Richard Wolffe

Stories by Richard Wolffe

  • Saying the M Word

    For Elton John, sorry seems to be the hardest word. But for George W. Bush the hardest word has always been "mistake." His difficult relationship with the M word stretches back many years and is bound up with his view of leadership, politics, the media and, yes, his ego.Until now. The president's calculation about the M word has changed in recent days, yet few people seem to have noticed. The way his friends tell it, President Bush simply couldn't bring himself to admit to making a mistake—never mind drawing any lessons from one—in a 2004 press conference. That would have been, in his mind, politically damaging in the early stages of a presidential campaign. And it would have been red meat to an insatiably hungry press corps. Maybe so. But the president has spent several months hinting at mistakes, even spinning about mistakes, without really conceding one—until now. At the end of last year, the president started to recalibrate his language on the war in Iraq, expressing more candor...
  • Stirred, Not Shaken

    Andy Card's face told the story. After five years as chief of staff--twice the tenure of most of his predecessors--his eyes were puffy and his skin looked gray. Three weeks ago, amid widespread calls for a White House makeover, he and Bush began talking about whether he should quit. While they mulled it over, they continued to bond as mountain biking buddies. On one ride near the nation's capital, Card took a tumble--an occupational hazard on Bush's punishing workouts--and wound up with a broken wrist and sprained elbow. Anyone else would have headed straight for the hospital. But Bush was biking the next day, so the long-suffering Card climbed back in the saddle and endured another 20-mile ride before finally visiting a doctor.Card was still wearing a brace last Tuesday morning, when he announced his resignation at an emotional staff meeting in the Roosevelt Room. At one point, Bush unexpectedly walked into the meeting, hugged Card, and walked out without saying a word. "This isn't...
  • Spring Cleaning?

    With spring, comes cleaning. But Washington’s political junkies are still wondering if new chief of staff Josh Bolten will take his broom through the White House.Bolten is certainly reviewing the administration’s operations before he formally begins his job next week. But he’s also spending time on another project. Bolten, like President George W. Bush, is deeply engaged in a charm offensive with the people who have caused the administration so much trouble over the last year: members of Congress. On Monday, Bolten invited House Majority Leader John Boehner to the White House, where they lunched on chicken quesadillas and talked about how Congress and the White House can improve their working relationship. According to Boehner, Bolten quizzed him about what kind of job he thinks the White House is doing, asking, “Where are the strong points? Where are the weak points?” “He was doing what a capable manager would do, and that is to assess where he thinks the White House operation is...
  • Fast Chat: Home Cooking

    Cris Comerford is the first woman to become executive chef at the White House since the Kennedys turned the job into a high-profile statement of personal style. She's also the first Filipino-American to hold the position, becoming a star in Manila and introducing, ever so gently, some new ethnic flavors to the Executive Mansion. Having worked in the White House for 11 years, Comerford is no stranger to the huge range of orders placed on the modest kitchen close to the North Portico--from a light lunch for the First Family to rare state dinners for world leaders, and the more frequent themed events like last week's celebration of Benjamin Franklin's 300th birthday. She spoke with Richard Wolffe.WOLFFE: You got your start at the White House as temporary help. What was it like cooking for the president for the first time?COMERFORD: It was fascinating. First of all, this is a museum, and looking at the plates we used--we had the Reagan china--I thought, "How many diplomats and heads of...
  • Loyal to the End

    Andrew Card liked to say that his job as White House chief of staff was to figure out the difference between want and need. Staffers could get to see the president if they really needed the face time with Bush. But if they simply wanted to see the president, then Card would slam the door.Now the question is whether Card wanted to quit his job or whether he needed to. The White House announced Card’s resignation on Tuesday and his replacement, budget director Joshua Bolten.Card first offered his resignation three weeks ago, according to the White House. That was just after the first polls showed just how much the White House was bleeding support after the Dubai ports story. A CBS poll gave Bush a job approval rating of only 34 percent and a personal favorability rating of 29 percent. ( NEWSWEEK’s poll later showed the president with a 36 percent approval rating.) Bush won some respite from the ports storm when he traveled to Afghanistan, India and Pakistan. But within days of his...
  • Is Anyone Listening?

