Bush Takes Strategic No-Remorse Stance

I ask you, did Richard A. Clarke’s apology make him look weak? Washington > Political Memo: Bush Takes Strategic No-Remorse Stance” href=”http://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/15/politics/15MEMO.html”>The New York Times > Washington > Political Memo: Bush Takes Strategic No-Remorse Stance

WASHINGTON, April 14 — It was no accident that President Bush passed up five chances on Tuesday night to offer regrets, contrition or an acknowledgement that he might have made mistakes in handling the Sept. 11 attacks or the war in Iraq.

In fact, his advisers said Wednesday that there was near unanimity in the White House, starting with Mr. Bush himself, that the last thing he should do in his first prime time news conference since the Iraq war was to show any sign of remorse.

Aides said Mr. Bush did not want to offer the sort of emotional apology that Richard A. Clarke, his former counterterrorism specialist, made, to the annoyance of White House officials, at the Sept. 11 commission hearings three weeks ago.

After days of emotionally wrought hearings before the Sept. 11 panel, and rising questions about the course of the war in Iraq, Mr. Bush’s performance on Tuesday was described by some Democrats and independent analysts as at least potentially risky.

Bruce Buchanan, a professor of political science at the University of Texas, noted how President John F. Kennedy had called a news conference to take responsibility for the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba and that it bolstered his stature with American voters.

“He took the heat and his polls went through the roof,” Mr. Buchanan said. “I think what people like is the willingness to accept responsibility, even when the consequences may not be good.”

But Mr. Bush’s performance at his news conference was the latest manifestation of a leader who has seldom expressed remorse in public. And White House aides said it also reflected a change in the candidate and the political tenor from 2000, with Mr. Bush intent on presenting himself as an unwavering wartime president while diminishing his Democratic opponent, Senator John Kerry, as weak on national security.

One of his senior advisers broke out laughing Wednesday as he recalled the persistence of reporters pressing Mr. Bush on the subject of remorse, suggesting that contrition would have been a sign of weakness that was both alien to Mr. Bush and more typically found in the corridors of the Democratic Party.

“We must return to the days of Jimmy Carter!” the aide said in a sarcastic invocation of a Democratic president that Republicans have long sought to equate with presidential weakness. “We must have malaise! We must have a weak president! We must have a morose Kerrylike apology!”

Senator Rick Santorum, Republican of Pennsylvania, said: “I don’t recall people asking that of F.D.R. after Pearl Harbor. The bottom line is we were attacked. Trying to rewrite history is just playing the blame game.”

The history of presidential contrition is certainly a sparse one. There have been two notable examples in the past 50 years: Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs in 1961, and Ronald Reagan when he accepted “full responsibility” in 1987 for his administration’s effort to trade arms for hostages.

Mr. Bush’s advisers said that the president had anticipated the line of inquiry at the news conference.

One adviser said the White House had examined polling and focus group studies in determining that it would be a mistake for Mr. Bush to appear to yield.

The advisers said there were pragmatic considerations in his response to the challenges to his policy. Most obviously, they said, Mr. Bush did not want to give an answer that Mr. Kerry might use against him in the campaign. In addition, they said, any suggestion of error might undercut Mr. Bush’s standing with his most fervent supporters and thus complicate his efforts to challenge Mr. Kerry on this issue.

“It would really damage him tremendously with his base,” said one Republican close to the White House.

Not incidentally, several aides to Mr. Bush said that his unrelenting posture was as much aimed at a domestic audience as it was at showing strength to America’s enemies.

White House aides and Democrats said they saw little chance that any significant number of voters would seriously blame Mr. Bush for the Sept. 11 attacks. But Democrats have increasingly said that Mr. Bush might be vulnerable on the war in Iraq, given the fervor with which he has advocated it and the difficulties on the battlefield now.

Joe Lockhart, who was a press secretary under President Bill Clinton, said that Mr. Bush undercut his credibility by declining to acknowledge any error on Iraq, from the intensity of the resistance United States forces have faced to the original justification for going into Iraq.

“The president is always given the benefit of the doubt on issues of war and peace,” Mr. Lockhart said. “The more he takes the position of, `Everything I’ve done is right and nothing is my fault,’ the less credibility he has in making the case.”

Presumably, Mr. Lockhart said, this could help Mr. Kerry in his effort to raise questions about Mr. Bush’s credibility and to present him as stubborn and headstrong.

But Mr. Kerry declined on Wednesday to get drawn into the discussion of whether Mr. Bush should be acknowledging any error.

“That’s for the American people to decide,” he said.

A senior Bush adviser said that, in fact, was the last thing the American public wanted now. “Apologize for what?” the adviser said. “The American people are looking for purpose and resolve and focus.”

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