Fake News Gets White House OK

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, March 15, 2005; 11:00 AM

Message delivery was a big theme at the White House yesterday.

First, Karen Hughes was over for breakfast. The president's finest spinner is headed back onto the public payroll with a new and challenging goal: Improving Bush's image in the Muslim world.

Then at the mid-day briefing, Press Secretary Scott McClellan officially confirmed that the White House is blowing off the Government Accountability Office's finding that prepackaged administration video news releases constitute illegal covert propaganda.

Prepackaged Video Reports

Here's Brian Williams on the NBC Nightly News last night: "If the White House is struggling with the public relations effort in the Middle East, here at home some say they are perfecting the craft of public relations disguised as news -- and it's getting a lot of air time."

Then Andrea Mitchell reported that "for millions of viewers, the government has found the best way to spin the news is to produce the stories itself. . . .

"On issues from Medicare to farm prices, hundreds of local stations are running stories extolling Bush administration policies, reaching tens of millions of people.

"But all these reports were written and distributed by the administration and its public relations firms -- not by journalists."

Christopher Lee writes in The Washington Post about the memos the White House sent out last week, insisting "that it is legal for federal agencies to feed TV stations prepackaged news stories that do not disclose the government's role in producing them."

Those memos essentially overruled a Feb. 17 memo from Comptroller General David M. Walker. Lee writes: "In an interview yesterday, Walker said the administration's approach is both contrary to appropriations law and unethical.

"'This is more than a legal issue. It's also an ethical issue and involves important good government principles, namely the need for openness in connection with government activities and expenditures,' Walker said."

Here's McClellan addressing the issue in his briefing yesterday: "As long as this is factual information about department or agency programs, it is perfectly appropriate," he said. In fact, he added, "I think agencies and departments have an obligation to provide the American people with factual information about their programs."

Here's how Ken Herman reported it for Cox News Service: "The White House, intent on continuing to crank out 'video news releases' that look like television news stories, has told government agency heads to ignore a Government Accountability Office memo criticizing the practice as illegal propaganda."

Karen Hughes is in the House

So can someone even as uniquely talented as Karen Hughes put a good face on American public diplomacy in the Middle East -- when the current face is sometimes that of a hooded torture victim at Abu Ghraib?

Her welcome back to Washington yesterday certainly couldn't have been much more gushy.

Bush released an effusive announcement: "Karen Hughes has been one of my most trusted and closest advisers, and she has the experience, expertise, and judgment to lead this critical effort. Her return to public service in this important position signifies my personal commitment to the international diplomacy that is needed in these historic times."

The White House released a photo of Hughes having breakfast with Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the president's private dining room.

Here's the transcript of Rice and Hughes' joint appearance at the State Department.

Rice declared: "The time has come to look anew at our institutions of public diplomacy. . . .

"I can think of no individual more suited nor more suited for this task of telling America's story to the world, of nurturing America's dialogue with the world and advancing universal values for the world than Karen Hughes."

And Hughes gave a first taste of how she'll approach the job.

"If confirmed, I look forward to working with my fellow citizens to share our country's good heart and our idealism and our values with the world. This job will be difficult. Perceptions do not change quickly or easily. This is a struggle for ideas."

But will Hughes solely try to spread the word of U.S. accomplishments -- or will she express humility over some of its failures? There was a brief hint of the latter, when she said: "America has often struggled to live up to our own ideals and we have much to learn about becoming better citizens of the world."

But apparently she didn't mean torture. "We must do a better job of teaching our children to learn about different languages, and cultures, and faiths," she explained.

Farah Stockman writes in the Boston Globe that the Hughes nomination is "a move that officials said is meant to aggressively tackle the plummeting image of the United States abroad, particularly in the Arab world."

David Gregory explained the Hughes mission this way, on NBC: "One source close to the White House says the president is playing for legacy now. He doesn't want to be remembered as, quote, a war monger."

AFP writes: "Rebuilding the US image abroad after the Bush administration's unilateral decision to invade Iraq two years ago will be a challenge, however, even for someone as formidable as Hughes."

John Roberts noted on the CBS News that Hughes "does have a pretty unique talent for humanizing White House policy." He also reported that in spite of the apparent urgency of her task, Hughes is "not going to start it full time until later this summer."

