White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, January 12, 2005; 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 happy new year!

I'm just back from a long break, so I may not be quite as omniscient as usual today. In fact, you may need to help me out. What did I miss?

Today's column leads with what I think is a quite remarkable series of statements made by President Bush in an interview with the Washington Times.

It will be interesting to see if his comments spark further discussion, and maybe even a national debate. Sure would be interesting. I'm certainly eager to hear what you have to say.

OK, folks, bring it on!


Arlington, Va.: "I think people attack me because they are fearful that I will then say that you're not equally as patriotic if you're not a religious person," Bush said. "I've never said that. I've never acted like that. I think that's just the way it is."

Seems to me that since he said it, and he thinks it is the way it is, then the President is indeed confirming the thought of those that "attack him." Why isn't any of the media pressing him on this issue of combining religion and patriotism? And is it just combining Christian religion and patriotism, or can Jews, Muslims, etc. also be patriotic?

Dan Froomkin: Personally, I think he was trying to say "but they'll keep on attacking me even though it's not true," not "they're right, I just won't say so in public." But it was phrased so poorly that I'm not absolutely sure.

And even if he is affirming that nonreligious people can be just as patriotic as religious people, though, he seems to undermine that by saying that he can't imagine one of them as president. Right?


Anonymous: Dan, what's your take on Chertoff? Has he been as thoroughly vetted by Alberto Gonzales as Bernard Kerik was? There's been speculation that his lack of judicial experience and his disregard for the sixth amendment (right to confront witnesses) with respect to the Moussaoui case may cause a stir. While he may not have had two simultaneous mistresses and mob ties, his record paints him as even more of a firebrand than Ashcroft. What have you heard?

Dan Froomkin: Conventional wisdom is he will breeze through. But his record at Justice certainly raises some valid questions.

What's most unusual about him, several reports noted this morning, is that he's got a reputation as a bit of an independent thinker. That could certainly make things interesting after he's confirmed!


Ashburn, Va.: How can this Administration justify spending the most money ever on the inauguration when the Nation is running its largest deficit ever and is engaged in an incredibly expensive war with no end in sight, and the President is proposing to cut social programs to the bone?
Added to this impossible situation would it not also seem appropriate for the administration to scale back its extravagance in view of the enormous loss of life and requirements for international assistance resulting from the tsunami disaster?
It would seem appropriate for the President to recognized that he received only slightly more than 50% of the popular vote, and not act like he is some king been inaugurated with with overwhelming support. In my opinion he should take the oath of office with limited fanfare!

Solveig Belanga

Dan Froomkin: Yours is certainly a point of view. It was also expressed in a Sunday Post op-ed by Bernard Ries. And it's all over the Internet.

I guess I would apply a litmus test to this one: How many of the people who voted for Bush now oppose Bush-fest? Or is it all Kerry voters? Because if the latter, then it does have a sour-grapes feel to it, no?


Alameda, Calif.: Hi Dan,

It's funny how one news story makes you look at other stories differently. Case in point: yesterday's gaggle.

Scott McClellan was asked about CBS and their post-mortem on the National Guard memo controversy, including the firings. He said that the White House "appreciates" the steps they took "to hold people accountable."

This happened on the same day you gave a link to a story about Robert Joseph (of uranium from Niger fame) being in line for a high profile position in arms negotations at the State Department.

Do McClellan or others at the White House not see the irony here? Two cases of not properly authenticating documents, jumping to conclusions, rushing to act, etc., but wildly different ways of holding responsible parties accountable.

I have to say, your White House briefing column has given me new respect for both the importance and difficulties of covering the White House.

Dan Froomkin: Interesting observation, and thanks for your kind words.


Houston, Tex.: Dan,

You along with a few other columnists have noted that social security is not exactly in the position Pres. Bush says it is in, and that some of his statements concerning social security have been inaccurate and misleading. Is there a point where a reputable journalist can just say the President is lying in order to try to get his plan approved? Or is that just going too far?

Dan Froomkin: Lying is a word that strikes terror in the hearts of most mainstream editors.


Woodley Park, Washington, D.C.: Dan, regarding the Wash Times interview: I don't think Pres. Bush is necessarily saying that "someone is not qualified to be president unless they are religious," as you state. I'd like to believe that Pres. Bush, as someone who relies heavily on his faith, is simply saying that he can't understand how someone could bear the responsibility of the presidency without help from God, because he couldn't. (Similarly, as a Christian, married man, I have a hard time understanding how someone could make a marriage work for a lifetime without involving a divine power. But regardless of whether I understand it, some people do -- just as many Christians fail to.) However, I wonder whether many of the President's supporters would, in fact, agree with your formulation. Maybe Pres. Bush would, too, but sometimes I get the feeling that he's less judgmental in his faith than many of his "flock."

