Private Bush Meeting Gets Blogged

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Friday, February 20, 2004; 10:30 AM

The White House press corps yesterday scrambled to figure out why a hastily-arranged "conversation" between President Bush and some regular Americans about the economy was suddenly closed to reporters -- and what went on behind those closed doors.

Little did they know that behind those doors, one of the regular Americans whom Bush was meeting was a blogger.

Bush quickly gave Rex Hammock -- a publishing company president from Nashville -- the nickname "Hammock Man."

But maybe Bush should have been calling him Rexblog.

The Rexblog entry written in a cab on the way to the airport chronicles the experience, which Hammock says was unscripted, unrehearsed and sincere. And, he says, the White House contacted him a full 48 hours before the event. Some excerpts from the blog:

"I just walked out of the Old Executive Office Building where four other 'real people' and I sat down for a 25-minute chat with the President of the United States. Then the five of us stood behind him while he told a room full of people why the tax cuts he has championed should be made permanent. . . .

"I was there as a representative small business owner who is using the increased capital expensing provisions of the Bush tax plan to invest in a wide range of hardware and software for my business. . . .

"Only a few people knew I was going to do this, but more than one asked jokingly if I thought the President would give me a nickname. I'm happy not to disappoint them. He did. He turned to me once to ask a question and said, 'How 'bout you, Hammock Man?' . . .

"He is charming and was as hospitable as anyone I've ever met. He made us feel that he was grateful to us for coming to visit him (like we would turn him down) and was genuinely comfortable in both the chit-chat and the policy talk.

"Bottom line: If George W. Bush could spend 25 minutes chatting with everybody in America like he did with me and five other folks today, he would win any election by a landslide.

"He'd be a great guy with whom to watch a football game."

Still unclear, however, is why the White House closed the meeting to journalists. Rex, can you clear that one up for us?

Elisabeth Bumiller in the New York Times writes: "Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, would say only that the White House often closed round-table discussions to journalists.

"In fact, however, Mr. Bush has had at least three 'conversations' on the economy in the last three weeks, in New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania, and all were open and lengthy.

"The most recent one, in Tampa, Fla., on Monday, also included some recipients who seemed to veer off the point that was most helpful to the White House, which is the theme of how the president's tax cuts have improved their lives. As a result, Mr. Bush had to steer them back to the subject at hand."

Here's the transcript from Tampa. And here's the transcript of Bush's remarks from yesterday, in the Eisenhower executive office building, in front of a crowd that Bumiller notes "included numerous White House interns who were told by their superiors to attend at the last minute, to make sure the room was filled."

Bush somewhat addressed the contentious issues of job creation (see yesterday's White House Briefing column for more on that issue): "[I]f you're interested in job creation, why not focus on the job creators? So the tax relief was passed, not only to help individuals, but to help our small business sector."

Bush also made a pretty big mistake with the numbers at one point.

"The tax relief we passed, 11 million taxpayers this year will save $1,086 off their taxes. That's a lot of money that will be in circulation as a result of individual decision-making," he said.

In the White House transcript, two asterisks got inserted into that first sentence, with this explanation: "(111 million taxpayers will save, on average, $1,586 off their taxes.)"

Fox News's Jim Angle, interestingly enough, used that clip without a correction in his report yesterday. Angle also said that "after a rough two weeks on the economy, Republicans are not only defending their policies, they're returning fire at the Democrats." Angle said a clip of John F. Kerry in December showed Kerry acknowledging that not all the job losses were entirely the administration's fault.

Over on NBC News, Carl Quintanilla asserted that jobs have "become this election's emotional center" and he gave lead billing to Kerry's AFL-CIO endorsement. "And while the president today tried to reassure Americans that his tax cuts are working, and that there has been some job growth, Democrats once again feasted on his optimistic jobs report, from which the White House is backing away," Quintanilla said, leading into the Kerry soundbite: "Well, ladies and gentlemen, it just doesn't take a lot of fuzzy math to count to zero!"

And from "Late Show with David Letterman" via Associated Press: "Here now is my favorite story of the week, rumor that President Bush had a nose job. He had some sort of plastic surgery and had a nose job. If this is true, it would be the first new job he's created since he's taken office."

