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Published: Sunday, 7/15/2007

President can reduce damage done to his place in history

BY ANN McFEATTERS

WASHINGTON - According to an undercover congressional investigation, it is possible for someone posing as a fictional business with nothing but a postal box to get a license in 28 days from the federal government to buy radioactive materials for a dirty bomb - an astonishing fact in an age of terrorism. It can take weeks, even months, for a U.S. citizen to get a passport.

There are 20 people dying by violence every day in Iraq and 40 fatal explosions set off by terrorists every month.

The Bush Administration says this is major progress and means U.S. soldiers must stay in Iraq although military advisers say it will take years to stabilize the civil-war-ravaged country and cost more lives.

The former U.S. surgeon general - the nation's top doc - has publicly charged, under oath, that he was routinely pressured by officials in the Bush Administration to ignore science in his speeches and reports in order to adhere to the President's beliefs on issues from stem cells to the effects of secondhand cigarette smoke.

He was also told to give plaudits to the President three times on each page of every speech.

Usually, such damaging revelations come well after a president has left office. The fact that they are flying around Washington while the President still has 18 months in office is terrible news for the White House.

It means that President Bush has almost no credibility left. The can-do President who came into office with a reputation for efficiency and competence, a zen-like admiration for Ronald Reagan, and a zest for stocking up piles of political capital by virtue of his charm is politically bankrupt.

Conservative pundit George Will once said Mr. Bush was a frat boy not ready for prime time taking a political party along for a ride. Daily, more Republicans, riled at the loss of control of Congress, are nodding in agreement.

It is hard to see how Mr. Bush can salvage his legacy from a bad rating by historians. (Despite his professed nonchalance about what they will think, every president worries about his fate at the hands of his future assessors, which explains why Mr. Bush has started to invite historians to the White House.)

But there are ways he could reduce the damage:

•Admit he has been wrong about Iraq and sincerely seek bipartisan answers from legislators and foreign leaders about the best ways to minimize disaster when American troops begin withdrawing.

•Apologize for his excessive zeal in limiting civil liberties. Listen to the advisers, including military lawyers, who warned him against violating the Constitution.

•Mend fences with and listen to Republican stalwarts, such as Sens. Richard Lugar of Indiana, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, John Sununu of New Hampshire, Chuck Hagel of Idaho, John Warner of Virginia, and Gordon Smith of Oregon.

•Get rid of the smug, 20-something political neophytes who micromanaged Cabinet officials, fired U.S. prosecutors, and gave supposedly quasi-independent presidential appointees their marching orders on policy and political issues. Bring in adults and listen to the views of Cabinet members, except for Vice President Dick Cheney.

•Have a heart-to-heart talk with his father and his former top advisers, especially on handling thorny foreign policy issues.

•Get rid of the us-against-them White House mentality.

•Make good on the promises made to help Hurricane Katrina victims rebuild their lives.

•Put together a realistic budget and a realistic schedule for the next 18 months on domestic priorities.

•Insist that anybody from the administration who testifies before Congress stop stonewalling, lying, and citing a claim to executive privilege, which is not found in the Constitution.

•Leave the business of science to the scientists and stop muzzling them when they dispute the administration's rationale for policy decisions. The President has a right to make those decisions; he has no right to tell scientists who disagree that they can't speak out.

•Start fighting a real war against terrorism by securing America's ports and borders and reassessing the Department of Homeland Security's vast weaknesses.

•Stop issuing secret "signing statements" that in effect invalidated 750 laws already signed rather than vetoing them in public, including a congressional ban on torture.

•Stop trying to bring consensus by infusing Americans with fear. Become president of all the people, not just conservative ideologues. That doesn't mean giving up principles; it does mean recognizing that those who disagree with those principles are not traitors.

If the past is a prologue, the likelihood of any of these suggestions being adopted is small, meaning the next 18 months will be much like the last 78.

Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.



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