several emotional meetings, including one after which Bush "paused in the middle of the room and said to the families, 'I will never feel the same level of pain and loss you do. I didn't lose anyone close to me, a member of my family or someone that I love. But I want you to know that I didn't go into this lightly. This was a decision that I struggle with every day.' . . .
"His shoulder slumped and his face turned ashen. He began to cry and his voice choked. He paused, tried to regain his composure and looked around the room. 'I am sorry, I'm so sorry,' he said."
Fox News reports how one of Bush's neighbor expressed his protest fatigue on Sunday.
"Larry Mattlage created quite a stir earlier in the day when he fired his shotgun over his property. The Crawford rancher told reporters he was practicing for dove season.
"Mattlage expressed frustration about the ongoing anti-war protest taking place near his property, and said other neighbors are also getting aggravated by all of the protest activity on their quiet country road. . . .
"U.S. Secret Service and McLennan County sheriff's deputies went to Mattlage's home on Sunday afternoon to urge restraint, and the situation appeared to calm down a bit after Mattlage spoke with law enforcement and vented to reporters."
Troy Hooper writes for the Denver Post: "Renowned journalist Bob Woodward predicts Dick Cheney will be the Republican Party's presidential nominee in 2008 and that the vice president could face Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton in a dramatic partisan showdown. . . .
"Woodward on Tuesday listed a number of reasons it is 'highly likely' President Bush might implore Cheney to seek the Oval Office.
" 'He would be 67 if he ran and was elected. Reagan was 69. Republicans always like the old warhorse. . . . Nixon was 68,' said Woodward. . . . 'Both parties like to nominate vice presidents. . . . Cheney would do it, and I think it's highly likely, so stay tuned.' "
A Woman in the Kitchen
Laura Bush couldn't persuade her husband to nominate a woman as Supreme Court justice. But when it was time to make her own hiring decision, the first lady picked a woman to run her kitchen.
Candy Sagon writes in The Washington Post how Cristeta Comerford, a 10-year veteran of the White House kitchen, is the first woman -- and first minority -- to hold the position of White House executive chef.
Marian Burros writes in the New York Times: "Ms. Comerford's White House kitchen colleagues and Walter Scheib III, whom Mrs. Bush asked to resign as executive chef in February, got together yesterday afternoon at a bar in Georgetown to toast her success. 'We're shooting the breeze and talking about how good it is that Cris got a promotion,' Mr. Scheib said. 'There's unbridled joy that Cris got the opportunity, and we've come to an agreement that she will do phenomenally well.' . . .
" 'She and I were like two fingers crossed, mentor and protégée,' said Mr. Scheib, who was a holdover from the Clinton White House. 'I don't see her choice as a radical departure from anything.' "
The White House announcement came just hours after a Burros story in the New York Times about why the job had remained open so long.
"One reason . . . is that Lea Berman, Mrs. Bush's social secretary, had hoped to snag a high-profile chef, according to some of the candidates.
"That effort had to be abandoned: there is little incentive to leave a high six-figure income and the possibility of lucrative endorsements, book contracts and speaking engagements to become what is essentially a private chef with the occasional state dinner thrown in, and for a salary of $80,000 to $100,000.
"One person mentioned as a candidate, Eric Ziebold, the chef at CityZen in Washington's Mandarin Oriental Hotel, has superior credentials: he was chef de cuisine at Thomas Keller's French Laundry in the Napa Valley in California. But he was not interested in the job (he would not say whether he was asked directly or indirectly). 'It's not a good career move,' Mr. Ziebold said."
A Newsweek poll last weekend concluded that "61 percent of Americans polled say they disapprove of the way President George W. Bush is handling the war in Iraq. . . .
"And when asked about the reports that White House adviser Karl Rove may have leaked classified information about Valerie Plame, a CIA agent, 45 percent say, from what they've heard or read about Rove's involvement in the case, that they believe he is guilty of a serious crime; 18 percent say he is not guilty of a serious offense and 37 percent say they don't know, the poll shows."
And Will Lester writes for the Associated Press that not since Richard Nixon has a president's standing with public been this low at this point in their second term.
This Week's Schedule
Judy Keen writes for USA Today: "Unless something happens to draw him out, he won't be seen in public for the rest of this week.
"Bush is not quite halfway through a five-week stay in Texas. The first couple of weeks away from Washington featured public appearances almost every day, including trips to New Mexico and Illinois and news conferences with his economic and foreign policy teams. This week is pure vacation: fishing, biking and his favorite ranch activity: clearing cedar. Next week, he'll be back on the road, including a trip to the West Coast."
Late Night Humor
From Conan O'Brien, via the Los Angeles Times : "In Crawford, Texas, President Bush met with his defense team and his foreign policy team. They briefed Bush on the state of global affairs, and he showed them how to pop a wheelie on a mountain bike."
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