Richard Wolffe

Stories by Richard Wolffe

  • The ‘Lame Duck’ Label

    On Tuesday, President Bush popped in for a surprise visit to the Sterling Family Restaurant, a homey diner in Peoria, Ill. It’s a scene that has been played out many times before by this White House and others: a president mingling among regular Americans, who, no matter what they might think of his policies, are usually humbled and shocked to see the leader of the free world standing 10 feet in front of them.But on Tuesday, the surprise was on Bush. In town to deliver remarks on the economy, the president walked into the diner, where he was greeted with what can only be described as a sedate reception. No one rushed to shake his hand. There were no audible gasps or yelps of excitement that usually accompany visits like this. Last summer, a woman nearly fainted when Bush made an unscheduled visit for some donut holes at the legendary Lou Mitchell’s Restaurant in Chicago. In Peoria this week, many patrons found their pancakes more interesting. Except for the click of news cameras and...
  • A New Tone

    For the all the hype generated over energy policies and health-care proposals, last night’s State of the Union Message ended up being less about what President Bush said than how he said it. In his second-to-last major speech before the Congress, Bush sounded like a different leader than he was just a year ago, a reflection of the difficult political circumstances he faces in Washington heading into the final years of his presidency.Last year, Bush came before Congress as a man who refused to cede any ground on Iraq, lambasting Democrats for their “defeatism” on the war. Last night was a different story, as Bush essentially pleaded with Democrats and many Republicans to stick with him on his plan to send additional troops to Iraq. “This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we are in,” Bush somberly admitted, urging lawmakers to “give it a chance to work.” Few presidents in recent memory have ever been so contrite in a speech before the Congress, but that’s the...
  • What Bush Will Say

    For all the hype, the State of the Union speech has a disappointing history. Few presidents have ever delivered a memorable address. Despite a few rhetorical flourishes that stick—41’s “thousand points of light,” for example—most are just laundry lists of promises soon broken or forgotten. Remember President Clinton’s detailed plan to store up 15 years of budget surpluses in order to salvage Social Security? Neither do we. President Bush has uttered one memorable State of the Union phrase in his six-year tenure: “axis of evil.” You don’t hear it much around the White House these days.Despite the speech’s sorry history, Bush knows he needs a big night tonight. His last address, announcing a “surge” of American troops as his new way forward in Iraq, failed to catch fire with the public, and left a growing group within his own party looking for other answers. In order to come out from under the Iraq cloud, and regain momentum on his domestic agenda, Bush is returning to a topic...
  • More Political Science

    Last summer President Bush invited several scientists to the Oval Office to revisit one of his earliest--and most contro-versial--decisions: to fund, but strictly limit, stem-cell research. Bush wanted to explore the impact of his 2001 policy to approve research only on existing stem cells drawn from human embryos. So he asked the scientists about the viability of the 21 approved stem-cell lines. And he quizzed them about possible contamination with mouse cells. One month later, he issued the first veto of his presidency against an expansion of stem-cell research.With a new Democratic-led Congress, Bush is now facing a greater political challenge than he was then. Last week House Democrats voted once again to approve funding for research using stem cells drawn from embryos slated for destruction at fertility clinics. The final vote fell short of a veto-proof majority, and the White House promised to block it again.But this time around, Bush's aides feel far more confident about...
  • A Tale of Two Speeches

    Presidents don’t typically deliver two major addresses during the month of January—especially not less than two weeks apart. But the deteriorating situation in Iraq has denied Bush the luxury of laying low at the start of the year, developing the domestic policy goals that he hoped would be the legacy of his second term. Instead, the White House was forced to work on two tracks—one speechwriting team focused on next week’s State of the Union address, another on last week’s “troop surge” speech.Both Bush aides and congressional Republicans had hoped that by dealing with Iraq in a separate speech to the nation, Bush would be able to focus on other pressing issues during his annual speech on Capitol Hill, including a renewed push for alternative energy, immigration reform and efforts to make his tax cuts permanent. But like so many of Bush’s goals in recent years, the majority of his State of the Union pledges have been overtaken by events in Iraq. The flagship address is still days...
  • Iraq: Friends at War

