White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, October 20, 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. Lots of great questions in the queue already, so let's get right to them. Oh, and read today's column first, if you haven't already!


Arica Chile: Hi Dan, not a question, just to say I always read your column and I hope that your editors can calculate how many of us log on to Froomkin every day.

My only comment: Incredible that Rice is immersing herself in the campaign sewer. Not because she, personally is better, but because her role should be above that type of game.

Dan Froomkin: Thank you! And yes, we keep a close eye on the numbers. ;-)

Lots of questions about Condoleezza Rice today. You are referring to the Post story this morning by Glenn Kessler.

And this comes on the heels of several stories suggesting that she essentially relinquished the traditional responsibilities of her job to Cheney.

Yet she remains a Bush favorite, from all appearances.


New York, N.Y.: Do you find it ironic that Bush came out yesterday to say Kerry is using fear tactics to scare people. And soon after that, Cheney came out to say basically a vote for Kerry would mean a high likelihood of a nuclear bomb going off in one of our cities.

Dan Froomkin: Ironic, but predictable.

This is an age-old campaign endgame. You try to scare the heck out of people, regarding your opponent -- and then you righteously assail the politics of fear. Both sides are doing it.


Arlington, Va.: I was watching Paula Zahn last night and she had Pat Robertson on. I was stunned when he said that, before the war, he had warned Bush about casualties in Iraq and Bush replied, "We're not going to have any casualties."

Now, either holy man Pat Robertson has "misspoken," or this is the most arrogantly delusional thing that W has ever been caught saying. Yet, I haven't heard a peep about the quote from anyone besides CNN and some lefty blogs. What do you make of this?

Dan Froomkin: I wrote about that in today's column. I frankly suspect Robertson is not quoting Bush precisely. On the other hand, Robertson also talked about Bush's incredible certainty, and on that, I suspect he's on target.


Davis, Calif.: With all these distortions, and worse, around, I'd like to ask whether it has always been this way, or does it reflect how evenly and bitterly split the current electorate is?

Dan Froomkin: I don't think it has ever been this bad, but I've also never watched a campaign this closely.

And I blame (other than the character of the candidates) the media cycle, more than the electoral divide. As I wrote this morning, it turns out that the best way to "own" the message of the day is to make your opponent respond to charges that are, um, not necessarily true.


Altoona, Pa.: Dan, thanks for all your great work! Question: When do you think we will get the terror alert level raised? I am thinking it will probably be next Wednesday, the 27th. That will cover the bases on Election Day and create enough mini-panic for undecideds to think Bush has security locked up. Got any guesses? This has to be easier than guessing who will win, right?

Dan Froomkin: You are terribly cynical. And you are far from alone in your cynicism. The most cynical cynics even suggest that the terror alert will be focused on urban centers (full of Democrats). That said, it's certainly possible there will be legitimate intelligence suggesting an attack.

It's a terrible state of affairs to be living in a Aesop fable, isn't it?


Dayton, Ohio: Howard Kurtz wrote about Kerry using phantom ads (ads produced but never aired) to generate media stories. I think this is the same thing Bush did by announcing a "major policy speech" and then merely issuing a campaign speech. First, do you agree that these are comparable offenses? Second, what does this say about our media that they are so easily misled?

Dan Froomkin: I think that's a fine analogy.

I think there will be some pretty ugly post-mortems on press coverage of this campaign -- and I don't think either of those will be among the worst things we did.

Heck, there's already some pretty damning pre-mortems. Read this column by David Shaw, the Los Angeles Times's media critic, for example.

His point is that the public was surprised (surprised!) at what Kerry was like during the debate -- because the press hadn't done its job in telling them beforehand. Here's a qutoe:

"What I think happened in that first debate is that Americans had the chance to see (and evaluate) both men standing and speaking on their own, without the filter of handlers or the news media. Handlers, of course, are supposed to filter, indeed to spin, to obfuscate and exaggerate — to make their candidates appear as attractive as possible and to make their opponents seem as unattractive as possible. That's what they get paid to do.

"But the news media are not supposed to obfuscate or exaggerate. They're supposed to illuminate. They're supposed to strip away the filters, counter the spin and give the voters as clear a picture as possible of who the candidates really are and what they really stand for."


Northampton, Mass.: In yesterday's column you asked AP about the text for the interview of Pres. Bush with Terence Hunt and Tom Raum. Have they made it availible, and do news orgs usually release texts for these?