Dan Froomkin: Thank you. Very thoughtful.

I think that may well be what he was trying to say. I was struck by the "on the other hand" phrasing, though. There's nothing remotely incompatible with being deeply religious and feeling that religion has no place in government. So what's the internal conflict that led him to say "on the other hand"?

I wonder if you think he need to clear this up, or whether you think it's clear as is.


Lincolnland: Dan,
I'm sure I speak for many of your loyal readers when I say I hope you enjoyed your holiday season and your world travel. DONT EVER DO THAT AGAIN! Please dont leave us in the this vast information wasteland without a daily guide. Your column has become an indispensible part of my day, dont leave us for so long again.

Dan Froomkin: I am overwhelmed at the number of people who begrudged me my vacation.

Mostly, I'm touched and humbled and delighted.

But, I also have no regrets!


Charlotte, N.C.: How do you view Vice President Cheney's role in the second administration ?

Dan Froomkin: I just don't buy for a minute the premise of the AP story I linked to in Monday's column, which suggested his power is waning.

I see his fingers everywhere.


Portland, Ore.: First of all, don't leave the country (or your readers) for two weeks ever again -- bad things happen when you are not around; secondly, what countries did you visit in South America and how is the Bush Administration perceived by our neighbors to the south?

Thanks and welcome back!

Dan Froomkin: Thank you.

It was three weeks, in Brazil, Argentina and Chile, and I was off the clock. Didn't do any interviews. Barely checked the Internet, except to find out about the tsunami.

But judging from the cab drivers, I would say most of them think we are stark raving bonkers.


Washington, D.C.: Hi, Dan. Thanks for the consistently entertaining work. Another goose/gander question: If it was wrong for Armstrong Williams to take payola from the Education Department, then surely it was wrong for the Education Department to offer it? Why no push for accountability here, precisely since propaganda-masquerading-as-journalism seems to be the MO of this Administration?

Dan Froomkin: I think in this case, it is quite likely that the goose and the gander are both cooked. Stay tuned.

But in this media-obsessed age in which we live (and I thrive) it's no surprise which shoe dropped first.

OK, no more metaphors today.


North Akron, Ohio: Is there some middle way in the Washington confirmation process, or will every pimple in a person's background be transformed into a tumor by the press and pols? So what if Kerik, or many other examples, had some rough edges. Sometimes it seems that the only people working in DC are hopelessly compromised hypocritical members of the Washington establishment.

Dan Froomkin: To call Kerik's problems rough edges I think is highly euphemistic.

But nobody seems happy with the confirmation process, do they? Some complain of the minutiae, others complain it's just a rubber stamp. I think this is clearly worth revisiting -- but I sure wouldn't want to see (even) less accountability.


Delmar, N.Y.: Glad that you are back. I missed your daily postings. Regarding the uproar over CBS and their story about President Bush's service in the National Guard I wonder if any responsible journalist or investigator is still pursuing the underlying story as to what is the actual truth about the President's service record. The conduct of CBS in going ahead with a story based on documents of questionable validity is not defensible, but it still seems to me to be important to determine why Mr. Bush failed to take his mandatory physical to continue his flight status. The secretary involved in the story said that while she did not type the questionable memos they accurately depicted the true circumstances surrounding Bush's service and the favorable treatment he received. I still think it is important to discover the truth, especially in light of the way members of the National Guard are currently being utilized by a former member of the Guard.

Dan Froomkin: Thank you.

There are obviously lots of questions that remain unanswered about Bush's Guard duty, but I sense no appetite for this story any longer amongst the press corps.

The CBS angle sucked all the oxygen away. Not to mention the election.


New York, N.Y.: Have you heard anything about Christie Whitman's upcoming book? Will it be critical, to any extent, of the Bush administration, considering her position as a pragmatic moderate and the shoddy treatment she received while there?

Dan Froomkin: Word is trickling out that it will be, at least in parts, highly critical.


Richmond, Va.: Any new information on the Valerie Plame case?

Dan Froomkin: No fresh news, per se. But as I wrote in my column, Washington lawyers Victoria Toensing and Bruce W. Sanford have a Washington Post op-ed today about the federal investigation into columnist Robert D. Novak's exposure of CIA operative Valerie Plame. They doubt there was a crime committed in the first place.

