White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, July 14, 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. It's twin day for those of us who cover the White House, but I'll gladly take your questions and comments on other topics, too. Bring it on.


Damascus, Md.: Good afternoon!

Since the Bush Twins let themselves be featured for that a puff piece in Vogue that was reviewed in today's Style section, will the press allow themselves to actually report on the girls' doings and missteps now? I have heard persistent rumors about their drug use and their mistreatment of their Secret Service details, but little of that makes it into either the tabloid or the mainstream press.

Are there 'Girls Gone Wild' pictures out there?

Dan Froomkin: I think it's, yeah, sort of open season now. Possibly presaged by that Sunday New York Times piece I linked to this morning. But I think we've already seen the Girls Gone Wild photos -- remember that one of Jenna?


New Jersey: Dan, I really enjoy all of charts and graphs you link to, especially the new one about White House salaries. I was just wondering if you had any plans to compile information about think tanks, lobbyists, nonprofits or NGOs? Or do you know where I can get that kind of information? Thanks!;

Dan Froomkin: Thanks so much. I just do the White House, you know. But allow me to put in a pitch for washingtonpost.com's amazing Federal Workers Lookup searchable database.


Rockville, Md.: Today you mention Paul Weyrich who was contacted by the White House after sending out an email last week that was critical of the low profile being offered to social conservatives at the Republican convention.

Have you ever been contacted by the White House regarding any items in your column?
Do you see this practice as contributing to the cowing of the White House press corps?

Dan Froomkin: Every communication I have ever had from the White House has been gracious and professional.


Baltimore, Md.: In the discussion of the Senate Intelligence Committee report, one issue that is consistently overlooked in the partisan bickering is the implications that this has (or should have) for the viability of President Bush's strategy of pre-emptive invasions.

Can we really afford to invade other countries on the basis of potentially faulty intelligence?

Dan Froomkin: You are wrong to suggest it has been overlooked. See for instance this story by David E. Sanger in the NYT the other day. But you are right to identify that as a huge question.


Washington, D.C.: How come the press doesn't focus on how out of touch the Bush daughters are from mainstream America? How many people do you know whose first interview is at the age of 22? "They love Mexican food, Starbucks soy lattes and sushi." Aren't these the same values conservative groups were saying made Dean unfit to lead the country. Unfortunately, you guys seem to busy kowtowing to the Bush administration to be critical of these bimbos and their parents.

Dan Froomkin: That's an interesting point of view. I don't think anyone would expect young women who have grown up amid such privilege to be anything other than creatures of their environment. It's not their fault. I don't blame them for enjoying the things they are able to enjoy. You think they should join the Army or something?


Moodus, Conn.: It seems to me that the Bush girls don't really have a lot to do. What do you think the chances are of them enlisting in their father's so-called war on terrorism?

Dan Froomkin: Um, no.


Des Moines, Iowa: Who is your favorite White House spokesperson and why?

Who's a bigger liar, Scott McClellan or Ari Fleischer?

Who looks like they enjoy lying more, Ari or Scotty?

I kinda feel more sorry for Scott than I did for Ari. What do you think?

Dan Froomkin: I will duck the first three. On the fourth, I think it's safe to say that some members of the press corps find Scott a bit hapless at times.


Seattle, Wash.: Dan,

The Bush campaign keeps harping on Kerry voting against the $87 billion -- that it was wrong for him to vote for the war and then not support the troops. To someone who does not know all the details, this is a powerful knock at Kerry.

Of course, Kerry voted for the $87 billion as long as the money came out of upper-income tax cuts. And if Bush's budget-busting version had failed to pass, there would have had to be a compromise bill - no one has suggested that the funding would not have gone through if Bush's bill had failed.

It's insulting, deceptive spin, and I've yet to hear the press corp put this into context, or Kerry respond well to it. What gives? Is the public deemed too dumb to understand?

Dan Froomkin: I must admit I found it odd that, in looking through the stories that mentioned this killer soundbite this morning, I didn't find any that fully explained what Kerry's rationale was. I'm not even sure I fully understand it.

