Richard Wolffe

Stories by Richard Wolffe

  • RATING THE ROADSHOW

    It was meant to be a heart-to-heart: just the two presidents and their translators, sitting alone inside the historic castle that overlooks the Slovak capital of Bratislava. Four years earlier, in another castle in Central Europe, George W. Bush looked Vladimir Putin in the eye and saw his trustworthy soul. But what he saw inside Putin last week was far less comforting. When Bush confronted his Russian counterpart about the freedom of the press in Russia, Putin shot back with an attack of his own: "We didn't criticize you when you fired those reporters at CBS."It's not clear how well Putin understands the controversy that led to the dismissal of four CBS journalists over the discredited report on Bush's National Guard service. Yet it's all too clear how Putin sees the relationship between Bush and the American media--just like his own. Bush's aides have long feared that former KGB officers in Putin's inner circle are painting a twisted picture of U.S. policy. So Bush explained how...
  • The Oval: Heavy Going

    Exactly one month ago, George W. Bush kicked off his campaign to overhaul Social Security in earnest, pitching his plan for personal retirement accounts directly to the American people and Congress in his State of the Union address. In his speech, Bush made no bones about it: remaking Social Security would be his top domestic priority of the year, if not his entire second term. The president promised he would do whatever it takes to sell his Social Security plan, and to prove it, he immediately took his case on the road, hitting five states in less than 48 hours to convince the public and a skeptical Congress of the retirement plan's looming crisis.Since then, Bush has traveled to another four states--at least one trip a week--to hold campaign-style Social Security rallies. He's hosted more than a dozen private meetings at the White House with members of Congress and lobbied skeptical lawmakers face-to-face on Air Force One. Yet a month later, the White House is still no closer to...
  • A DIPLO-SPEAK GUIDE: BUSH IN EUROPE

    President Bush begins the first overseas trip of his second term in the diplomatic minefield of Europe this week--and it's being tightly stage-managed. For example, White House officials ditched plans for a town-hall meeting with regular folk in Mainz when the German government said it couldn't guarantee friendly questions. Bush will instead face a hand-picked group of German yuppies who've enjoyed exchange trips to the U.S. How to translate the nicely crafted phrases you'll hear from all sides.FRENCH PRESIDENT JACQUES CHIRACWHAT HE WILL SAY: We already live in a multipolar world.WHAT IT MEANS: I could always find a friend in Beijing or Moscow.PRESIDENT BUSHWHAT HE WILL SAY:We all share the common values of freedom and democracy.WHAT IT MEANS: So why don't you help in Iraq now?EUROPEAN HIGH REPRESENTATIVE JAVIER SOLANAWHAT HE WILL SAY:We all agree that Iran should end its nuclear programs.WHAT IT MEANS: But we can't persuade the Americans to talk to Tehran.PRESIDENT BUSHWHAT HE WILL...
  • The Oval: New Views in Old Europe

    All you need to do is look at someone like Britain's Tony Blair. Blair used to flash his famously broad smile whenever he stood next to the president, radiating his own sense of power at being so close to the leader of the free world. Now the prime minister looks stern and humorless, as if his alliance with Bush was less a cause for happiness than deep concern. Facing a likely election within months, Blair managed to muster just one flash of his teeth during a morning photo op with the president. After that, he endured the rest of the time in front of the cameras wearing a deep frown. He looked even less happy later in the day at a group photo of European Union leaders, standing alone and unloved to one side of the stage.The political theater of group photos is far more revealing than most news conferences. President Bush and France's Jacques Chirac played the classic cat-and-mouse game of trying to be the last leader (and therefore the most important) to show up to the photo shoot....
  • The Oval: Bush's European Roadshow

    It won't be easy. Setting aside the personal chemistry, both sides have hardly forgotten the series of snubs and grudges that began four years ago when Condoleezza Rice told European ambassadors in Washington that the Kyoto global warming agreement was dead. What followed might be funny if it wasn't so serious. Did NATO really feel wounded that it wasn't asked to take part in the war in Afghanistan? Did the White House really try to interfere in the German elections by lashing out at Gerhard Schroeder? Does Jacques Chirac really believe in something as obtuse as multipolarity?The clearest sign that both sides want to kiss and make up is the extraordinary care that has surrounded this tour. On paper, Bush's trip is a carefully staged exercise in ego-stroking--the sort of diplomatic massage that the Bush administration is hardly renowned for.It starts, of course, with the French. White House officials say it was Chirac's turn to come to Washington since his last visit was three and a...
  • The Oval: Barnstorming

