White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, August 25, 2004; 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Briefing column for washingtonpost.com. He'll answer your questions, take your comments and links, and point you to coverage around the Web.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org. You can e-mail him at froomkin@washingtonpost.com.

The transcript follows.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone, and welcome to today's chat. There's lots of great questions already. Today's column was mostly about Vice President Cheney. Here's a question for you: What do you think motivated his statement about gay marriage yesterday?


Washington, D.C.: You ask "so what to make of this? Was it a huge tactical mistake for Cheney? A calculated attempt to reach beyond his base? A genuine, damn-the-consequences display of human tenderness?"

But you previously answered you own question, by noting that almost nothing happens by mistake -- and I would attribute that BOTH campaigns. There are dozens of people getting paid a lot of money to make sure nothing happens by mistake. It's just like the Reality TV shows we love to hate nowadays -- choreagraphed reality.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for your comment. The election as a scripted reality show. Hmm. Shouldn't it be getting better ratings, then?


Boston, Mass.: People are talking about Vice-President Cheney's candid answer to a question about gay marriage. I've seen the tape and here is my question: what answer?! Sure he responded to the question and even made clear he didn't agree with a Constitutional Ammendment to ban gay marriage. What he did not do, however, is answer the question. Why is no one calling him out on this? Is it too sensitive a question to ask? "Vice-President Cheney, if you were the King of Wyoming, would you relegate your daughter to 2nd class citizenry because of her sexual orientation?" He wasn't asked how should this issue be handled. He was asked how he felt about it "in his heart." Is he being given a pass because of his daughter?

washingtonpost.com: Cheney Sees Gay Marriage as State Issue (Post, Aug. 25)

Dan Froomkin: That's a very good observation. He didn't really answer the question, did he?


Arlington, Va.: Does Cheney get pushed often to explain his personal view on homosexual marriage?

Saying it should remain "a decision for the states" is one thing, but obviously the root of the question is whether he believes his own state should permit gay marriage.

Dan Froomkin: Cheney does not often give people a chance to ask him questions. And I don't think he'd been asked this question, on camera, since his boss took a different position. But I think you and the previous poster have identified the obvious follow up.


Valley Forge, Pa.: In answer to your Cheney questions, I think it's a little bit of both. There is no need to rigorously script Cheney's events since, unlike the President, he is able to think on his feet. On the other hand, I have seen some speculation that the gay marriage question was actually a plant. It makes sense, in a way, to get this asked and answered before the convention. Cheney certainly made it clear that, while they may differ, Bush ultimately sets the policy. Even conservative Republicans may be hard-pressed to fault Cheney for standing by his daughter, as long as he promises not to interfere with platform.

Dan Froomkin: The whole thing did seem less stage-managed than your typical Bush event, I'll grant you that.


Los Angeles, Calif.: What's up with the WMD Commission these days? I understand the need for secrecy, but this seems like overkill. It has been more than a month since they've issued even a vaguely worded press release. Throw us a bone, please.

Dan Froomkin: I believe they're meeting again this week or next but, as usual, in complete secrecy. No on seems very exercised about them -- even though Bush recently said he was going to ask them to weigh in on the whole National Intelligence Director thing. I thought that would get people going, but no.

As a journalist, I of course think they should find a way to do more of what they do out in the open.


Carrboro, N.C.: What's it going to take to get the media to do some actual issue coverage? Stuff like: "John Kerry's plan will cost X much to taxpayers, Y much to small businesses, and move Z million people from the uninsured into the insured column. President Bush's plan will do..."

I'd also like to see people talk about exactly how much oil ANWR would produce and address the supply side/demand side approaches to foreign oil dependency, too, but I'll settle for the first.

Dan Froomkin: On your first point, go to washingtonpost.com's Politics section, click on "Comparing the Candidates" over on the right, and tell me if that works for you. I haven't given it a good look yet myself, but I hear it's pretty great.

The sad fact is that things like that don't seem to excite people as much as, say, a good attack ad.


Boston, Mass.: Re: Cheney's motivation for his comments on gay marriage -- they seem to be twofold. First, I think at minimum he truly holds a father's dream for his daughter to be able to pursue private relationships. But second, I think his statements now, directly before the sturm and drang of the RNC's platform debate over gay marriage serve another purpose of assuaging more moderate suburbanites. It would be too cynical to think the comments were solely political, but too optimistic to think the timing was not.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for that comment.


