Just Above Sunset
April 4, 2004 - Edgar Bergen and his wooden dummy Charlie McCarthy

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This week’s big story – just some comments…  

Most people are far too young to remember the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his wooden dummy Charlie McCarthy.



The White House said on Tuesday that that the 9-11 commission agreed to terms that would allow national security adviser Condoleezza Rice to give sworn public testimony on the September 11 attacks, and to allow President Bush and Vice President Cheney to meet in private with the full panel. 

Bush in a television statement to the country Tuesday said this would help give Americans "a complete picture" of events leading to the attacks on 11 September 2001.  He took no questions.  He just read his statement and walked out.  Hey, what else is there to say, after all? 

Yes, this offer has been made on condition that it will not set a precedent.  Previously, of course, these guys had insisted that Rice could only meet the commission in private for “unsworn conversations” – she could, as they say, visit with the commission again, as she did before.  But testimony under oath – and in public – would “contravene” the constitutional separation of powers. 

Now they’ve changed their minds.  And this might be okay. 

The always frightened-looking White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters the commission had agreed to state in writing that neither appearance would set a precedent under the constitutional separation of executive and legislative powers.  Fine, Scott, we get it. 

But it’s a curious deal.  And in a deal you give some and you get some. 

Rice will now testify in public, under oath.  BUT this will not set a precedent, and she cannot be called back, AND the commission also agreed they would not call any other “private advisors” to the president at all from here on out.  You give a little – you get a little. 

But what’s this about the president and the vice president testifying together?  What’s that about? 

As you recall, previously each had agreed only to individual “visits” with the two co-chairs of the ten member panel, not the full ten-member panel, and only for one hour each, and not under oath, and with no written record of the what was said – no note-taking or any of that stuff. 

Now that’s changed.  It will still be a private meeting.  But the time limit is gone.  And they’ll answer questions from the full ten-member panel.  And oddly enough, someone will actually take notes for the record. 

The administration’s attorney sent a letter explaining…


I would also like to take this occasion to offer an accommodation on another issue on which we have not yet reached an agreement - commission access to the president and vice president.  I am authorized to advise you that the president and vice president have agreed to one joint private session with all 10 commissioners, with one commission staff member present to take notes of the session.


Now that is odd.  I guess the administration got tired of ten days of being hammered in the press for seeming so uncooperative, as if they all had something to hide.  Well, this is a counter to that.  And it seems a good thing for both sides. 

But why is this is this a joint session?  Why can't the president and the vice-president meet with the Commission members separately?  Is there some other constitutional issue regarding the president and vice-president needing to appear jointly?  What could that be? 

Well, if this is the only way to get the full testimony in front of the full commission, then this will have to do.  And to be fair, no one seems too upset by the idea.  It’s not a big deal. 

But this joint appearance business could be the real political misstep here. 

This requirement for a joint appearance – Cheney sitting beside Bush - might lead some to conclude the Bush is afraid to face these ten questioners without Dick Cheney by his side to tell him what he was thinking back then, and to tell him what he did back then, and to remind him of why he did whatever it was that he did back then - so Bush can then coherently answer the questions posed to him.  You could get that idea.  And that looks bad. 

But then again, most people are far too old to remember the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his wooden dummy Charlie McCarthy.  Some of us do. 

The problem is that this just makes Bush look as if he cannot think for himself or explain himself in a tight spot.  Many think that’s true, but what is the alternative? 

I guess, after Bush’s less-than-impressive hour with Tim Russert on Meet the Press a few weeks ago, Bush’s handlers figured out it’s better to have a clever wooden puppet out front than a smirking frat-boy all on his own, who doesn’t quite understand the questions.  So it’s a trade-off.  And he cannot bring his daddy to bail him out.  Uncle Dick will do. 

But there will be testimony.  There has been a reversal here, with quite odd caveats of course. 

What is going on? 

Even Aaron Brown on the often-bland CNN has this to say. 


There are problems you can't avoid and then there are problems that you create and we submit that the White House's problems with the 9/11 commission fall into that latter group.  There never should have been any, at least not big ones, and there still has been hardly anything but big problems for the White House. 

The White House opposed the creation of the commission, preferring it be left to Congress.  The families objected.  Polls showed the country did as well.  The president gave in. 

The White House resisted documents the commission said it needed and, after a nasty public spat, the White House relented again.  When the commission said it needed more time, 60 more days to do its work, the White House again said no and, again under political pressure relented. 

And now today, after weeks of saying no to public testimony by his national security adviser and absorbing all the political heats that position entailed, the president gave in again.  The president, a very sharp politician, has been slow to learn that where the commission is concerned resistance, to steal a phrase, is futile and should be.


When this sort of thing hits the mainstream like this Bush needs to do some damage control. 


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
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