It definitely is killer soundbite, though. And it's fascinating to see, up close and personal, how it was born and bred in the Bush/Cheney war room, thanks to the two inside-the-war-room stories in the NYT and LAT today.


Portland, Ore.: Hi Dan, love your column.

Do you have any disconnect between the dominant White House talking point "America is safer" and John McLaughlin saying "this is about as serious a threat environment as I have seen since 9/11?"

Seems like a pretty big disconnect.


Dan Froomkin: There is a disconnect, yes. I think it's something we will all be expending a certain amount of ink on in the coming months.


Twins: I'd love some info on the twins' college grades. I'm old enough to remember when People magazine published a copy of Brooke Shield's Princeton transcript (with her permission, I believe). Any info on GPAs?

Dan Froomkin: No. But President Bush has a great laugh line when he notes approvingly that they both "made it in four years".


Wilmington, Del.: My impression of the Bush twins, especially Barbara, is that they don't necessarily share in the "purity" of their father's ideology; that they may, in fact, not believe that abolishing individuals' rights in favor of powers to corporations is the way to go. Any thoughts on this?

Dan Froomkin: I think you are projecting.


Clemson, SC: Dan,

Thanks for taking this question, and it is a long one. I read your column every day, and also the online Post, and I do notice a definite Democratic slant to coverage. I realize that most people tend to think of themselves as moderate, but I saw one poll of the media that said 80% of them vote Democrat. That has to slant coverage, even if only on an unconscious level.

I myself am a Republican, nominally, but have never voted a straight ticket, and according to the Libertarian website test I am centrist, almost left liberal, although some of my views are definitely conservative. I think that the news coverage needs to be neutral, if someone wants to inject opinion, write an op-ed piece.

Look at some of what has been hyped to the nth degree, but when more facts come out Bush looks more moderate:

WMD in Iraq: BUSH LIED... however, Woodward's book showed that Tenet said it was a slam dunk, and now the Senate and the Brits said the sources were flawed. Also, EVERYONE in the world in 2002, Chirac, Kerry, Clinton, Annan, etc. thought he had them. How much blame does Bush deserve for getting bad info? He can't check everything.

Niger: BUSH MADE IT UP...The Brits STILL stand by their report, but Wilson couldn't confirm it, and now he has "misspoke" about documents being "forged" and his wife MAY have been the one who recommended him for the job, in which case there is less of a legal case for the Admin for "outing" her for revenge.

Iraq and Al-Qaeda: BUSH MADE THAT UP TOO... All the papers said the 9-11 Commission said Bush lied about this, but even Hamilton said he didn't understand how they came to that conclusion, and that the report actually backs up what Bush was saying.

The torture scandal is less so of a problem from this regard, but still the docs show how that at least the Admin was trying to stay within the law, while protecting us to the max. As bad as this is, if there were another 9/11, especially with WMD's, and it turns out we had someone in custody with knowledge but couldn't use certain methods to obtain it the hue and cry would make this controversy look like a whisper.

My basic problem is that the initial hysterical rants get front page play, but the later facts get glossed over in the mainstream media.

This bothers me because I personally think Bush has done a good job, and will vote for him again, but there are a few undecideds out there that will probably tip the election.

They may not have the time to look at all of this data, and decide based on media coverage that Bush does not deserve another chance. If they have fair reporting and all info to make that decision, so be it, but the slanting of the media I think definitely hurts Bush.

What do you think?

Dan Froomkin: I thank you very much for your question. Although I generally don't post multipart ones (keep 'em short, people!) I think it's important for me to address this.

I get a fair number of e-mails from people who think I'm being too hard on Bush -- and that by extension the press corps which provides the material that fuels my column is too hard on him, or slanted, or partisan.

(Of course I also get a fair number of e-mails saying we're all a bunch of sycophantic pansies.)

We are not too hard on Bush, and here's why (in 30 seconds or less, on the fly.....) In this country, for a lot of people, the presidency -- in spite of all the knocks it's taken over the years -- invests its occupant, no matter who it is, with a tremendous aura of power and virtue.

Most Americans are predisposed to look at their leader with deference, if not awe. A lot of people want so much for our leaders to be bold, upright, brilliant and strong that they give presidents more credit than, maybe, they objectively deserve. All presidents benefit from this.

