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 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 — 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 Political Action Committee executive director Eli Pariser grabbed it with gusto.

“What’s disgusting is that the President has more interest in political attacks than developing an exit strategy to get our troops out of Iraq and end this awful war,” said Pariser, who argued that, “The President has no credibility on Iraq: he lied repeatedly to the American people to get us into the war. Most Americans oppose the war and want us to get out. Right now, there are about 168,000 American soldiers in Iraq, caught in the crossfire of that country’s unwinnable civil war, and the President has betrayed their trust and the trust of the American people.”

MoveOn’s leaders would be the first to acknowledge that they are not perfect strategists. Like any high-profile activist group, MoveOn makes mistakes that even supporters second guess. Reasonable people can and will question whether the “Betray Us” ad delivered the right message at the right time.

But there is no way that provoking a president to attack your organization’s message — and in so doing to emphasize that leading figures on the national political stage remain resolutely allied with you — can be counted as anything but a masterstroke.

While the fiercest partisans — and Fox personalities — may choose to try and portray the president’s outburst as a bold gesture, a show of resolve, a rallying cry or whatever other spin comes to mind, sincere supporter of the president or his war cannot be comfortable with what has transpired. And honest observers, no matter what their political bent, will acknowledge that MoveOn just won a major round.

Anytime a grassroots political group is mentioned by the president of the United States, it gains attention and status as a prime player in the national debate. Add to this simple reality of the political process the fact that Bush is one of the most unpopular presidents in history, and that his declining circumstance is so closely linked with the war, and it is nothing short of amazing that he has chosen to emphasize his morass by getting into a shoving match with MoveOn.

The president’s reckless decision to engage in this sort of political infighting at the same time that he and his aides are busy complaining about an increasingly bitter and partisan debate about the occupation makes this a particularly bad day for a president who only yesterday was battered by polling data that confirmed the Petraeus ploy had done nothing to alter anti-war sentiment among the American people.

Presumably, an urgent call will be going out to a certain retired White House political czar. After all, even an electoral street fighter like Karl Rove knows that you don’t let a president climb down from his bully pulpit and start wrestling with his loudest critics — especially a president whose credibility has been stretched beyond he breaking point.


John Nichols’ latest book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders’ Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone’s Tim Dickinson hails it as a “nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe ‘heroic medicine’ that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to ‘reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'”