    The banner hanging over President George W. Bush read united to victory. But as Republicans listened to Bush slog through his familiar pep talk at a $2,500-a-head fund-raiser last Thursday night, the party faithful knew they were anything but united. Over the last year, they ejected a majority leader, squabbled over ethics and spending, and openly criticized the president on Iraq, port security and a Supreme Court pick. If the Republican guests were hoping for a spiritual revival, they left disappointed. Bush's speech met with tepid applause, and GOP officials shuffled to the cash bar feeling deflated. "It just wasn't as celebratory as it has been," said one House aide who declined to be named when talking about a private event.For five years nobody needed to blare the word "united" at Republicans; it was their biggest strength. The president handed his agenda to Congress and the party leaders delivered the votes. They twisted the arms of small-government conservatives to pass...
  • The Corrosion of War

    For months, the White House has tried to argue that President George W. Bush "gets it" about the war in Iraq, that he understands why a growing number of Americans don't share his optimistic assessments about the war.The president started building his new image late last year, when he partly conceded making mistakes in the handling of the war. More recently, amid record low poll numbers , Bush has yet to do anything as notable. In fact the most striking thing about his latest PR offensive is not his message. It's his staging.After months of appearing mostly before military audiences or groups perceived as friendly to the president, Bush has stepped out of the box, taking questions from unscreened audiences. This week he has done that every day—first in Cleveland, then at a White House news conference, and finally in Wheeling, W.Va., on Wednesday.His goal is to show that he has left his bubble when it comes to the war. He understands how worried Americans are. And he knows it's going...
  • Politics: Fallout From the Dubai Debacle

    Dick Cheney was on the phone. It was almost two weeks after Rep. Peter King of New York first called the White House with his concerns about a Dubai company's taking over some operations at six U.S. ports. Now, after all the veto threats and backroom lobbying, the veep wanted intel about the mood on Capitol Hill. "What are you hearing?" Cheney asked the congressman. "What do we have to do to make this happen?"Two days later, the deal was dead and the last trace of trust had vanished between the GOP-led Congress and the president on the ports deal. George W. Bush's allies marvel that the White House could have misread them for so long. And they still disagree about the basic facts, including what happened last week when GOP leaders trooped into the White House to tell Bush they couldn't (or wouldn't) stop their own members from blocking the takeover. "It's not going to work," House Speaker Dennis Hastert told Bush, according to one GOP aide. That's not the way the White House saw the...
  • Bush’s Message

    President George W. Bush would like you to know that he has a plan for Iraq. And he’d like you to know that many times over. Bush’s aides see repetition as a virtue, since they believe that nobody pays much attention to the daily flow of news. So on Monday, the president began another series of speeches that will frame the third anniversary of his invasion of Iraq, and (according to his aides) perhaps  begin to turn the tide of negative public opinion that is against the war.Unfortunately the insurgents in Iraq would also like you to know that they have a plan for their country. And they, too, would like you to know that many times over. They seem to believe that people pay far more attention to endless rounds of murder than endless rounds of presidential speeches.Judging by the latest polls, the insurgents might be doing a better job than the president. The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that only 37 percent approve of Bush's job performance—his lowest mark ever in...
  • No Safe Harbor Here

    It was talk radio's Michael Savage who first alerted the president's inner circle to the supposed Arab takeover of America's ports. One of Bush's closest aides tuned in to "The Savage Nation" just before Valentine's Day, to hear the shock jock's angry caricature of how a Dubai company was going to manage terminals at six major U.S. ports. In Savage terms, the country was simply handing over its security to an Arab country complicit in the 9/11 attacks. But the Bush aide knew nothing of the government's role in approving the deal and thought little more of the rant for another week. After all, there were other crises to fret over. Vice President Dick Cheney had just shot a man while hunting quail, and GOP senators were rebelling over legislation on the domestic eavesdropping program. Nobody--from the lower-level officials reviewing the deal to the White House aides handling Congress--saw the iceberg until it was too late.How did an obscure maritime takeover turn into a political...
  • Broccoli and Nukes