Which is why it is the job of the press to be skeptical of the actions of the man in that office, whoever he is. Not rude, not partisan, not so cynical that we skew the facts -- but skeptical. Every action he takes, and the effect of those actions, merits -- and demands -- to be examined from every angle.

And the president, again, by virtue of his office, accrues enormous credit for all the good things the country and the government stand for and accomplish. But I think that the buck stops there, too. I think the president bears the ultimate responsibility for everything he says and does.

Don't you?


Des Moines, Iowa: What is cooking in regard to the Plame investigation?

Dan Froomkin: It wouldn't be a White House Talk without a Valerie Plame question! I don't know! It's all happening in secret. That grand jury secrecy thing is for real.

There's been some discussion lately about whether the Senate intelligence committee report -- which said that Plame did actually suggest that her husband be sent to Niger -- in some way exculpates the folks who leaked her identity. I'm no legal scholar, but I find that one somewhat unlikely.


Rosslyn, Va.: Dan, You hit the nail right on the head! YES the Bush twins (at least one of them) should join the Army and be sent overseas to Iraq. This would show Americans how truly patriotic Bush and his family is and that he is not afraid of terrorists as he is willing to let his daughters give up their lives for their country. Then perhaps he could debate John Kerry about patriotism.

Dan Froomkin: I don't think any of this is their fault. And they're overtly apolitical. Could this be a cheap shot?


Washington, D.C.: I am an avid follower of the White House press briefings and your coverage. I also greatly enjoy watching The West Wing. Fun question but don't you ever wish Scott McClellen was more like CJ Cregg?

Dan Froomkin: What I really wish is that reporters were allowed to wander around the West Wing, like they are on TV, instead of being penned up in a few scroungy rooms.


Storm Lake, Iowa: I really love your daily blog and I am a political news junkie but I'm really starting to get burned out already on this election -- all the negativity and mistruths (especially from the Bush side). And we still have 4 months to go. How do you and your fellow Post reporters keep from being burned out on all the political nonsense being flung around these days?

Dan Froomkin: What do you mean? It's just getting good! I'm pumped!


Missoula, Mont.: How does it look or play out that GW "gee, I hardly knew him" Bush and Kennyboy Lay have the same defense trial lawyer? You think Kenny boy got a referral fee?

Dan Froomkin: I think it is notable, but by no means culpable, that they share an attorney (if indeed they do.) I think this Sharp guy is turning into a real story, though! And we know almost nothing about him.


Virginia: How many White House Press conferences have you personally been to? How often do you speak with White House officials? Do you consider yourself an aggregator or a producer?

Dan Froomkin: Why do you ask?

But the answers are: Not many; not terribly often; and mostly an aggregator. But I think it's a great position to be in, being a sort of meta-journalist, pouring over what the corps is coming up with each day and surfacing the most interesting bits. It's something new, and I think pretty cool. I do love the Internet.

That said, I do go to the White House on occasion and spend a lot of time reading primary documents. So it's not all second hand.


London, UK: What's the most impressive sidestep of a question you've ever heard from Scott McClellan?

Dan Froomkin: Oh dear. So many to choose from. Maybe I should ask readers for their nominations.


Nashville, Tenn.: Any reason to think that we'll see history repeat itself with the CIA Director search committee of one? If memory serves, the last time Cheney was in charge of a high visibility selection for W he picked himself to be VP. CIA Director-designate seems a handy way to get out of the way for the election, assuming, of course, something undisclosed would require a delay in those pesky confirmation hearings until after November.

Dan Froomkin: This is one of my favorite absurd theories of the moment. Can you imagine the confirmation hearings? Can you imagine??? Not a chance!!!!


Dallas, Tex.: In your answer to Clemson, you didn't really address the core issue: Distorted, incomplete or just plain wrong information on the front end of an issue, especially when it reflects poorly on the administration, gets front page treatment (for example Wilson's now discredited claims). After the facts come out, the treatment is smaller and relegated to the inside pages. I don't think you need to champion the incumbent (who has enough advantage), but you do have a responsibility to be careful on the front end and outspoken on the back end. I don't really care what your personal convictions are on an issue, but I do want adult analysis.