Dan Froomkin: I haven't seen it, if it's out there.

And yes, it's becoming standard operating procedure to release the complete transcript. The major exception is when the reporters are too embarassed to let the public see how fawning they were in their questions and comments.

But the AP interview seemed like it was pretty tough.


NW Washington, D.C.: Hi Dan,

I started reading your column and chats -- and neimanwatchdog.org as well -- around the time the debates began, and I'm now a big fan. I'm sold on the idea that journalists have a responsibility to ask the hard questions. But I'm dismayed at the way it quickly goes to waste when the questions just go unanswered! Of course, we as the American public have the responsibility to pay attention when questions aren't answered, and maybe that's another direction the fact-checking crowd can take. Anyway, rock on.

Dan Froomkin: Thank you so very much.

I think you've really drawn a bead on our biggest problem right now as journalists, even bigger than asking the tough questions, which is figuring out how to make those in positions of authority answer them!


Staunton, Va.: Why is your blog formatted in such a way that by clicking a link I navigate away from your page? Wouldn't it be easier for another browser window to open up so that I can read other things but stay on your page, too? What is the reasoning behind your format?

Dan Froomkin: The washingtonpost.com production system, amazingly enough, doesn't allow for it. I encourage you to right-click and "Open in New Window"


Washington, D.C.: Hi Dan,

I love your column and look forward to your chat each week. So here's my question -- I'm surprised that Bush's insistence on surrounding himself with loyal supporters at his campaign events isn't causing more public indignation. I know that some argue it ended up hurting him in the debates, but I haven't heard that much about the people who have been arrested (or threatened with arrest) at some of his events for doing things as inoffensive as wearing a tee shirt in support of civil liberties. How is it that these people could even be arrested? As a potential threat to his security? Ha!

I was very disappointed that no one at the town meeting debate asked about it: "Hey Mr. President, aren't you the President of all Americans - not just your supporters?"

Dan Froomkin: I share your surprise. I think it's fairly unprecedented.

Most major news organizations have weighed in on this at least a few times, especially after that first debate (the "bubble" factor and all), but that's about it. I suspect this is one of those cases where since no one is sending out press releases complaining about it, the mainstream press feels too much coverage would be gratuitous.

I for one am continually amazed. Did you read about the screening of a cartoon in St. Pete, in today's column?


San Ramon, Calif.: Hello Dan,

Why is the White House trying to aggresively defend itself regarding the flu vaccine shortage?


Dan Froomkin: Because it's nothing to sneeze at.

Sorry. Couldn't resist.


Riverside, Calif.: re: Mary Cheney -- Am I the only one who remembers this exchange between Cokie Roberts and Lynne Cheney in '00??
Roberts: One last thing, Ms. Cheney. It's so hard on families, these campaigns, and you have a daughter who has now declared that she is openly gay.

Ms. Cheney: Mary has never declared such a thing. I -- I would like to say that I'm appalled at the media interest in one of my daughters. (Google Salon if you need cite)
I remember watching this interview, and how awful it was considering Mary was not only out of the closet, she shared a house (co-owned) with her domestic partner, (and wears a wedding ring) AND was employed as a gay liason for Coors.

I keep waiting for someone to remember the above exchange, but every article I've read says something like: "Mary is openly gay, her parents have acknowledged it publicly and have never had a problem doing so" or "Mrs. Edwards was out of line since by all accounts the Cheneys have no problem accepting Mary is gay."

It's a stupid minutae, but since the Big News has been all about how tolerant and accepting the Cheneys have always been, thus making Kerry/Edwards' remarks very offensive.

Dan Froomkin: Good Googling Moogly! I hadn't seen that one, at least not lately.


St. Paul, Minn.: Re. the bulge on Bush's back. The press appears ineffectual on the issue. Why is it so difficult to get a straight response to an objective question? None of us here in the Midwest can understand the press' problem. Is the press intimidated? Incompetent? At this distance from Washington, we rely on you. What gives?

Dan Froomkin: My sense is that most White House reporters are afraid of looking like crackpots.

I think that is a mistake.

But most of us work in organizations that have corporate cultures that tend to discourage the appearance of crackpottery.

