White House Struggles with a Week of Bad News

President Bush has had a challenging week. He has tried to keep the media focused on national security issues in the run-up to midterm elections. But the week was dominated by news of the Mark Foley scandal, Iraq and the shooting at an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania.

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When the White House announced the resignation yesterday of a staff member linked to a prison-bound lobbyist, it topped off a vexing week for Republicans. Every effort by party congressional leaders to talk about issues of their choosing was overwhelmed by news that they'd probably rather have avoided. The scandal involving Republican Congressman Mark Foley of Florida and congressional pages brought tough questions, while the U.S. mission in Iraq had one of its worst weeks yet.

NPR's Don Gonyea has this report.

DON GONYEA: When you're the president of the United States, you're used to being the big story of the week, or at least setting the news agenda. But this week, even the White House seemed barely able to break through. To be sure, the president was out talking about a topic critical to Republican fortunes in the November elections at events like this fundraiser in Scottsdale, Arizona. The theme was competing views of terrorism.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: They view this election - they view the threats we face like law enforcement, and that is, we respond after we're attacked. And it's a fundamental difference. And I will travel this country for the next five weeks making it clear, the difference of opinion.

GONYEA: But such appearances were swamped by other news: the brutal killings at an Amish school in Pennsylvania, and the Mark Foley story, and questions of whether Republican congressional leaders should have restrained him years ago. The president felt compelled to weigh in on these stories. In a photo op at an elementary school named after him in Stockton, California, Mr. Bush spoke of the school shootings.

President BUSH: Our school children should never fear their safety when they enter into a classroom. And of course the superintendent and principal know that.

GONYEA: Then he continued, in the same paragraph, with this on the scandal in Washington.

President BUSH: We also had a reminder of the need for people in positions of responsibility to uphold that responsibility when it comes to children, in the case of Congressman Mark Foley. I was dismayed and shocked to learn about Congressman Foley's unacceptable behavior.

GONYEA: If it was an awkward moment for the president, it was little noted. Very little the president said seemed to get much attention - on terrorism or education reform or on upbeat fiscal news at week's end. Meanwhile, back on Capitol Hill, Republicans already bracing for losses in the midterm elections, saw their leader, Speaker Dennis Hastert, required to explain why he wasn't resigning.

Representative DENNIS HASTERT (Republican, Illinois): You know, when you talk about the page issue and what's happened in the Congress, I'm deeply sorry that this has happened. And the bottom line is that we're taking responsibility, because ultimately, as someone has said in Washington before, the buck stops here.

GONYEA: If there was a silver lining in all this for the White House, it was that Americans were distracted from what has been a deadly week in Iraq for U.S. forces. At week's end, Senator John Warner, Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, a Republican, had this stark assessment of how the mission is going.

Senator JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia): It seems to me that the situation is simply drifting, sidewise.

GONYEA: Finally yesterday, as the president was pointing to a good unemployment report and a lower federal budget deficit, one of his top assistants unexpectedly resigned - Susan Ralston, who came to the White House to work for top strategist Karl Rove in 2001. Ralston was cited in a congressional report last week for frequent contacts with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, her former employer, who has been convicted of fraud and influence peddling. The White House said Ralston didn't want to be a distraction during an election season.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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