White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, September 8, 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. I'm looking forward to your questions and comments. There are already a lot of both about Vice President Cheney's statement yesterday that if John F. Kerry is elected, "the danger is that we'll get hit again" by terrorists.

It seems to have gotten under people's skin.

Can anyone out there come up with a precedent for a statement like that?


Houston, Tex.: Dan,

Dan, did VP Cheney really insinuate that there would be another terrorist attack if Kerry was elected? That really seems to be crossing the line.

washingtonpost.com: Cheney: Kerry Victory Risky, (Post, Sept. 8)

Dan Froomkin: Already a lot of questions like this one.

As I wrote this morning, I think Cheney's assertion was certainly jaw dropping. And I can't think of any serious candidate who has ever said anything quite as incendiary as suggesting that if you vote for my oppponent, you're voting for a terrorist attack.

But that's only one way of interpreting the densely packed paragraphs in which his statement emerged. (Here's the full text of his remarks in Des Moines.)

You could also read it as Cheney trying to say that this is a critical juncture in our history, and if we abandon the new Bush doctrines, we are asking for trouble. That would certainly be within the realm of appropriate discourse, right?

But I think Cheney himself will probably need to address this again, to clear things up, as it were.

Then again, he never apologized for the last thing he said that was, um, clearly inappropriate.


Silver Spring, Md.: Cheney's "a vote for Kerry is a vote for terrorism" speech was nothing new for this administration. No Republicans will criticize the remark, and it will be portrayed as just one more campaign speech. Outrageous? Yes. Something despots in other countries do? Yes. Will it be effective? Yes. Bush and Cheney will not even mention trivial matters such as the rising deficit and the rise in the number of Amricans living in poverty, but, then, they're boring topics the media doesn't do much with, either. Sharp attacks seem to be working. Just to make sure they don't have to talk much about details, they will, as reported today, reduce the number of Presidential debates from three to two. The campaign may be dirty, but it's working.

Dan Froomkin: It will be interesting to see if other Republican distance themselves from it. I was frustrated in today's coverage to mostly just see Cheney's comment and then a response from Edwards.

I think we need some context. Is this something that outrages the non-partisans, or just the Kerry people? Is this historically outside the pale?


Albany, N.Y.: I remember very clearly, 25 years ago, how that biased left-wing media reminded us every day exactly what day of the "Iranian hostage crisis" it was. I'm trying to find a media outlet -- any media outlet -- that reminds us of the death toll in Iraq and the number of days we've been there. Do you know of one?

washingtonpost.com: U.S. Toll in Iraq Crosses 1,000 Milestone, (Post, Sept. 8)
Faces of the Fallen

Dan Froomkin: Thank you, Liz, for those links.

There is indeed no drumbeat, though, is there.


Chicago, Ill.: Seems to me that Cheney's remark connecting Kerry victory to peril is reminiscent of other remarks by Republicans in Congress that a vote for Kerry is a vote for terrorists.

Dan Froomkin: I don't think any mainstream candidate or organization has said that though, have they?


Northern Virginia: Why is no one saying anything about bin Laden? It seems to me that the Bush Administration allowed bin Laden to get away just so they could go after Saddam Hussein, but when you listen to the White House press corps, you don't hear critical reflection. All you hear is them parroting the Administration's daily message points.

Dan Froomkin: I wrote back on August 12 about how rarely Bush mentions bin Laden. Has he mentioned him since? I'll check.

But it's a hallmark of the medium that, every day, we do tend to report what happened yesterday, even if it wasn't news.

And we don't write every day about what didn't happen. Though that might indeed be news.

Maybe we should. Or maybe people would think us shrill.


Austin, Tex.: Dan, Should we wait for a new 527 (OBGYN's for LOVE) supporting Bush?

washingtonpost.com: A New Problem, or The Wrong Word?, (Post, Sept. 7)

Dan Froomkin: Thank you for that moment of levity.


Washington, D.C.: As we know, politicians are known to filibuster if given the opportunity. Do you think 2 debates are enough, and what do you think will be the reprecussions to Bush if he is seen to back out of a debate. Will this affect his strength and decisivness rating?

Dan Froomkin: I think they should debate constantly.

And as for how it plays, you are in for a big game of spin on that one. Where it stops, nobody knows.


Cambridge, Mass.: How much effect do you think today's news stories will have on people outside of the Beltway? Perhaps it's narrow-minded of me, but I feel like lots of Americans only pay attention to news that reinforces their view of the world, and that therefore people who are currently pro-Bush will not attach much importance to any critical things said about the administration.

Dan Froomkin: I think the effect will be muted. But I do think the general public eventually absorbs an impressionistic image made up of all the little stories. Do they add up to make Bush look like a winner or a loser - that's the question.