And this from Jim Romenesko's indispensable media blog: Brooke Gladstone asks Slate's Chris Suellentrop if reporters would like to see the Bush bulge story go away. "Probably," he says. "I mean look, I think reporters want to set the agenda and not have the agenda set for them (by bloggers), and for better or for worse, if they feel like they've gotten pushed to this story and they don't think it's worthy of covering, it's the kind of thing they want to go away."


Potsdam, N.Y.: I read with interest Gwen Ifill's live on-line chat from last week. In answering questions about moderating the debate, she stated that it was not her responsibility to see that the candidates answered the questions that she had asked. Personally, I couldn't disagree more. My question to you is this: When you are asked to moderate debates during the 2008 race, will you cut the candidates off after say 30 seconds and remind them of the question they have been asked?

Dan Froomkin: Damn straight I will.

And here's a link to Ifill's Live Online.


Glen Arm, Md.: Sir,
I very much enjoy reading your column -- please keep up the excellent work.
I am curious to know the difference between the meaning of the word lie and misrepresentation in reporter's language.
For me, Bush out-and-out lied when he discussed Kerry's ‘Global Test' statement; yet, most reporters claimed that the President had only misrepresented Kerry's statement.
As I understand the usaged of the two words, the reporters misrepresented what Bush said, while the President was guilty of lying.

Dan Froomkin: That is a most excellent question and observation, and I think it would be a great question to ask an editor. They come Live Online once a week now.

My understanding is that the idea is that a lie involves intent. My wife, the federal prosecutor, tells me it is very hard to prove intent.


Boston, Mass.: In his recent NYT article Ron Suskind wrote:

Begin Quote
"I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''
End Quote

Does this sound like the White House you know? Have they truly abandonned Empiricism and the Enlightenment in there? Or is this an exageration by a New York Times journalist?

Dan Froomkin: The Suskind conundrum is that it seems to me that no one else, with the notable exception of Bob Woodward, gets senior people in the White House to talk in even remotely such philosophical terms, at least on the record. That makes it hard to judge.

Suskind is clearly not a Bush fan.

And "senior adviser" can mean a lot of things. I once spoke to some adenoidal must-have-been-an-intern in the press office, and was told to refer to him as a "senior administration official."

But no, I don't think Suskind made this up.


Still in the theater at Case Western: If it is not the responsibility of the moderator of a debate to make sure the candidate answered the question posed, then there is no need for a moderator, no need for the debate, and the two sides can keep churning out stump speeches and ads. Gwen Ifill lost a lot of credibility as a newsperson when she failed to hold the candidates accountable to the questions she asked.

Dan Froomkin: Look, in her defense, the "rules of disengagement" were carefully structured to nearly preclude her from doing so.

And like most anyone who would be picked for something like this, she wasn't about to break the rules.


Rice Whine, Va.: At the press gaggles (gellin' with McLellan), has anyone asked about Condi Rice's unprecedented politicization of the NSA?

(I do think it's understandable from the perspective of, "what's a political hack to do once her formal job responsibilities have been absorbed in to the VP's office?" Ok, that's a cheap shot.)

But has anyone asked? (Not that one would expect an answer.)

Dan Froomkin: Someone did ask this morning, aboard Air Force One. Here's the text of the gaggle.

"Q There was a -- this story in The Washington Post, I believe, about Condi Rice doing a whole series of speeches in key battleground states. Is it the White House --

"MR. McCLELLAN: Grabbing for headlines now.

"Q It's unprecedented for a National Security Advisor.

"MR. McCLELLAN: Dr. Rice is the President's National Security Advisor. She has given speeches across the country when she's been invited to places. And I -- the American people are very focused on our highest national security priorities in support of -- that she continued to be accessible to the American people to talk about those priorities. That's what she's doing.

"Q Very -- are you saying her speeches are unrelated to the campaign?

"MR. McCLELLAN: She accepted are -- the speeches that she has given are engagements that she was invited to attend."


Iowa: Any data on which newspapers that endorsed Bush or Gore in 2000 have switched their endorsement to the other party's candidate this year? Any idea when the Post's endorsement will appear?

Dan Froomkin: Editor & Publisher is Web-publishing an indispensable daily update on newspaper endorsements, which includes, when they know it, what the paper did four years ago.

Greg Mitchell writes today: "In E&P's exclusive daily endorsement tally, Kerry continues to lead by a wide margin, with 55 papers backing him, compared to 42 for Bush. The democrat also remains far ahead in total circulation of his endorsers, by about a 9-5 margin."

