WASHINGTON—A picture is worth a thousand words, the old adage goes, which is why President Bush's foes are anxious to get their hands on photos of him posing with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
Until now, the only tangible link between Bush and Abramoff was the $6,000 that Abramoff donated to the president's re-election campaign. The White House ended up giving that money to the American Heart Association. But Time magazine reported this week that it's seen five photos of Bush with Abramoff, the lobbyist's sons and Raul Garza Sr., then-chairman of the Texas Kickapoo Indian tribe, which owns a casino in southwestern Texas.
The photos aren't proof of any wrongdoing on Bush's part. But they do put him in the uncomfortable position of standing next to an admitted felon who's become the symbol for all that's wrong with Washington. Bush's opponents would like the ammo as mid-term elections approach.
"I would love to have those pictures. I would use the pictures (in advertisements) and write `Why is this man smiling?' in the cutlines under the pictures," said Paul Begala, a veteran of Democratic political campaigns and a former counselor to President Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. "This is a visual age. The story becomes bigger when there are pictures. It puts the scandal in the White House."
White House press secretary Scott McClellan, while not commenting on the specific pictures reported by Time, said there probably are photos of Bush with Abramoff because the president has been photographed with thousands of people at political and social events since he took office in 2001.
Garza, who knew Bush when he was governor of Texas, said he remembers spending about 45 seconds talking with the president while his picture was being snapped in a White House meeting room in 2001. Garza recalls Bush fondly greeting him as "jefe," the Spanish word for "chief."
"I told him the tribe is with you," Garza told Knight Ridder Monday. Garza said Abramoff arranged his brief meeting with Bush. Garza was ousted in 2002 after 29 years as a tribal chairman. He's now under indictment for allegedly looting more than $500,000 from the tribe's casino, the Lucky Eagle.
White House officials have refused requests to release any photos of Bush and Abramoff together.
"I know that there's some Democrats that want to try to engage in partisan attacks," McClellan said Monday. "Trying to say there's more to it than the president taking a picture in a photo line is just absurd."
Indeed, the Democratic National Committee sent a release to reporters on Sunday, alerting them to the Time magazine piece. McClellan acknowledged that Abramoff visited the White House at least twice for Hanukkah receptions in 2001 and 2002. Published reports indicate that Abramoff and his associates had nearly 200 contacts with the White House during Bush's first 10 months in office.
While Begala believes the pictures would politically cripple Bush and the Republican Party, Scott Reed, who managed former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole's presidential campaign, thinks they'd cause minimal damage.
"It's short-term heartache because the pictures would be blasted around the world," Reed said. "It will be an embarrassment because of what Abramoff has come to symbolize, but it will be short term because the Democrats still don't have an agenda or the leaders."
Mike McCurry, Clinton's former press secretary, also questioned the picture's long-term impact.
"They will cause a mild titter and will show up in some campaign commercials," he said. "Other than that, I don't know what their value is."
Embarrassing pictures and videos have haunted presidents in the past, including Bush. While the White House was trying to distance itself from the Enron scandal, a video from 1997 showed Bush, then Texas governor, wishing a departing Enron executive well.
On the video, Bush's father, former President George H.W. Bush, hinted at close family ties with the Enron official: "I don't think anybody did more than you did to support George," the elder Bush said.
Clinton endured repeated showings of pictures of him with Lewinsky, including one shown regularly on television of him encountering a starry-eyed Lewinsky in a greeting line.
(Recio reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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