Bushed!

Everything you need to know about our most unusually elected president, every day.


Salon Staff
April 26, 2001 4:00AM (UTC)

Word play

Bush had been getting fairly good marks for his weapons policy with Taiwan ... until he opened his mouth Tuesday. In a series of 100-day interviews, he came across as alternately strident and unsure when discussing America's policy on China and Taiwan. The remarks that caused the biggest stir came during his interview on ABC's "Good Morning America" with Charles Gibson that aired Wednesday, though excerpts were released the day before when it was recorded. The controversial exchange:

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GIBSON: ... you made the decision on arms sales to Taiwan.

PRESIDENT BUSH: Yes.

GIBSON: I'm curious if you, in your own mind, feel that if Taiwan were attacked by China, do we have an obligation to defend the Taiwanese?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Yes, we do ...

GIBSON: And ...

PRESIDENT BUSH: and the Chinese must understand that. Yes, I would.

GIBSON: With the full force of American military?

PRESIDENT BUSH: Whatever it took to help Taiwan defend theirself. [sic]

Those words prompted a public rebuke from Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who blasted Bush from the Senate floor, arguing that all parties understood America's devotion to the one-China policy, which requires that China not try and forcibly take back Taiwan, and requires Taiwan not to declare its independence. But, Kerry said, Bush's indelicate way with words could throw off the balance. "We have been deliberately vague about the circumstances under which we would come to Taiwan's defense," Kerry said, "not only to discourage Taiwan from drawing us in by declaring independence, but also to deter a Chinese attack by keeping Beijing guessing." Kerry blasted Bush for appearing to abandon this policy of "strategic ambiguity," with apparently "absolutely no consultation with members of Congress or our allies in the region."

In other interviews made public Wednesday, Bush's attitudes toward China remained murky. In an interview with the Washington Post, published Wednesday, Bush vacillated between praising the role of free markets in China's transformation to a more free society, and condemning China for stubbornly adhering to authoritarian tactics:

... I do not view China as an enemy. I view China as a partner on some issues and a competitor on others. However, the spirit of competition does not mean -- that does not necessarily mean distrust, anger, you know, furor. We're just going to have to work through issues. Taiwan is an issue. Arms sales throughout the world could be an issue. Religious freedom is an issue, and we'll make it clear to the Chinese it is an issue.

On the other hand, I recognize the fact that this nation is making progress toward more freedom, albeit not at the pace we'd like to see in America. But when the marketplace takes hold, it's by necessity a freer world, a freer country. And I was distressed today to see that they had detained the archbishop of the underground Catholic Church there in China. That's not a good sign, at all. And they will hear that from our administration.

The same ambiguous tone characterized his appearance on CBS's "The Early Show," which also aired Wednesday, during which he said:

I think that the Chinese are beginning to learn what my administration meant when I said on the campaign trail that we will be strategic competitors ... [But] I am not going to allow harsh rhetoric to create an environment where we can't find areas of agreement.

Then, on NBC's "Today," on Wednesday, he still seemed to struggle in his description of his Taiwan policy:

"I think that a president makes the decisions that are -- that will help Taiwan defend theirself [sic], and we'll help Taiwan defend theirself. That's the spirit of the Taiwan relations law, and I will continue to -- over my time as president -- to review Taiwan's defensive needs, and if I think it's in our country's interest, sell [weapons] to them.

Bush seemed to finally learn his script in time for a live interview Wednesday morning with CNN's John King:

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I am candid in my support of the Taiwan Relations Act. And I have said this during the course of the campaign appearance and I'll say it right now, that our nation will help Taiwan defend herself, at the same time that we support the one-China policy, where we expect and hope and believe there will be peaceful resolution to any differences of opinion.

Whether this will be enough to hush congressional critics, or China scholars who by mid-afternoon Wednesday were already raising concerns in press reports, remains to be seen.

-- A.M.

Take this job and recycle it

EPA chief Christie Todd Whitman can't be long for this administration. Either her firing or her resignation seems days overdue.

Has anyone seemed more out of the loop than Whitman (Bush bashers can hold the jokes about her boss) in these first 100 days? First she told world leaders Bush would honor the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, only to be reversed 10 days later. Then on Earth Day, she told CBS's "Face the Nation" that the White House might not move ahead on plans to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, while a few channels over, Interior Secretary Gale Norton was saying the administration was still pushing firmly ahead with its controversial Alaska plan. The White House quickly announced it was Norton who was on message.

