Change the tone? Only when the press is bad.

Published May 30, 2001 4:29PM (EDT)

Rant: This Bush ain't green

Change the tone, indeed. During his 48-hour trip to California, President Bush sought to make peace, and paint himself as a devout conservationist. As Democratic Gov. Gray Davis continues his political crusade against the White House to boost his own sagging poll numbers, Bush met with Davis yesterday in what his advisors repeatedly told reporters were "friendly" meetings in which the governor and the president calmly and civilly agreed to disagree.

But Bush also used the trip as a way to try to improve his anti-environmentalist image after taking a beating on his new energy proposal. Bush's trip to the Golden State exemplifies what has become a trademark of his administration: bathe the public in sunshiny language while the policy belies something altogether different.

And so we have the Bush-as-conservationist trick. Take this statement from the President's trip to Camp Pendleton near San Diego Tuesday, where he was extolling the virtues of saving energy.

"We put conservation first because we have seen the important difference conservation can make," he said. "Our economy has grown by 126 percent since 1973, adjusting for inflation. Our energy use has grown by only 30 percent. To add one dollar to our gross domestic product takes only about one-half as much energy as it did 30 years ago."

Contrast that with what Vice President Dick Cheney said just one month ago in Toronto, before the administration's energy plan was formally rolled out.

"The aim here is efficiency, not austerity," Mr. Cheney said, rejecting the notion that Americans should be told to do more with less. "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy."

But that was then, this is now. And as poll numbers show, Bush may have overstepped on his energy plan -- with those polled indicating the administration put the desires of Bush's pals in the energy business over environmental concerns -- the president used Wednesday for a photo op in Sequoia National Park to tout his environmental agenda. The performance was vintage Bush, in more ways than one. Take this nominee for Head-scratcher of the Day: "Only man is capable of cutting down a sequoia. Only man is fully capable of appreciating its beauty," the president said. What he meant was still unclear as of press time.

After waxing incomprehensible, the president stuck to the script and renewed his call for a five-year, $5 billion effort to address a heavy maintenance backlog in the nation's national parks.

But folks at the Sierra Club were unmoved by the president's apparent change of heart. "It might be more appropriate for President Bush to be visiting the Bakersfield oil derricks than our biggest trees," said Sierra Club President Carl Pope in a statement Wednesday. "His administration's priorities seems to be oil, gas and logging -- anywhere, anytime. The American public wants our national monuments and wildlife refuges conserved for their beauty, wildlife and ability to rejuvenate the soul. President Bush should be protecting the public interest, not the special interests."

-- Anthony York

Daily line

"For too long, too often, too many have wasted energy, pointing fingers and laying blame. Energy is a problem that requires action, not politics, not excuses but action. Blame shifting is not action, it's a distraction."
-- President Bush speaking in California on Tuesday

Bush buzz

President Bush at last made his pilgrimage to energy-strapped California, but Gov. Gray Davis made sure it wasn't a pleasure trip. In a 40-minute meeting -- twice as long as had originally been scheduled -- Davis and Bush reiterated their irreconcilable ideas for how to help the state deal with current power shortages. At the end, the president remained opposed to price caps, and Davis said his next step would be to take Bush to court.

There, Davis will petition the court to force the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to impose price controls on California's electricity suppliers, even though the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday threw out a similar suit brought by a handful of state Democratic lawmakers. Outside of court, both sides of the debate have already marshaled energy and economic experts to argue over the potential impact of price caps, but the issue remains defined along partisan lines.

In Washington, the shift in partisan lines is offering California Democrats new hope that their views will get heard in Congress. Newly emboldened by their impending Senate majority, Democrats have vowed to fight Bush's recently released energy initiative over its reliance on creating incentives for the energy industry. In another sign of the Capitol Hill power shift, Democratic leaders promise a thorough Senate investigation of whether oil and gas companies are gouging consumers at the pump.

But the president still has friends willing to back his battle to increase energy production. The new lobbying powerhouse Alliance for Energy and Economic Growth, made up of more than 400 companies, has reportedly made unwavering support of Bush's energy policy a requirement for membership. The group's leaders deny that they are White House puppets, though a May 21 fundraising memo for the organization warns that "if you are caught attempting to lobby behind the back of the White House, you will be expelled from the coalition."

Meanwhile, the Bush agenda is already suffering setbacks as a result of the defection of former Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., with new Democratic Senate committee chairmen reportedly prepared to stall several of the president's pet projects. Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware is set to replace North Carolina's Jesse Helms as head of the Foreign Relations Committee, and is widely expected to put the brakes on Bush's missile defense initiative. The president's judicial nominees, particularly conservative academic Michael McConnell, are expected to get a rougher ride in the Senate Judiciary Committee, thanks to its chairmanship shifting from Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

With those battles looming, critics are pouring cold water on the most recent Bush victory in the Republican-controlled Senate, last week's passage of the tax cut bill. Charitable organizations claim that Bush and the GOP sold them out during negotiations on the bill, deferring plans to increase tax deductions for charitable contributions. Others complain that the backloaded Bush tax cuts constitute fuzzy math, designed to disguise the true impact on future federal budgets while delivering most of the benefit to wealthy Americans.

While Bush's agenda gets battered by Democratic critics, a leftover from the Clinton administration could cause Bush even more trouble in the days ahead. The president will attempt to extend normal trade relations with China for the next year, despite the country's dreadful human rights record and its repeated confrontations with America in the past year. Congressional approval is expected, though opponents are primed to fight.

And don't miss another long-distance dis of the president's brainpower. Tuesday's edition of the South China Morning Post reports that Bank of East Asia chairman David Li Kwok-po declared that Barbara Bush, the president's mother, is the smart one in the family.

Republican donors learned last week that $100,000 doesn't buy the access that it used to. At the controversial contributor-appreciation party at Vice President Cheney's official residence last week, $250,000 donors gathered in the mansion to shake hands with the big guy, while those who had contributed a measly $100,000 were forced to huddle under a tent on the grounds during a driving rainstorm.

Wednesday schedule: The president visits Sequoia National Park in California, and Vice President Cheney speaks at the U.S. Air Force Academy's commencement ceremony in Colorado.

-- Alicia Montgomery

This day in Bush history

May 30, 1996: Gov. George W. Bush announced that he would try to privatize certain functions of Texas' huge prison bureaucracy. Bush told reporters that he had been in "very informal discussions with friends who understand the information business" to take over criminal justice record-keeping operations. The issue came to public attention after felons were granted parole for new offenses because their complete records were unavailable for review at the time of sentencing.

Burning Bush

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

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

Bushed! contributors: Eric Boehlert, Karen Croft, Gary Kamiya, Kerry Lauerman, Daryl Lindsey, Alicia Montgomery, Fiona Morgan, Scott Rosenberg, Jake Tapper, Joan Walsh, Anthony York

Take a look at the previous edition of Bushed!

By Salon Staff

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