Dan Froomkin: Well, first of all, I don't think all of those story lines have been fully resolved in the president's favor.

But yes, the media does do a better job of reporting accusations than vindications, in pretty much all areas. That is the way it has always been, and I suspect the way it will be for a long time to come.


Richmond, Va.: Hello Mr. Froomkin,

With President Bush getting upset over the celebrity gala where Whoopi Goldberg (and others) said nasty things about him and his not addressing the NAACP because they say mean things about him I can't help but make a comparison to former President Clinton who had a ton of mean and nasty things said about him before during and after his presidency but he took it like a champ. Would it be fair to describe President Bush as thin skinned and former President Clinton as thick skinned?

Dan Froomkin: No, I think they're both thin skinned.

Do you recall Clinton ever going someplace where he knew he was going to be booed?

Is it surprising that Bush only chooses arenas in which he will be adulated?


Nashville, Tenn.: Glad you enjoyed the absurd. It's a hobby.

On another note -- best sidestep by McClellan? "I believe we've already addressed that." Regardless of question...

Dan Froomkin: That would have to be a contender.


Austin, Tex.: Dan
In your 7/1 column, you linked to a blog by David Niewert, who was researching President Bush's military service. I read through a bit of his material, which related Bush's military record to existing regulations for service in the Air National Guard and Reserves, and found that this person brings up some valid points. If the research is correct, it might even validate Michael Moore's claim that Bush was a 'deserter.'

My question is: Have you heard of any mainstream media organizations following up on any of this information to determine its validity? Some may say that it was a long time ago; that the president should be judged on his present performance and not on his actions when he was younger. To that, I say there's a big difference between being lackadaisical in your service to your country (as Bush seems to insinuate) and breaking federal law governing military service (which the research seems to show).


Dan Froomkin: It was actually a report by an amateur named Paul Lukasiak, and I must admit I've had a fair amount of trouble making head or tail of it.

The Associated Press did file that lawsuit a few weeks back demanding the microfilm version of Bush's personnel files in Austin...

I don't think the story's dead yet.


Rockville, Md.: Another Scott McMuffin winning line, "I disagree with the premise of your question."

Dan Froomkin: OK. Maybe I'll officially ask for nomination in my next Live Online. You guys are good.


Arlington, Va.: Just saw an article on CNN about how the Bush campaign is laying into Kerry for inappropriate remarks at his celebrity fundraising event. Am I the only one wishing Kerry would reply with a Cheney-esque go blank yourself?

Dan Froomkin: Probably not.

That story, another creature from the Bush/Cheney war room, is really showing legs. And it's funny: Being a suspicious sort, it struck me that the reason Kerry and Edwards really laid into Bush over the weekend -- saying Bush governs in a "dishonest fashion" (see the Post story) -- was to change the topic, give the press a more substantive accusation to sink its teeth into. Didn't work, huh?


Washington, D.C.: Is Clemson's position really that Bush is not at all responsible for a CIA that got it wrong? And that he is not at all accountable for sending his Secretary of State to the U.N. to give a presentation to the world that ends up being based on weak and untrue information?

Dan Froomkin: Clemson, you still there?


Bethesda, Md.: What's with all your sympathy for the Bush daughters? Gosh, it must be hard growing up rich and privileged. Poor things. They are out of touch and it is not their fault (poor things). Give me a break. Quit acting like they have nothing to do with their actions. The press should investigate them and criticize them like any other politician.

Dan Froomkin: So you're saying that simply by going to work for their dad's campaign, they've become politicians?

Well, it's not like they're just licking envelopes, they're becoming headliners. So... maybe you're right.


Washington, D.C.: What's the mood in the White House now that the centerpiece of the President's legislative and re-election agenda, the gay marriage ban amendment, has been killed?

Dan Froomkin: It was not their centerpiece. I think they saw this coming a long time ago, which is why it's not their centerpiece. And it still works as a (non-centerpiece) wedge issue, to some extent. Maybe even better now that it's not really threatening, but just symbolic.