    Both proposals landed on Capitol Hill with a resounding thud, described by some members of the president's own party as "dead on arrival." While their public show of confidence is still high, some White House officials appear blindsided by the opposition to what one of the most ambitious second-term agendas by a president in recent history. "There's always a certain level of posturing," a White House adviser told NEWSWEEK. "We'll just have to ride it out."Bush, meanwhile, isn't sitting idle. Bucking his first-term reputation as a president who gets involved only in the later stages of legislative battle, he has stepped up his outreach to members of Congress, especially those in his own party. On Tuesday, he met privately with a group of House Republicans still on the fence about his Social Security package--the sixth time in three weeks that he has hosted GOP lawmakers to discuss the subject. Last month, he wooed the Congressional Black Caucus, and in recent weeks, he's been...
  • BUSH'S HARD SELL

    Just five days before delivering the first State of the Union of his new term, President Bush dispatched his senior aides to ask his party for some unusual advice about the landmark address: what should he say about Social Security? At a party retreat in the Greenbrier hotel in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va.--an exclusive resort that once served as the Capitol's secret nuclear bunker--Bush's advisers were still wrestling late last week with the language of the speech. The president wanted to flesh out his plans to overhaul Social Security, but how much should he say about specifics such as personal accounts or the cost of it all? For several days, GOP leaders had pressed the president to do a better job of selling his ideas to a skeptical public.Now it was Bush's turn to push his own party to work out the radioactive details. "You're the lawmakers," the president told one anxious Republican who inquired whether the White House would write its own bill. "I am willing to lead, but this...
  • The Oval: A Battle Joined

    Of all the people President Bush clasped hands with at 9:01 p.m. in the House chamber, one cantankerous character emerged from the crowd for special treatment: Bill Thomas, chairman of the all-powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Thomas famously hijacked the Social Security debate by proposing a wide array of ambitious policies (like a sales tax) that the White House wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole. He went on to speak less than flatteringly about the president's strategy on Social Security, comparing the domestic priority to a "dead horse."So how did Bush greet his troublemaker in chief? With a firm handshake that quickly turned into a brotherly thumb clench. It looked for a moment as if they might arm wrestle right there on the floor of the House.But this is a president who knows his political capital might be wasted in an open display of machismo with a so-called congressional friend. So he and his aides have been unusually welcoming to Thomas, praising him for his input...
  • The Oval: Bush's Fresh Start

    The White House wants the world to see its new term as a fresh start, with a re-election victory behind it and a big domestic agenda ahead. But it's not at all clear that the rest of the world should expect much change from a second Bush term. In fact, judging from recent comments by some of the president's closest aides, there's a distinct reluctance to suggest that anything is going to change from last year to this, in terms of George W. Bush's foreign policy.Take the president's first foreign trip of his new term. The grand kiss-and-make-up tour in Europe has been whittled down to little more than three days on the ground--in Brussels with European leaders; then Mainz, Germany, with Chancellor Gerhard Schroder; then Bratislava, Slovakia, with President Vladimir Putin of Russia. What was once billed as a lengthy exercise in bridge-building has become a brisk chance to do business. That's fine for the self-styled results-oriented president, who cares little for sightseeing or state...
  • PRESIDENTS: BUBBA AND DUBYA--WARMING UP

    Four years ago George W. Bush used to call him "the shadow" and promised a fresh start by pledging to "uphold the honor and dignity" of the presidency. He even joked to late-night TV's David Letterman that one of his top 10 priorities in the White House would be to give the Oval Office "one heck of a scrubbing."But when President Bush welcomed Bill Clinton into that same office last week, those barbs were ancient history. After Clinton remarked how much he liked the new Oval Office rug, Bush encouraged him to praise his interior designer--Laura. (He did.) Over lunch with the president's father, the compliments flowed the other way. When Bush 41 inquired whether Chelsea Clinton had marriage plans, Bush 43 declared how impressed he was with the former president's daughter.For two men at opposite ends of the political spectrum, the relationship between the 43rd and 42nd presidents has grown surprisingly warm and personal over the last six months. Clinton endorsed Bush's approach to the...
  • THE WONKETTE

