White House Tempers Reaction to Execution

President Bush monitored reports on the death of Saddam Hussein from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, but said little. White House advisers appear to see limited political value in commenting on Saddam's death.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:

President Bush heard the news last night at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. He issued a short statement noting that the execution came after a fair trial, which the president said was something Saddam denied to the many victims of his regime.

NPR's White House correspondent Don Gonyea joins us now. Don, welcome.

DON GONYEA: Good morning.

WERTHEIMER: How was the president told about this?

GONYEA: Well, let me tell you what the lead is. The president went to bed about 9 o'clock Central Time, Texas time, at his ranch, as you said. That was before Saddam Hussein had actually been executed. And when the execution took place, he was not alerted.

WERTHEIMER: 15, again, Texas time, he talked to Stephen Hadley, his national security adviser, who told him that the Iraqis had informed the U.S. that the process was under way and that it'd be happening within just a matter of hours.

Again, the president just went about his business. Went to bed. Afterward, that statement came out. But the statement either did not have the involvement of the president, because he was asleep, or it was written before he went to bed.

WERTHEIMER: It seemed to me it was a somewhat subdued reaction from the White House. Not triumphalism, no personal appearance.

GONYEA: Well, there are a couple of reasons for this. First, it's the ongoing violence that's going on in Iraq. And the statement did reference the fact that it has been a very difficult year for Iraqis and for American troops there. But there are a couple of other reasons as well. I mean, it's a recognition, I think, that the White House just doesn't see any upside for the president being a big part of this story today. There's no real upside for President Bush to own this story and to be the face of the U.S. reacting to this news that would, of course, be played around the world over and over.

So they do want this to be seen as an Iraqi decision, that's it's a result of Iraqi justice being carried out, and that it reinforces the idea of Iraqi sovereignty.

And then finally, Linda, there's just the simple issue of very real resentment of the U.S. in the Arab world. Why do anything - making, again, the president the face of this story - that could make Saddam a martyr in the region, as one who stood up to President Bush and the U.S. and who died in the process?

WERTHEIMER: Do the president's advisers think that Saddam's death is likely to be any help for the president's policies either here or in Iraq?

GONYEA: They think that the U.S. public has already reacted to the capture of Saddam Hussein and the fact that he's not in power anymore. So this doesn't really give them the big kind of political shot in the arm they might have been looking at.

And again, I think the answer is in how they reacted. Imagine what they probably thought they would be saying and doing on the day Saddam Hussein was executed when they pulled him out of the spider hole where he was hiding in Iraq three years ago. They cannot have imagined they would be where they are today.

And they say the president is just continuing to work on this new promised Iraq strategy, and we'll hear what that is in the next week or two perhaps.

WERTHEIMER: NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea. Don, thank you.

GONYEA: All right. It's my pleasure.

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