"I wouldn't expect anything special," said one senior aide to President George W. Bush. "It's standard practice." So went the planning for Bush's travels with embattled House Majority Leader Tom DeLay this week. But for DeLay, at least, there was nothing standard about the event in Galveston, Texas, and the flight that followed on Air Force One back to the nation's capital.
In the brick-walled auditorium at the medical facility in Galveston--close to DeLay's home district--the highly partisan crowd turned one of Bush's regular Social Security events into an impromptu rally for DeLay. "We love you Tom!" shouted one member of the invitation-only audience. The representative of the 22nd district of Texas turned around, beamed a big smile and flashed a single thumb into the air. As the reaction turned into a cheer, DeLay stood up and waved at his fans. "All those reporters," said another DeLay fan, pointing to the White House press corps in front of him. "You're in Texas now."
In fact, Bush's support for DeLay was markedly less warm than the Galveston crowd's roar. Bush only thanked DeLay after he had already thanked the mayor, a prominent Houston Republican, and the staff of the medical facility, as well as delivered a mini speech on his health-care policies. His reference to DeLay amounted to 18 words, including his name and title: "I appreciate the leadership of Congressman Tom DeLay in working on important issues that matter to the country."
No matter. Bush flew with DeLay on Marine One from Galveston to Houston, emerging side by side with the ethically challenged leader. The moment was so heady for DeLay that he wanted to walk up the stairs to Air Force One right behind the president of the United States. It took one of Bush's junior aides to stop DeLay at the bottom of the stairs so that Bush could stage his customary wave alone.
After a 30-minute chat at the end of the flight, Bush and DeLay parted ways with a slap on the back from the president. For Bush, it was a typical non-endorsing endorsement. He didn't go out of his way to help DeLay and he didn't do anything to hurt him. As his aides like to say, there's clearly no special bond between them.
DeLay seemed to understand how much, and how little, Bush had bestowed upon him. While he praised Bush's generosity, he also said the most important moment of the day was that applause in the Galveston auditorium. "It felt pretty good," he told reporters at Andrews Air Force Base. "The strong show of support from the people of Houston, as well as the president--we feel very humbled by the fact of that kind of support."
Friends in High Places
Of all the bizarre photo ops in presidential politics, few came close to Bush walking hand in hand with Crown Prince Abdullah through the bluebonnets at his Crawford, Texas, ranch this week. (That is, until the crown prince himself staged a photo op at Crawford's Coffee Station with some regular Texans a few hours later.) While most of the media described the handholding as a traditional Saudi sign of friendship, it was clear that there was a far more practical reason: Abdullah is 81 years old and was an unsteady walker navigating the rustic stone path that leads to Bush's newly built office.
Abdullah's age and Bush's final years as president point to an uncomfortable prospect for officials on both sides. These two men may be close, but soon both countries will have new leaders who may well face very different pressures. Domestic politics in both the United States and Saudi Arabia could easily push the next leaders apart--after all, John Kerry had harsh words for the Saudis last year, and the big winners in the recent Saudi municipal elections were religious candidates.
That's why both sides were so keen to trumpet the otherwise boilerplate agreement to set up a joint committee between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her counterpart, Prince Saud al-Faisal, to discuss strategic issues. For both governments, the committee--an attempt to make more permanent the friendship between Bush and Abdullah--was far more important than any talk about gas prices.
In fact, according to senior officials familiar with the talks, the discussion of oil prices was exceptionally brief at Bush's ranch. Abdullah raised the question of oil first, but Bush brushed that aside, saying the Saudi oil minister had already addressed the topic with Vice President Dick Cheney a day earlier. What Bush wanted to talk about in greater depth was the Israeli-Palestinian situation and Iraq. Bush stressed his personal commitment to the newly revived peace process, and he suggested the Saudis could help the Palestinians financially. So much for the headlines about gas prices.
Major or Minor?
Under pressure to deal with rising energy costs, Bush on Wednesday unveiled a series of new initiatives aimed at encouraging the production and development of domestic energy sources. One proposal would allow oil companies to build new refineries on closed military bases throughout the country. Another calls for expanding tax credits for drivers who buy cars with clean-burning diesel engines.
Yet the White House admits that none of the new proposals will do anything to provide immediate relief for consumers at the pump. Bush's latest energy ideas were unveiled in his second energy-related speech in a week. On April 20, the president delivered what administration officials described as a "major energy address" urging Congress to pass his long-stalled energy bill. The House did just that, passing its version of the legislation last Thursday. But neither the bill--or Bush's earlier remarks--included the latest proposals, even though White House officials said Wednesday that they had been under consideration since the early days of Bush's first term. Now the White House plans to lobby lawmakers to amend the legislation to include the initiatives--further complicating a bill that has been tied up in Congress for nearly four years.
Why didn't the president pitch his ideas in the first place--or at least during last week's "major" energy speech? White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan downplayed any retooling of the administration's energy pitch. He told reporters that, with no energy bill on the president's desk, Bush simply wanted to bring more ideas to the table in hopes of pressuring Congress to act. "We've continued to act and look at ways we can address the root causes of the high energy prices we face year after year," McClellan said. "This is an on-going process."