Bush Bids Good Riddance to Long, Hard Year

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President Bush started 2006 with high hopes, but by the midterm elections, voters had turned on the president and the Republican Party. Andrea Seabrook reviews Mr. Bush's tumultuous year with White House correspondents Don Gonyea and David Greene.

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Andrea Seabrook. 2006. When this year began, the White House was in an optimistic mood. Millions of Iraqis had just voted in parliamentary elections. There was hope that would lead to other progress in the war, maybe even bringing large numbers of American troops home this year.

The White House also saw the beginning of 2006 as a chance for a fresh start after all the criticism following the federal response to Hurricane Katrina the previous fall. But as things turned out, this was not the kind of year the White House had hoped for.

The situation in Iraq got far worse, not better, and voters turned on the president and his party in this year's midterm elections. Joining us now to talk about the past 12 months in the Bush presidency are our two White House correspondent, for once in the same place at the same time, Don Gonyea and David Greene. Good morning, gentleman.

DON GONYEA: Good morning.

DAVID GREENE: Hi, Andrea.

DON GONYEA: I don't know if people knew there were two of us, but now they do.

SEABROOK: Exposed. Let's start with Iraq. What was the feeling inside the White House, Don, about Iraq when this year began?

GONYEA: We have to be careful not to say that the White House - while they were feeling better about how things in Iraq were going, we have to be careful not to say that they felt spectacular about it. So the president would still talk about how difficult it was, but I do think it was very clear that they thought it would be a year of significant progress, particularly after the parliamentary elections that went off well in Iraq.

And if you listen to the president in his state of the union address, it was on January 31 of this year, I think his tone of voice says a great deal.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I am confident in our plan for victory. I am confident in the will of the Iraqi people. I am confident in the skill and spirit of our military fellow citizens. We are in this fight to win, and we are winning.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: And we heard a lot of language like that, especially over the first half of the year for the president, and it's also when he was talking about the need to stay the course and to finish the job. But again, generally speaking, he was upbeat and positive.

SEABROOK: I remember at the time, there was a lot of talk about bringing down troop levels this year.

GONYEA: We were all wondering if there'd be some sort of an announcement about that, perhaps around election time. But it was something that was not only discussed, but on some level, again, early in the year, taken for granted, that that is what we would be seeing, a reduction in the size of the U.S. military force in Iraq.

GREENE: And as there was that talk, the president - you got the sense that he was really trying to turn the corner a bit and make a move to start bringing up other topics, to change the nation's focus away from the war and talk about some other subjects.

GONYEA: He did. We would hear the president talk about taxes and the need for those tax cuts enacted over his first five years in office to be made permanent. But ultimately, the main theme for him, too, during the campaign was Iraq, and by the time he really started campaigning in earnest, it was very clear that things in Iraq were not going the way the administration had anticipated at the start of the year.

So the president's strategy was, again, as he has in every campaign he's ever run, give voters a choice. It's not whether you like what's going on in Iraq or not; it's how I would handle it versus how those other guys would handle it.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The Democrat approach comes down to this. The terrorists win and America loses, and that's what's at stake in this election.

GONYEA: We hear these speeches over and over when we're out on the campaign trail.

SEABROOK: Yeah.

GONYEA: And it's often the same speech. But on this day, all of our ears perked up because he had gone somewhere in that speech, linking a Democrat victory to a terrorist victory. It was the first time he had done that. They were counting on the voters being with him on that. It turned out not to be true.

GREENE: And I think the White House knew that they were in trouble in the elections even at that point, and there was a sense that they were going to lose the House, but I think that a lot of people in the White House thought that they might hang on to the Senate. Things were not going to be as bad as they turned out to be. They lose both Houses, the Republicans did.

The president comes in the day after the election, he comes in for a news conference. Everyone's wondering what his first words are going to be. How is he going to handle this? And he looks at all the reporters and says, hey, why all the glum faces?

But there was a sense during the news conference - he tried to act like he was humbled by this event, this election that turned out so poorly, but at the same time he was trying to explain the election in a way that did not suggest it was a referendum on his policies and his policies in Iraq. Take a listen to this. This was not a president saying this was all my fault.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: If you look at race by race, it was close. The cumulative effect, however, was not too close. It was a thumping. But nevertheless, the people expect us to work together. That's what they expect.

GREENE: And he talked about it as if, you know, well, these races - race by race, it was close, but the whole thing - the country's still very divided. And the message was, I'm still in charge, I still have an agenda, I'm going to work with Democrats, we're going to make something happen, it's not too bad.

SEABROOK: Okay then, I can imagine how, when you cover the White House day in and day out as you guys do, that over the course of the year, there just must be some moments, some days, that just stand out when you look back. What were some of those moments in 2006? David?

GREENE: I have to say the one moment that stands out was the feeling of literally being kidnapped and taken to Iraq on very short notice. Don and I were actually both up at Camp David covering what was supposed to be a couple days of national security meetings.

