Widows Give Bush an Earful

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, April 14, 2005; 12:03 PM

Behind closed doors at the Ft. Hood army base on Tuesday, President Bush got an earful from some Iraq-war widows, who told him that the way the government is treating them is disgraceful.

"I just told him it was very wrong," one of the widows, Linnie Blankenbecler, 47, told me yesterday. "I was not intimidated by the president. My hardest reality was the death of my husband."

Bush spent more than three hours Tuesday meeting with 33 families of soldiers who died in Iraq. But the meetings were closed to the press and the White House only released sketchy details about what his interactions were like. (See yesterday's column.)

Blankenbecler had told the local paper, the Killeen Daily Herald, that she was planning to talk to the president about survivor benefits. So I called her up to find out how it went.

Blankenbecler's husband, Command Sgt. Maj. James Blankenbecler, died on Oct. 1, 2003, after his convoy came under attack in Samara, Iraq. Here's one of his many memorial pages on the Web. His voice is still on his family's answering machine.

Linnie Blankenbecler told me she is, and remains, a Bush supporter. She said she doesn't blame him either for the war or for the stinginess with which the government is remunerating survivors.

But she told him in no uncertain terms that he needed to make things better.

"I love the U. S. and I am proud of the way my husband died, but I think the way they are treating the families now is a disgrace to my husband and what he believed," she said.

There are two primary ways in which survivors of military personnel killed in action receive benefits: The Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP), which is based on time and service, and Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC), which provides a flat monthly payment after a service-connected death. (An earlier version of this column incorrectly asserted that DIC is time-limited.)

Blankenbecler is most upset about two things.

One is the rule that widows call the SBP-DIC offset, which actually takes away a dollar from one benefit for every dollar they get in the other.

"It's disgusting," Blankenbecler said.

The second is a provision in a bill Bush signed in December 2003 that added an extra $250 per dependent child to the DIC payment. But widows whose husbands died before the effective date -- Jan. 1, 2005 -- saw little or nothing of that benefit.

Blankenbecler said that's grossly unfair.

"I told him I was very disappointed that he would sign something like that," she said. "I know that he doesn't understand everything that he signs, completely. So he asked one of his aides if he knew which bill I was talking about, and he told the guy to check into that.

"And he said he was sorry that I was disappointed, and that there's so many bills out there. I just got the impression that he didn't know which one I was talking about, and he probably didn't realize what he had done."

All in all, talking to the president on Tuesday helped, Blankenbecler said.

"The first thing he did was he told me he was sorry for the loss of my husband. For a year and a half, I had been wanting him to tell me that he was sorry -- not that I was holding him responsible in any way, but I was wanting to hear those words from him."

What was important, she said, was "just that he acknowledge that it happened, and that it has happened to 1,500 families. And I wanted him to tell me that personally, that he was sorry for my loss, and acknowledge that my husband was not just a number."

On that front, Blankenbecler declared herself satisfied.

"He's a very touchy, personable sort of president," she said, by "touchy" meaning "he's real free to kiss your cheek, to kiss your forehead, to hold your hand. He's just very, very charming, and I thought very compassionate."

Blankenbecler came with her daughter Jessica, 15, who wrote an e-mail to her father, titled "Hi, Daddy," two days after he died. The e-mail was recently reprinted in the book, "Chicken Soup for the Military Wife's Soul."

Bush hugged her daughter. Her daughter presented the president with a copy of the book. And Bush gave her a presidential pin.

Blankenbecler said Bush acknowledged that she wasn't the first person who had complained to him about benefits on Tuesday. "We have a widows' support group on Ft. Hood," she said. "We all have the same issues."

Blankenbecler said she believed that all the survivor families who still live in the area were invited to meet with Bush. In all, Fort Hood has lost 146 soldiers in Iraq.

And Blankenbecler said she thinks some of the other widows, unlike her, are opposed to the war. "I believe it was the right thing to do, my husband believed it was the right thing to do," she said.

But Blankenbecler said she didn't know if any of them expressed their views to the president.

A Widow Against the War

I have to wonder what Bush would say -- or has said -- faced with a widow who didn't support the war.

