Bush Leaves Problems at Home for Latin Tour

A five-nation Latin America tour gives President Bush a chance to get away after a week of grim news in Washington, from the Lewis Libby guilty verdict to congressional hearings on Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

President Bush has left behind low approval ratings at home to begin a tour of Latin America, where his popularity may not be any higher. This morning, we'll look at some challenges the president faces at home and abroad. In a moment we'll report on the travels of one of the president's Latin American rivals. We begin with everything that awaits President Bush once he gets back to Washington.

Here's NP White House correspondent Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA: Just over two years ago the Bush White House began it's second term with a hugely ambitious program at home and abroad. But the reality has been nothing like what they envisioned. Reversals in the Iraq war, hurricane Katrina, a democratic takeover of Congress, and then there are weeks like this one with a confluence of setbacks for our president beset by deep and persistent public disapproval of his performance.

It started first thing Monday with congressional hearings into revelations about treatment of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Among those testifying was Army Specialist Jeremy Duncan, who sustained a broken neck and other injuries in Iraq.

Specialist JEREMY DUNCAN (U.S. Army): The conditions in the room, in my mind, were just - it was unforgivable for anybody to live - it wasn't fit for anybody to live in a room like that.

GONYEA: The administration which so often speaks of its commitment to U.S. troops kept scrambling to stay ahead of the Walter Reed disclosures. Then came Tuesday and another black eye for the administration. Former top aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby was convicted on four felony counts of perjury and obstruction of justice, and his trial pulled back the curtain on the aggressive campaign the White House waged to control press coverage of its case for war in Iraq.

Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.

Mr. PATRICK FITZGERALD (Special Prosecutor, Department of Justice): It sad that we had a situation where a high-level official, a person who worked in the office of the vice president, obstructed justice and lied under oath. We wish that had not happened, but it did.

GONYEA: All but buried beneath these other blockbuster stories were House and Senate hearings into the firing of eight U.S. attorneys by the Bush administration. All eight had been Bush appointees, yet some say these firings were politically motivated. Among those testifying was Bud Cummins, of Arkansas, who was replaced by a colleague of presidential adviser Karl Rove.

Here's Cummins being questioned this week by Senator Arlen Specter.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): Were you aware of any speculation that Karl Rove's former aide was requesting you to groom him for a public office?

Mr. BUD CUMMINS (Former U.S. Attorney): Senator, I would have no way of knowing why those decisions were made.

GONYEA: All in all, it was a one-two-three punch for the White House. And suddenly a long-planned trip out of the country seemed a welcome change of scenery and subject. Or maybe not, says presidential scholar Fred Greenstein of Princeton.

Professor FRED GREENSTEIN (Political Science, Princeton): Presidential travel is sometimes seen as a kind of a escape or a refuge, or a way of changing the agenda or what not. In a world in which a hiccup in the Chinese stock market can send the markets down all over the world I don't think there's a hideaway.

GONYEA: And while in Latin America, the president can expect questions about events of this past week in Washington. But Greenstein also offers this bid of context to the bad week that was for Mr. Bush.

Prof. GREENSTEIN: Bush is not the only president to have been beleaguered, and very severely beleaguered. How this ranks in the Guinness Book of Records for bad weeks I think would be very difficult to tell. But presidents that wind up with their backs to the wall in the final period are a well known phenomenon.

GONYEA: Greenstein notes that Truman, Johnson, Nixon and Carter all had difficult periods in their final years in office. While two other presidents, Reagan and Clinton, managed to rebound from second-term lows. Greenstein says there's still time for President Bush to improve his standing; there will be a breakthrough with Iran or North Korea perhaps, or maybe immigration.

In the near term, though, when Mr. Bush returns next week from his southern swing, he is likely to find Congress and the rest of official Washington still fixated on that one-two-three punch.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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