Stamford, Conn.: I would like to have the following Bush campaigning issue explained to me. He keeps saying it in his speeches, but no one asks the president what he means. Does he contend that rich people are paying their full share of taxes now and don't use accountants and lawyers? Is he saying that people stop paying taxes only if they are over 35 percent tax bracket? Is he saying that he is not a strong enough leader to propose tax reform that would ensure rich people can't use loopholes to get out of taxes and instead, he is just conceding the battle to to top 1 percent. By his reasoning, we shouldn't tax rich people at all, that way they can't use lawyers to get them out of paying their taxes. This is something I just don't understand and would like an explanation:

St Paul, Minn., August 18th, 2004 "We have a difference in opinion on this campaign about taxes. My opponent said that he's going to -- he promised about over $2 trillion of new programs. And so we said, well, how are you going to pay for it? He said, well, I'll pay for it by taxing the rich. You've heard that before, haven't you? You've heard that line. That's why people hire accountants and lawyers, so you won't be able to tax them. You can't raise enough money to pay for all his spending by so-called taxing the rich. He's going to try to stick you with the tax bill."


Dan Froomkin: Thank you for bringing that up. I've mentioned this line of argument several times in my column. I think it is absolutely one of the oddest arguments I have ever heard in many years of following the tax policy debate.

There is an argument to be made, and the flat-taxers make it, that the rich have all sorts of ways to reduce their tax burden compared to the poor -- charitable contributions, mortgage tax write-offs, etc. But the reality is that the rich still can be, and are, taxed -- and would pay more if their rates increased -- unless they actually cheat. Which should be prosecuted.


Washington, DC: On the Plame watch: I read in your column and others that "Novak and his attorney James Hamilton have refused to say whether the columnist has been subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury, and declined again yesterday."

Aren't things like subpoenas a matter of public record? I'm pretty sure if I had been subpoenaed and you or any other reporter wanted to know about it, it would take a phone call or two.

Dan Froomkin: This is a federal grand jury proceeding we are talking about here. Serious, serious secrecy. Pretty much always. (Ken Starr being an exception, of course.)


Ashland, Mo.: The president condemns all 527 ads. Why do you insist this doesn't include the Swiftboat ad? Doesn't "all" mean all?" This is similar to the journalistic technique of asking person A if the sky is blue. Person A says yes. The reporter then asks person B if the sky is azure. Person B says yes. The news report: Person A and Person B vehemently disagree whether sky is blue or azure.

Dan Froomkin: I am no Aristotle, but I see a big difference between coming out against all 527 ads, some of which are essentially harmless, and refuting one in particular which is arguably maliciously untrue.

Here's how Josh Marshall (Talking Points Memo) put it: "If someone asks me to denounce Joseph Stalin and I say, 'Well, yes, I'm against all politicians who support the death penalty' then I haven't denounced Joseph Stalin, right? This is the same thing."

OK, he's no Aristotle either. Any Aristotles out there? Help us out!


Holmdel, N.J.: So, is Scott McClellan the White House Press Secretary or the campaign spokesman for Bush-Cheney 04? These days he seems to be speaking excusively for the campaign. Why are the taxpayers subsidizing the Bush re-election effort?

Dan Froomkin: What, you're telling me that you're shocked -- shocked! -- to hear that there is campaigning going on in the White House?

The reality is that as we get closer and closer to the election, the distinction between what is official White House business and what is re-election campaign business becomes harder and harder to draw -- and that's true in any administration trying to get a second term.

Yes, your taxpayer dollars are paying McClellan's salary (and Karl Rove's, and .... ) But what exactly should he do?

I actually feel a bit of sympathy for him on this particular count, because my column is supposed to be focused like a laser on the president and the White House. It's not supposed to be a campaign column -- I don't scour the Net and bring you Kerry stuff like I do Bush stuff -- but campaign stuff is becoming an increasingly large part of what I do, too.


San Antonio, Tex.: Why do we have to have the vapid Bush Twins mention in your columns? If you continue with this silliness, why not cover the activities of Kerry daughters Alexandra and Vanessa?