Maybe Whitman was a little giddy from all the Earth Day partying at the White House. Most of last week, every day was Earth Day, and Whitman had lots of photo ops, standing next to her boss while he did some uncharacteristically nice things for the environment, signing on to an international treaty banning a "dirty dozen" list of toxic chemicals, and giving his blessing to Clinton measures on expanded wetlands protection and snowmobile bans in two national parks. Of course that was after Bush's poll standing began to sag in the wake of his bigger, splashier assaults on clean air and water.

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But the White House had gotten the message, Whitman told reporters on Earth Day. "Look, nobody is deaf, dumb and blind over there, and everybody knows the environment is important," she said on ABC. "And we saw how things have been portrayed." Then on "Face the Nation," she made her big ANWR blunder, insisting Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force had not included Alaska oil drilling in its recommendations to the president.

And she was in a position to know, Whitman added, with a touch of ill-timed self-importance (but if an EPA administrator can't be self-important on Earth Day, when can she?): "I'm part of the energy task force that the vice president chairs, and we've just been looking at all sources. Somebody may have made the decision somewhere, but, as far as our report goes, we didn't specifically say, 'You must drill in ANWR,' we didn't recommend that to the president." She said much the same thing in follow-up interviews with CBS and Reuters.

But by the end of the day, Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said Whitman had misspoken, that the energy task force would in fact recommend that ANWR be opened for drilling. Fleischer attributed Whitman's statement to "confusion," which was "a result of the question." Whitman's spokeswoman also blamed the media, insisting "she doesn't remember saying it at all."

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That's just not believable. Notice that Whitman added a safety clause in her "Face the Nation" statement about the energy task force's ANWR decision. Consider her interesting preamble: "Somebody may have made the decision somewhere." And of course somebody did. That energy task force Whitman sits on is just so much hot air. The only task force that matters consists of former oilman Dick Cheney, Energy Secretary Spence Abraham (Big Auto's man in Washington) and a couple of pastrami sandwiches.

If Whitman is really so "confused" about the Bush administration's environmental and energy policy that she misrepresents it on national news shows, it's a wonder she keeps her job. And if she's not, it's time for her to leave it. Twice she's been hung out to dry by an administration that needs her as a greenish fig leaf for its nakedly pro-industry agenda. She's been called a "good soldier" by Cheney, and just this Monday she told the Washington Post she didn't mind when Bush contradicted her on global warming.

"I mean, it's my job. I understand. I've been a governor. I've had a Cabinet. Once I made a decision, that was the decision and you got on board with it. And I had no problem getting on board with this decision."

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She hasn't yet made the same statement about the ANWR humiliation. Let's hope she doesn't, and walks instead. It would be both principled and professionally smart. Whitman took the EPA job, after all, at least partly to rehab her political image, after an awful photo captured her giddily frisking a black suspect -- an unfortunate shot for the governor of a state reeling from racial-profiling allegations.

She gains nothing politically from loyalty to the increasingly conservative Bush administration; the right will never forgive her for being pro-choice. Being the first moderate to leave it -- she won't ever have a lot of company, because there aren't many moderates to join her -- can only help her politically, if she still has electoral ambitions. And it will help her sleep better at night if she doesn't.

-- J.W.

Daily line

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"It's a job that is kind of, if part of your life is to keep your dance card full, my dance card's full."
-- President Bush, during an interview with the Washington Post

Bush buzz

As he approaches his 100th day in office without having signed into law one major piece of legislation, Bush is pressing hard to get some action on his top policy priorities. In a meeting with Republican members of Congress Tuesday, the president told them to finish work on his tax cut and budget package pronto. The GOP leadership pledged to hammer out a deal in the next week. And to get help from moderate Democrats, Bush is reportedly willing to see some money shaved off his $1.6 trillion dream tax cut. "His message was the American people should get a tax cut that's as large as possible, as close to $1.6 trillion as is possible," said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. Bush takes his fly-by public relations push for the cut to New Orleans Wednesday, his second such event in Louisiana since he took office.

While he hopes to win over more fans for his fiscal policy, Bush has been fending off attacks from critics, who have blasted his environmental policy as blind to everything but business. In a Tuesday interview with ABC's "Good Morning America," the president claimed his biggest mistake since taking office was "allowing people to define me as somebody who's not friendly toward the environment." Bush told young environmentalists at a Tuesday awards ceremony that the nation should let policies be shaped by "sound science, not some environmental fad or what may sound good."

