Richard Wolffe

Stories by Richard Wolffe

  • 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...
  • Patriotism or Politics?

    The White House promised a non-political speech. Bush’s aides said the president’s address to the nation would exploit no partisan differences, and issue no calls to Congress. In technical terms, they were right. To all intents and purposes, they were wrong.Sure, President Bush avoided the words Democrat and Republican. And there were no exhortations for legislation. But if that’s the definition of political, then there’s little that qualifies outside a 30-second TV ad and a State of the Union speech. Instead, the 9-11 anniversary speech carried all the hallmarks of politics as honed and polished by President Bush in the 12 years he has held public office.The most important hallmark is a passive-aggressive strategy—to land a punch without looking like you’re in a fight. So Bush took the high road of patriotism, as he called for Democrats to stop opposing his policies in Iraq and elsewhere. “Winning this war will require the determined efforts of a unified country,” Bush said, “and...
  • The 'Islamofascists'

    Last fall White House aides were grappling with a seemingly simple question that had eluded them for years: what should the president, in his many speeches on the war on terror, call the enemy? They were searching for a single clean phrase that could both define the foe and reassure Americans who were confused by a conflict that had grown much bigger than Osama bin Laden. But the answer was anything but simple. Some academics preferred the term "Islamism," but the aides thought that sounded too much as if America were fighting the entire religion. Another option: jihadism. But to many Muslims, it's a positive word that doesn't necessarily evoke bloodshed. Some preferred the conservative buzzword "Islamofascism," which was catchy and tied neatly into Bush's historical view of the struggle.But when national-security adviser Steve Hadley called the CIA, the Pentagon and the State Department, the experts nixed the idea of a single phrase for a war that was so complex. "There was a...
  • Bin Laden’s Bounce

    There was a time when the White House considered Osama bin Laden so contemptible and so radioactive that it would rarely mention his name in any presidential speech. President Bush’s aides didn’t want to dignify the Al Qaeda leader by suggesting he was worthy of a presidential response. Moreover, they thought there was some danger in propagating the views of a figure who wanted to reach the widest audience—and possibly even send coded messages to his followers.So when bin Laden released a tape late in the last election—in October 2004—the White House handled it delicately. In the final days of the closely fought campaign, Bush’s aides preferred to focus not on bin Laden but on how John Kerry was handling the tape. Bush challenged Kerry for what he called “Monday morning quarterbacking” on the war in Iraq, saying his criticism was “especially shameful in the light of a new tape from America’s enemy.”Even earlier this year, after another audiotape from bin Laden, the White House...
  • It’s the Enemy, Stupid

    With the Hurricane Katrina anniversary behind it, the White House is moving quickly to shift the focus to a topic it thinks will play better for the GOP this fall. Thursday is scheduled to mark the start of yet another attempt by President Bush to frame the war in Iraq, and the war against Al Qaeda, in terms that might move his poll numbers in the right direction.But is there anything he can say about the war that he hasn’t said before? The White House speechwriters will have plenty of opportunities: Thursday’s speech to the American Legion’s national convention is the start of a series that builds up to Bush’s address to the United Nations General Assembly in two weeks.For Bush’s aides, the immediate goal is never about the poll numbers—not because they don’t follow them closely, but because they don’t want to be measured by the cold hard digits after one or two speeches. Instead, the president’s priority over the next two weeks is to re-focus attention on “the enemy,” to empathize...
  • Campaigner in Chief?

    At his news conference Monday morning, President Bush offered up some advice to Republican candidates, suggesting that if he were on the ballot this fall that he’d be stressing two major issues: the economy and national security. “If I were running, I’d say look at what the economy has done. It’s strong,” Bush told reporters. Ditto for national security: “There’s a fundamental difference between many of the Democrats and my party, and that is, they want to leave before the job is completed in Iraq,” he said. “These are decent people. They are just as American as I am. I just happen to strongly disagree with them. And it’s very important for the American people to understand the consequences of leaving Iraq before the job is done.” But, Bush admitted, “since I’m not running, I can only serve as an adviser to those who are.”But will GOP candidates take his advice? Bush’s name may not be on the ballot, but in an election that many Republicans believe is shaping up to be a referendum on...
  • Washington: Shades Of Green