Anonymous: Good afternoon. You have a great front-page article about how the media is wary of Kelley's new book. Actually, that is good. They should be.

But I was wondering, where was all that media wariness when they were reporting on the Swiftboat veterans' ads as truth even after some of their claims have been disproven?

(I think this is one reason why Bush shot up ahead in the polls.)

Thank you.

washingtonpost.com: Media View Kitty Kelley's Bush Book With Caution, (Post, Sept. 8)

Dan Froomkin: I think there was some resistance to writing about Swift Boats initially. But the story took off and was embraced so effectively by some media outlets that the rest of the media felt it had no choice but to go along. And after a while, there was some fine reporting.

That may happen with Kitty Kelley, too.

At this point, though, the mainstream American press is unable to confirm any the book's more salacious allegations, and therefore, appropriately, is extremely loath to even obliquely be a messenger for them.


Eau Claire, Wis.: Dan:
Any news on the Valerie Plame leak investigation? Last word was that the focus was turning toward "Scooter" Libby. A result from the Grand Jury, pre-election, would be welcome. Any chance of that happening?

Dan Froomkin: Well, I thought we were close a few weeks ago. Now, time is running out to make it before the election, isn't it?

Consider the four (simplified) options:
1. Indictment of a White House official pre-election.
2. Exoneration of the White House pre-election.
3. Indictment of a White House official post-election.
4. Exoneration of the White Huuse post-election.

As horribly political and suspect as 1 and 2 would be, it seems to me that 3 and 4 are even worse, yes?


Boulder, Colo.: When you ask for examples similar to Cheney's comments, I think the obvious answer is the McCarthy era, when it was common to make these sorts of remarks.

Dan Froomkin: Good point. OK, since then.


Ashland, Mo.: Lyndon Johnson's "Daisy Ad" was worse than Cheney's remark.

Dan Froomkin: Thank you.


Frisco, Tex.: "At this point, though, the mainstream American press is unable to confirm any the book's more salacious allegations, and therefore, appropriately, is extremely loath to even obliquely be a messenger for them."

Except for The Today program.

Dan Froomkin: Yeah, good point. It will be interesting to see if they make Kelley steer clear of the hazily sourced stuff, though. I mean, I'm sure there's some stuff in the book that can be fact-checked!


Cleveland, Ohio: "At this point, though, the mainstream American press is unable to confirm any the book's more salacious allegations, and therefore, appropriately, is extremely loath to even obliquely be a messenger for them."

What a cop out! Even as we speak, Kelley has been booked on numerous mainstream media networks within the coming days and weeks! Just because you're personally reluctant to explore the news worthiness of these revelations, your attitude shouldn't pass as the final word on the subject.

Dan Froomkin: You need not worry about that. It won't be.


Washington, D.C.: Has the media seen the new Texans for Truth ads, and in your opionion, what if any attention will they get in the mainstream media?

Dan Froomkin: Sure we've seen it. I linked to it yesterday. It got some play today in the LA Times and the New York Times op-ed page. (See today's column.) I think more is to come, but whether it hits Swift-Boat levels, I don't know.


Defer, MT: I would like to get your take on today's Boston Globe article which reexamines if Bush fulfilled his military commitment in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. Two overlooked documents now show Bush fell well short of meeting his military obligation: Twice during his Guard service -- first when he joined in May 1968, and again before he transferred out of his unit in mid-1973 to attend Harvard Business School -- Bush signed documents pledging to meet training commitments or face a punitive call-up to active duty. The records show he didn't meet the commitments, or face the punishment. Even Dan Bartlett, White House communications director, who stated earlier to the WP that that Bush finished his six-year commitment at a Boston area Air Force Reserve unit after he left Houston, now says he "must have misspoke."

Your thoughts on this article? Do you believe it has legs?

Dan Froomkin: I think it does raise serious enough questions that the president should answer them.


Brookline, Mass.: Dan -

Great job with the column. That is all.

Dan Froomkin: I feel like I'm at an "Ask President Froomkin" event all of a sudden. Thank you.


Potsdam, N.Y.: Thank you for the work that you do. We missed you last week.

Why is it that no one has pressed Bush to follow up his statement that the war on terror is not winnable, rather we must create the conditions that make terrorism unacceptable? This is clearly the most accurate thing the president has said regarding the war on terror. I have been looking for someone to ask the administration what it has done (save for the occupation of two countries) that work towards this goal? I am of the opinion that military action in contrary to the goal of making terrorism unacceptable.

Dan Froomkin: I think that story dropped into the abyss that is the Labor Day weekend, but will inevitably re-emerge in the coming days.