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Meanwhile, Bush is getting better reviews for a key element of his China policy. His decision to sell a limited weapons package to Taiwan earned praise from the editorial pages of the Boston Globe and the New York Times. The president continues to walk the middle line in that touchy area, reiterating America's duty to protect Taiwan while ending the annual arms sale evaluation for that nation that has angered the mainland Chinese government.

-- A.M.

The first 95 days, by the numbers

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  • 5 major league baseball events
  • 2 journeys to foreign countries
  • 0 days outside of North America
  • 21 meetings with foreign heads of state
  • 1 Camp David "summit"
  • 2 solo press conferences
  • 3 White House movie nights ("Thirteen Days," "61*," "Varian's War")
  • 6 school visits
  • 13 visits to "blue" (Gore) states
  • 26 visits to "red" (Bush) states

    Wednesday schedule: Travels to four Southern states -- first a defense policy speech at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station in Florida; then a rally in New Orleans for his tax plan; then to Little Rock, Ark., for a fundraiser on behalf of Republican Sen. Tim Hutchinson; then to his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

    The vice president has no public events scheduled.

    -- A.M.

    Poll watch

    As Bush approaches the magic 100-day mark of his administration, he's getting high marks from the American public. The latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey (3 percent margin of error), conducted April 20 to 22, reports that 62 percent of the public approves of his work in the White House. Bush's approval rating, measured from April 6 to 8, was 59 percent.

    Polls earlier this week from Fox News and ABC News/Washington Post both show 63 percent of Americans giving his job performance a thumbs up. The Fox poll (3 percent margin of error), taken from April 18 to 19, shows a 6-point jump from the president's job approval rating from March 28 to 29. The ABC News/Washington Post poll (2.5 percent margin of error), conducted from April 19 to 22, shows a 5-point Bush bounce since their last survey, taken March 22-25.

    The timing of the increase follows the successful return of 24 American detainees who spent 11 days in Chinese custody. Another CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey, taken April 20-22, shows that 71 percent of Americans approved of Bush's handling of the crisis. But these numbers also follow a period when the president's most vocal critics -- Democratic Congress members -- were out of town as Congress took its spring break.

    Other polls measuring Bush's job approval:

  • 57 percent, Newsweek, April 12 to 13
  • 53 percent, CBS News/New York Times, April 4 to 5

    -- A.M.

    It's all Grecian to me: Observations from the foreign press

    Germany's leading newsweekly, Stern, assesses the early Bush reign under the headline "Der Ballerman." As a German friend pointed out to me, the headline is a work of art in itself -- an ingenious play on the German word for "gunslinger" and a famous bar in Mallorca that is a magnet for German tourists and has come to represent the face of the "ugly German" abroad. Ralph Hendrich, an MBA candidate at Temple University and all-around cultural Babelfish, puts it this way: "The Baleno 6 or 'Ballermann 6' is well-known for excessive drinking and occasional sex parties, and is usually frequented by low-level Teutonic white trash. The way people behave there after emptying buckets full of Sangria is embarrassing to all Germans and has become the subject of movies and documentaries."

    In his essay, Stern's Washington correspondent, Claus Lutterbeck, rakes Bush over the coals, taking the president to task for his Reaganesque unilateralism and his self-centered and "reckless" foreign policy, for abandoning the Kyoto Protocol (a decision that outraged Europeans more than any other decision made by a recent American president) and his special relationship with the English language. A few translations:

    On Bush foreign policy:

    As a young man, he traveled to China once (and left the country when none of the Chinese women fell for his charm). He's been to Gambia once, and also to the Middle East for a single visit. That's about all George W. Bush, at the age of 54, saw of the world before moving into the White House. And what little he has seen doesn't seem to have made much of an impression on him. Since he has taken office, he's been very open about what he thinks of the rest of the world: Nothing.

    When the Russians installed missiles in Cuba in 1962, a foresightful President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert prevented a nuclear disaster from happening only because they were able to outsmart their generals, who were busy playing with fire. The excellent drama "13 Days" is instructive, for it shows how close the world came to a nuclear war and how the hawks in the U.S. administration nearly prevailed. The movie couldn't have been released at a better time, as it leaves one wondering: Would George W. Bush as commander in chief demonstrate the same strength in leadership necessary to keep a lid on his agitators?

    Bush's message is simple: The world's only remaining superpower no longer thinks of itself first and then about the interests of others. From now on, it thinks only about itself.