    Before moving into the White House, George W. Bush built the kind of vacation home that Al Gore might have designed. His Texas ranch captures rain and wastewater for landscaping. Solar panels line the roof and an underground geothermal system provides heating and air conditioning. There's even a protected forest that is home to the rare golden-cheeked warbler.Unlike his caricature, Bush is not monochromatic when it comes to the environment. During the final weeks of the 2000 campaign, he lampooned Gore's plans to cut taxes for those living a green lifestyle. "How many of you own a hybrid electric-gasoline-engine vehicle?" he would ask at rallies. "How many of you have a rooftop photovoltaic system?"But following his green-tinted State of the Union address in January, Bush now travels the country promoting both hybrid vehicles and solar power. In June he created a huge national monument around the remote northwestern islands of Hawaii.Has Bush turned green in his six years in office?...
  • Bush: Summer Reading

    Apart from the wars in Iraq and Lebanon, what's on President Bush's mind as he takes a shortened vacation at his Texas ranch? Judging by the books on his summer-reading list, Bush is thinking about nuclear bombs, civil war and baseball. The president has just finished "Clemente," by David Maraniss, the story of the gifted right-fielder who rose from a poor Puerto Rican family to become a Pittsburgh Pirates star, before dying in a plane crash while delivering aid to Nicaraguan earth-quake victims. (Bush told NEWSWEEK he loved the last baseball book he read, "The Big Bam," about Babe Ruth.) The president has also read "American Prometheus" by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, a biography of Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atom bomb who later became a pacifist and a victim of the anti-communist witch hunt.Now Bush is reading another bio of his favorite president. "Lincoln," by Richard Carwardine, looks at the newly formed Republican Party and the president's evolving views of slavery....
  • Backstage at the Crisis

    As the world's leaders gathered, the Middle East burst into flames. How President Bush handled the biggest foreign challenge of his second term. A NEWSWEEK exclusive.
  • Buckeye Blues

    With just over three months until Election Day, White House political adviser Karl Rove hit the campaign trail Tuesday in Ohio, hoping to rev up voters in a state where polls show President George W. Bush and the GOP is in real trouble. Bush’s top political aide was the guest of honor at a $100-a-plate luncheon in Columbus to benefit county parties in central Ohio, a state that is viewed as ground zero in the GOP’s attempts to maintain control of Congress.A poll released over the weekend showed that Sen. Mike DeWine , a moderate Republican who has notably distanced himself from Bush on the campaign trail, is running 8 percentage points behind his Democratic opponent, Rep. Sherrod Brown. Other Ohio Republicans are in trouble as well, including GOP gubernatorial candidate Ken Blackwell, who is running 20 points behind Democrat Ted Strickland. Bush, whose approval ratings linger in the low 30s in the state, is scheduled to campaign for Blackwell in Ohio next week.Yet Rove insisted...
  • The President: Shades of Green

    Before moving into the White House, George W. Bush built the kind of vacation home that Al Gore might have designed. His Texas ranch captures rain and wastewater for landscaping. Solar panels line the roof and an underground geothermal system provides heating and air conditioning. There's even a protected forest that is home to the rare golden-cheeked warbler.Unlike his caricature, Bush is not monochromatic when it comes to the environment. During the final weeks of the 2000 campaign. he lampooned Gore's plans to cut taxes for those living a green lifestyle. "How many of you own a hybrid electric-gasoline-engine vehicle?" he would ask at rallies. "How many of you have a rooftop photovoltaic system?"But following his green-tinted State of the Union address in January, Bush now travels the country promoting both hybrid vehicles and solar power. Just last month he created a huge national monument around the remote northwestern islands of Hawaii.Has Bush turned green in his six years in...
  • Balancing Acts

    President Bush thought he’d be flying into St. Petersburg on Friday with one big challenge on his agenda: how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. His prospects for diplomatic success at the weekend G8 summit in the Russian city looked promising. After all, European nations were affronted by Iran’s nonresponse to their package of incentives to stop enriching uranium. The White House had won everyone’s support—including Russia’s—to move ahead to the next step of talking about a United Nations resolution against Iran.Instead the president is firefighting in another corner of the region: the hostilities between Israel and Hizbullah in Lebanon. On board Air Force One he called three regional leaders—Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Lebanon’s Prime Minister Fouad Siniora—to maintain a united front against Hizbullah and its backers in Syria and Iran.White House officials said President Bush was especially pleased by Saudi Arabia’s statement Thursday that...
  • A Flip and a Bounce

    For a White House that has been disciplined about avoiding political flip-flops, there is only one way to sum up Tuesday’s announcement that the Bush administration has shifted policy on its treatment of terrorism detainees: they were against the Geneva Conventions before they were for them.After months of arguing that Geneva rules did not apply to enemy combatants and other terrorism suspects, the Bush administration announced Tuesday that all military detainees were entitled to protections under the conventions' standards of conduct. Administration officials say the policy will apply not only to Al Qaeda detainees held at Guantánamo Bay but all suspected terrorism detainees held throughout the world. The policy, outlined in a memo written by Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England, appears to reverse the administration’s long-standing position that terror detainees were not prisoners of war and were therefore not subject to international standards of treatment.But that’s not what...
  • In Putin We Trust?