    War itself is a foreign concept to many solons of Capitol Hill; a small number--perhaps as few as 25 out of 535--have come under fire in combat. John McCain and Chuck Hagel are obvious and visible exceptions. McCain, a Republican from Arizona, was a Navy bomber pilot, shot down and imprisoned by the North Vietnamese for five and a half years. He has, he sometimes says, "more scars than Frankenstein." Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, was an Army grunt in Vietnam who won two Purple Hearts and still has shrapnel in his chest. Both men have seen the face of war up close. But on the question of the Iraq war, they are almost mirror opposites.Hagel is "obsessed" with the war in Iraq, says his brother Tom, who served with him in Vietnam. "You can't have a conversation with him without this coming up." During Christmas, Hagel looked "markedly older and grayer than when I saw him this summer down at the beach," says Tom. In an interview with NEWSWEEK last week, Hagel teared up when he began...
  • 'Where Mistakes Have Been Made'

    Everything was meant to signal change. The long internal debates with advisers. The meetings with outside experts. The talk of a new way forward.Even the setting was intended to put the president in a fresh light. The old Bush was a man of action on the deck of an aircraft carrier or at his desk in the Oval Office. The new Bush: a thoughtful realist speaking to the nation from his library, with the wisdom of all those books behind him.But if you listened closely to President Bush on Wednesday night, the much-anticipated speech didn’t change the central mission much. It’s clear, hold and build—only this time with money behind it, but not that much money, and not enough new troops to really make a difference. And, Bush signaled loud and clear, it’s really the Iraqis’ problem now.Yes, the president accepted a degree of responsibility for the failures that have characterized the war in Iraq. “Where mistakes have been made,” he said, “the responsibility rests with me.” But he didn’t go...
  • A Stagger, More than a Surge

    After all the hype, all the leaks, and all the punditry, what more can the president say on Wednesday night that hasn’t been said already?The answer, according to senior Bush aides, is quite a lot.Take the idea of a “surge,” for instance. The much-debated escalation suggests a lot of troops moving quickly to Iraq. Yet two senior White House officials, who declined to be named discussing sensitive policy matters in advance of the speech, tell NEWSWEEK that the president’s approach will be far more cautious. The White House expects all the new troops to be deployed in Iraq. But they won’t go until the Iraqis have met several conditions--or benchmarks--to get the extra help they say they need.Chief among those benchmarks is that the Iraqi government follows through on its own security plan, announced on Saturday. That means Iraqi troops need to report for duty, sweep through neighborhoods regardless of sectarian interests, and follow a clear chain of command that leads to Prime...
  • 'Surge' Strategy

    He was caught just like a rat." Those were the simple, happy words of Ray Odierno three years ago, after units of his Fourth Infantry Division cornered Saddam Hussein in Tikrit. The hulking general went on to declare that the capture was a "major operational and psychological defeat" for the insurgents, who had been "brought to their knees." It was a heady moment, but as it turned out that's all it was--a moment. On Dec. 14, 2006, three years and a day after Saddam was hauled out of his hole, Lt. Gen. Odierno returned to take day-to-day command of Coalition forces in Iraq. His mood since then has been far more sober. "You now have different groups ... trying to vie for power within Iraq," Odierno told NEWSWEEK in an interview last week from his headquarters at Camp Victory near Baghdad. "That's what makes this extremely more complex than this has been in the past. It's not simply Sunni insurgents or Al Qaeda that we're fighting anymore--fighting is the wrong term--we're trying to...
  • From Watergate to Monicagate

    To understand Gerald Ford’s place inside the Bush administration, you need to turn the clock back six years.Before 9/11, and before Iraq, there was an inexperienced Texas governor who won the presidency — after a few legal hitches — on a relatively simple pledge: to restore honor and integrity to the Oval Office.In late 2000, President-elect Bush and his team in Austin, Texas, saw themselves as something of a restoration. Not the restoration of the father’s presidency, given the fraught relationship between 41 and his eldest son. But, in their own eyes, they represented a return to the decent, principled government that would think strategically and professionally about the United States and the world beyond.Just like the Ford team, they believed they could clean up the West Wing after impeachment and partisan wars, drawing on their own talent and experience to set a new course. After Monica, they thought they would end America’s latest “long national nightmare.”The mission wasn’t...
  • Bush: Sneaking Into Iraq