It might have happened on Tuesday if widow Shelann Clapp had been invited to meet with him. But she wasn't.

Clapp's exclusion apparently had everything to do with the fact that her husband died in a stateside accident -- and nothing to do with her opposition to the war, which until speaking with me yesterday she hadn't talked about in public.

But she's angry.

"I'm not a good military wife anymore, I'm an angry military wife. I'm an angry military widow," she said.

Her husband of 28 years, Chief Warrant Officer 5 Douglas V. Clapp, died in November in a helicopter crash not far from Fort Hood. The Black Hawk in which he was a passenger was headed to check out equipment being readied for use in Iraq when it hit support wires from a TV transmission tower. He'd served in the military for more than 30 years and had recently returned from a deployment in Iraq.

What Shelann Clapp is angriest about is that she didn't even hear that Bush was meeting with survivor families until the next day.

"Maybe my husband didn't really count," she said.

"I disagree with a distinction being made between soldiers that died in the war and soldiers that died supporting the war. . . . He's still not home with my family."

Losing her husband as part of a war effort that she thought wasn't necessary in the first place makes it particularly hard, she said.

"I did not support the war. I did not support us going to war," she said. "I think my husband's death was in vain, I really do. I don't think it needed to happen. It did not need to happen. . . .

"I won't say my husband gave his life for this country. I will never say that," she said. "I would say he lost his life for this country."

How many of the other Fort Hood widows think their husbands died in vain -- and did any of them get to meet with Bush on Tuesday? Clapp doesn't know. "We tend not to discuss that," she said. "We just talk about the guys."

If any survivors who have met with the president are reading this, I'd love to tell your story. E-mail me at froomkin@washingtonpost.com.

Gas Pressure

Edwin Chen writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The White House said today that high gasoline prices have become 'a drag' on the economy and that President Bush would deliver a major speech on energy next week, foreshadowing a higher presidential profile on the issue in the coming days. . . .

"It was unclear, however, whether Bush intends to offer fresh initiatives or simply reiterate his call on Congress to pass his controversial energy bill, which the president maintains would reduce reliance on foreign sources of energy."

And as Chen writes, the reality is that oil industry analysts say that there is little or nothing the administration can do to bring down prices in the short term.

Martin Crutsinger writes for the Associated Press that there are indeed some signs that gas prices are taking their toll on the economy: "Consumers hit by higher gasoline costs cut back spending on clothes and many other items last month, raising concerns about whether the economy might be entering another 'soft patch' similar to last year's slowdown."

The Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah, is to visit Bush at his Texas ranch on April 25. Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek.com: "Bush faces intense domestic pressure -- from opinion polls especially -- to look like he's doing something about rising gas prices, and the Saudi meeting is the perfect chance to do just that. Bush's build-up to the Saudi meeting starts with a speech on energy issues next Wednesday, including discussion of possible price gouging, environmentally friendly vehicles, and his long-stalled energy bill.

"But for all the talk, the president's closest aides readily concede there's little he can do to move gas prices. 'There are just enormous geopolitical forces at work that impact gas prices,' said one Bush confidant. It's difficult for any world leader to have a substantial impact.' "


So would it kill press secretary Scott McClellan to admit that the president can't really do much about gas prices? Well, yes, because his marching orders appear be to answer any question about gas prices with a speech about the importance of passing Bush's energy bill.

It got a little ugly yesterday.

Or as Chen put it: "During his daily briefing, McClellan found himself somewhat on the defensive as questioners noted that a national energy strategy is a long-term enterprise that would have little or no impact on present-day gas prices."

Here's the transcript of the briefing.

"The President remains concerned about rising gas prices, and that's why he outlined a detailed and comprehensive energy plan four years ago. And we continue to call on Congress to act on that energy plan and get it passed," McClellan said.

"Q Will there be any immediate impact, if Congress approved the energy package right now, on gasoline prices, the rising gasoline prices?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, there are steps that we need to look at now that we can look at and that we are looking at. This is something that is a high priority for this administration. We meet regularly on these issues, and we will continue to do so."

That clears things up.