And you can ask them all about that yourself, since they're Live Online immediately following me!


Sullivan, Ill.: Why does the press not question the president more strongly about his social security plan. Specifically his projections about when the benefit payouts begin to exceed recipts. I've read that the 2052 date (not an immediate threat in my book) is based on a poor 1.8 percent return, when our country has in fact grown at a historical rate of 5 percent. Wouldn't that push the date further out than 2052 if the historical averages hit home? Is the president banking on a poor economy for Social Security, but a strong one for private investment accounts?
When was it ever intended for social security to be used as a vehicle to get wealthy, which is how I read the sales pitch (ownership society).

I'm a tweener (45) so I'm not so young anymore and franky his plan scares the dickens out of me and makes me worry for the future of our country.

Dan Froomkin: Some questions back at you:

If some reporter were willing and able to really grill Bush about the numbers, which would require a good deal of back and forth, a) Do you really think that would clear things up? and b) Do you think the public might find that disrespectful?


Columbia, Md.: I too missed your column during your vacation. Maybe next time, your editor could run a Dan's Greatest Hits column, like when Letterman goes on vacation.

Anyhow, welcome back, we missed you.

Dan Froomkin: Thank you very kindly.

I love writing this column. But I don't think it has much shelf life.


Fort Collins, Colo.: Who is actually putting together the Whitehouse Social Security proposal? Treasury Secretary Snow? Karl Rove? the House leadership?

Dan Froomkin: My sense is that this is very much being masterminded by Karl Rove. For better or for worse, he is the guy thinking about the long-term and the Republicans being the permanent ruling party and the fundamental restructuring over time of the government in free-market ways.

Social Security, built along a defined-benefit rather than defined-contribution model, is not fundamentally acceptable in that long-term schema, I'm thinking. So even if they don't win this time, it's still a victory to have made Social Security a topic of debate, rather than the legendary third rail of politics.

John Harwood had a good Wall Street Journal column this morning, in which he wrote about the "ideological debate about whether Social Security remains a social insurance safety net, which redistributes a modest amount of income from rich to poor, or moves toward greater individual opportunity, risk and reward."

I'll be writing a lot more about this, too.


Re: Woodley Park response: His was the same reaction as mine (a 20-something, single female who has internal conflicts regarding her Christian upbringing). I believe Bush was simply conveying his feeling that it is difficult to handle such a large task as running this country without the help of God. And, I believe you were simply reading to much into his wording. But, I appreciate the analysis and enjoy seeing another's thoughts.

Dan Froomkin: Thank you.


Red Sox Nation: Hi Dan,

Happy New Year and welcome back (I'd been in withdrawal).

I'm a little bit flabbergasted about this whole inauguration thing. Correct me if I'm wrong, but we're looking at a budget of something like $40 million in private access payments or, if you prefer, "contributions," then $20 million previously earmarked for DC homeland security, not to mention closing the bridges over the Potomac and (I'm guessing) shutting the city down for a day.

So the big question is: Is this going to improve the president's approval rating?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. And actually, yes, I expect quite a little bump. After all, the visuals will not be of red ink, they'll be of people enthusiastically celebrating the Bush presidency -- not to mention the impressive pomp.

Of course, it's possible people will look upon it and be revolted by the excess. But that's not the way TV tends to work, is it.


Fairfax, Va.: What do you think about the White House telling the citizens of DC that they have to foot a really large portion of the bill for the inaugaration festivities?

Dan Froomkin: I think that the White House may well change its mind.


Saskatoon, SK Canada: Re: Bush's piece in the Jakarta Post. This reveals the president's ignorance of other (non-American) cultures where braggging and hammering about one's goodness and generosity is considered tasteless. The US president already dropped the ball on this one by waiting too long to respond and initially offering a middling amount of money. The world cannot be impressed now by his doing what is generally undone ... trumpeting about one's charitable offerings. The US us mistaken about this, aid to tsunami victims is not about impressing the Muslim world or image enhancement. It is about alleviating suffering (I bet the Muslim world is not impressed too).

Dan Froomkin: Well, for better or worse, you can't possibly think Bush wrote it himself!


Alexandria, Va.: Recently NEWSWEEK published an article on their website, saying the Pentagon is considering using the "Salvador Option" in Iraq to fight insurgents, or to sumise the article, send US Special Forces to train Iraqi groups to hunt down and kill or kidnap insurgents. As was the case in the 80's in the US government support of the El Salvador civil war. This hasn't been that widely circulated among many news outlets. Is this a story that could make "hay" so to speak?

