August Doldrums May Be Deceiving

President Bush drives a pickup truck as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld rides along.

President Bush drives a pickup truck as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld rides along in Crawford, Texas, Aug. 11, 2005. Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters

Walk into the press entrance of the White House this month and you could easily get the wrong impression about the place. It's downright sleepy in much of this building, and you might even find a lone camera operator from one of the TV networks taking a nap over in Row 4, Seat 6 of the Brady Press Briefing Room.

The camera crews hang around at 1600 Pennsylvania just in case something happens. Not much does (at least not in front of those cameras) in the stifling heat and sweltering humidity of the eighth month of the year in the nation's capital.

So it's no coincidence that most people try to get out of this town in August. President Bush is no exception, though many wonder why he chooses to escape to Crawford, Texas, where the heat is even worse and the humidity is replaced by dust clouds every time a pickup truck rolls past.

Suffice it to say that this is how this president gets away from it all. And although he takes occasional trips around the country from the ranch (Illinois and New Mexico this week for a pair of bill signing ceremonies), the clear signal is that if the public wants to pay a little less attention to him for a while, he's just fine with that.

But as this August rolls lazily by, it's worth noting that the month is worth paying attention to. Big stories can break and significant advancements in ongoing stories can occur, even with much of the world officially on holiday.

Here's a quick look back at notable events that took place during this president's summer breaks at the ranch:

2001

The President announced his still controversial decision to allow for federal funding of stem cell research, but only on 78 existing stem cell lines. That barred federal money for research on new lines obtained through other means, including embryos left over from fertility procedures. This decision has been federal policy since.

Also in that same August, on the sixth, the president's highly classified daily briefing contained the headline: "Bin Laden Determined to Strike Inside the United States." This was five weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks. News of that document's existence came out, despite administration efforts to keep it secret, during the 2004 investigation by the bipartisan 9/11 Commission.

2002

The Bush national security team gathered at the ranch in the president's second August in office, six months ahead of the invasion of Iraq. Speaking to reporters in Crawford that day, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said it was a "big picture" session. It was not, he said, a meeting to talk about Iraq. Asked if Saddam Hussein would be discussed, Fleischer responded "No." The White House insisted at the time that Mr. Bush hadn't made up his mind about war.

But some of those present for the August strategy session began making speeches about the threat from Iraq in the following weeks. Former White House terrorism adviser Richard Clarke and others have argued that the administration had Saddam in its sights at the time of these summer meetings.

2003

There was more of a fortress mentality at the ranch in this August. The initial blush of victory in Iraq (as evidenced by the "Mission Accomplished" banner posted behind the president during an aircraft carrier speech in May) was wearing off by late summer. The Iraqi insurgency had not gone away. Worse yet, no weapons of mass destruction had been found.

Critics were going after the rationale for the invasion, including some from within the ranks of current or former administration officials. An effort to discredit one such critic, Joseph Wilson, involved leaking information to the media about his wife, Valerie Plame, a CIA operative.

2004

In his re-election year, the president was not able to settle in for the long haul at the ranch in August. He spent the summer traveling to swing states and preparing for his nominating convention.

2005

This year, Mr. Bush is back on his usual summer schedule and the ranch is serving as the Western White House for more than four weeks. Again, it may be the administration's wish that things stay pretty quiet, but there's a lot in the air and much of it echoes the events of previous Augusts.

For one thing, that CIA leak has not gone away. A grand jury in Washington is still hearing evidence in that case, and one reporter, Judith Miller of The New York Times is in jail for not revealing her source. Another reporter has made it clear that one source for the Plame information was Karl Rove, the president's chief strategist.

Moreover, the stem cell issue has returned to haunt another August, as Congress is on the verge of passing legislation that would make federal funding much more widely available for research on embryonic stem cells. Polls show clear majorities support such research, but the president has said he will veto the bill. That would be the first veto of his presidency.

And hanging over everything else is the troubled situation in Iraq. August began with the bloodiest week in many months for U.S. forces there, and Aug. 15 brings a deadline for the Iraqi constitution-writing process. The administration has been counting heavily on that process, hoping it will allow the U.S. to begin withdrawing some of its troops. But back home, impatience grows evident. A new Gallup poll shows that 54 percent of Americans say the Iraq war wasn't worth it.

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So, yes, it's August. But that doesn't mean there's not plenty going on for the White House, even in its temporary summer location. What happens in August often has big implications down the road.

We all like a break from the daily drumbeat of the news in the summertime. Nothing wrong with that. Head to the beach. Read a few paperback mysteries. But be sure to keep the radio close by. You may hear something interesting.

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