Helen Thomas Watch

It has been noted a lot recently that Hearst columnist Helen Thomas frequently asks questions in the briefing room that suggest a certain lack of confidence in the Bush administration's policies.

Yesterday's exchange with McClellan was a classic:

"Go ahead, Helen.

"Q Diplomacy depends on policy. You can't sell what is unsaleable. If the policy remains that we will engage further in preemptive war, you cannot sell it to the Middle East, I'm sure, or anywhere else. So are you going to change any policy?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Our policy is to expand freedom and democracy and to support the aspirations of people --

"Q By gunpoint?

"MR. McCLELLAN: -- and support the aspirations of people in countries around the world that do not have the freedoms that we enjoy. And, no, Helen, the President made it very clear in his inaugural address that it is not primarily the use of arms. It is supporting the aspirations of the people in those countries and doing all we can to stand with those people as they seek greater freedoms. We are standing with the people of Lebanon. We are standing with the people of the Palestinian Territories. We are standing with --

"Q We also invaded Iraq.

"MR. McCLELLAN: -- we are standing with the people of Iraq, and the people of Iraq have shown that freedom is a universal value. They stood up and defied the terrorists and went to the polls.

"Q And we invaded the country.

"MR. McCLELLAN: Go ahead, Terry."

Last Year's Flap

Hughes herself noted that in her new job, she may need to "varnish" what some have called her combative style. In the past, she's not always been what you might call subtle.

Last April, speaking on CNN with Wolf Blitzer, Hughes got into hot water by seeming to suggest that supporters of abortion rights have the same values as terrorists.

Here's what she said: "I think after September 11th the American people are valuing life more and realizing that we need policies to value the dignity and worth of every life.

"And President Bush has worked to say, let's be reasonable, let's work to value life, let's try to reduce the number of abortions, let's increase adoptions.

"And I think those are the kind of policies that the American people can support, particularly at a time when we're facing an enemy, and really the fundamental difference between us and the terror network we fight is that we value every life."

Hughes later said it was a "gross distortion" to interpret her remarks as likening abortion-rights advocates to terrorists.

Another Move

The White House also announced that Bush is nominating Dina Powell, the Egyptian-born director of White House personnel, to be Hughes's deputy.

Social Security Watch

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "While the White House has helped convince more than two-thirds of those polled that Social Security is heading for a crisis or possible bankruptcy without change, 56 percent disapprove of his approach, a survey of 1,001 adults conducted March 10-13 shows.

"Moreover, 58 percent of those polled this time said the more they hear about Bush's plan, the less they like it. The latest polling, combined with detailed interviews last week, shows that Bush's drive to significantly alter the 70-year-old national insurance program has run into significant hurdles with every age cohort."

Some more findings from the poll: Of the various solutions mentioned to Social Security's long-term financing shortfalls, there was only one that received more than 50 percent support in the poll: "Collecting Social Security taxes on all the money a worker earns, rather than taxing only up to the first $90,000 of annual income."

Increasing the Social Security tax rate, the only solution Bush has said is off the table, wasn't popular -- only 32 percent were in favor. But that's still made it considerably more popular than the only thing virtually guaranteed to be part of Bush's plan, once he gets around to publicly describing it: Reducing guaranteed benefits for future retirees. Only 20 percent of those polled thought that was a good idea.

Here are the poll results. And here's a chart showing Bush's approval ratings over time.

A new Gallup Poll is out, too. It shows Bush's approval rating steady at 52 percent, with 44 percent disapproving.

The Anti-Bush

In The Washington Post, Kevin Sullivan writes about how Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is something of an "anti-Bush" -- a fiery populist rallying developing nations against United States imperialism.

"In a recent televised speech, Chavez described the arms purchases and a plan to increase army reserve troops as 'an honorable answer to President Bush's intention of being the master of the world.'

"Chavez is the most vocal and visible symbol of a rising tide of anti-American sentiment in Latin America. Leaders in the region are increasingly disillusioned because a decade or more of the Washington prescription -- democracy and free-market economics -- has failed to alleviate poverty and economic inequality."

So what is Bush going to do about that?

Andy Webb-Vidal writes in the Financial Times: "Senior US administration officials are working on a policy to 'contain' Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan president, and what they allege is his drive to 'subvert' Latin America's least stable states.