As for The Post editorial board's endorsement, I have no idea!


Minn, Minn.: Do you expect Charlie Gibson to give Bush a tough time? Or is this a creampuff (e.g., Larry King) type interview?

Dan Froomkin: Unless Gibson is still spooked from that moment in the second debate, when Bush bullied him a bit, I suspect he will ask very tough questions.

I thought Gibson did a masterful job of question selection in that town-hall debate. And I think he must realize that if ever there were a time to really grill Bush, it's now.


Fayetteville, Ark.: Thanks for taking this question.

In your story, you write that Kerry's recent claims are not supported, pointing in particular to a supposed Bush plan to privatize social security. The New York Times reported that Bush said this at a meeting of donors.
Are you saying that the New York Times has erred in its reporting and is printing lies?

Dan Froomkin: I am saying that there is a bit of a game of telephone going on. I don't think Bush necessarily said he would "privatize" Social Security, certainly not all of it. I don't know where Kerry's suggestion that there is a secret plan is coming from.

That said, it's no secret that Bush does want to let young people have control over some of their Social Security money -- a hugely controversial idea for all sorts of reasons very legitimately worth talking about, including the fact that it could blow a multi-trillion hole in the program.


Indianapolis, Ind.: Dan, yesterday I read a story in the LA Times about a CIA report which supposedly chastises some high ranking officials in this administration concerning their actions leading up to the tragic events of 9/11. However, this report, which Congress asked for 2 years ago, seems to be stalled and won't be released until after the election. Do you know anything about this or have anything you could add?

Dan Froomkin: Yes, this came out in an op-ed column by Robert Scheer yesterday, and
Robert Scheer and Greg Miller has a follow-up in today's Los Angeles Times.


Annandale, Va.: You say that the hard part is "figuring out how to make those in positions of authority answer" the hard questions. Shouldn't reporters at least point out at the time that the questions haven't been answered?

Dan Froomkin: I believe they should, yes. And sometimes they do.


Kansas City, Mo.: On the global test, earlier this week Dan Morgan agreed that what Kerry was referring was a "credibility test." If reporters are to educate the public, can they explain a statement, say writing "Kerry's global (credibility) test", or does that make them look partisan?

Dan Froomkin: I think there is a more elegant way of doing it than that, but yes, I think it's reasonable to expect reporters to explain how Bush is distorting Kerry's test comment each time they quote it.


Norfolk, Va.: Dan -- On those rare occasions when the President has deigned to subject himself to the media, has he seemed as defensive and prickly as he appeared in the first debate? I guess I'm wondering if the press corps has any better feel for his personality -- good, bad or indifferent -- than we civilians do. Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: The question the debate raised was whether this was what Bush looks like in private. We don't see him in private, so I can't really say.

In my October 4 column I quoted Dana Milbank writing: "Bush has flashed such expressions -- and worse -- at reporters when they ask him hostile questions. But the public has generally not seen the president's more petulant side, in part because he is rarely challenged in a public venue. He has held fewer news conferences than any modern predecessor, Congress is in his party's control, and he has a famously loyal staff. In rare instances when Bush has been vigorously challenged -- most recently in interviews with an Irish television journalist and a French magazine -- he has reacted with similar indignation. . . .

"Bush aides acknowledged privately that that the candidate seemed imperious during the debate, and even Bush-friendly publications joined in the criticism."


Dallas, Tex.: Since Bush won't say how he plans to pay for "partial privitization" of Social Security, only that no one "now receiving benefits or about to retire" will suffer a benefit cut, why is Kerry's attack "groundless"? It's too late for people in their 40's and 50's to benefit from a private account. The most likely way to pay for the unfunded transition costs is to shaft the baby boomers. Why shouldn't we be worried?

Dan Froomkin: The assertion that Bush has a "secret plan" for Social Security is, to my knowledge, groundless.

I don't think Bush has a clue how he's really going to do this.

And I didn't say you shouldn't be worried.


San Diego, Calif.: While there has been quite a bit of coverage of the Suskind article, I am really surprised that it doesn't have stronger legs. Meaning, I am really surprised that this isn't seriously cutting into Bush and his credibility with the electorate.

Dan Froomkin: I guess I'm not surprised.

Do you really think there are a lot of people out there who are undecided about President Bush?

At best, there are people out there who aren't decided about Kerry.

