The New York Times' Elisabeth Bumiller -- the White House correspondent who famously admitted to being too frightened to ask George W. Bush aggressive questions on the eve of war -- is back from a leave she spent writing a book about Condoleezza Rice. The Times dispatched her to Capitol Hill Tuesday to see how the presidential candidates were greeting the testimony of Gen. David Petraeus and ambassador Ryan Crocker.
How'd she do?
It's as if she never left.
As we sat through Tuesday's hearings -- right across the table from Bumiller, actually -- we couldn't help noticing how effusive Sen. John McCain was in his praise for the strategy Petraeus is implementing and advocating. "We're getting it right because we finally have in place a strategy that can succeed," McCain said in his introductory remarks. "We must, as Gen. Petraeus intends, keep this strategy in place. It's the only approach that has resulted in real security improvement in Iraq."
So what does Bumiller say about McCain? She notes that he is "a strong supporter of the war" and that he "treated Gen. Petraeus as a comrade," but she lumps McCain in with Democratic presidential contenders who "zeroed in on the reality" that the next president may still be dealing with decisions on troop withdrawals, and she says that McCain was "still unsparing in some of his questions."
Aside from his pronouncement that he'll do "everything in [his] power to ensure" that Congress doesn't "choose to lose" in Iraq, we didn't see any signs that McCain was "zeroed in" Tuesday on the choices he might have to make as Bush's successor.
As for "unsparing" questions, Bumiller points to just two. As she reports, McCain told Petraeus, "We agree that the police, or the national police, have been a colossal failure." Then he asked him, "What are we going to do about it?" But that was hardly "unsparing"; the "we agree" bit should have been the tip-off. What it was was a way of leading Petraeus into saying that he has a plan for dealing with the problem, which is exactly what Petraeus did.
Bumiller's second example of McCain's "unsparing" approach: The senator asked Crocker about his "level of confidence" that the Iraqi government will "begin to do the things that we've been asking them to do for a long time."
That one sounds a little "unsparing," but it's nothing like the way even some Republican senators phrased similar questions -- Chuck Hagel called the Iraqi government "dysfunctional" and asked how the United States could possibly "continue to invest American blood and treasure" while waiting for it to act -- and McCain didn't ever attempt to press the point. When Crocker listed a series of "modest achievements" he considers "encouraging," the senator simply thanked Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Joe Biden for the time and Crocker and Petraeus for their service.
If McCain asked any other "unsparing" questions, we don't remember hearing them and we don't see them reflected in the transcript. What we do remember: McCain asking Petraeus to explain why he -- like McCain -- calls the war in Iraq "the central front on the war on terror"; McCain asking Crocker what he thinks about the Iranian president's threat to fill any "power vacuum" in the region; McCain asking Petraeus if he doesn't agree that it's "astonishing" that some people claim progress in Iraq's Anbar province has nothing to do with the "surge"; McCain asking Crocker, facetiously, if the United States should just let "ethnic cleansing" continue in Iraq; and McCain asking Petraeus if the "success" in Anbar province "can be and is being replicated throughout Iraq."
So what about the Democrats? In Bumiller's view, Barack Obama spoke "angrily," Chris Dodd had "exasperation" in his voice, and Hillary Clinton spoke in an "even, sad tone." Those characterizations aren't necessarily inaccurate, but Bumiller offers no similar analysis of McCain's emotional state, nor does she note that a few Republican senators were every bit as agitated as Obama and Dodd were.
As for Biden, Bumiller says that the chairman didn't try "overly hard" to keep Obama to the seven-minute limit he set for other senators, "perhaps because he did not want to be seen in the ungentlemanly act of silencing a political rival." We don't know about that one; we weren't timing the rounds ourselves. But Bumiller's report that Biden "genially asked" Obama to "summarize quickly" as his time ran out? Biden was talking to Crocker, not Obama, at the time.
Overall, Bumiller says that the Democrats didn't focus much on "the details" of Petraeus' plan for "drawing down 30,000 troops by next July, slightly ahead of schedule." Slightly ahead of whose schedule, Bumiller doesn't say. When the president announced the "surge" back in January, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that while nobody knew exactly how long it would last, "most of us in our minds" were "thinking of it as a matter of months, not 18 months or two years." By our math, July 2008 is 18 months from January 2007, which is exactly how long Gates said he and his colleagues didn't expect the "surge" to last.