The White House stumbles into the weekend

Karl Rove's grand jury appearance and more news on Bush's fake powwow with U.S. soldiers top off a bad week for the administration.

Published October 14, 2005 11:57PM (EDT)

A dismal week for the Bush administration ended with Karl Rove walking out of a courthouse following more than four hours of grand jury testimony and audio clips demonstrating that the president's video teleconference with soldiers in Iraq Thursday wasn't just rehearsed, it was pretty much scripted.

The revelation Thursday that the president's video conference was rehearsed showed just how disordered the administration has become, as it stumbles from one mishap to another. Even CNN, not a network inclined to rock the White House boat, ran a tape of the embarrassing pre-conference preparations. Like Madonna told her domineering father, "You can't hurt me now," in "Oh, Father," CNN announced to the world, in effect, that it's not afraid of the White House anymore.

That wasn't the only sign of weakness. When White House spokesman Scott McClellan dropped the ultimate Bush administration insult on reporter Helen Thomas Thursday, suggesting that she was "opposed to the broader war on terrorism," Terry Moran of ABC leapt to his colleague's defense. A remark that would have seemed ominous had it been uttered two years ago -- like Ari Fleischer's warning that a reporter's comments on the Bush daughters had been "noted in the building" -- appeared comical now.

Moran and McClellan then embarked on the following exchange:

Moran: "On what basis do you say Helen is opposed to the broader war on terrorism?"

McClellan: "Well, she certainly expressed her concerns about Afghanistan and Iraq and going into those two countries. I think I can go back and pull up her comments over the course of the past couple of years."

Moran: "And speak for her, which is odd."

McClellan: "No, I said she may be, because certainly if you look at her comments over the course of the past couple of years, she's expressed her concerns -- "

Thomas: "I'm opposed to preemptive war, unprovoked preemptive war."

McClellan: "She's expressed her concerns."

As for the phony video conference, it's not unusual for such an event to be rehearsed, especially in this rigidly on-message administration. What was unusual was that the White House allowed the rehearsal to float into the ether where the news networks could see it. Or perhaps these moments before and after Bush appearances are always floating out there, but news organizations have been too timid or indifferent to air them.

There was no question that the episode was embarrassing, however, and that it added to the administration's image problem at a time -- post-Katrina and mid-Harriet Miers -- when it is in desperate need of a breather from the constant stream of bad news.

In the rehearsal, as reproduced by the AP, Allison Barber, deputy assistant defense secretary, coached the soldiers on who was going to take which questions.

"OK, so let's just walk through this," Barber said. "Captain Kennedy, you answer the first question and you hand the mike to whom?"

"Captain Smith," Kennedy said.

"Captain Smith? You take the mike and you hand it to whom?" she asked.

In this light, the back-and-forth that took place following Bush's first question rings more than a little false:

President Bush: "And so, like -- I mean, and so the vote is in less than 48 hours -- or about 48 hours, I guess. And so how do you -- how would -- are you confident? I mean, how do you feel the operations are going?"

Captain Kennedy: "Mr. President, I'm going to field that question to Captain Smith."

President Bush: "I didn't want to give you -- I didn't want to throw you a hardball there, Captain."

Captain Smith: "Morning, Mr. President. I'm Captain Dave Smith from Grand Rapids, Mich. ..."

Hardball? Really? It looked like more of an eephus pitch.

One person who definitely plays hardball is Plame affair prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald. Karl Rove walked out of his appearance Friday without being indicted, but he hasn't been told that he won't be indicted either, according to his lawyer. The grand jury moves toward its finish now, and with the prospect of his brain getting sucked out of the White House, the news cycle doesn't promise to get any easier for rumbling, bumbling, stumbling George W. Bush.

By Aaron Kinney

Aaron Kinney is a writer in San Francisco. He has a blog.

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