Knee Slappers

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Monday, March 14, 2005; 1:30 PM

George W. Bush's presidency is not without its comedic moments -- some intentional, some not. Similarly, the experience of covering the White House can be sort of humorous -- although often in an ironic way.

This weekend's press coverage alone provides many examples. So in today's White House Briefing, there's coverage of Bush cracking bad jokes on the road, but getting off some pretty good ones at the Gridiron Dinner. There are stories about how White House press briefings are becoming almost comically newsless, and dispatches from Bush's scripted Social Security roadshows. Plus: Fake news, amusing appointments, a spoof White House Web site and so much more.

Bush's 'Goofball Digression'

Mark Leibovich writes in The Washington Post's Style section today about how Bush is continually going off on goofball digressions on the road.

For instance, Leibovich recounts Bush's hideous "cattle guard" joke from Great Falls, Mont., punch line: "Hey, what color uniforms do those cattle guards have on?"

Leibovich writes: "Like many politicians, Bush has always used humor as an icebreaker or all-purpose tool of endearment. But he has recently been unleashing (or inflicting) his inner-laugh-riot to a point where he is resembling a Texas auctioneer pitching private accounts on the Borscht Belt. . . .

"One benefit of being the commander-in-chief is that people are usually inclined to laugh at your jokes -- especially, in Bush's case, when your events tend to be presidential amen sessions restricted to ticketed believers. . . .

"But people close to Bush say his recent comic releases reflect a noticeably more relaxed presidential disposition. Since the Iraqi elections in January and his well-received State of the Union speech a few days later, Bush, according to aides, has been much more willing to toss out what-the-heck quips in public, reflecting the attitude of someone who has nothing to lose, or run for."

Bush at the Gridiron Dinner

Darlene Superville writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush poked fun at himself at the press corps Saturday night and offered a new reason for overhauling the Social Security system. Raising the name of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Bush said, 'We have to fix it or Rumsfeld may never retire.' . . .

"Bush said that in looking out at the press corps he was confident none of them were on steroids."

And after hearing Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico speak, Bush called them "a couple of independent thinkers, which in my book is a negative."

Neely Tucker writes in The Washington Post: "By tradition, the president has the final word of the four-hour evening, and Bush did not disappoint. He opened his remarks at the late (for him) hour of 11:15 p.m. with a pointed 'Good morning.'

"After playful digs at John McCain and Donald Rumsfeld and remarking how he was glad to see some good press on his Social Security reform, 'most of it from Armstrong Williams,' what may have been Bush's best line targeted Bob Shrum, the hapless (0 for 8!) Democratic presidential campaign director.

"Bush said he had a sure-fire plan to get troublesome North Korean leader Kim Jong Il out of office.

" 'Through six-party talks we convince him to hold a presidential election -- and then we send Bob Shrum over to help him.' "

Briefing Room Follies

Media critic William Powers writes in the National Journal: "The White House is a powerful place -- for presidents and their staffs. For the media, it's something else: a weird little drama club, where we send some of our best people to perform in a sort of pantomime journalism show that's often embarrassing.

"First, there's the problem of newslessness. . . . This has been true for a long time, but it's gotten worse under the Bush administration, which openly scorns the media and is setting new records for stinginess when it comes to news and information. . . .

"The other absurd element of the briefing room is the human one. In addition to the regular journalists -- the bylines, faces, and voices that news consumers encounter on a regular basis -- there's always been a supporting cast of odd demi-journalists: obsessives, cranks, and media groupies who are drawn to the White House for their own very personal reasons. Sometimes, the briefing room could pass for the set of a Fellini movie."

And, Powers notes: "As the briefings have grown hollow under President Bush, and the mainstreamers have drifted away, the Fellini people have moved to the fore -- literally. 'The wingnuts now get in the second or third row,' one establishment reporter told me."

Bill Adair writes in the St. Petersburg Times: "In the White House briefing room, there are lots of questions, but not so many answers. Reporters try to grill [press secretary Scott] McClellan, but he deftly avoids their inquiries and recites lines he has used dozens of times before. . . .

" 'Scott is bound and determined not to be the news,' said [John] Roberts, the CBS reporter. 'Every time he comes out here and he escapes without making news, I think (White House chief of staff) Andy Card pats him on the back and says, "Good job." ' . . .

"Helen Thomas says reporters should 'toughen up, for goodness sakes! They have rolled over and played dead since 9/11. They're afraid to be unpatriotic and un-American.'

"Reporters say they try to get McClellan to be candid, but he reverts to his talking points. Thomas says he is so scripted he seems robotic.

"McClellan takes that as a compliment. It means he's being consistent and following standard practice for press secretaries: The boss makes the news."

McClellan's predecessor, now on book tour, isn't being any more forthcoming. As Eric Boehlert writes in Salon: "Historians curious to learn more about the inner workings of the Bush White House probably know better than to hope for much from Ari Fleischer's new book, 'Taking Heat: The President, the Press, and My Years in the White House.' The former White House spokesman who earned his stripes by telling beat reporters as little as possible during his two and a half years behind the podium, before stepping down in May 2003, offers up little in the form of fresh analysis."