    The journey started with a brief e-mail: "U reachable?" asked the senior Bush aide in June. He invited me to meet at a local diner. "We're going to Baghdad," he said, sipping a Diet Coke. "Want to come?" There was just one condition, he explained. "You can't tell anyone. Not even your wife."My wife guessed immediately. A day later I took a taxi to a Virginia hotel--not the usual rendezvous at Andrews Air Force Base, where someone might see the press arrive. Another White House aide told us to surrender our cell phones, pagers and BlackBerrys.At dusk our plain white vans backed up to the stairs of Air Force One, parked close to its hangar, out of sight of the terminal. An hour later, under cover of darkness, the president bounded up the stairs. "POTUS is onboard!" he declared, referring to himself by his own acronym: president of the United States. The trip seemed unreal until they started handing out flak jackets and helmets. The White House believed that our secret was still safe,...
  • Doing Business

    President George W. Bush and President Vladimir Putin recently agreed to a long-delayed trade deal to allow Russia to proceed with entry to the World Trade Organization. They had hoped to ink the deal at the G8 summit in St. Petersburg in July, but finally reached agreement in Vietnam last month. NEWSWEEK’s Richard Wolffe spoke with Dorothy Dwoskin, the Assistant United States Trade Representative about the negotiations and what the deal means. Excerpts:NEWSWEEK: Why does the Russian deal make sense for Americans?DWOSKIN: Russia joining the WTO imposes a certain amount of predictability and certainty in how Russia will treat U.S. exports of goods and services to the Russian market. You have a guarantee of what the tariffs will be. You have a guarantee of the rules that will be applied. When you join the WTO, you have to treat people on a non-discriminatory basis.This deal has been in the works for a long time. What were the stumbling blocks?The accession process takes a long time...
  • The Odd Couple

    It’s not Reagan-Thatcher. And it’s certainly not Clinton-Yeltsin. But the Bush-Maliki relationship is now the single most important one of the Bush era. Both leaders desperately need one another for their political survival and their place in history.So how come there’s so little electricity when they meet?After their third face-to-face meeting in six months, President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki emerged in Amman, Jordan, on Thursday to face a hotel ballroom fairly bristling with cameras and excitable Iraqi reporters. But the energy level among the media was far higher than it was between the two leaders.At one point, President Bush turned to the prime minister to ask if he wanted to take any more questions. Maliki slowly wheeled around and stared blankly at Bush as if he’d never really understand the foreigner standing next to him. If Americans are from Mars, and Europeans are from Venus, then the Iraqi prime minister may be from the planet formerly known as...
  • Adjust the Course

    You could be forgiven for thinking there was something big in the works. President Bush is holding a three-way summit in the Middle East. Washington’s political insiders are swapping leaks about forthcoming studies on Iraq. Even the network news anchors are flying halfway across the world.So the White House is ready to change course in Iraq, right?Not quite. The president and his senior staff arrived in Amman, Jordan, on Wednesday with a deep sense of discontent about the direction of Iraq. But that doesn’t translate into a major course correction, no matter what the pundits—or the Democrats, or James Baker’s study group—suggest. Somewhere between Stay the Course and Reverse Course lies Bush’s new approach. Call it Adjust the Course.Look at how the White House is approaching the high-stakes meeting in Amman between President Bush, King Abdullah of Jordan and the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. The president’s fundamental judgment about Maliki is unchanged.The tone of the leaked...
  • Vietnam: Focusing on the Future

    Until now, Vietnam has symbolized two strands in President Bush's political life: a war he didn't fight in and a comparison he wants to avoid. But this week the country becomes not just a metaphor but a reality, as Bush visits Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City for the first time. Bill Clinton embraced history in his wildly popular trip in 2000, when he became the first U.S. president to visit Vietnam since the war. But Bush is choosing to concentrate not on the country's past but its future. At a recent meeting with his Asia advisers, Bush was fascinated by Vietnam's economic boom, which his economists likened to China's position a decade ago. "I wonder if people at the end of the Vietnam War would ever have thought that at the end of 2006 a president would go there and there would be a market-based economy in a country that was becoming freer," Bush told aides, according to one who was in the room but asked for anonymity because the briefing was private.Small wonder Bush doesn't want...
  • The Architect's Faulty Specs