And I agree with you at least inasmuch as I think it is a very important philosophical question facing the country, and I look forward to hearing what people have to say.


Anonymous: I have to respectfully disagree with the post from Missouri. The "Daisy Ad" was not worse than the VP's comment. Sen. Goldwater had made it clear that he would have no problem dropping an atomic bomb on North Vietnam. Who knows how the Soviets would have responded? Sen. Kerry has been quite clear that he would do whatever is necessary in defense of the country. It's disengenuous at best to suggest terrorists are more likely to attack us if Kerry is elected.

Dan Froomkin: Thank you.


Minneapolis, Minn.: Why doesn't the media do a better job of confronting Bush and his staff about his failure to directly answer questions? He and his staff seem to take the tactic of repeating over and over a scripted non-answer until reporters get sick of asking. The media should his nonanswers as an answer. For example, when Bush repeatedly failed to condemn the Swift Boat Vet ads even when directly asked whether he specifically condemns them, the media should be free to state "Bush Appears to Support Swift Boat Vets."

Dan Froomkin: Not giving direct answers to reporters is highly frustrating to reporters. But, so far, highly effective.


Charlotte, N.C.: Is it just me, or does it seem that the Bush campaign has been trying extra hard lately (with some success) to blur the lines between 9/11, the War on Terror, and the war in Iraq? Has something changed that I missed? Last I heard it was said to be common knowledge that Saddam and Iraq were in no way involved with 9/11?

Dan Froomkin: It's not just you. Conflation is job one at the White House these days.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Any news on what's in tonight's "60 Minutes" story?

Dan Froomkin: They're being very hush hush at CBS, at least to me. Blogger Josh Marshall seems to think it will go well beyond Barnes's story about getting Bush in, to address what Bush did afterwards.


Bethesda, Md.: We keep hearing from the Bush-Cheney campaign that "Kerry has yet another stance on Iraq". While that is certainly arguable, why hasn't the press pointed out that the president's justifications for sending our troops to war have changed many more times than Sen. Kerry's opinions on the conflict have? Or is this one of those "don't bite the hand that feeds you stories" things again? We saw how well that served the public in the coverage of the WMD Hoax.

Dan Froomkin: Well, I've been seeing a whole spate of stories in major news outlets lately about how Bush is intentionally misrepresenting Kerry's comments.

Just last night, for instance, there was John Roberts on CBS deconstructing Bush's "flip-flop" accusation.

I suspect -- though I have no inside knowledge -- that the next wave of stories will probably do exactly what you're suggesting. We have indeed seen an evolution on Iraq from Bush that is quite breathtaking in the large.


Alexandria, Va.: Here's an Ask President Froomkin softball:

I'm praying for you. To publish twice a day that is.

Dan Froomkin: You are very kind. Once a day just about kills me, so no.


Tulsa, Okla.: I think the important part of Cheney's remarks is not the "we'll be hit again" part, but what comes after it: "we'll fall back to the pre-9/11 mindset, etc." What he doesn't go on to say is what's implied, that if Bush is reelected, "we'll be hit again, but we'll respond with more force, because W is a decisive leader, etc." Either way, I think Zell Miller is writing his speeches.

Dan Froomkin: I was surprised there was less reaction to N.Y. Gov. George Pataki's implication that, essentially, Sept. 11 was Clinton's fault.

So maybe that's an answer to my own question, about precedents for what Cheney said.


Reston, Va.: It seems to me that the terrorists may have already "won" the war in this election. My understanding is that they despise the very nature of our free and open society and our ability to participate fully and freely in the political process. VP Cheney's commments, regardless of how read, clearly imply that we and our children would face a greater likelihood of death by electing Sen. Kerry. So this "threat of a more likely death by terrorist" should now be used as a determinant in how we vote -- It seems to me that the terrorists have been more successful than they could have imagined and sadly, have been assisted by one of our own. Your thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: A lot of you are sending me your thoughts, poorly disguised as questions -- that I can't answer anyway. I will post them nonetheless. Lke this one.


San Antonio, Tex.: Thanks to you, Dan, and your excellent (in hindsight) reporting over the last two months, we Washington Post readers have learned how tightly scripted and orchestrated the Bush-Cheney campaign stops have been. Today we learn in The Post that Bush is apparently attempting to dodge the second scheduled debate in St. Louis set for early October, the one to be held in a town-forum format. The reason given by the Bush campaign for his no-show: that people attending the second debate would pose as undecideds when they are actually partisans.

