White House

Bush administration loses some spin control in Washington

WASHINGTON—If President Bush ever thought things couldn't get any worse, he might want to reconsider.

After six years of setting the national agenda, with help from a compliant Congress, Bush is losing control of events in Washington. The new reality hit home Tuesday on multiple fronts.

At the federal courthouse, a jury convicted former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby for perjury and obstruction of justice. On Capitol Hill, congressional committees demanded answers in separate investigations into the shoddy treatment of wounded soldiers and allegations of politically motivated firings at the Justice Department.

With Bush's job-approval ratings already so low they threaten his political viability, the latest eruptions of bad news could weaken him further with 22 months left to go in his term.

"When each story comes out, it adds to perceptions of an administration that is potentially incompetent and potentially corrupt," said Julian Zelizer, a political historian at Boston University. "Second-term presidents always have trouble. On a scale of bad to worse for second-term presidents, he's at worse."

In a speech to the American Legion, always a friendly audience for Bush, the president was on the defensive Tuesday over the shoddy treatment of war veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

"It's unacceptable to me, it is unacceptable to you, it's unacceptable to our country—and it's not going to continue," he said.

Bush announced the appointment of former Sen. Bob Dole, a Republican, and former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, a Democrat, to head a bipartisan commission that will recommend improvements in health-care services for veterans and active-duty personnel.

Even as Bush spoke, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee were holding other administration officials to account for putting wounded soldiers in moldy, rat-infested facilities.

In contrast to the loose oversight Republicans exercised when they controlled Congress, Democrats started issuing subpoenas for congressional investigations soon after The Washington Post highlighted the lousy conditions.

"Is Walter Reed just the tip of the iceberg?" Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., asked top Pentagon officials at the hearing. "These kinds of problems are viewed as unacceptable by everyone. Apparently, they exist in other bases around the nation as well."

Congressional committees also moved aggressively after McClatchy Newspapers raised questions about dismissals of eight federal prosecutors across the country. In testimony before two separate committees Tuesday, some of the prosecutors complained of political interference. Several alleged that they were forced to resign as part of a political purge with possible White House links.

Bush hasn't addressed those allegations, but his Justice Department officials insisted that the prosecutors were dismissed because of poor performance, even though they'd received positive job reviews shortly before their dismissals.

Bush also had nothing to say about the Libby verdict after he watched its announcement on television, but spokeswoman Dana Perino said the president "respected" the jury's decision and was "saddened" for Libby and his family.

Democrats demanded that Bush rule out the possibility of a pardon.

"I don't think that speculating on a wildly hypothetical situation at this time is appropriate," Perino said, without ruling out a presidential pardon. One influential conservative publication, National Review, wrote an on-line editorial urging Bush to pardon Libby.

Libby's trial exposed White House infighting and showed how determined Bush and his advisers were to shut down dissenting voices in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Even though the jury convicted Libby, a spokesman for the panel gave credence to Libby's claim that he was a scapegoat for higher-ranking White House officials.

Libby was convicted of lying to investigators who were trying to determine the source of a news leak that exposed the identity of CIA employee Valerie Plame, the wife of White House critic Joe Wilson. Testimony showed that Libby was directed to talk with reporters by Vice President Dick Cheney.

Denis Collins, a former reporter who was selected by jurors to represent them before news cameras, said the panel concluded that Libby was "the fall guy" for the White House. He said jurors wondered why they never heard from presidential adviser Karl Rove, who has admitted talking to reporters about Plame, or other White House officials involved in the case.

"It was said a number of times, `What are we doing with this guy here? Where's Rove? Where are these other guys?'" Collins told reporters after the verdict.

Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, said the trial "showed a lot of things about the administration that were dysfunctional" and added to the president's pile of woes.

"You have a fair number of unconnected things. What unites them is that none of them is good news for the president of the United States," said Hess, who worked in the White House during the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations. "It's part of the natural history of a presidency—the longer they go on, the more problems they accumulate."