    In the days when the Bush administration was most worried about Russia helping to spread nukes to rogue nations, White House officials would often despair at their lack of leverage over Moscow. There seemed little they could do to alter the former superpower’s behavior, especially when it came to Iran.Now, on the verge of this week’s G8 summit in Russia, the White House believes it has discovered a new way to win the day: more nuclear carrots. Instead of trying to convince Russia to give up billions of dollars in contracts to build Iran’s nuclear power, the White House wants to offer Moscow even bigger contracts to become the world’s nuclear dump.For now, the White House says its talks with Vladimir Putin’s government are at a very early stage. But the Russian nuke talks (first revealed by the Washington Post) mark an important opening in at least three areas: Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the U.S.-Russian relationship and the world’s growing appetite for nuclear energy.If the talks...
  • Edwards: Getting Ready to Run?

    In the Senate, Democrats were bogged down debating troop withdrawals from Iraq. But across town last week, an ex-senator was talking about a different war: the war on poverty. John Edwards, the former veep candidate, has followed the issue at his think tank at the University of North Carolina. The result: a proposal to eliminate poverty in 30 years by raising the minimum wage, creating 1 million extra housing vouchers and reviving rural life with better community colleges and small-business centers. "I have the freedom to focus on something that I care about deeply," he told NEWSWEEK, "and work on it in great depth, which is very difficult to do if I were still in Washington."It looks as if he's laying the foundation to get back there. He hasn't yet declared himself a presidential candidate, but he has wooed away an adviser to former Virginia governor Mark Warner, Edwards's rival to be the Southern alternative to Sen. Hillary Clinton in '08. Dave (Mudcat) Saunders, an architect of...
  • Politics and the War: While Bush Reaches Out, Rove Pushes Back

    In his office onboard Air Force One, President Bush's spirits were high. He had just pulled off the coup of a secret trip to Baghdad, and was feeling buoyed by his talks with the new Iraqi government. After a year of criticism from his own party, Bush brushed off hopes that he might lower troop levels to help the GOP in November's congressional elections. "I believe in supporting a strategy that will work," he told reporters while sitting on his airplane office sofa. "Not work for some immediate political situation, but work for the good of the Iraqi people, and for ourselves and, equally important, [to] help us win this war on terror."Bush's firm tone was part of a fresh strategy to build bipartisan support for the new Iraqi cabinet. He held what his aides called a "respectful" meeting with congressional leaders of both parties at the White House the day he returned from Iraq, as he tried to stay above the political fray. "I do have a keen sense that the president thinks it's...
  • At Last, a Rosy Day

    President Bush could tell something big had happened in Iraq, but he didn't know if it was good or bad. Last Wednesday afternoon, the president hosted a meeting at the White House with members of Congress who had recently returned from Baghdad. The congressmen told stories and gave Bush advice. Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois pointedly told Bush that he should be trying to kill Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. The comment caused quiet snickering: try to kill Zarqawi--like no one had thought of that before. At one point, Bush's national-security adviser, Stephen Hadley, was called out of the room. When he returned a few minutes later, Bush gave him a searching stare, trying to suss out what Hadley had learned. Bush had been waiting for word that Iraq's government had finally succeeded in filling its last cabinet positions, an incremental step that the White House was eager to hold up as a sign of progress. But Hadley, gray-haired and sober, sat poker-faced, betraying nothing. Bush grimaced and...
  • McCain's Right Flank

    Last fall, Jerry Falwell asked for an audience with an old foe who once called him one of "the agents of intolerance" in American politics. Falwell had been estranged from Arizona Sen. John McCain for almost six years, ever since the televangelist fought for George W. Bush in the bare-knuckle South Carolina primary that ended McCain's hopes of reaching the White House in 2000. Now, sitting in the Senate office of the GOP front runner for 2008, Falwell immediately brought up their past differences--"within 15 seconds of their sitting down," according to a McCain aide--and both men agreed it was time to move on. Falwell asked if McCain would support a federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage; McCain said no because he believed marriage came under state control. (If the federal courts were to usurp the states' control on the issue, McCain said he would consider a constitutional amendment.) Then Falwell made another, simpler request: would McCain speak to his students...
  • Hu's Visit: Bush's Chinese Diplomacy--Lost in Translation