How much longer can the Bush-Cheney team pose behind their highly manipulated, stage-managed campaign events -- not only on the road but at the recent RNC? How can Bush not face real people and voters in light of the fact that he has waged a war that has now cost more than a thousand lives and helped to create the largest deficit in U.S. history? Why has the Bush campaign called on old family friend and attorney James Baker to help Bush Jr. out yet once again (Florida recount, Iraqi debt reduction)? Why is Bush lacking courage in this instance? Can we not compare Bush's ducking the debate with his ducking service in Vietnam as lacking guts? In my opinion, Bush doesn't war the red badge of courage, but the yellow badge of chickenhood.

Dan Froomkin: These are not really questions for me! But I'll post what you have to say anyway.


Delmarva: So Bush wants to decline the proposed second debate before "undecided" voters in Missouri because some of them may be partisan?

But if "partisan" voters manage to slip into the audience, aren't they just as likely to be pro-Bush as pro-Kerry? Is President Bush AFRAID to address questions from people who are pretty sure they're voting for the other guy?

Dan Froomkin: It is worth noting that Bush has been quite succesful when facing questions from the press, suppporters, or even his opponent, in a debate format. He does not have much of a track record on questions from unscreened, regular people.

I wonder if he might think that they might ask tougher questions?


Fairfax, Va.: Please help. After five deferments Dick Cheney gets up and announces that the decorated war hero is unfit? I'm trying to think of a word for extreme chutzpah. Any suggestions?

Dan Froomkin: We are not voting on which candidates we want at the helm of a boat in the Mekong Delta. We are voting on which candidates we want at the helm of the country.

And I would suggest that when it comes to Bush and Cheney both, we have enough evidence from having watched them govern these past four years of how they will govern in the future that the distant past isn't superbly relevant.

Do you see traces in how Cheney has governed of the young man who got five deferments? That's more interesting to me than the deferments themselves.

And I am certainly interested in how the candidates in the present deal with the past -- i.e. honestly or not?


Reston, Va.: Hi Dan,

Can you shed any light on this silly rumor that is circulating that says the President is trying to get out of the Town Hall style debate because Kerry is so much taller than he is and that it will be really evident in that format?

Dan Froomkin: Ha ha. I think you are trying to *spread* a silly rumor, aren't you? Or is anyone seriously saying this?

You know the official position by now: That a town meeting audience selected by Gallup as undecideds can't.. be trusted.. exactly.


Gaithersburg, Md.: The administration announced the Medicare rate hike late last Friday, in order to bury the bad news in the coming three-day weekend. And it worked -- veritable radio-silence on a development that will adversely affect millions of seniors.

Isn't it irresponsible of the media to let such a tactic work? Will we (please) see more stories on this? Why the heck not put it on page one on Tuesday? (it's a big deal!) By letting such a story get buried, the media falls short of it's duty to inform the public.

Dan Froomkin: It is true that we have not really come up with an effective way of getting shnookered by the Friday-night-before-a long-weekend news dump.

Front page on Tuesday, huh? Wouldn't people think we were being shrill?


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Your observation about whether all the little stories add up to make Mr. Bush look like a winner or a loser seems particularly apt at this point in the campaign. Do you see the AIPAC spy allegations as a serious problem between now and November? One gets the sense that it could be spun that this well-meaning, poorly-spoken C student was maneuvered into the Iraq quagmire through the efforts of Chalabi-Iran-Israel-neocons -- take your pick. Will the Israeli spy allegations have legs?

Dan Froomkin: It would if you were writing it!


Flint, Mich.: Your column is one of the best in the business. Keep up the great work.

Today you write about "A Surplus of Deficit," and it made me wonder... where is Ross Perot these days? And ideas?

Dan Froomkin: Thank you. Several of you apparently miss Ross Perot. Forgive me, but I find that hysterically funny.


Durham, N.C.: Dan, in this office I'm addicted to my morning coffee and your online column.

Honestly, don't Cheney's comments play perfectly to Bush's base?

Also, is it me, or is partisan sniping at an all-time high this political season? How does anyone expect to get any "bi-partisan" work done when the elections are over?

Dan Froomkin: Thank you!

And I don't think these were comments to the base, actually. I think they're intended to scare people away from voting for Kerry.

And there is always a chance that in a second administration Bush will truly reach out to Democrats, or that a Kerry administration would truly try to heal the wounds. But I wouldn't hold my breath.


OUT WEST : Greetings,

On a lighter note, what exactly
is a Froomkin, anyway?
My uncle says it's a hat after
someone stepped on it.
My mother swears it's a pilled sweater with the elbows missing
My sister says it's a Russian
elf who brings unwanted gifts to people
in high places.
My brother says it's a pastry
made somewhere in Europe.

Dan Froomkin: The Russian elf is very close.


Dan Froomkin: OK everyone, thanks very much for spending the hour with me. And thanks for all your excellent questions and comments. See you again in two weeks.


© 2004 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive