What's the Big Idea?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washigtonpost.com
Wednesday, January 14, 2004; 10:07 AM

Robert Pear and David D. Kirkpatrick report in the New York Times today on what may be President Bush's next "big idea" -- marriage.

"Administration officials say they are planning an extensive election-year initiative to promote marriage, especially among low-income couples, and they are weighing whether President Bush should promote the plan next week in his State of the Union address," they write.

"For months, administration officials have worked with conservative groups on the proposal, which would provide at least $1.5 billion for training to help couples develop interpersonal skills that sustain 'healthy marriages.'"

Today's Calendar

It's Space Day!

At 3 p.m., at NASA headquarters, Bush will make his much-anticipated speech on his moon-Mars proposal.

Administration officials tell the Associated Press that Bush will ask for a $1 billion boost to NASA's budget over five years to fund the start of the new campaign.

Here's some previous Washington Post and New York Times coverage.

About three hours after Bush's speech, Vice President Cheney, on the West Coast, will follow with remarks in Pasadena at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which runs unmanned space probe missions such as the Spirit lander that is currently visiting Mars.

Also today, Bush attends a Republican National Committee luncheon in Georgetown and meets with Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar of Spain in the Oval Office, followed by a dinner in honor of Prime Minister and Mrs. Aznar in the evening.

Aznar stopped by The Washington Post yesterday to meet with reporters and editors. "Aznar has been one of Bush's most steadfast allies in the war, even as the weight of public opinion in Spain and the rest of Europe has opposed U.S. actions in Iraq," notes The Post's Nora Boustany.

The vice president has lunch with the Los Angeles World Affairs Council in Beverly Hills (Wondering why? Check out their powerhouse board of directors.)

The White House Strikes Back, Part II

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld jumped to his boss's defense yesterday, disputing allegations by his old friend, former Treasury secretary Paul H. O'Neill, that appear in a new book. (See previous White House Briefings; links over there in the right column.)

Rumsfeld denied that he or President Bush began planning to oust Saddam Hussein within days of taking office in 2001 without hard evidence that the Iraqi leader possessed weapons of mass destruction, write Vernon Loeb and Dana Milbank in The Washington Post.

"I certainly don't see validity to his criticism of the president at all," Rumsfeld said, saying that Bush brings "his brain, his engagement, his interest, his probing questions, his constructive and positive approach to issues."

Here's the transcript of Rumsfeld's briefing, and some Rumsfeld video from Fox News.

O'Neill was on NBC's "Today" show yesterday morning, denying that documents he turned over to the book's author, Ron Suskind, were classified or secret. (The Treasury department is looking into the matter.) Here's the 13.5 minute video segment. NBC also has a new excerpt from the book, "The Price of Loyalty."

But O'Neill didn't exactly come out on the attack. Among his quotes: "You know, people are trying to make the case that I said the president was planning war in Iraq early in the administration." And: "I used some vivid language that if I could take it back, I'd take that back because it's become the controversial centerpiece."

On the NBC "Nightly News," Tom Brokaw introduced David Gregory's report on the O'Neill matter this way: "It appears that former Treasury secretary Paul O'Neill is having second thoughts." Here's that video clip.

Bill Plante of CBS News, in his story on the Treasury inquiry, asks: "Was this instant payback from the reputed masters of political hardball in the Bush administration?"

And on the Wall Street Journal's opinion pages, the man who got fired along with O'Neill, former National Economic Council director Lawrence B. Lindsey, lashes out at his former colleague:

"Politics can be a rough sport. Paul O'Neill's departure after two years as Treasury secretary was not handled well. His bitterness, some would say, is quite understandable. But bitterness is a bad basis for objectivity, and any of Mr. O'Neill's reported views regarding President Bush and the conduct of economic policy do not comport with my recollection or with the public record. In fact, the president is what he claims to be -- a compassionate conservative -- and one with a grasp of how the world really works."

Speaking of bitterness, in the book, O'Neill is deeply disparaging of Lindsey, who he considered an overly political lightweight. There are, in fact, four references in the index alone to Lindsey, "animosity between O'Neill and . . . "

Looking Back at That Mexico Trip

After making amends with President Vicente Fox of Mexico on the first day of the Summit of the Americas in Monterrey, Bush reached out to his northern neighbor yesterday, reinstating the eligibility of Canadian companies to serve as lead contractors in a second round of bidding on U.S.-financed Iraq reconstruction contracts worth about $4.6 billion.

Bush announced the reversal after a breakfast meeting with the new Canadian prime minister, Paul Martin, report Mike Allen and Kevin Sullivan in The Washington Post in their summit wrap-up.

Elizabeth Bumiller in the New York Times writes: "It was unclear on Tuesday if Canada had done something to get back into the administration's good graces or if Mr. Bush was merely cleaning up a major diplomatic mess from December, when a Pentagon directive limited the bidding on Iraq contracts to companies from the 63 countries that had given political or military aid in the war."

Tim Weiner wraps up the summit in the New York Times this way:

"The meeting of 34 Western Hemisphere nations was supposed to seek ways to help tens of millions of poor people in the region. For Mr. Bush, that meant more trade. . . . Many leaders of the nations at this conference disagree."