    Global warming isn't the only area of international politics in which the U.S. is polluting the atmosphere. From its stances on the nuclear test freeze, U.N. arrears, the International Court of Justice, the National Missile Defense Program to the Echelon spy system, it's clear the U.S. does only as it pleases.

    On Environmental Protection Agency chief Christie Todd Whitman:

    Her job is as hopeless as being Saddam Hussein's secretary for human rights.

    -- D.L.

    Suck-up watch

    There's almost too much material by USA Today's Judy Keen to choose from. In just the last month, Keen, who once spontaneously hugged Bush campaign chairman Don Evans (now commerce secretary) on the campaign trail, has all but goosed the new commander in chief. There was the story about how Bush had traveled more during his first (strangely arbitrary benchmark of) 52 days than previous presidents (Keen: "President Bush is a road warrior"). There was the toothless "exclusive interview" with Bush. ("Asked whether it's time for America to move on, Bush said emphatically, 'Of course. And you know something? Most Americans are looking forward -- along with the president.'" Judge, she's leading the witness!) And as environmentalists hammered Bush on his environmental flip-flops and backtracking, Keen co-wrote a story about the Bushes' Texas "dream home and ranch," which are to be "models of eco-friendly technology," that include "geothermal heating and cooling. Rainwater and household wastewater are reused for irrigation." Plus: "First lady Laura Bush, who gave USA Today an hour-long tour Thursday, is restoring native wildflowers and grasses on the property."

    Still, we picked her most recent piece, on the president's appearance over the weekend at the Summit of the Americas. A sampling:

    Headline: Bush makes amigos in a nation of amis
    Page: 8A
    By Judy Keen

    QUEBEC -- President Bush, making his debut on the international stage at the Summit of the Americas, displayed a casual style that could be described as "amigo diplomacy."

    He addressed many of the 33 leaders here as "amigo," Spanish for "friend," including Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who speaks English and French but not Spanish. Bush showed off his linguistic ability by punctuating speeches with Spanish phrases. "Juntos podemos. Juntos lo haremos," he said Saturday. ("Together we can. Together we will do it.")

    In a way, the get-together was like Bush's Yale University days, when he was known for an unassuming, eager-to-get-acquainted manner that won him instant friends. Of course, the presidential fraternity is more exclusive than Delta Kappa Epsilon, but as in his youth, Bush was not just a member in good standing but seemed to be the most popular guy in the crowd.

    -- K.L.

    Bush league

    When Bush named Mary Sheila Gall on April 17 as his nominee to head the Consumer Product Safety Commission, consumer advocates were left fuming. Gall, who has served on the panel since 1991, has been critical of current chairwoman Ann Brown, a Clinton appointee who led a proactive commission that aggressively issued recalls on products deemed unsafe.

    Often at odds with Brown, Gall criticized her for the "procession of proclamations issued by this agency on behalf of the federal Nanny State" in a 1999 interview with USA Today. Gall has opposed Brown's crusade against baby bath seats, which have been linked to 67 child deaths. Brown pushed to ban the seats, while Gall says the problem is simply that adults don't employ them properly.

    And in a March 22 letter to the editor in USA Today, Gall again distanced herself from Brown. Brown had been critical of Burger King restaurants for not moving quickly enough to recall 400,000 "Rattling, Paddling Riverboat" toys found in Burger King Kid's Meals, which posed a choking hazard.

    Brown's quote earned this rebuke from Gall: "In my more than nine years of experience as a commissioner, this recall was one of the fastest I have seen, and the public should not be misled into believing that it was in any way deficient or untimely."

    Rachel Weintraub, a staff attorney at U.S. PIRG, says: "Under commissioner Brown, the CPSC developed a reputation for being a true advocate for consumer protection. We hope this tradition will continue with Mary Sheila Gall, but we have been consistently disappointed in her record." Weintraub says Gall's philosophy is "rooted in the belief that that industry should regulate itself."

    -- A.Y.

    This day in Bush history

    April 25, 1996: Gov. George W. Bush issued an executive order creating the Governor's Task Force Against Driving While Intoxicated. The task force's mission, Bush said, would be to seek public input and coordinate state activities to reduce drunken driving and drunken boating.

    Burning Bush

    Links to the Web's best sites for hardcore Bush watchers.

    Send questions, comments and tips to bushed@salon.com.

    Bushed! contributors: Kerry Lauerman, Daryl Lindsey, Alicia Montgomery, Fiona Morgan, Jake Tapper, Joan Walsh, Anthony York


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