McClellan then suggested that the administration has "got to make sure that there's no price gouging going on."

But industry experts say price gouging is not the culprit right now -- and even if it were, passage of the energy bill has nothing to do with how law enforcement should pursue such allegations.

McClellan also talked about encouraging cleaner, more efficient technologies. But that has not been an administration priority -- and it is certainly not going to do anything about prices in the short term.

So in a nutshell, even while the official line is that the answer to high gas prices is for Congress to pass the energy bill, the White House has still not yet made a single credible assertion about how, specifically, that would work.

DeLay and Friendship

The Associated Press reports: "The White House said today that President Bush considers House Majority Leader Tom DeLay a friend but suggested he's more a business associate than a social pal.

" 'I think there are different levels of friendship with anybody,' presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said."

Today's Calendar

Bush today goes before two crowds that may not be as supportive as what he's used to.

Bush speaks to the American Society of Newspaper Editors today -- the question-and-answer session should be interesting.

Then Bush throws out the first pitch at the Washington Nationals home opener.

Joseph White writes for the Associated Press: "Bush becomes the 12th president to throw out a first pitch in Washington and the first since Richard Nixon in 1969. After the Senators left, presidents performed the ceremony in other cities; Bush did the honors in St. Louis last year.

" 'He's loosening up and getting ready,' White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Wednesday."

Life at the White House

Ever wonder how things work at the White House? Here's an excerpt from yesterday's briefing:

"Q Scott, a minor point, and I don't mean to sound facetious, but you said the President had two meetings with members of Congress, the first was bipartisan.

"MR. McCLELLAN: That's right.

"Q Did the second one take place immediately thereafter, and did somebody say, all the Democrats out?

"MR. McCLELLAN: No. (Laughter.)

"Q What happened there? How did it --

"MR. McCLELLAN: The meeting this morning was at breakfast. It was at 7:00 a.m., it was about an hour, from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. this morning. The meeting with the Republican leadership from the House and Senate was a little bit after 11:00 a.m. this morning, and it took place in the Cabinet Room. In fact, the first thing the President did was walk in with Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player and introduce them to the members of Congress. They were here for the President's Cup team captain photo with the President."

VandeHei Live Online

Washington Post White House correspondent Jim VandeHei was Live Online yesterday. A few excerpts:

"San Francisco, Calif.: It seems like the press conferences with the spokesperson for the White House are very scripted . . . why does anyone even go?

"Jim VandeHei: Great question. They are scripted and basically useless. I usually don't go. They are, however, useful for TV and papers with less access than ours."

VandeHei was asked if he knows of any White House "tell-all" books on the way.

"Jim VandeHei: None in the works that I know of. You have to remember this White House is essentially an oligarchy, so there are only a handful of people who really know what is going on and there is rarely -- sometimes it seems like never -- any disagreement among the principles."

Welcome Back, Patriots

Jerome Solomon writes in the Boston Globe about the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, making their third visit to the White House yesterday in four years.

" 'Well, welcome back,' President Bush said yesterday on a gorgeous spring afternoon as he began a six-minute speech. . . .

"New England, which beat Philadelphia in Super Bowl XXXIX Feb. 6, has made the traditional victors' outing so often that linebacker Tedy Bruschi couldn't remember which visit to the White House took place on an extremely hot day. That was last May. The Patriots also visited the White House in April 2002."

Team owner Robert Kraft presented the president with a Patriots game jersey, with the No. 1 on it.

" 'You won't see it on eBay, I can assure you that,' Bush said."

Here's the full text of the festivities.

WHCA Dinner Update

Richard Leiby writes in The Washington Post: "More star power has been enlisted to light up the April 30 White House Correspondents' Association dinner and the now-infamous Bloomberg News afterparty."

Among the names: Mary Tyler Moore, Goldie Hawn, Helen Mirren, LL Cool J, Donald and Melania Trump, Jack Welch and Robert Duvall.

Also in Leiby's column, David Corn of the Nation is asked to describe "Something I've tried and never will do again" and answers: "Asking White House spokesman Scott McClellan a question and expecting a straight answer."

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