Your obsessive fascination with Jenna and Barbara is about as weird as Anderson Copper's fascination with Mary Kate and Ashley (Olsen twins). What's the justification for your coverage, given the only thing newsworthy about these twins of privilege is their downing tequila shots at trendy New York night spots?

Naming Ginsberg and Max Cleland in today's column seems far more newsworthy?

Dan Froomkin: I am not obsessively fascinated. Merely fascinated. Thank you.

See above for why I don't do the Kerrys.


Washington, D.C. (Q About a Possible Purge): About four weeks ago the White House delivered the axe to Matthew Scully, a W speechwriter from Texas who was also a vocal animal protection supporter, and who was probably never really the best-suited guy to speak for Bush and Cheney. Now there are rumors abounding that Bush is running screaming around the White House (not just figuratively) demanding that everyone who isn't a pure-ideology loyalist be fired at once. Any info re Scully or whoever may be next?

Dan Froomkin: I didn't realize Scully was gone. Last I'd heard was this Shankar Vedantam story in May in The Washington Post about Scully and how he was something like a fish out of water, at least on the whole animal rights thing. I guess the White House didn't like that story much.....

But I doubt very much that Bush is screaming at anyone. It's not his style, as far as I can tell -- some utterly not credible, pretending-to-be-news Web sites to the contrary.

And I frankly doubt that there are too many current staffers over there who would be victim to an ideological purge.


Annapolis, Md.: Dan, forgive me if others have argued the same point, but it seems quite obvious that Cheney spoke about his daughter's homosexuality and the marriage issue for a very astute political gain. If the chatterers gain too much ground in claiming Bush is merely a puppet for Cheney, AND that the current Republican party is dominated by right wing social ultraconservtives, Bush/Cheney 04 risks alienating the moderate conservatives and swing voters. And they lose their ability to use the "compassionate conservative" moniker. So, in a calculated move, they decided to allow Cheney to voice his opinion, knowing it was not the same as Bush' public line, to give some credence to the "one big tent" idea that seems to have died a violent death under Karl Rove et al.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. As Marc Kaufman and Mike Allen wrote today: "Bush officials said Cheney has such deep and longtime goodwill among conservatives that the White House is not worried about the political fallout from the exchange."


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Froomkin,

Hello. I wonder if you could help me sort something out with regards to the Valerie Plame leak investigation. There are several reporters who know the name of the person who leaked Plame's identity as an undercover CIA officer. I appreciate the need to maintain confidentiality with anonymous sources (the idea being that sources in future will be reluctant to share information if they see reports breach confidence today). But what I don't understand is this particular circumstance. Usually, a leaker (such as Daniel Ellsberg or Deep Throat) is sharing some dastardly deed committed by people in power, and a leaker feels compelled to report that bad behavior. But in this case, the actual leaking IS the bad behavior. So why do reporters not feel a moral imperative to share their information when they know who committed the bad deed?


Dan Froomkin: It seems to me that it's in large part the precedent thing. If I break my promise now because I subjectively determine that what a source told me was illegal and mean, doesn't that erode my position in the future, both morally and legally, when I refuse to break my promise becuase what a source told me was illegal, but hugely important for the public to know?


Fairfax, Va.: Dan, I enjoy your columns immensely and greatly look forward to each one of them.

Re: Abu Ghraib and Rumsfeld, do you think that Bush's failure to ask for Rummy's resignation will hurt his campaign? Do you think the possibility of asking for Rummy's resignation will be under serious consideration in this White House?

Dan Froomkin: Thank you for your kind words.

The (Rumsfeld-appointed) panel, while blaming Rumsfeld for a lot yesterday, also said his resignation would be a big win for the enemy.

But which enemy?

I see Fred Barbash writing on washingtonpost.com that Kerry is calling for his resignation again.

In either case, I don't see Bush pushing him out anytime soon.


Silver Spring, Md.: Do you think that the controversy over John Kerry's war record will push Bush and Cheney to detail more about their feelings about the war at the time, other than the fact that they didn't want to fight in it? Kerry obviously opposed the government's conduct of the war, and denounced it after the war (though some of the quotes used by Republicans came from others), but I really don't know Bush's and Cheney's views. If they opposed the war, albeit quietly, that could have repercussions, but if they didn't oppose the war and went to lengths going to Vietnam, that could also look bad. So far, the controversy over Bush's war record has been overwhelmingly on the relatively trivial issue of just how many days he showed up for duty. Cheney continues to appear as a pro-military guy. Edwards is fortunate in being too young for Nam (right?).