    President Bush knew he was in for a rough night. As he settled down in front of the TV in the White House residence to watch the election results, the numbers were already grim. By 8 p.m., long before the polls closed out west, Bush realized it was over. "It looks like this is going to be a rout," he lamented to a handful of aides.Downstairs in the West Wing, Karl Rove wasn't ready to concede anything. The president's political architect believed the GOP could hold on to slender majorities in the House and the Senate. He had history on his side: in 2004 he refused to believe the early exit polls while everyone else was resigned to defeat. This time he was convinced his numbers would come through again. But even Rove's optimism finally cracked when he took a gloomy call from an old friend working for Rep. Clay Shaw in Florida. Shaw won re-election two years ago by a 28-point margin; last week he was heading to a four-point defeat. At 11:01 p.m., Rove made the long walk to the...
  • Accidental Tourist?

    "Stay the course" may have been the slogan that killed the GOP and President Bush in 2006. But Bush still has the capacity to change, and the political sense to know that he needs to adapt to survive the last two years of his presidency.Take the start of his current weeklong trip to Asia. On previous trips, Bush has shunned cultural events, preferring to plunge straight into his business meetings with foreign leaders. In foreign interviews, he has often blamed his scheduler for leaving no time to show his interest in the countries he visits. In reality, his aides have long complained they couldn’t convince him to carve out time in his schedule to win some easy goodwill for his presidency and the United States.That pattern was broken this week. The president’s first stop in Singapore on Thursday was the Asian Civilizations Museum—even before he visited the U.S. Embassy, which is normally his first port of call. There he and the First Lady walked through exhibits, including one about...
  • Turnout Wasn’t Enough

    RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman was the man who built the Bush turnout model. He started building a grassroots machine in Iowa in the 2000 campaign, then took it nationwide to win in 2004 as Bush's campaign manager. 2006 was shaping up to be an even more successful turnout for the GOP, but it wasn't enough to hold on to the House or the Senate. Now Mehlman is stepping down from the RNC. He spoke last week to NEWSWEEK's Richard Wolffe. Excerpts:NEWSWEEK: You predicted before the election that you'd lose 23 seats in the House. Did you think that was at the upper end?Ken Mehlman: I thought 23 was moderately pessimistic. Here's what you knew. You knew there was a band of about 30 seats that could go one way or another. There wasn't a common denominator to those 30 seats.What early results told you it was worse than expected?Anne Northup [in Kentucky's 3rd district] was a sign of the problem. And the [Mark] Foley seat and the [Tom] DeLay seat. Both are conservative districts we should have held...
  • White House Blues

    The last time George W. Bush lost an election was three decades ago, when he ran for Congress in west Texas in the middle of the oil boom of the 1970s. Bush likes to tell the story of how he asked one voter how come he failed to win his support in that race. The apocryphal answer goes like this: “Because you didn’t ask for my vote.”Well this time around, in the middle of another oil boom, President Bush asked many states and districts for their vote—and they still didn’t deliver. To add insult to injury, the commander in chief was forced to hand another triumph to the Democrats on Wednesday: the removal of controversial Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld from office.President Bush’s personal performance will be one of many difficult questions posed for him and Republicans in post-election analyses in the days and weeks ahead. Speaking after his 2004 victory, two short years ago, the president claimed he had earned a large store of political capital from the election—and intended to...
  • A GOP Balancing Act

    Bob Corker needed to add some flair to his flagging campaign. The GOP candidate should have been running a simple Senate race in conservative Tennessee. But he was trailing by several points last month, so the White House and party leaders stepped in. Their solution: a new campaign manager in the form of a rumpled, martini-drinking, cigar-chewing veteran of Tennessee politics. Back in 1978, Tom Ingram helped transform a lackluster candidate for governor--Lamar Alexander--by dressing him in a folksy red plaid shirt. And it was Ingram who put Fred Thompson in a red pickup truck in his 1994 Senate race, turning the Hollywood actor and lawyer into a good ole boy.What could Ingram change about Corker, the starchy former mayor of Chattanooga? Everything but his clothes, apparently. Speaking to a group of sheriffs last week, Corker was buttoned up in a charcoal pin-striped suit. ("We need to change that," Ingram later grumbled in a Nashville bar.) Still, Ingram has helped turn the Corker...
  • Stealth Campaigner