"A strategy aimed at fencing in the government of the world's fifth-largest oil exporter is being prepared at the request of President George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, senior US officials say. The move signals a renewed interest by the administration in a region that has been relatively neglected in recent years. . . .

"The policy shift in Washington, which a US military officer said is at an early stage but is centred on the goal of 'containment', could also have implications for the world oil market."

Treaty Watch

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "Behind President Bush's recent shift in dealing with Iran's nuclear program lies a less visible goal: to rewrite, in effect, the main treaty governing the spread of nuclear technology, without actually renegotiating it.

"In their public statements and background briefings in recent days, Mr. Bush's aides have acknowledged that Iran appears to have the right -- on paper, at least -- to enrich uranium to produce electric power. But Mr. Bush has managed to convince his reluctant European allies that the only acceptable outcome of their negotiations with Iran is that it must give up that right. . . .

"Mr. Bush could have called for renegotiating the treaty. But in background interviews, administration officials say they have neither the time nor the patience for that process. By the time all 189 signers come to an agreement, noted one official who left the White House recently: 'The Iranians will look like the North Koreans, waving their bombs around. We can't afford to make that mistake again.'"

St. Patrick and Politics

Warren Hoge writes in the New York Times: "Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, arrived yesterday in New York on his annual St. Patrick's Day trip to the United States, and played down snubs from the White House and Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the party's most prominent supporter in American politics.

"President Bush has canceled the traditional White House gathering of leaders of the political parties of Northern Ireland and invited instead the six women from the family of Robert McCartney, who have been leading vocal protests over his killing in January in a Belfast pub by a group that included members of the Irish Republican Army. Sinn Fein is the political wing of the I.R.A."

Joke Thief

Richard Leiby writes in The Washington Post: "A joke President Bush told recently in Montana struck several readers as very familiar when it was recounted in yesterday's Style section. In Bush's telling, the joke involved a city slicker asking for directions in Livingston and being told to look for two 'cattle guards.' Now, everyone in cowboy country knows a cattle guard is a metal grate that keeps livestock from straying. But this fellow is so clueless, he asks: 'Hey, what color uniforms do those cattle guards have on?'

"In 1978, when Dubya was running for Congress in Texas, the very same joke was on him."

Nicholas D. Kristof has the details, in a New York Times story from 2000, describing that 1978 congressional race:

"A candidate forum was under way, and his rival was needling Mr. Bush with an oft-repeated joke in which he was the punchline, a yarn that reinforced a perception of him as a spoiled rich kid from back East.

"Kent Hance, the Democratic candidate and a smooth-talking good old boy, was telling a yarn about working in a field along a rural road. Then along came a fancy car.

"'It was a Mercedes,' drawled Mr. Hance, raising his eyebrows, and the audience tittered knowingly at the hint that Mr. Bush was the kind of man more comfortable in a Mercedes than a pick-up. 'The guy rolled down the window and wanted to know how to get to a certain ranch.'

"Mr. Hance recounted how he'd given the man directions, telling him to turn right after a cattle guard, a metal grate ubiquitous in rural roads to keep livestock from straying. 'Then,' Mr. Hance continued, 'he said, "what color uniform will that cattle guard be wearing?"'

"The audience roared with laughter, and just to be sure that the voters got the connection with the Connecticut-born Mr. Bush, Mr. Hance said he had noticed something else about the Mercedes: 'It had Connecticut license plates.'"

Bush lost that race.

Halliburton Watch

Griff Witte writes in The Washington Post: "Pentagon auditors found more than $100 million in questionable costs in one section of a massive, no-bid Halliburton Co. contract for delivering fuel to Iraq, according to a summary of their report released yesterday by congressional Democrats. . . .

"Halliburton, where Vice President Cheney served as chief executive from 1995 to 2000, has come under persistent criticism for its handling of several Iraqi reconstruction contracts."

Here's the report from congressional Democrats, and their letter to Bush asking for an explanation.

The Wead Tapes

AFP reports: "The writer who secretly recorded phone conversations in which then-Texas Governor George W. Bush appeared to suggest past illegal drug use, issued a public apology to the president.

"Doug Wead, an author and longtime Bush family friend, wrote in a letter appearing in the USA Today newspaper that his decision in the late 1990's to record the future president without his knowledge had been 'foolish and wrong.'"

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