Dan Froomkin: That story by Michael Hirsh and John Barry has quite strikingly not gotten picked up by any other big media outlet. But that can mean different things.

The liberal Center for American Progress had a quite fascinating follow up, noting how Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have variously held up El Salvador as a model for Iraq in other ways lately.

I suspect you haven't heard the last of the El Salvador/Iraq analogies. Maybe it's time to bone up on recent history.


Argyle, Ill.: What, if anything, do such presidential meetings -- yesterday on Social Security] accomplish -- in your opinion. I know they get coverage, but really, what is accomplished by such PR action that hardly reaches me here on the prairie in Illinois.

Dan Froomkin: They get a few soundbytes out into the ether. Very important. The drumbeat begins. And they give Bush the opportunity to get more facile with his patter.


Seattle, Wash.: Hi Dan,
I'm a 25-year-old college graduate and I have to admit that just within the last year I've become very aware of and interested in our national politics, (thanks in part to your informative column!). In fact, the 2004 was the first Presidential election that I really felt fired-up for. I'm not happy with the outcome, but I'm dealing with it. My question is this: during the election, there was such a focus on the youth of America (approx. 18-25 year olds), including concerns about getting accepted to and paying for college, a poor job market, and how we were going to fill the retiring shoes of the Baby Boomers. How can Bush not see the contradiction today regarding Social Security? I feel his administration is using scare tactics aimed directly at our age group (mid-twenties) to influence decisions today on Social Security reform, when many of us can't even get into over-crowded colleges let alone find that decent-paying, full-time job out of college?! I'm more concerned with the here and now. What are your thoughts on this--specifically, in past generations and elections, has there always been such a focus on this age group?

Thank you.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for your comments.

Yes, I think that every election there's always a huge focus on the youth vote, which turns out to have been overhyped. (It's a great story. Each time.)

What's unusual, actually, is that, post-eleciton, a president is directing a message at your generation at all -- whether you think it's a good one or not. Typically, young people aren't on the radar, except every four years.


Richmond, Va.: Hi, Dan--thanks for the chat. Even if your formulation is correct and President Bush is saying that strong religion and religious freedom are somehow in conflict, it seems to me that you're taking it a bit further--in essence putting words in his mouth--by saying he is suggesting "someone is not -qualified- to be president unless they are religious" (emphasis mine). I see no such suggestion.

Dan Froomkin: Thank you. Noted.

What about his use of the phrase "relationship with the Lord"? Does that strike you folks as being overtly born-again phraseology, or just descriptive of a life that involves a higher power?


Ontario, Canada: You have been getting a lot of compliments here, but it's not just you. I think the Live Online feature is the best part of the WP. Journalists faced with pointed and sometimes very informed questions respond with excellent answers; and the ability to interact with newsmakers and op-ed people is unmatched anywhere else on the Web as far as I know.

If there is something better let me know.

Dan Froomkin: I think you're right. I've been a huge fan of this format from the get-go. I think every newspaper -- heck, every organization -- should embrace this model. Unlike so much else on the Internet, it is, genuinely, interactive.


Indianapolis, Ind.: It seems to me that the Bush White House has been sloppy about Social Security Reform. They made a big deal out of it and now they are seeming to have let the media and other political groups/individuals set the agenda. What is your take on the political operation that Bush & Co. is mounting so far?

Dan Froomkin: I'm curious to see what Rove has up his sleeve, in terms of the media campaign. I wouldn't draw too many conclusions just yet.

That said, the media has evolved since Iraq, and approaches the White House much more skeptically now. And that could be trouble.


Yelm, Wash.: Helo Dan and welcome back, you've been missed.

My question is: Is there an informal "office pool" pertaining to the source of the "defining scandal" which is generally predicted to await GW Bush during his second term? If not, what would your professional guesstimate be?

Dan Froomkin: Ho ho. I don't believe such a pool exists, formally. And certainly not publicly.

We are all grossly overinformed about the legend of the second-term curse, however, and are keeping an eye out.


Dan Froomkin: OK folks, thanks for another wonderful session. Great questions, kind words, and I'm sorry I couldn't get to more of them.

I'll see you again here in two weeks, and of course every weekday mid-day on the home page. (No more vacations anytime soon!) Plus, you can always e-mail me at froomkin@washingtonpost.com.


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