    To hear White House officials tell it, President George W. Bush is as popular as ever on the campaign trail.They point to his calendar, which so far this year, has included roughly 70 appearances on behalf of the GOP and its candidates. And two weeks before Election Day, administration officials continue to cite a backlog of requests they’ve had to turn down in recent months, simply because Bush has been too busy.More than anything, they cite numbers as proof that Bush hasn’t lost his groove: the president has raised more than $100 million for the GOP this campaign cycle, making him by far the most popular Republican fund-raiser on the circuit.But then there’s the other telling statistic the White House often downplays: of all the campaign events Bush has attended this year, not a single one has been open to the general public. So far only paying supporters have had a chance to catch a glimpse of the political campaigner in chief—a notable shift from previous election years.Back in...
  • Clinton Comeback

    When Hillary Clinton and John McCain traded rhetorical blows over North Korea last week, some pundits hailed the exchange as a taste of 2008: a titanic clash between the early front runners in the next presidential election.They forgot that the real titans of modern politics have yet to leave the stage: two relatively young, two-term presidents who show no sign of stepping out of the national debate on domestic politics and foreign affairs. Welcome to the heavyweight title fight between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.Clinton declared his political comeback Wednesday with a set-piece speech that is aimed, according to his aides, at framing his governing philosophy in the context of the 2006 elections. Clinton’s goal: to show why his philosophy works, and why Bush’s doesn’t. Clinton, of course, doesn’t cite Bush’s name. But he hardly pulls his punches against what he calls “the leadership in Washington today.”In theory, Wednesday’s speech marked the 15th anniversary of Clinton’s “new...
  • ‘Seduction of Christians’

    David Kuo was a rising star among social conservatives: he wrote speeches for Ralph Reed, served as a policy adviser to John Ashcroft and counted Bill Bennett as his mentor. He joined the Bush campaign in 1998 and rose to become second in command at the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.But he quickly grew disillusioned with the Bush White House for what he saw as its political manipulation of Christian groups—and the failure to fund a policy that the president portrays as his personal priority. His new book, “Tempting Faith: An Inside Story of Political Seduction” (Free Press), is a tell-all book dissing the administration’s dealings with social conservatives . Officially released today, it has left the White House struggling to defend its record, as well as its relationship with evangelicals. NEWSWEEK's Richard Wolffe spoke to Kuo about his “profoundly personal” memoir. Excerpts:NEWSWEEK: How are you dealing with the firestorm your book has sparked? David...
  • 2nd-Term Blues

    It’s not easy being a second-term president—especially when your party is mired in a sex scandal, voters are worried about the war in Iraq and a sworn enemy of the United States has apparently tested a nuclear weapon. With less than a month to go before Election Day, President Bush is trying his hardest to take control of a political debate that has steamed along without him, overshadowing every theme that he and the Republicans had hoped to use to their advantage this election season. Even the two most basic themes that Bush and his allies have employed to win elections in the past—taxes and terrorism—have simply been overshadowed in recent weeks by what has amounted to a hurricane of bad news for the GOP.In what could be his final press conference before the highly anticipated midterm elections, Bush on Wednesday went before reporters at the White House where he tried to regain some element of political momentum—or, at the very least, reclaim a little relevancy in a news cycle...
  • Lifeline for Hastert?

