President Bush has made it clear that he does not read newspapers. And there is little reason to believe that the chief executive spends much time viewing serious news programs before his twilight bedtime.
So it is a bit surprising that he has kept up with the controversy surrounding the MoveOn.org advertisement in the New York Times that urged General David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, to put aside administration talking points and speak blunt and necessary truths when he briefed Congress last week.
It is even more surprising that the commander-in-chief would in an official setting take the extraordinary step of attacking the advertisement and the group that placed it.
But so Bush did on Thursday in what will rank as one of the more remarkable — and politically petty — moments of a remarkable and politically-petty presidency.
In the New York Times advertisement, MoveOn proposed the anything-but-radical notion that a failure of frankness on the general’s part would be a betrayal of the troops and the country. That’s hardly an unreasonable suggestion, coming as it does at a critical stage in the occupation when young men and women from the United States are dying at a rate of one every ten hours and when $200 million is removed from the federal treasury each day to maintain what is so obviously a failed mission.
But the president was upset, and he showed it. Tossed a typical soft-ball question at a presidential press conference Thursday morning, Bush responded by saying, “I thought that the ad was disgusting. I felt like the ad was an attack, not only on General Petraeus, but on the U.S. military. And I was disappointed that not more leaders in the Democrat Party spoke out strongly against that kind of ad. That leads me to come to this conclusion: that most Democrats are afraid of irritating a left-wing group like MoveOn.org — are more afraid of irritating them than they are of irritating the United States military. That was a sorry deal. And it’s one thing to attack me. It’s another thing to attack somebody like General Petraeus.”
Bush’s obviously prepared statement was a clumsy attempt to attack Democratic presidential candidates and congressional leaders. But it created an opening for an unprecedented back-and-forth between the most powerful man in the world and his most aggressive critics. It was hardly necessary on the day when Senate Republicans were engineering a symbolic 72-25 vote rebuking the MoveOn ad that referred to Petraeus as “Betray Us.” Had Bush simply offered the standard “I’m not going to get into these political fights” line, or even a pithier “I think the Senate will have something appropriate to say about that,” he would have mastered the moment.
Instead, the president handed the loudest microphone in the land to MoveOn. And MoveOn.org Political Action Committee executive director Eli Pariser grabbed it with gusto.