And I remember the first day, the birds were chirping. It was a nice summer afternoon at Camp David. The president came out. He said he had had a meeting with his national security team. He was looking forward to the next day, and let's take a listen here.

President BUSH: And tomorrow, we'll be meeting with the new government via Sivits(ph), and that will be a very interesting experience for all of us to be able to talk to our respective counterparts.

GREENE: So Sivits is a secure video conference, and the president was supposed to be sitting down at Camp David talking to Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq and some other Iraqi officials. He was lying. He had no intention of being on a video conference the next day. Within hours, the press - a small press pool was being gathered. I was called. I was told that I had to be at a hotel outside Washington within a few hours, which meant a harrowing drive south from Camp David back to Washington.

GONYEA: During rush hour.

GREENE: During rush hour, no less. I think Don had to collect my belongings from the floor of my hotel room, since I didn't have time to that.

GONYEA: We promised not to talk about that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: And it was something out of a spy movie. We show up at this hotel. It's in an underground parking lot area. These dark vans are sitting there. They take our cell phones, they take our BlackBerrys. They still don't officially tell us where we're going.

Within hours, we're on Air Force One. The president arrives at Andrews Air Force Base. He's undercover, in a baseball cap and I think jeans, because he kind of escaped Camp David and didn't want most of the Cabinet members to know that he was going to Iraq.

SEABROOK: Wow.

GREENE: And we fly, you know, overnight, and there we are the next day, and he holds the video - secure video conference with his staff back at Camp David, but he's sitting there in Baghdad.

SEABROOK: That is totally wild. Okay, Don, can you top that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: I can only top that if I can tell a story about Elvis Presley.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: Okay.

GONYEA: Okay. It was the end of June, and Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi, who has been a close and very staunch ally of President Bush's throughout his time in office, is preparing to leave office.

So he was coming for his last visit to the United States as prime minister. He is a big Elvis Presley fan. So we flew down to Graceland.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEABROOK: With the president.

GONYEA: Memphis, Tennessee. Air Force One with the president and the prime minister. And I mean, when you work in this business, you find yourself in some unusual places for photo ops and news conferences and this and that.

SEABROOK: Sure.

GONYEA: But never did I think I would be standing in the jungle room, and the prime minister started to sing.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: You're a pretty good Elvis singer.

Prime Minister JUNICHIRO KOIZUMI (Japan): (Singing) Wise men say, only fools rush in, but I can't...

President BUSH: I thought you were going to do "Blue Suede Shoes."

GONYEA: My favorite thing about that day, other than all the Elvis impersonators who were out, you know, protesting this or that...

SEABROOK: Waving signs.

GONYEA: ...and waving and - was how uncomfortable President Bush looked...

SEABROOK: Yeah, he doesn't sound quite...

GONYEA: Koizumi was just a little bit too into it and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: And the president was kind of cutting him off like, okay, I think you've sung enough...

SEABROOK: Not very presidential or prime ministerial.

GONYEA: So that's, again, these are days where it's just - it's just a weird day and here you are.

SEABROOK: Well, and that's the thing about you guys. I mean, you cover the executive branch, but you also cover the guy. I mean, the president of the United States. Have you noticed changes in him specifically over the course of this year, David?

GREENE: Well, we hear his voice so much it's hard to find trends and see changes. But if there's one piece of Bush tape that we remember, it's when he added a new word to the American lexicon, and that was decider. And it was at a moment back in April, he was in the Rose Garden, and I think we have it here. It really was a window into the type of leader he thought he was, a very confident leader.

President BUSH: I hear the voices, and I read the front page, and I know the speculation. But I'm the decider and I decide what is best. And what's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the secretary of defense.

GREENE: He makes these firm decisions and he's really proud of kind of that image. And to have to go back on a decision that he used a strong language to talk about, you know, Rumsfeld is out. And that's something he has to live with now.

GONYEA: And now, Andrea, you fast forward to the end of the year. Just in the last week, the president held a year-end press conference at a time when he is very much trying to decide the way forward in Iraq. And he doesn't have those answers yet. It's like he's portraying himself now as the deliberator, mindful that the new Congress that's coming in is going to be controlled, both houses, by Democrats. And the president said I've been here before when I was governor. I can make this work.

President BUSH: I was the governor of Texas with Democratic leadership in the House and the Senate, and we're able to get a lot of constructive things done for the state of Texas. And I believe it's going to be possible here to do so here in the country.

GONYEA: His message that he takes from the election, the midterm election, is that the country does expect the kind of compromise that can bring important legislation. We'll see how it works out.

SEABROOK: David Greene, Don Gonyea, White House correspondents for NPR. Thank you both for being here.

GONYEA: It's a pleasure.

GREENE: It's a pleasure, Andrea.

SEABROOK: You're listening to NPR News.

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