    It was an unusual segue. On Tuesday afternoon, President Bush made an impromptu stop at the George W. Bush Elementary in Stockton, Calif., where he made a brief statement about school violence in the wake of several recent shootings around the nation. But that wasn’t the only thing he wanted to talk about.With a school principal standing tearfully at his side, Bush used the topic of keeping kids safe at school to bring up the story that has transfixed the nation. In his first remarks on the growing sex scandal surrounding disgraced Rep. Mark Foley and his inappropriate e-mails to House pages, Bush said he was “disgusted by the revelations” and called it a “reminder of the need for people in positions of responsibility to uphold that responsibility when it comes to children.”Yet he threw something of a lifeline to the man who has come under fire for possibly ignoring that responsibility: House Speaker Dennis Hastert. While Bush ignored questions about whether Hastert should resign,...
  • In Rove's Footsteps

    In a darkened edit room in downtown Dallas, admaker Scott Howell is tinkering with his latest political firebomb. The ad starts with illegal immigrants running across the border. It then cuts to images of Osama bin Laden and Zacarias Moussaoui. Finally comes the real target of Howell's attack: Harold Ford Jr., the Democrat locked in a close race for the Senate seat in Tennessee. Over an edgy hip-hop soundtrack, the ad castigates Ford for voting against border security and the Patriot Act. "No wonder Harold Ford has been rated the most liberal congressman from Tennessee," the narrator intones. The ad ends with the word "liberal" pulsing on the screen as a shadowy figure walks down a long hallway.If that ad sounds familiar, it's not surprising--it's a classic in the Karl Rove genre. Howell is one of a group of admakers, strategists and direct-mailers who learned the craft from the architect of George W. Bush's White House--and are now shaping some of the hottest races of 2006. Some...
  • The Bob Woodward Effect

    There are few journalists in Washington who can throw the White House off its stride: Bob Woodward is one of them. Woodward’s new book, "State of Denial,"  paints a damning picture of White House policy in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion. After The New York Times printed excerpts of the book on Friday, the West Wing immediately went into full damage-control mode, as top aides tried to figure out how to respond. Woodward had delivered copies of the book to the White House on Friday morning—earlier than they expected because of the newspaper leak. The arrival of a Woodward Tome has become a kind of biennial ritual in Washington. The last two, which detailed the Afghan war and the successful early invasion of Iraq, were fairly kind to the president and his staff. But this was a different kind of book, and the administration was already bracing for a rougher ride.The White House stayed quiet all morning, until the press briefing, which began unusually late. Soon after press secretary...
  • I Just Called to Say I Love You

    President Bush took a rare trip to Capitol Hill this morning to talk to GOP senators. Rarer still: he brought reinforcements. The veep, chief of staff Josh Bolten, national-security adviser Steve Hadley and political guru Karl Rove all showed up for a closed door Republican pep rally. The message: we care. Bush's pitch was all about the historic nature of their GOP struggle against jihadis, and Democrats. After all, they're all in this election together--or at least that's the image the White House wants to broadcast. Bush's team has been working harder to schmooze wary members of Congress, some of whom have wandered away from Bush over Iraq, immigration and other issues that aren't popular back home. But Bush also had tough words for the members about the recently disclosed National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism. "He said it's wrong to leak this stuff, and absolutely wrong to leak only a portion of it in order to imply something that is in...
  • Spinning the Spin

    Amid all the hoopla about the National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism, it’s worth stepping back to gain a little perspective. Like three and a half years of perspective. Back in March 2003, President Bush addressed the nation from the Oval Office just after the first military strikes in Iraq. “The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder,” he said. “We will meet that threat now, with our Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and Marines, so that we do not have to meet it later with armies of firefighters and police and doctors on the streets of our cities.”Never mind that the weapons of mass murder were never found. And never mind the suggestion, now retracted, that Saddam’s regime would coordinate operations with terrorists. The central premise of the war in Iraq was that military force would stop terrorists from attacking America—that troops would fight the threat in...
  • Mixed Messages

    The French foreign minister called George Bush’s speech to the United Nations “remarkable,” gushing that the U.S. president showed “great determination.” Even the Iranian president reached out to the United States by saying that both countries shared the experience of being the victims of terrorism.No, that wasn’t in some parallel universe. That was the U.N. General Assembly in November, 2001. Bush was speaking at a time when, as he put it, “many thousands still lie in a tomb of rubble.” It was a time when the president could cite one of the world’s leading Islamic scholars condemning those who attacked the United States. And it was a time when Bush himself launched a passionate defense of the U.N. against the threats of the terrorists and the Taliban in Afghanistan. “Last week, anticipating this meeting of the General Assembly, they denounced the United Nations,” Bush said. “They called our Secretary General a criminal and condemned all Arab nations here as traitors to Islam.”Over...