    It was the worst-kept secret in presidential travel. After weeks of rumors, President George W. Bush finally stopped in Afghanistan as he made his way to India and Pakistan—his first visit to the country that was once the central battlefield in the war on terror.Like Bush’s Thanksgiving Day trip to Iraq in 2003, the details of the president’s trip to Kabul were closely held until the very last moment. Yet White House officials and reporters had whispered about the possibility of an Afghanistan visit for weeks. Bush was the only key member of his administration who had yet to visit Kabul. First Lady Laura Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney made high-profile visits last year, while other administration officials, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have made repeated visits.Administration officials did all they could to stamp out the rumors—even telling White House reporters writing an advance logistical report on Bush’s trip that...
  • Stormy Waters

    It takes a lot for President Bush to beckon reporters to his cozy conference room on Air Force One for a chat. But on Tuesday, Bush did just that, calling the press to the front of the plane to defend his administration's approval of a deal that would hand over control of six major U.S. seaports to a company, Dubai Ports World, controlled by the United Arab Emirates.The deal has sent members of Congress into open revolt, including, most notably, the Hill's top two Republicans, Bill Frist and Dennis Hastert, who threatened Tuesday to introduce legislation that would block the takeover. The lawmakers questioned the security risks of handing the ports to a country that may be an ally in the war on terror, but sits in a region forever linked to the 9/11 attacks.Seemingly caught off guard, the White House immediately pushed back, sending Bush before reporters to defend the deal and to offer a rare veto threat on any legislation that would seek to undermine it. Bush told reporters the...
  • Gatekeepers

    For two days, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan has offered up a wink-and-nod defense over the handling of Dick Cheney’s shooting accident. McClellan has never criticized the vice president or his staff directly. But he has also never missed an opportunity to remind reporters that he would have handled dissemination of the news far differently.According to McClellan, once he learned of Cheney’s involvement in the shooting of lawyer and fellow hunter Harry M. Whittington, he urged the vice president’s office to get the information out as soon as possible.  “[It’s] the way we have typically approached things,” McClellan told reporters on Monday. “[The way] I typically approach things.”The only problem for the White House:  McClellan’s statement doesn’t exactly ring true.  Administration officials long ago cemented a reputation for withholding information until even news that wouldn’t necessarily be damaging to the White House turns into a bombshell. Its penchant for secrecy...
  • Picking His Pockets

    The day after his state of the union address, President George W. Bush was where he loves to be: campaigning onstage in Red State America. Not just any stage, but the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, where he was singing his grand new song about high-tech energy research and thousands of new math teachers. It was phase one in the selling of his agenda for 2006. Then it was on to Minnesota, where aides passed outa booklet titled "American Competitiveness Initiative." Next stops: New Mexico, and the presidential stomping ground of New Hampshire--battleground states in the 2004 election. It's all part of a monthlong series of speeches pitching Bush's vision for the nation's future and his own political legacy. His confidants' hopes are high, likening the campaign to a new mission to put a man on the moon.There's only one problem. The rocket scientists who put Bush into power are getting pulled into another orbit. The Republican Party may be two years away from choosing his successor, and...
  • 'I'm With Boehner'

    In May 2001, just months into his first term, President George W. Bush invited House Republicans to the White House to negotiate No Child Left Behind—his top legislative priority at the time. The education reform bill had run into opposition from conservative Republicans, who were worried about the bill's cost and scope, and GOP leaders told the president that he should offer up incentives that could entice more members of his party to support the measure.Meeting in the Oval Office, House Republican leaders told Bush of one proposal that was sure to win strong party support: a provision that would shift most federal control over schools to the states. Vice President Dick Cheney, who was in the meeting, agreed with the leadership and urged Bush to sign on to the proposal, but Rep. John Boehner, an Ohio Republican who chaired the House Education Committee strongly disagreed. "That's a deal-killer for Democrats," Boehner argued, reminding Bush of his goal of a bipartisan bill.According...
  • Tale of Two Presidents

    The State of the Union was a tale of two presidents. One was gracious about his opponents, seeking common ground for the sake of the nation's future. The other accused his critics of being isolationists, pacifists, protectionists and unpatriotic. One wanted the downfall of tyrants and dictators; the other wanted the downfall or transformation of elected governments in Iran and the Palestinian territories. One wanted to extend tax cuts; the other wanted to cut deficits. One was determined to promote America as the world leader in science; the other was determined to put strict limits on human-embryo research--restrictions that other countries have rejected. Both presidents are of course one and the same: the often inspirational, often self-contradicting, George W. Bush. Democrats frequently mistake this split personality as some kind of giant game of bait-and-switch. But it's more accurate to think of it as the gap between Bush's idealistic self-image as a leader, and his realistic...
  • The Bush Battle Plan

    For any White House aide, it should have been an easy crowd: a group of pro-Bush business lobbyists at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a short walk from the West Wing. But when chief of staff Andy Card delivered a preview of the president's 2006 agenda earlier this month, the audience grew visibly listless. One checked his BlackBerry for e-mails, while another furtively read her copy of The Washington Post. Several yawned. Instead of concentrating on the issues his business friends care about--like taxes or trade--Card spent most of his time on a single topic. "The war on terror must be won in order to be able to have this sound economy that you're part of," he declared. His allies were unimpressed. "No one is naive enough to say that we shouldn't care about Iraq," said one GOP lobbyist, who declined to be named so as not to annoy the White House. "But there are other priorities that also deserve some tending to."President George W. Bush hasn't forgotten his friends at the Chamber of...
  • Fog of Secrecy

    National security often operates in a twilight zone of intelligence, eavesdropping and spy satellites. But it's rare to find a national-security debate that lives in a twilight zone as bizarre as the National Security Agency wiretapping affair. While reporters are still trying to figure out the full extent of the NSA program, politicians are showing no hesitation before jumping feet first into their own parallel universe.This week began with former veep Al Gore--in his now familiar (and unstatesmanlike) full-blown roar--tearing into President Bush for "breaking the law repeatedly and persistently." Irony was never one of Gore's strong points, and he seemed to miss entirely the irony of his call for a special counsel to investigate the wiretapping affair. With the help of Clinton-era attorney general Janet Reno, Gore managed to avoid no less than three Justice Department recommendations for a special counsel to investigate his fund-raising activities in 1996.But the twilight zone...
  • The Oval: The Ties That Bind?

    Members of Congress aren't the only ones moving to distance themselves from former superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty Tuesday in a bribery and corruption probe that has sent official Washington into a tailspin. On Wednesday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan announced that President George W. Bush's re-election campaign will donate $6,000 in contributions linked to Abramoff to the American Heart Association. According to the Republican National Committee, which is handling the distribution, the campaign will donate three $2,000 checks from Abramoff, his wife and the Saginaw Chippewa Indian tribe, which paid Abramoff tens of millions of dollars in lobbying fees to press lawmakers on gambling issues.The move follows other top politicos in Washington, including House Speaker Dennis Hastert and former House majority leader Tom DeLay, who have announced plans to donate Abramoff-linked contributions to charity. All told, lawmakers from both political parties have given up...
  • The President: Now, Time to Dig Out

    Two days after his re-election victory, President Bush mapped out a strategy for 2005 to reporters in a White House auditorium. "I earned capital in the campaign, political capital," he said, "and now I intend to spend it." His goals: Social Security, tax reform, the economy, education and the war on terror. Yet markets can go down as well as up, and Bush lost his first two bets to tough GOP opposition. High gas prices hurt him. And the war in Iraq cost him his shirt. According to Gallup, Bush's approval ratings on Iraq fell from 47 points after his re-election to 32 in September. By the year-end, Bush's numbers revived to 39 points--but even that upswing might stall, given the disclosure that Bush authorized spying on U.S. citizens after 9/11 and the Senate's wrangling over renewal of the Patriot Act.The domestic politics of Iraq is no sideshow for the White House. Bush's aides believe the mission depends as much on U.S. political support as on events in Iraq. By the fall, "things...
  • Politics: Plans (and Hopes) for the SOU

    The White House is crafting a State of the Union agenda to help it relaunch after a dismal 2005. The focus: a domestic package to shore up GOP support in next year's elections, says a senior adviser who declined to be identified because the discussions are ongoing. Bush will stress fiscal discipline, while his senior staff have warned congressional leaders privately to reform their own pork-barrel spending. Bush will also promote health-care savings accounts and portable pensions as part of a vision for moving employees away from lifetime reliance on a single big employer. He is also likely to open a broader debate about entitlements such as Medicare, questioning whether the country can afford the growing burden of the baby boomers' retirement. The good news for Team Bush is the upbeat mood of guru Karl Rove. After months of fretting about a possible indictment in the CIA-leak investigation, Rove is energized by the challenge of elections. "Karl is in his laboratory," said one close...
  • The Vet Strategy

    CORRECTION APPENDEDA few days after last year's presidential election, Ladda (Tammy) Duckworth was piloting her helicopter north of Baghdad when she saw a ball of fire at her knees. A rocket-propelled grenade had struck her Black Hawk at its chin bubble, close to her seat. When she awoke 10 days later, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, she found she had lost her legs, but none of her desire to serve. For the next year, as she recovered from her devastating injuries, she became one of the capital's favorite troops: an inspirational war story amid the grinding violence of Iraq. She was a senator's guest at the State of the Union and a witness before a congressional hearing on health care for war casualties. As Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson put it, she was simply "a true American hero."She could have stayed a trophy veteran. But as Major Duckworth met with Democratic members of Congress, she talked about how she viewed politics as an extension of her service....
  • Into Dangerous Waters

    Once again, it seems to be test-the-boundaries time in East Asia. A Japanese Coast Guard plane discovered a Chinese satellite-tracking vessel 12 miles off Okinawa on Friday and warned the ship away. The same day, in the skies above the Yellow Sea, a pair of North Korean fighter aircraft zoomed into a disputed area of South Korean airspace and out again. The micro-incursions could be shrugged off as accidents except for one detail: they came on the eve of President George W. Bush's first trip to the region in two years. The trespassers were a quiet reminder that terrorism and nuclear proliferation aren't the only unsolved foreign- policy problems facing the United States.Uncontrolled forces are reshaping the Pacific's western shore faster than Washington can think what to do. As China conducts an all-out drive to become Asia's No. 1 economic, military and diplomatic power, its smaller neighbors can only do their best to find a way to benefit--and avoid getting squashed. North Korea...
  • A New Money Man

    When Ben Bernanke left his post at the Federal Reserve last spring to become President George W. Bush's top economic adviser, his work pals didn't give him much of a send-off. Only a month ago did his Fed colleagues get around to throwing him a lunchtime goodbye party. In keeping with Fed tradition, Bernanke's favorite food--Necco candy wafers--was served, and the going-away gifts included a Steuben crystal eagle, a framed set of dollar bills and the chair Bernanke sat in during Fed meetings. This winter, however, Bernanke will need to deliver that chair back to the Fed--and perhaps return the going-away presents, too. After months of oddsmaking from Washington to Wall Street about who would succeed Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, 79, when his term expires in January, last week Greenspan and Bernanke strode into the Oval Office for the announcement. After 18 years leading the Fed, the man known as the Maestro will finally turn over his baton.Economists applauded the choice,...
  • Better Luck Next Time

    The news only worsened as the day wore on. After a series of private soundings and informal head counts in the Senate, it was clear to Harriet Miers that her chances of sitting on the Supreme Court were increasingly slim. Not an impossible task, but one that demanded a long, hard slog. So a tired Miers picked up the phone last Wednesday and called her old client in the First Family's residence, close to bedtime at 8:30. "I'm honored you considered me to do this," she told the president, "but it's time for me to get to work on my replacement."Miers may have ended her brief and bloody 24-day career as a Supreme Court nominee, but she's hardly out of work. Last weekend she was holed up with President Bush and chief of staff Andy Card at Camp David, picking out the next nominee--the third bid to fill the critical swing seat of Sandra Day O'Connor. As White House counsel, Miers is once more heading the vetting process that so dismally failed her. Nothing went right for Miers in her brief...
  • The Gathering Storm

    The White House counsel's office is home to some of the best, brightest and busiest conservative lawyers in the country. Among their duties: vetting the responses of Supreme Court nominees as the hopefuls navigate their way through the Senate. But the president's lawyers were stretched a bit thin this month as they double-checked the answers of the latest nominee, who just happens to be their boss, Harriet Miers. Why? Partly because so much of Miers's record is shrouded in the secrecy of her private legal advice, especially for clients like George W. Bush. And partly because they're working on other pressing matters--like digging up documents in response to multiple inquiries into Hurricane Katrina. "It's absurd," said one former administration official, who declined to be named because of the fragile state of the Miers nomination. "They really should have just said, 'We have too much on our plate'."The tale of how Katrina hurt Harriet is just one glimpse inside a White House that...
  • Yet Another Gulf War

    The members of the world's most exclusive club gathered in the Oval Office in a state of disbelief. Between them, they could draw on decades of experience of hurricanes and floods, at home and overseas, yet Nos. 41 and 42 could only shake their heads at the severity of Katrina's destruction. "Isn't it unbelievable," former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton said to the man who now sits in the black leather chair.Unbelievable, but not unexpected. No. 43 thought he'd gotten ahead of Katrina by declaring major disaster areas--and readying emergency supplies--before the winds roared in. But after a month of antiwar protesters at his ranch and squabbling Iraqi politicians in Baghdad, President George W. Bush seemed politically unprepared for his biggest domestic crisis since 2001. Bush, who loves to manage Iraq with metrics and outputs, spent two days reeling off statistics about trucks en route to the Gulf before expressing his frustration at the lack of progress. "I am...
  • BUSH: RIDE'EM, COWBOY!

    During his monthlong departure from D.C., President Bush will cycle without the secrecy that normally surrounds his long weekend rides. The idea: to "demonstrate the importance of physical fitness," says White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan.But friends who have joined the biker-in-chief say he's an aggressive cyclist. "That goddam bicycle riding he's doing is crazy stuff," says a family friend who asked not to be identified because he was discussing the president's private life. "He's got all this energy he's got to burn up." Judging by Bush's track record, that aggression borders on recklessness: last summer he flew over his handlebars, scraping his face and hands. Bush was so "fired up" about riding at the G8 summit in Gleneagles last month that he sought advice on how to handle the hilly Scottish terrain, says the family friend. (Bush crashed into a police officer.) "Got a little asphalt still embedded in my knuckles," Bush admitted last week.
  • POLITICS: FLAP OVER THE FRIST FLIP

    Sen. Bill Frist's decision to break with the president over stem-cell research annoyed Bush's aides. "He's changed his position on this before," said one senior Bush adviser, who declined to be identified so he could speak freely. Frist called Bush to alert him the night before he went public on the Senate floor. "I don't know how long he's been working on this, but he had left the impression with a lot of people that he was supporting the president's policy," the senior aide said. Frist's flip-flop has fired up Bush's supporters in the House, who are likely to block any attempt to override a veto. "This may have solidified it," the aide said.
  • The Oval: It's Summer Vacation

    What does the president do with his leisure time in Crawford, Texas, when he's not clearing brush or riding his bike? One idea might be an hour or two in front of the TV to watch the new 13-part drama "Over There" on FX.Created by Steven Bochco, whose credits include "NYPD Blue" and "Hill Street Blues," "Over There" is being sold as the first TV drama about the current war in Iraq. It also lays claim to being the first small-screen series about any war to be aired during the conflict. To TV critics, it's a mixed bag. Some question its apolitical position; others praise its realistic portrayal of war. (The New York Times' critic called it "slick, compelling and very violent.")But to the White House it means something entirely different. The art-imitates-real-life idea is breaking new ground in both TV and politics, posing a curious question for President Bush and his aides: could "Over There" affect the already-fragile poll numbers on Iraq? According to one senior Bush aide, the...