White House Video 'News'

David Barstow and Robin Stein write in the New York Times about "the kind of TV news coverage every president covets." It's the kind his people create for him.

"Under the Bush administration, the federal government has aggressively used a well-established tool of public relations: the prepackaged, ready-to-serve news report that major corporations have long distributed to TV stations to pitch everything from headache remedies to auto insurance. . . .

"Some reports were produced to support the administration's most cherished policy objectives, like regime change in Iraq or Medicare reform. Others focused on less prominent matters. . . . They often feature 'interviews' with senior administration officials in which questions are scripted and answers rehearsed. Critics, though, are excluded, as are any hints of mismanagement, waste or controversy."

Barstow and Stein examined how a television reporter in Memphis unwittingly came to narrate a segment by the State Department.

"The explanation begins inside the White House, where the president's communications advisers devised a strategy after Sept. 11, 2001, to encourage supportive news coverage of the fight against terrorism."

Speaking of Media Manipulation

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune: "The White House, in concert with the Republican National Committee and well-financed business groups, has launched an unprecedented campaign for changes in Social Security, including essays in local newspapers, media interviews and supporters calling in to radio shows to back President Bush."

In a companion piece, Silva notes: "In the promotion of its agenda, the Bush administration has repeatedly tested the boundaries of media manipulation."

Enter Karen Hughes

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "Former White House counselor Karen P. Hughes will take over the Bush administration's troubled public diplomacy effort intended to burnish the U.S. image abroad, particularly in the Muslim world, where anti-Americanism has fueled extremist groups and terrorism, a senior administration official said yesterday.

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times that Hughes "was the driving force behind an American campaign during the war in Afghanistan that publicized the plight of Afghan women."

"That campaign was part of her larger responsibility at the time as the coordinator of wartime public relations, an assignment Mr. Bush gave her 24 hours after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001."

Paul Harris writes in the Observer: "It must be the toughest job in PR -- trying to make a sceptical and frequently hostile world learn to love its only superpower."

The Roadshows

Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post about Bush's appearance Friday in Memphis: "The mostly white audience in this mostly black southern city clapped wildly as Bush took what he called the 'presidential roadshow' to its 14th state Friday. He was greeted like Elvis -- adoring fans hooting and hollering, and hanging on his every word.

"The few dissenting voices in the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts were quickly silenced or escorted out by security. One woman with a soft voice but firm opposition to Bush was asked to leave, even though her protests were barely audible beyond her section in the back corner of the auditorium. The carefully screened panelists spoke admiringly about Bush, his ideas, his 'bold' leadership on Social Security.

"If the presentations sound well rehearsed, it's because they often are."

And here's one of those unintentional comedic moments: "Pastor Andrew Jackson of the Faith Temple Ministries Church of God praised Bush for tackling the issue and lamented what he described as some of the false charges made about the president's plan. 'That's called political propaganda,' Bush said."

Here's the transcript from Memphis. Bush also spoke in Shreveport, La.

Bill Walsh writes in the New Orleans Times-Picayune: "Despite his frequent public appearances of late -- Bush has barnstormed through 14 states since early February -- few have had the opportunity to challenge the president publicly on his plan. He rarely takes questions from the audience and the panelists appearing on stage with him are closely screened.

"One of the Shreveport panelists, 21-year-old Sarah Joy Hays, said she was recommended to the White House by the College Republicans at Louisiana State University. She said she underwent two phone interviews, and her father and grandmother were contacted by the White House before she was cleared to take a seat on stage beside the president."

William Douglas hung around Louisville for a while after Bush's Thursday appearance there, and wrote this for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Bush is banking heavily on town-hall meetings like this to rescue his top second-term domestic priority. Polls show the public at large is increasingly skeptical of his proposal, but what about people in Louisville after Bush made his spiel in person? The answer appears mixed.

"Just by showing up, Bush generated extensive -- and mostly positive -- local media coverage for his Social Security agenda. . . .

"Media attention is one thing, however, and impact on individuals another. . . .

" 'It certainly brought a lot of attention to it,' said Paul Weber, a University of Louisville political science professor. 'Will it fire up his supporters? Yes. Will it change minds? I don't think so.' "

Press Corps Up Close

Erin Sullivan, Aimee Edmondson and Oliver Staley write in the Memphis Commercial Appeal: "While Bush's appearance was thrilling for most of The Cannon Center audience, it was significantly less so for the two dozen members of the national press who travel with him. . . .

"Most of them had also traveled with him last week to New Jersey, Ohio and Indiana, where, they said, he made the same pitch for Social Security, conducted the same sort of 'conversation' with local panelists and even told the same jokes.

"As a result, few reporters took notes or even paid much attention. Some read their E-mail. The only time they seemed intrigued Friday was when hecklers tried to interrupt Bush. But ultimately, they decided, even Memphis's hecklers weren't particularly interesting."

Spoof Web Site

The White House announced Friday that the Treasury Department has launched a new Web site to pitch Bush's Social Security proposals, called

But if you go to instead, you'll find a spoof created by In This Together, a New York-based group opposed to Bush's ideas.