And Larry Rother of the New York Times reports that Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva used his meeting with Bush late Monday to appeal for Brazil to be exempted from a new American program that requires foreign visitors who need visas to be fingerprinted and photographed on arrival in the United States. There are 27 countries already exempted. "'If there are already 27 countries, then why not 28?' Mr. da Silva was reported by Brazilian officials to have said to Mr. Bush during the meeting."

The Sad Lot of the White House Correspondent, Part II

Readers of White House Briefing had a lot to say in response to the item yesterday about how being a White House correspondent may not be such a great job these days.

Some excerpts:

Greg Wilson: "Reporters are held hostage by an administration that doesn't feel it should make reporting easy. According to the Bushies, the public doesn't have a right to know for a simple reason, one that Karl Rove discovered years ago: the less the public knows or understands, the more popular George Bush is.... Now, after nearly three years of being starved of returned phone calls, second quotes, and confirmations, the Stockholm Syndrome of our Washington Press Corps is complete."

Mike Glasgow: "Seems to me a big part of the reason why covering the White House isn't such a plum assignment these days is that Bush is serious about his job, doesn't crave media exposure, and on the whole sure as hell doesn't care what the media thinks with respect to his policy decisions. Not good news for some of the media types, but I'd argue good for the rest of us."

Read more comments.

The Sad Lot of the White House Correspondent, Part III

From Knight-Ridder's Ron Hutcheson, on pool duty Tuesday:

"By the numbers.

"Hours on pool duty: 8.5

"Presidential sightings: 0

"Uneventful motorcades: 2

"Holding rooms visited: 2

"Event sites visited: 0

"Briefings by two guys who didn't want their names used: 1 (see transcript)"

The Sad Lot of the White House Correspondent, Part IV

Much curiosity about the blemish amongst the press corps.

Bush has a fairly noticeable, two-inch-or-so long mark on his right cheek. Here's a nice big AFP photo that captures it nicely.

"A mark was visible on POTUS's right cheek," pool reporter Bob Kemper of the Chicago Tribune reported Monday evening, using the insider acronym for "President of the United States." "It looked more like a scratch than a lipstick mark, but your pool did not get to examine it close up."

Bob Hillman of the Dallas Morning News, on pool duty early Tuesday, decided he was by golly going to get to the bottom of it, and made to ask the president about it. But he was "cut off" by press assistant Josh Deckard, who put an end to the rampant speculation by reporting that the president had been scratched while cutting brush on his ranch in Crawford, Tex.

Then Again

Some correspondents can delve below the placid surface for an interesting read. In his "Monterrey Diary" in today's Washington Post Style section, Mike Allen writes:

"Bush, who returned to the White House on Tuesday night, sounded tired and bored at the few public appearances during his 28-hour visit. His remarks had unusually long pauses. Cutaway television shots captured Bush glowering into space as other heads of state talked about 'economic growth with equity to reduce poverty,' 'investing in people' and 'democratic governance.'

"One of the million great things about being president is that you rarely have to listen to people who bore you. Dignitaries who introduce Bush are asked to limit their remarks to one minute. Bush praises those who are quicker, and his aides have been known to scold those who run over.

"But 'international summit' means 'plenary session,' and Bush had to sit through speech after speech by his detractors -- most notably Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who had infuriated the Bush brigade over the weekend by describing national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, who is considered family by the Bushes, as 'illiterate.'"

Bush Twin Sighting

Allen also notes that "Jenna Bush, one of the president's 22-year-old twin daughters, generally shuns the limelight. But she looked poised and notably slim at Bush's news conference with President Fox on Monday." Here's a picture.

Orphan Budget

Janet Hook of the Los Angeles Times calls Bush's election-year budget "an orphan budget: Bush's blueprint may be too fat for fiscal conservatives and too lean for lawmakers seeking to keep their jobs."

Wave Those Waivers Goodbye?

A five-paragraph memo sent last week by White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. orders federal agencies to stop issuing ethics waivers that allow key officials to negotiate jobs with private companies while they are shaping federal policies important to the potential employers, reports Amy Goldstein in The Washington Post. Now, only the White House can approve such waivers.

Sources tell Goldstein the move appears related to the recent job change of a top presidential adviser involved in last year's overhaul of Medicare, Thomas A. Scully, who jumped ship to the private sector within days of completing negotiations on the complicated Medicare legislation.

Who Will Warn the Public?

Andrew Schneider of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had an interesting story on Sunday, passed along to me by a colleague. It seems "The White House Office of Management and Budget is trying to gain final control over release of emergency declarations from the federal agencies responsible for public health, safety and the environment." As Schneider puts it, "the White House would decide what and when the public would be told about an outbreak of mad cow disease, an anthrax release, a nuclear plant accident or any other crisis." Supporters see this as a way of making peer review policies consistent across the government. Opponents say politics has no place when it comes to notifying the public of imminent danger.

The proposed bulletin is available online, as is an OMB slide presentation on the topic.

Conveniently, OMB has put all 187 public comments it has received so far on its Web site.

A quick look through the public comments suggest a pretty clear drawing of the battle lines. For instance:


American Petroleum Institute

Croplife America (pesticide manufacturer)

National Petrochemical & Refiners Association

Chemical Producers and Distributors Association

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce

National Cattlemen's Beef Association


Association of American Universities

Federation of American Scientists

National Academy of Sciences

American Library Association

Society of American Florists

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