And did you really expect an article in the New York Times Magazine to sway the masses?


Washington, D.C.: Dan -- Will you contiue your column, "White House Briefing" during the next presidential term, whether it someone new (Fingers crossed) or a second term (How do you become an Australian?). The reason I ask this is because the networks seem to change their White House reporters with each new term. Here's hoping you'll be around to tell us the dirt on the Kerry White House.
Also, just personal oppinion here and politics aside - would you rather continue to report on Scotty-boy's remarks or try a brand new administration?

Dan Froomkin: The plan is to keep on keeping on, no matter what.

Either way, I'm looking forward to it!


Raleigh, N.C.: I know you can't speak for the entire press, so I'll direct this directly to you. Do you ever feel embarrassed or frustrated that:

1. Journalists can still be easily manipulated by politicians and are 'forced' into covering arguably inconsequential matters such as the sexuality of the Vice-Presidents daughter as opposed to social security, WMDs, Bin Laden, taxes, the environment, etc.?

2. Journalists have not figured out how to properly weight lies or distortions because they're afraid of the bias label, and thereby failing to live up to journalistic standards?


Dan Froomkin: Yes.


The hard questions: Sigh. Okay, here's how.

Let's say you're moderating the debate. The first question goes through, and both punt. The moderator gets up, looks to the camera and says "Ladies and gentlemen, it is apparent that no one has any intention of answering questions. They just intend to keep repeating talking point. Since that is a waste of my time and yours, I am leaving".

Then he/she walks off stage.

Or when the Pres does this in a press conference, the reporting pool walks out. Or you refuse to publish spin at the Post, and ignore the candidate.

There, problem fixes itself. The problem is the media sucking up for access or being lazy. In the words of Jon Stewart, "Please stop hurting America" (not you, I mean the media in general).

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for the chuckle.


Richmond, Va.: Do you really think that the president's tailor has put to rest rumors about Bush's Bulge with his assertion that someone wearing a jacket who crosses his arms can create a similar bulge? Most of those photos running around the internet of the bulge show Bush with his arms down, not crossed? What do you think of the rumors that the media is complicit in the denials by the White House that the president is wired? Are you guys trying to protect the president?

Dan Froomkin: Lots of you apparently click on the links in my column!

I'm so happy to hear that.

And no, I do not think that this picture ends the battle of the bulge. Not even close.


Arlington, Va.: I'm wondering why Bush has not blamed the shortage of flu vaccine on trail lawyers -- they seem to be the cause of all problems, while the No Child Left Behind bill seems to be his cure all.

Dan Froomkin: Cheney did. More or less.


USA: I won't ask who you think is going to win the election (although I would love to know). My question is about the post-election future.

Whoever wins, do you think the political temperature is going to go down a little over the next year or so? Will people (leaders and voters) calm down some and tend toward moderation?

We seem to be divided into groups that inhabit different realities and have fundamentally different visions of what the USA is supposed to be. It's not that scary so far, but if this continues for another 5 or 10 years, who knows what could happen. I'm concerned.

Dan Froomkin: I am not of the school that believes that if Bush wins, he will become more moderate. Of course I'm not sure, but I suspect that he will see the election as a mandate to continue -- and accelerate -- remaking the country and the presidency in his image.

As for Kerry, who knows if he could or would actually reach across the aisle.

Either way, I don't think we'll really have a much better idea until the Inaugural Address.


Washington, D.C.: Who is footing the bill when Condoleeza Rice goes to speak for Bush during the campaign? Is it coming out of his campaign funds, or is it being paid for by the taxpayers.

What about when McClellan talks about the campaign?

I don't like the idea of my tax dollars being spent to support a campaign of a man I don't plan on voting for. It's bad enough that we pay his salary so he can go hang out at the ranch.

Dan Froomkin: You pay for most of this stuff.


Maryland: This election has me depressed, anxious and stressed out. Reading your online column is one of the few things that makes me smile.

Looking forward to Nov. 3rd as much as I'm looking forward to the end of tonight's Red Sox-Yankees game. It's not the final result as much as it is the wait!

Dan Froomkin: It's been quite the slog. But I'm glad we've had each other.

You all are a magnificent bunch of readers -- and questionners. I'll be writing every weekday through Nov. 2, so look for "White House Briefing" mid-day on the home page.

And see you again here in two weeks -- on the flip side, as it were.


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