Is Bush in Trouble?

You might think Bush is doomed, listening to some of these people.

Wayne Washington writes in the Boston Globe: "Republicans are increasingly worried about President Bush's reelection prospects as he struggles to combat questions about his credibility and as some polls released this week indicate that he is trailing his Democratic rivals by significant margins. . . .

"'I would describe the mood among conservatives right now as frightened,' said Stephen Moore, president of the Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group that supports Republican policies.

Alan Elsner of Reuters writes: "Since the beginning of 2004, President Bush has suffered one political misfire after another, prompting some Republicans to wonder anxiously when the White House political machine will get in gear."

Ralph Z. Hallow writes in the Washington Times that Bush "is having trouble energizing Christian conservatives, prominent leaders on the religious right say."

But pro-Bush columnists are coming to his defense.

Charles Krauthammer today writes: "Rarely has there been a political assault more concentrated, more unrelenting, more unrebutted -- all occurring not as political advertising but on free media as campaign 'coverage.' "

A few days ago, John Podhoretz wrote a column for the New York Post that's getting e-mailed around a lot: "The misunderestimators are back, dripping with their old familiar condescension and contempt for President Bush."

Two columnists on National Review online also jumped to Bush's defense yesterday on the accusations that Bush shirked his National Guard duty (see the White House Briefing archives for more on that.)

Jed Babbin is utterly dismissive of the chickenhawk label for Bush. "President Bush is no combat hero, but he served bravely and well in the Vietnam era. His service gave him confidence in his nation and its motives that John Kerry lacks. What Bush has and Kerry doesn't is the critical difference in character between a president who can lead a nation through a war, and one who cannot."

Richard L. Novak writes: "The attacks on Bush, although veiled as specific quarrels with him and his record, really come across as assaults on those who have served and are serving in the National Guard and Reserves. . . .

"The coverage has clearly presumed (or wished for) guilt on Bush's part. Have any of the accusers provided proof, or even been asked by 'responsible' media outlets to provide proof, that Bush was AWOL?"

Making Old News New Again

So who's taking 30-year-old stuff and trying to make political hay with it?

Howard Kurtz reports in The Washington Post that the Bush-Cheney campaign will focus at least part of its coming ad barrage on John F. Kerry's early days.

"Many of the ads will accuse the Democratic front-runner of 'hypocrisy,' in [chief media advisor Mark] McKinnon's word, in part by reaching back into his early career," Kurtz writes.

Dump Cheney Watch

Lexington, the political column in the Economist, speculates on dumping Cheney from the ticket: "It hardly needs saying that replacing Mr Cheney would have to be done with the utmost finesse. Otherwise, it might seem that the Bush White House was falling apart. Mr Cheney would have to retire gracefully, blaming his dodgy heart (he has already had four heart attacks) and no doubt accepting a post as senior counselor from a grief-stricken president. Persuading such a powerful vice-president to step aside will be no easy thing, of course. But the Bushes don't have a reputation as the Corleone family of the Republican Party for nothing. The next time Mr Cheney takes that jet to go duck-shooting, he may well find James Baker slipping into the seat behind him, with 'a litl' proposal to discuss for the good of the party'.

Poll Watch

Nancy Benac of the Associated Press reports on the latest opinion poll from the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, showing that Bush's " job-approval rating has dropped to 48 percent, the first time in his presidency that it has fallen below 50 percent, according to the poll."

Here are the complete results.

Bloomberg reports that Bush's "approval rating was little changed from December in a Harris survey."

More White House Stuff

In Al Kamen's "In the Loop" column in The Washington Post today, lots of White House tidbits, including insights from Bush's interview on Wednesday with the Middle East Television Network (see transcript) and the fact that Laura Bush is on a news conference tear and may soon overtake her husband.

In the Wall Street Journal's "Washington Wire," Jackie Calmes writes: "HAITI, AGAIN? White House seeks distance from nation's unrest.

"Aides fret about an election-year nightmare for Bush and brother Jeb, Florida's governor, if refugees flock here. Not eager to get drawn in, they insist the problem is Powell's."

And Elizabeth Wolfe of the Associated Press reports on a new Web site called "that wants the vice president's openly lesbian daughter to speak out against a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriages."

© 2004