Iowa: How about this McCellen sidestep from Feb. 9 when he was being asked about Bush's stance on the economic report:

MR. McCLELLAN: I've been asked this, and I've asked -- I've been asked, and I've answered.

Q No, you have not answered. And everybody watching knows you haven't answered.

MR. McCLELLAN: I disagree.

Dan Froomkin: You guys are killing me. Save it for two weeks from now!


Richmond, Va.: Mr. Froomkin,
Regarding my question on the skin thickness of Bush and Clinton... you made a good point. Thanks for making me think about it. You are right.

Dan Froomkin: OK, I'm speechless. (Is this a prank?)


Harriman, N.Y.: You have this clip from a Duluth paper in today's column: "Bush's speech was interrupted for a few seconds when a protester, Michael Larson of Duluth, stood up in an aisle and yelled, 'Shame on you.' Bush stopped speaking only briefly and didn't acknowledge Larson, who was wearing a white T-shirt with fake blood painted on it. Larson was immediately ushered out by police and Secret Service. He was ticketed and released by police." What do you think the ticket was for? There was a story a week or so ago about people who worked for FEMA being arrested and taken out in handcuffs from a Bush rally. What crime is being committed by people who attend rallies but don't support the candidate?

Dan Froomkin: You know, I was wondering what the ticket was for, too. But I didn't have time to make any calls before my column was due. Let's see if that gets addressed tomorrow.


Des Moines, Iowa: I've read a lot of half-baked non-apologies from former cheerleaders in the run up to war. Do you think members of the press feel any serious remorse over the war in Iraq? What might be done to prevent such horror in the future?

Dan Froomkin: There is a great deal of self-flagellating going on in the press corps, yes. So many of the things we are finding out now, we should have known before, regardless of how you feel about the war. As for the future, that is a tough question.


Dayton, Ohio: This whole thing on the Bush twins is BS. You don't see any of Kerry or Edwards kids signing up. Do you?!

Dan Froomkin: Good point.


Charlotte, N.C.: RE The Bush girls enlisting. I don't think that it is a cheap shot at all. One of the values of lower and middle Americans, values that both candidates profess to share, is of a duty to their country expressed by military service. I guess the only sense of duty felt by the elite to their country is that they should hold positions of power just because of who their parents were or what schools they attended.

Dan Froomkin: I think the fact that none of the candidates' children (and almost no Congressional kids) have enlisted does speak to two issues that may indeed be worth a discussion: 1) Why don't elites feel they should serve? and 2) Are our leaders sufficiently in touch with the sacrifices made by the families of those who do?

I don't think it should get personal, about these kids, I don't think that's entirely fair.


Reston, Va.: Mr. Froomkin,
Love your column, catch it every day.
I was wondering if there has been any White House reaction to the story about US officials apparently applying heavy pressure to the Pakistani Government to catch Osama bin Laden this month, preferably during the Democratic convention?
Has any reporter even asked a question about this? Has McClellan given an answer, or a typical non-answer? Anything at all?


Dan Froomkin: Thanks so much.

McClellan took a question on this in Thursday's briefing. "I wouldn't put a lot of stock in that article. This is a publication that certainly opposes our views," he said before embarking on an extremely long statement about other things.


Wilmington, Del.: Come on, think man! Why is it that the bogus "Hollywood fundraiser" story, just like the bogus Wellstone memorial story, just like the bogus Swanky Gore childhood hotel story, ad infinitum, has legs?

The mainstream media is a hollow sounding box for any story the GOP comes up with. Now why should that be? Surely, the media can see the obvious hypocrisy of "Big Time" Cheney and "F- Saddam, we're takin' him out" Bush in complaining about language? Are the media evil, or incompetent?

Dan Froomkin: We are creatures of our media. For better, and for worse.


Clinton, Miss.: Wouldn't it be easier to list the times McClellan didn't sidestep?

Dan Froomkin: Funny. OK, you all are terrific, and I thank you for all your wonderful questions and comments. I wish I could answer more of them, but my time is up.

Read my column daily, and check back here in two weeks for another Live Online.


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