    Ana Marie Cox started writing as the Wonkette in January '03, delivering a gossipy, satirical blog on D.C. politics. Now she's working on her first novel. She dished with Richard Wolffe.What's the relationship between bloggers and mainstream journalists? ...
  • CHANGING OF THE GUARD: A SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP

    She thought she was heading to a casual dinner to celebrate her 50th birthday with some friends at a Yuppie restaurant in northwest Washington. But when her limo turned in to the British Embassy's driveway last week, Condoleezza Rice experienced an unusual moment of confusion. Greeted by the tuxedo-clad ambassador, Sir David Manning, Rice could only sputter, "David, why are you dressed in black tie?" Her answer was waiting inside, where 120 friends were enjoying a rare secret kept from the president's ultradiscreet national-security adviser. Rice was stunned. The president was 15 minutes away, Rice was told, and she had to change quickly into a red dress tailored especially for the occasion by her favorite designer, Oscar de la Renta. "The warrior- princess image is so wrong," says one close friend. "The reason we all dressed up is because Condi likes to dress up."Three days later Rice was stepping out (this time in a yellow suit) next to President Bush as his newly nominated...
  • Taking Charge

    It's no coincidence that the first two cabinet nominations of the second Bush administration are some of the very same people he first named in 2000. Condoleezza Rice and Alberto Gonzales were among the initial wave of appointments by George W. Bush, less than a week after the Florida recount was brought to a halt. Both were named a day after the president-elect's first big personnel announcement--the return of Colin Powell to government as secretary of State.Four years later, there's an unmistakable symmetry. First, the choreography around Powell. The former four-star general was courted carefully by Bush in 2000, even though he wasn't part of the Texas governor's inner circle (like Rice or Gonzales). Powell's role was more than just to sprinkle stardust over the new president-elect. It was to lend him foreign policy gravitas, like Dick Cheney's addition to the ticket earlier that year; to reassure the world that a rarely-traveled governor could make the transition to the leader of...
  • Trail Mix: Battle of the Battlegrounds

    For many months in this eternal general election, several battleground states have vied for the title of The Next Florida. Pennsylvania has been a strong contender throughout (a particular favorite of the Bush campaign), while Wisconsin has launched a late-breaking bid for the award. Still, it's Ohio that believes it has a lock on the TNF title. Its Republican secretary of state, Kenneth Blackwell, has even encouraged comparisons with 2000 Florida counterpart Katherine Harris--a shameless bid for the MVP award in the TNF contest.But as Election '04 draws to an end, the polls point to one clear winner. It turns out that Florida is The Next Florida. With the numbers exceptionally close and frustratingly unpredictable, both campaigns can plausibly claim to be heading for victory in the Sunshine State. The latest polls give Kerry a slender one-point advantage, according to the final tracking poll by Zogby. Unless the voters break in one direction on the day, we're headed for another...
  • Final Days

    After all the conventions, after all the debates, after all the TV ads and stump speeches, what's left? How does a presidential campaign break through the clutter to reach the hearts and minds of voters?It's the news, stupid. If John Kerry wins next week, he'll have the headlines to thank. Week after week in this closing phase of the general election, the news cycle has turned in his favor. From the shortage of flu vaccines to the war in Iraq, there has been precious little good news for the Bush campaign--and the bad news goes to the heart of the issues of the 2004 election. Four years ago, the only news that broke through in the final days was the decades-old story about Bush's drinking and driving--a story that hardly spoke to the central debate of the election. To this day Karl Rove, the president's strategist-in-chief, blames the DUI story for erasing Bush's lead in the final days.This time around, the news stories don't stop coming. The missing 380 tons of high explosives in...
  • KERRY BY THE BOOK

