Bush celebrates National Character Counts Week

Washington Post - October 20, 2006

During National Character Counts Week, Bush Stumps for Philanderer By Dana Milbank

LA PLUME, Pa., Oct. 19

So it has come to this: Nineteen days before the midterm elections,
President Bush flew here to champion the reelection of a congressman
who last year settled a $5.5 million lawsuit alleging that he beat
his mistress during a five-year affair.

“I’m pleased to be here with Don Sherwood,” a smiling president told
the congressman’s loyal but dispirited supporters at a luncheon
fundraiser Thursday. “He has got a record of accomplishment.”

Quite a record. While representing the good people of the 10th
District, the married congressman shacked up in Washington with a
Peruvian immigrant more than three decades his junior. During one
assignation in 2004, the woman, who says Sherwood was striking her
and trying to strangle her, locked herself in a bathroom and called
911; Sherwood told police he was giving her a back rub.

At a time when Republicans are struggling to motivate religious
conservatives to go to the polls next month, it is not clear what
benefit the White House found in sending Bush to stump for Sherwood
– smack dab in the middle of what Bush, in an official proclamation,
dubbed “National Character Counts Week.”

The president encouraged public officials “to observe this week with
appropriate ceremonies, activities, and programs” — but public
officials responded with some unusual ceremonies and activities: The
House ethics committee is holding hearings on the page sex scandal;
the FBI raided buildings as part of a probe involving Rep. Curt
Weldon (R-Pa.); and Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), the eighth person
convicted in the Abramoff lobbying scandal, is refusing to vacate his
seat in Congress.

On the other hand, while other Republicans proclaim their
independence from Bush, Sherwood is one of the few still eager to
bask in the president’s faint glow. (Another was Sen. George Allen of
Virginia, who, after a summer of racial and religious gaffes, was
happy to welcome Bush in Richmond on Thursday evening.) Bush may be
at a lowly 35 percent in the polls here, but Sherwood should be so
lucky: Only 1 in 5 residents definitely intends to vote for him next
month. By Sherwood standards, Bush is still a rock star.

“My family and I are humbled by having our friends support us,
especially when one is the leader of this great country,” Sherwood
said in introducing Bush.

His wife and adult daughter stood on stage, human shields against
scandal. Their discomfort became apparent when Bush, trying to defuse
the controversy, praised the letter Carol Sherwood wrote to her
husband’s constituents this week about the “needlessly cruel”
decision by his Democratic opponent to run an ad about the mistress’s
allegations. “I was deeply moved by her words,” he said, while some
in the dead-silent audience noticed an agonized look on daughter
Maria Sherwood’s face.

Bush was careful to avoid the usual lines about family and
conservative values; he also skipped the usual first-name-only
reference that would indicate that “Don” is a buddy. Onstage, he gave
Sherwood the obligatory handshake and photograph but quickly moved to
stand with the female Sherwoods.

The president otherwise kept his talk in the comfortable realm of
terrorists and taxes. “As this campaign gets closer to the stretch,
you will hear a lot of rhetoric and a lot of partisan charges coming
from the other side,” Bush warned. “Their goal is to distract you.”

The nature of the accuser’s allegations — she said Sherwood gave her
“facial lacerations, bruises about the head, neck and other portions
of her body, head injury, injuries to her teeth, mouth and gums, back
and neck strain, injuries to her scalp” — makes it more than a
distraction. Sherwood continues to deny abuse after reaching the
secret settlement.

Still, the loyal listeners wanted to believe Bush — and not the
polls that show Sherwood as a goner, down by 15 points. “It all
depends on how forgiving the constituents are,” said Harry Strausser
III, whose name tag bore the red star of the big donors at the $350-a- head lunch. As for Bush’s elliptical reference to the scandal, “given
the fact that the unfortunate situation occurred, you can’t ignore it.”

His father, Harry Jr., added, wistfully: “He’s done a lot while in
Congress. It’s an unfortunate situation, the Washington problem with
the woman.”

There weren’t quite enough attendees to fill the 25 tables. Campaign
volunteers, working to minimize reporters’ contact with the donors,
guarded the media in a roped-off pen in the rear of the room, even
escorting them to and from the restroom. When the event ended, the
Secret Service joined volunteers in attempting, unsuccessfully, to
restrain reporters behind ropes until the attendees left.

Such precautions — Thursday’s whole event, in fact — would have
been unnecessary if Sherwood, a car dealer and conservative
Republican, had avoided that “Washington problem with the woman,” as
Strausser tactfully put it. But the rural, reliably GOP voters began
to sour on Sherwood with news of the lawsuit; the mood worsened when
the Mark Foley page scandal renewed questions of sexual misconduct
among lawmakers.

“It’s the perfect storm of events,” exulted Chris Carney, Sherwood’s
Democratic opponent. The Penn State professor and naval reservist is
enjoying Bush’s “last-ditch” effort to rescue the congressman.
Working a lunchtime crowd at a diner not far from the Sherwood event,
the Democrat didn’t have to work hard to win support, even from

“I’m leaning towards him,” Diane Kosar said after Carney visited her
booth. Opposed to abortion and eager for a crackdown on illegal
immigrants, she has voted for Sherwood in the past.

But this time, even the president can’t save him. “Sherwood’s been
okay,” Kosar said, “but as far as what he did with the young girl,
that was a bad thing.”

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