Dan Froomkin: Assuming, which I think is correct, that this story isn't going away, then yeah, maybe at least the questions could become more substantive, and addressed to everyone. Like, what did the candidates think of the war at the time, how did they respond, how do they feel about the war now, and how do they feel about their actions? I actually think those are all interesting questions, and while they're a bit backward-looking, they aren't entirely irrelevant to the issues at hand.


Arlington, Va.: Can you explain to me why discussion of Bush's alcholism and drug use when he was younger (though still into his 30s), is a no-go topic in the campaign. Did America decide they don't care? Seriously, because the whole Clinton taking a drag thing in the 60s was daily watercooler fodder in the 90s. Honestly, I need some help here. Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: First of all, while Bush definitely drank a lot, I don't know how you define alcoholic, and there is no evidence that he ever did drugs (though he hasn't completely denied it).

But to answer your question, my sense is that the press feels they covered all that last time around. And without constant, partisan harping from operatives, radio personalities and weblogs, the press tends to drop stories that it thinks are tapped out.


Portland, Ore.: When Scott McLellan used the 527 dodge on the swift boat ad question, a reporter followed by saying something along the lines of, "Forget the ad; what about the accusation?" which seems to me to be a better way to frame the question.

Dan Froomkin: Yup. But that didn't work either, did it.


Woodbridge, Va.: I not sure I see why it takes an Aristotle to understand what it means to condemn "all" the 527 ads. Bush's comment includes the Swift boat ads, which to this veteran's mind are credible. But on the other hand, I've not heard Mr Kerry say a word to condemn MoveOn, other 527s, Al Gore, or his own people who regularly call the President a liar, AWOL from the Guard, etc.

Dan Froomkin: Kerry did condemn the Moveon PAC ad that McCain asked him to, as I recall.

And here's another difference, for better or for worse: Kerry's campaign, as the bloggers have pointed out, has indeed raised some questions about Bush's service. (See this page).

Is Bush publicly raising questions about Kerry's medals?

No, but he's not specifically denouncing the people who are, on his behalf, either.


Boulder, Colo.: Regarding the White House/campaign split -- Karen Hughes in her new incarnation is employed by the BC'04 folks, correct?

Dan Froomkin: Yes, totally.


Cincinnati, Ohio: Dan,

Great work. Now this may be just my perception of the situation but it is there a sense that this campain is turning people off? While negativity is the benchmark for a presidential campaign this is definitely so vile that it seems to be a distraction from the reality of our situation (i.e. War on terror, taxes, health care, social security -- the issues that everyone says they actually care about.) Neither candidate, as much as they SAY they do, seems interested in a national debate on the future of our country, and with the 527's clouding the airwaves there is the appearance that the process is not working right now.

How can the average voter and the media jump start this process? I grant you it is not the media's job to moderate a national debate...or should it be? The power of the polls only has an impact next time, so how do we change the situation now?


Dan Froomkin: There is an awful lot of negativity out there, and there is a school of thought that negativity turns off the greater electorate. So you're probably right.

But can there be so much negativity that the greater electorate really gets riled up? If so, we must be close to reaching that point.


Aristotle: Aristotle Speaks:

If a man with a gun terroizes a town with mayhem and homicide, the sheriff is expected to do MORE than stand in the town square and proclaim "I oppose all gun violence."

To do less would be a failure of leadership.

Dan Froomkin: Any more Aristotles out there? Hurry!


Ybor City, Fla.: Now Dan, lots of the claims made by the liberal 527s were suspect and outright false, as well as claims in Fahrenheit 9/11 and similar. But those were OK, and only the anti-Kerry Swift Boat ads should be singled out for denunciation, right? It's OK for one side to do it but not the other? Looks to me like you just revealed what side you are rooting for and which lever you are going to pull in November. You and the rest of the (non-Fox News) "mainstream" media.

Dan Froomkin: I think you're getting to the heart of the matter. It's not all 527 ads. It's not all 527 attack ads, even. It's those 527 ads that contain suspect or outright false allegations. Both candidates should be expected to denounce/renounce/condemn the substance of those ads, unless they want to be perceived as supporting them. Both candidates. Absolutely.


Arlington, Va.: You asked for help as to whether condeming all 527's is the same as condeming the SVFT ads, citing the excellent counter that a condemnation for all proponents of the death penalty is not the same as a condemnation for tyrants. Aristotle would use the syllogism: all ads are condemned, the SVFT is an ad, therefore it is condemned. However, most linguists would side with you. If you asked someone for a job reference and they said "Dan Froomkin has good penmanship", it would likely be interpreted as an insult to you, although technically a compliment was paid. Here, the request for condemnation is for the specifics of the ad, not for the ad by virtue of its membership in a class. The way to get around Bush's loophole might be to ask, "if Thurlow wrote an editorial to the Washington Post, would you condemn that?", thereby removing the membership in a class argument.

Dan Froomkin: Let me chew on that one for a while. Thanks.


somewhere: We're down to about two months. Do you have a suspicion in your own mind about who's going to win? (Even if you don't care to share it with us....)

Dan Froomkin: I flip flop. Then I flop flip.


Damascus, Md.: You weren't quite accurate in saying that 'you don't do the Kerrys', stories about the Kerry daughters. I seem to recall you did cover the Cannes wardrobe malfunction.

And my husband wants to thank you for those links, again.

Dan Froomkin: You're very welcome.

But no. Tempting as the wardrobe malfunction might have been, it wasn't on my turf.


Rosslyn, Va.: Dan, as always -- I love your column and your chats! With everything that's just on the front page of the Washington Post, how is the White House responding? It seems the Press Corp should be having a field day with the blame for the Iraqi Prisoner Abuse going all the way up to Rumsfield, Cheney having different views about Gay Marriage than Bush and actually talking about them, and the Bush lawyer 'advising' the Anti-Kerry propaganda. Do you think any of these stories will quietly go under the rug (like I'm suspecting the Bush administration will hope) or do you think they'll be around when the RNC starts up? (Are you going to that by the way?)

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for the kind words. You know, I have given up on predicting much of anything. I have a sneaking suspicion that Karl Rove and Karen Hughes will be stage-managing the next several weeks very carefully. They seem to understand how the press works -- what seizes our fancy, what bores us -- better than we do. But I just don't know.

And no, I'm not going to the convention. In fact, current plans are for the column to go dark Monday-Thursday of next week, just like we did for the Dems. The attention will, for those four days, not be on the White House, strictly speaking, and that way I can stay up late and watch. Plus I have so many Bush books to catch up on!


New York, N.Y.: Dan: I've been looking at national polls, state polls, etc. But what I honestly believe to be the deciding factor (this is my opinion, I am not an expert) is the right track/wrong track numbers. And those numbers consistantly show a majority believe we are on the wrong track. Are these numbers making the White House nervous? And can these numbers really be changed in 70 days?

Dan Froomkin: There are so many numbers out there, it's hard to say which ones should be making who the most nervous. I suspect that both campaigns are most closely watching their own tracking polls in the swing states.

And keep in mind that whoever looks nervous gets described as a loser really quickly.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: I believe that Kerry was just as honor bound to denounce Michael Moore's willful lies and distortions in Fahrenheit 9/11 as Bush is to denounce the Swift Boat Veterans. Does that make me an Aristotle, or are Aristotles only supposed to hold Bush accountable?

Dan Froomkin: I think you fully qualify as an official White House Briefing Aristotle. Thanks.


Crofton, Md.: You have sucessfully "froomkined" the News Item of Shamokin Web site that you cited in your column, totally overloading its servers! Congratulations!

Dan Froomkin: Wow. I'm honored! See today's column for that link -- which, by the way, just worked for me!


Washington, D.C.: Any snowball's chance of seeing Bush on the Daily Show?

Dan Froomkin: It's only slightly more likely than his agreeing to come Live Online with me!

Thanks everyone for all the great questions. Sorry I wasn't able to get to more of them. You are an incredibly, sharp and interesting bunch. See you again in two weeks.


No Columns?!;: NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!;!;!;!;!;!;

Dan Froomkin: P.S. Hang in there. You'll be OK! I'll be back on Friday!


Annapolis, Md.: Anyone can become angry -- that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way -- this is not easy.


Dan Froomkin: OK, OK, that really was the last one. And that really is Aristotle!


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