    President Hu Jintao can take comfort in one thing: most Chinese didn't see the excruciating reception he got at the White House. Not right away, that is. The state-controlled news media gave viewers at home only carefully chosen glimpses of last week's U.S. trip. Despite the concerted efforts of Beijing's 30,000-odd cybercops, however, the painful details--with streaming video--flashed among the country's Internet users. "To summarize my feelings while watching this live news: I felt like I was raped," wrote one participant in Tianya, a mainland-based Web forum. "But I don't know who did it, nor even where my pain is."For face-conscious Chinese, the visit was a problem even before it began. Hu's retinue had hoped for a full state dinner. Instead, they had to settle for a luncheon. That snub was intentional, at least. A series of unplanned slights and slurs compounded it. The arrival ceremony on the East Lawn began with the event's American announcer misidentifying Hu's home country...
  • Bush Pops His Bubble

    No matter how powerful he grew inside the Bush White House, Josh Bolten always came off as just one of the guys, a smart, hardworking wonk who ducked publicity and rewarded his staff with a night at the bowling alley. But in the two weeks since he was named the new White House chief of staff, Bolten has, in his quiet, unassuming way, created high anxiety inside the West Wing. He was hired to do an urgent but seemingly impossible job--revive the flailing administration--and he had barely moved into his new office before he began easing out loyal but timeworn aides. At a 7:30 a.m. meeting on his first day in the new job, Bolten told the senior staff, "If you're thinking about leaving sometime in the near future, now would be a good time to do it."Bolten started at the top, going after the two highest-profile staff members inside the West Wing: Bush's Brain and Bush's Mouthpiece. Karl Rove, who stepped down as day-to-day policy coordinator, and Scott McClellan, who announced his...
  • Into the Lion's Den

    It was all smiles in the White House briefing room Wednesday as George Bush introduced his new press secretary, Fox News commentator Tony Snow, to an excitable press corps. But Snow knows this isn’t a happy situation he’s walking into, even though his predecessor Scott McClellan was beaming at the cameras as the president walked in. After all, Snow knows just what it’s like to be in McClellan’s position.In 1991, Snow gave up his job as editor of The Washington Times editorial page to head up the first President Bush’s troubled speechwriting operation. A year later, during Bush’s re-election campaign, Snow was forced out. Looking back on the experience, three years later, Snow sounded rueful. When President Clinton hired former U.S. News editor Don Baer in a similar shake-up, Snow offered some insight into his own experience as a journalist turned White House staffer. “I’ve been in this movie,” Snow told National Journal. “He’s stepping out of a nice secure journalism job to run an...
  • So Long, Kid

    Scott McClellan’s departure from the White House marks the end of an era—for Scott McClellan, that is. In terms of President Bush’s troubled communications effort, McClellan’s move means little unless there are other changes higher up the White House chain of command.But for the beleaguered press secretary, and for the smattering of old Texas hands around the president, this is a Big Day. McClellan had barely turned 30 when he first started working for George W. Bush as his deputy communications director in Austin in 1999. While McClellan had worked elsewhere, his expertise was really limited to one politician: his mother, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, the former mayor of Austin. McClellan grew up with Team Bush, which was his huge break in life and a huge constraint on his career. Other press secretaries assumed greater authority in the job as they engaged in the daily firefighting of the news cycle. But McClellan was always, to some extent, The Kid. The dynamic was set in 2000, when...
  • Path of the Storm

    Conrad burns was doing his best to win over the crowd, but he just wasn't feeling the love. The Republican senator was supposed to be home in Montana last Friday night, where he was to be the featured guest at a GOP fund-raiser. Instead, he was stuck in an airport on his way back from Washington, where the Senate had tried, and failed, to pass an immigration bill. So Burns awkwardly attempted to attend the dinner by cell phone. Over the buzz of the long-distance connection, amplified through a microphone, the three-term senator declared that he had never felt so much energy. "This is going to be a ground war," he said. "But this campaign isn't about me. It's about you and how much you're willing to work on the ground to win in November!" The audience, mostly elderly Republicans, applauded politely, then went back to their buffet plates.Of course, the campaign is all about Burns--and his tight relationship with lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the one-man political wrecking ball who helped...