Irony Watch

Bush and his aides appear to be launching a new call to end partisanship, particularly when it comes to backing the White House's Social Security initiative. But so far, the message has been delivered pretty much exclusively to devotedly Republican audiences.

Bush called for "people from both political parties to set aside our partisanship and come to the table" on Friday -- while talking to audiences that had been prescreened to remove dissenters.

At the same time his aides were taking the message to right-wing radio talk shows, in interviews made available on the White House Web site.

Here's the audio of Steve Gill of WTN-FM in Nashville, lobbing softballs at Josh Bolten, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Bolten, asked about the Social Security debate, said: "I'm afraid it's become partisan. We do have a lot of folks on both sides of the aisle, but especially Democrats during the Clinton Administration, who were arguing that there is a crisis looming in the Social Security system. But I'm afraid to say that now because President Bush is the one stepping up to do something about it, there are folks that feel they have to be opposed to it. I fear there's a lot of partisanship involved in that. I feel we have to take the partisanship out of it."

And here's the audio of Mike Gallagher of the Salem Radio Network interviewing none other than Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist.

Gallagher opens things up by saying: "I think the president's plan is dead on!"

Then, he tosses Rove this one: "In 2005, the election is over. If you feel the way you and I feel, our side won." Now, he says, "there seems to be an effort under way in America to focus on what unites us as a people, rather than the constant drumbeat of partisanship. . . . Do you think that makes sense?"

Rove replies: "Well, you know, I think there's an ebb and flow of politics. I mean, during the campaign, things sort of heat up, and it's legitimate and appropriate for people to talk about their differences and sharpen 'em up and take the partisan stance.

"But between elections, if the country, if it's going to function, the partisanship has to decline a little bit and people have got to look for a way to work together on big problems, rather than just, you know, throwing political rhetoric at each other."

So is Rove casting aside partisanship in honor of his new title as deputy chief of staff? Probably not.

Gina Zotti writes in the Pottstown (Pa.) Mercury about Rove's speech Thursday night to the Chester County, Pa., Republican Committee just a few hours before that radio interview:

" 'This was not a red state, but it was a red county,' Rove said. 'We came darn close and next time we'll make sure the whole state is red.' "

Nancy Petersen covered the event for the Philadelphia Inquirer: " 'Today Republicans control the White House, the Senate, the House, and the majority of governorships,' [Rove] said. Snapping his fingers, he said: 'It happened just like that in political time.' . . .

" 'We need to learn from our successes and the failures of the other side,' he said. 'We can't grow tired or timid.'

"Rove's remarks with met with a standing ovation."

The Bolton Move

Columnist Molly Ivins wrote last week: "I must confess, I have sadly underestimated the Bush administration's sense of humor. Appointing John Bolton ambassador to the United Nations: boffo! What a laff riot! Hilarious comedy, a delicious romp, great setup for a sit-com."

Now Michael Hirsh and Richard Wolffe write in Newsweek: "John Bolton didn't particularly want this job. And Condoleezza Rice didn't especially want to be introducing Bolton as America's next ambassador to the United Nations, some Bush administration officials say. . . .

"The U.N. job is, in fact, Bolton's consolation prize. . . .

"His chief ally, Vice President Dick Cheney, wanted to award him with a big post, sources say. And there weren't many left."

Next Stop: Stockholm

Time magazine columnist Joe Klein extrapolates last week's microburst of optimism about the Middle East and writes: "If the President turns out to be right -- and let's hope he is -- a century's worth of woolly-headed liberal dreamers will be vindicated. And he will surely deserve that woolliest of all peace prizes, the Nobel."

Social Security Watch

Regular White House Briefing readers will have noticed that I often end my column with some lighter items. But since this column was top-heavy with the funny and the farcical, it seems appropriate to end with the serious stuff for once.

And the fact is, Bush's Social Security agenda seems to be in serious trouble.

Richard Morin writes for this morning: "Barely a third of the public approves of the way President Bush is dealing with Social Security and a majority says the more they hear about Bush's plan to reform the giant retirement system, the less they like it, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll."

Kenneth T. Walsh writes in U.S. News: "As President Bush plows ahead with his state-by-state campaign for private retirement accounts, the ground is shifting back in Washington. Even Republican members of Congress are saying Bush's roadshow is really a political detour that avoids the real problem -- the long-range solvency of Social Security."

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Jackie Calmes looks at why the Capitol's small pack of conservatives, "so far sound unyielding in their opposition to his private accounts plan."

One big factor: They don't trust the president.

Ralph Z. Hallow writes in the Washington Times: "Conservatives in and out of Congress say President Bush has been taking bad advice on Social Security, hurting his chance to win private investment accounts for younger workers."

And Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "Running into heavy resistance to his Social Security overhaul, President Bush has started emphasizing other parts of his domestic agenda and is promoting his foreign policy goals of defeating terrorism and spreading democracy."

But Raum writes: "Failure to generate more public support for his plan for individual investment accounts for Social Security seems to have thrown the rest of his agenda off stride" as well.

© 2005