    It's one of John Kerry's biggest achievements in the Senate: a groundbreaking investigation into money laundering, drug dealers, terrorists and secret nukes. Yet voters have rarely heard of the senator's dogged inquiries into the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI). Why? Because some of Kerry's leading campaign strategists believed it was too difficult for voters to digest. "You can't talk about that because people think you're talking about the BBC," Bob Shrum, Kerry's top adviser, told one senior staffer. "Why were you investigating British TV?"From corrupt banks to Vietnam POWs, Kerry's Senate record is a mixture of the high-profile and the obscure, of showboat politics and detailed debate, not unlike the man himself. George W. Bush accused Kerry last week of having "no record of leadership." In fact, as the BCCI inquiry shows, Kerry has a serious record that translates poorly into the language of a presidential campaign. That's not unusual for senators, who have...
  • Trail Mix: Military Politics

    Buried deep inside a recent poll of servicemen and women (and their families), there's a surprisingly frank assessment of the war in Iraq and the commander-in-chief. While the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey showed heavy support for George W. Bush on questions of job approval and general voter support, the military displayed deep concerns about Bush's goals in Iraq.When asked if the war in Iraq had reduced the risk of terrorism in the United States, 47 per cent said yes while 42 per cent said the risk of terrorism had increased. Added to the 9 per cent who said the war had made no difference, more than half of the active soldiers and their families believe the war in Iraq has failed to live up to Bush's mission--to kill terrorists in Iraq before they kill Americans at home. That wasn't the only disturbing news from the survey. By a narrow margin of 48 to 47 per cent, a plurality of military folks believe Bush has no clear plan to bring the war in Iraq...
  • The Slog of War

    HEAD TO HEAD: BUSH LIMPED INTO ST. LOUIS, BUT BOUNDED BACK OUT--CONFIDENT THAT HIS DEBATE PERFORMANCE LEFT THE RACE DEAD EVEN. TWO DOWN, ONE TO GO.
  • Trail Mix: On the Defense

    The final debate of the 2004 election in Tempe, Ariz., was supposed to be John Kerry's turf: jobs, health care and the economy. But it was also George W. Bush's ground: religion, abortion and education. After opinion polls showed that voters saw Kerry as the victor in the first two contests, Bush needed a big win to level up the debating phase of the general election. Here's a rough guide to the highs and lows for both candidates.Bush: The HighsBush turned question after question toward one of his few strong domestic issues in the polls: education. To a question about the minimum wage, Bush gave one of his most clear and committed statements. When the president spoke of inner-city kids being "shuffled through" public schools, he sounded engaged in the problem of failing schools. He also sounded like he had a vision for what he wanted to achieve--a vital goal for any would-be president--even if the subject was bogged down in a dispute over funds for the No Child Left Behind Act. "You...
  • Trail Mix: Between the Numbers

    Campaigns and candidates like to think they can escape the laws of physics. So both the Bush and Kerry campaigns claim with equal certainty they have gained momentum out of last week's TV debates. But as Isaac Newton correctly noted, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Bush and Kerry cannot both be rising in the polls, unless Ralph Nader has suddenly nosedived from his 1-point rating to, well, zero.Bush's aides were almost giddy with delight at the improved performance of the president after last week's contest in St. Louis. But they may well have celebrated too early. As the latest batch of polls suggest, it's Kerry who is emerging from the debates as the clear winner. NEWSWEEK's poll after the first debate gave him a 40-point victory over Bush, with 61 percent of those who watched seeing Kerry as the clear winner and a mere 19 percent picking Bush as the victor. Sixteen percent called it a draw. Gallup's poll after the second debate gave the challenger a 15-point lead...
  • Trail Mix: Body Blows

    It was billed as a contest between the man with the golden parachute and the man with the golden tongue. Instead, the debate between Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John Edwards on Tuesday in Cleveland was nothing like the cliched encounter that some expected between the Halliburton CEO and the trial lawyer. Here's a rough guide to the highs and the lows of this election year's one and only vice presidential debate.Cheney: The HighsThe veep was everything his boss, President George W. Bush, wasn't last week: relaxed, confident and articulate. Cheney conveyed disdain for his opponent without seeming disgusted by the debate itself. He leaned back in his seat, he upbraided Edwards for what he called "inaccuracies" and he even passed up the chance to rebut his opponent at times. Where Bush was edgy and hesitant, Cheney seemed smooth and forceful. The vice president adopted the tone of a high-school principal admonishing a wayward student, and it paid off. Edwards forced a smile,...
  • Trail Mix: 'Sparks of Life'

    It's never easy to declare the winner of a TV debate. But the contest in Coral Gables, Fla., on Thursday scored some striking successes all the same. Not least, the debate showed sparks of life--and insights into both candidates--that nobody anticipated. Here's a rough guide to the highs and lows of both George W. Bush and John Kerry at their first encounter.Bush: the HighsBush showed some of his much-vaunted compassion when he spoke about Missy Johnson, the wife of a soldier who was killed in Iraq. For a rare moment in the debate, Bush dropped his personal attacks on Kerry to talk about something much more human. "I told her after we prayed and teared up and laughed some that I thought her husband's sacrifice was noble and worthy," Bush said. The president's aides have long said that he's much more likable and personable than his rival. The anecdote about Johnson gave voters the best glimpse of that personal touch that Bush is famous for--a quality he exhibited again when he...
  • Trail Mix: And Now It's September

    John Kerry may be lagging in the polls. He may have a small mountain range to climb to edge ahead of George W. Bush. And he may still be tied in the knots of his past statements. But there's a lot that has changed about the Democratic candidate in the last few weeks of the election, suggesting this race is very far from a romp for the Bush-Cheney campaign. As Kerry and Bush complete their final rehearsals for this week's first TV debate, it's worth taking a closer look at how Kerry has raised his game.PHOTO OPSThere was a time when the Kerry campaign treated photo ops as an annoying distraction from everyday politics. There were weeks dedicated to fund-raising, weeks dedicated to big speeches and sometimes--just occasionally--a week dedicated to pretty pictures. If Kerry's old handlers had little visual sense (who on earth, apart from the candidate, could think that windsurfing photos were a good idea?), his new handlers have wised up to the notion that you can walk and chew gum at...
  • KERRY'S NEW CALL TO ARMS

    Sitting in his black-leather swivel chair, with his trusty world atlas beside him, John Kerry huddled with his aides in the executive-style cabin at the front of his campaign jet. Kerry was preparing to accuse the president of failing to tell the truth about "the mess in Iraq"--part of an aggressive fall strategy to challenge George W. Bush on the war. But before he spoke to the National Guard convention in Las Vegas, Kerry sought the advice of yet another sounding board on his plane: former four-star general Wes Clark. Kerry knew from Vietnam what it felt like to face the bullets without the support of the folks back home. So how, one of his senior staff wanted to know, would Kerry's attacks go down now with the troops in Iraq? "Look, the soldiers are debating it themselves on the ground," Clark reassured Kerry's inner circle. "They're coming back and they're incredibly critical. You have to call it like it is."After the summer's phony war over Vietnam medals and memos, the 2004...
  • Trail Mix: Nothing Simple About Iraq

    A presidential election can be a strange prism on the real world. Small incidents can look monumental simply because they're unexpected or embarrassing (remember the flap over the word RATS appearing in a George W. Bush ad in 2000?). And big topics can get overlooked because they seem old or complex (has there been a serious discussion about Social Security in 2004?).Yet that doesn't mean elections are incapable of dealing with complex debates. Politicians, reporters and voters often shrug their shoulders at election time, admitting that everything gets oversimplified. But if the Vietnam-era stories about Democratic nominee John Kerry and Bush show anything useful, it's that campaigns can assess and evaluate difficult stories--even when they're old and mired in complexity. If an election can immerse itself in the typographical qualities of obsolete typewriters, or the topography of the Bay Hap River in Vietnam, it can surely cope with other multifaceted problems. And there's no more...
  • Trail Mix: Reviving Kerry

