Washington President Bush made headlines recently by adopting a more somber, realistic tone on Iraq. Then Bush, his vice president and defense secretary stepped all over that message with unduly harsh assaults on the war's critics last week. What gives?
Several things provide an answer of sorts, and all of them suggest that the transition from the shock-and-awe tactics of Bush's first term to a more cooperative, diplomatic approach this time around is still very much a work in progress.
The late-summer shift of Bush's tone toward increased realism on Iraq came shortly after the White House received a new situation report from the CIA, highlighting worrisome trends in the administration's effort to shore up a national unity government in Baghdad. The agency says that effort is being undercut by significant population movements of Sunnis and Shiites fleeing each other and huge arms supplies reaching both camps.
"You would have been somber too if you had just read what he has been reading," one senior official told me.
The agency's pessimism is not new. What was different was Bush's subdued public demeanor in discussing Iraq - captured by The Washington Post's Peter Baker as a message that "things could be even worse." The tone reflects an ongoing change at the White House, where a psychological renovation led by Josh Bolten, Bush's new chief of staff, is having some effect.
Bad news now gets more quickly and directly to Bush, who in his first term "tolerated a system that was designed to evade reality whenever it was unpleasant," says a political insider who deals frequently with the White House. "The place has gone from having a concierge who smoothed out wrinkles to having a consigliere running things."
The concierge in that formulation is the departed Andrew Card, whose experience as transportation secretary in George H.W. Bush's presidency made him deferential to Cabinet members eager for face time with a president famous for not being interested in details. Card was also known for indulging Bush's time-consuming tendency to gripe about small matters such as infringements on his vacation time instead of focusing on big problems like the approach of Hurricane Katrina a year ago.
Bolten is much quicker to say no and to resolve problems that do not need presidential involvement. And while it is still difficult to get Bush to pick up the telephone to call world leaders he does not already know and like, such calls have increased under Bolten, who worked as Card's assistant before heading the Office of Management and Budget and then returning to the White House on March 29 to replace Card.
Bolten has been helped on the communications front by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has greatly stepped up her exchanges with foreign counterparts, and by Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes, who has a knack for explaining foreign policy challenges in political terms that Bush understands.
But these welcome changes in management style inside the White House have yet to be felt consistently in the administration's distrustful approach not just to the media, but to the American public. That distrust is reflected in the obsessive secrecy that predated Sept. 11, 2001, and in political appeals to the worst instincts of voters. The public, the administration clearly believes, cannot be trusted with information on anti-terrorist surveillance, or with greater clarity and measured debate about options in Iraq.
The great irony of this administration is that its opponents credit it with being masterful at spin when it is in fact pathetic in managing its messages and its collective image. Whatever small credit Bush was gaining for becoming more realistic about Iraq was quickly wiped out by the controversy created by sharply partisan speeches of Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld last week in the latest example of a gang that can't spin straight.
There is a serious debate to be had about the best way forward in the war that Islamic extremists and their state sponsors have declared on the United States and on the related conflict in Iraq. Not all of what Cheney and Rumsfeld have to say on this should be disregarded as rhetorical chaff. Their vision of the world is dark and overstated, but not devoid of reality.
But their failure to give critics a respectful hearing makes it difficult for them to get one when they have valid points. Demanding trust from the public without extending it invites great skepticism. Correcting this is one of modern history's great challenges, even for someone with the management skills of Josh Bolten.