    John McCain, that part-time friend to both presidential candidates, likes to joke about the false sense of hope that bedevils politicians. "Remember the words of Chairman Mao," he says. "It's always darkest before it's totally black." It's unclear whether Mao ever said such a thing, or whether this is just another example of McCain jerking the chain of his Vietnam-era foes (who believe that he and John Kerry are some kind of Commie double-agents). In any case, McCain's Maoism deserves to become the mantra for spooked Democrats and Kerry loyalists this month.It was only early June when Kerry held a six-point lead over Bush among likely voters in Gallup's poll. While there were many weak-kneed Republicans at that time, there was little of the wailing that so many Democrats voice now. Today Bush holds a seven-point lead among Gallup's assessment of likely voters and a one-point lead among registered voters. (The latest NEWSWEEK poll gives the president a six-point lead.) Before anyone...
  • IN BUSH'S SHADOW

    John Kerry wanted to hit back. It had been a miserable August as he took incoming fire about his military service from a gang of hostile Vietnam vets. But no, campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill and other staffers argued, the Swift Boat ads would blow over. Finally, Kerry had had enough. For three or four days, as he campaigned across the country, Kerry ripped into Cahill, furious that the mostly baseless attacks on his valor were driving his numbers down. "He was very angry," one old friend says. "The calculation had been made that this wasn't going to hurt him." Kerry's solution was to reach for an old ally. "Get Vallely," he screamed.Thomas Vallely is the leader of the pack of vets that Kerry calls his dog-hunters, a group that has beaten back the attacks on his Vietnam record since his first Senate race 20 years ago. "He knows that I know the other players," Vallely says of Kerry's Mayday call. "He knows that I also like this stuff."The return of the old warriors marked a turning...
  • WHY HE MIGHT STAY

    For nearly two years, the settled wisdom in Washington has been that Colin Powell would never stick around for a second Bush term. The secretary of State, who began his tenure as the most popular and prestigious figure in Bush's cabinet, was fed up--tired of being a moderate minority of one in a squall of neocon true believers. But last week there was a hint that the settled wisdom may now be unsettled. A former close aide and current confidant of Powell's, asked during the GOP convention whether the secretary might stay on, nodded his head eagerly and said yes.The reason, the ex-official hinted, is that global events are moving in Powell's direction. In Iraq and on other future flash points like Iran and North Korea, an administration that once short-shrifted Powell's diplomacy now badly needs it. He also has more control than he's had in a while, especially over Iraq, where America's new viceroy, Ambassador John Negroponte, answers to the secretary of State. (The previous top...
  • Trail Mix: Campaign Under Fire

    John Kerry and John Edwards popped up in the middle of the crowd like the stars of a J. Crew catalog. Matching blue blazers, chinos and blue shirts (no tie! too formal!). The crowd had just watched Kerry's movie bio on a giant TV screen--the same one that premiered at his convention in Boston. Then, all of a sudden, there the candidates were, on a catwalk to the side of the cameras, striding toward the main stage with big grins and even bigger waves. It looked and felt like more than the usual stump speech. The crowd had gathered at nearly midnight, in the normally slumbering town of Springfield, Ohio. The appearance was being billed as Kerry's aggressive response to George W. Bush's convention address--wrapped up in New York just minutes earlier.In the end, though, it was just another stump speech--with a couple of zingers thrown in at the top. The zingers weren't that bad. But then, most of Kerry's performance isn't that bad. It's just inconsistent. In the speech, the Democratic...
  • PAIN ON MAIN STREET

    To the rest of the world, Matthew Sandri's death in Fallujah looked like just another statistic from the war in Iraq. A 24-year-old Army medic, Specialist Sandri was killed in a rocket attack on a staging area far from the front lines in March. But back home in rural Pennsylvania, Sandri was far more than a name and a rank. When it came time to hold a memorial service, there was only one place big enough in the small town of Shamokin: the high-school gym. So many arrived to pay their respects that officials asked police and firefighters from neighboring towns to help control the traffic and crowds. Two months later Shamokin (population: 7,800) was grieving once more. Robert Scheetz, a 31-year-old Special Forces captain, died when a Humvee exploded at his campsite in Iraq. "We watched these children grow up," said Mayor James Yurick Jr. "Sandri lived across the street from city hall. These deaths have been devastating to the community."The deaths have also raised sharp questions...