Managing the President

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Thursday, January 22, 2004; 11:26 AM

Perhaps the casual setting -- "Radio Day" on the White House lawn -- had something to do with it. But we generally hear more flattering portraits of the president from his right-hand man, Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr.

This is how Card described his job in an interview with Neal Boortz of Atlanta's WSB-AM750 (Boortz is a nationally-syndicated libertarian):

"My day starts very early. I get to the office between 5:30 and quarter of six in the morning, I greet the president when he shows up in the Oval Office, I say 'Good morning, Mr. President, can I have your homework?' And I kind of correct it. Or he corrects mine."

Card also said that one of the hardest parts of his job is scheduling.

"There are only 24 hours in a day. The president has to have time to eat, sleep and be merry, or he'll make angry, grumpy decisions. So I have to make sure he has time to eat, sleep and be merry. But I also have to make sure he has the right time to do the right thing for the country, and that he gets the right information in time, rather than too late."

As Bob Deans writes in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Radio Day" means that that "four dozen radio reporters and talk show hosts who piled into a heated tent on the North Lawn for the chance to question Cabinet members and senior aides to President Bush in a sort of radio round-robin."

The White House Web site itself posted excerpts of some of those interviews.

The theory is that, in some ways, radio is a less threatening medium than newspapers or television. Most, but not all of the hosts were conservative.

When national security adviser Condoleezza Rice did an interview, she described her job too:

"I see the president, seven, eight, nine, 10 times a day. And what I try to do is to make clear to my colleagues that I don't try to take advantage of that to simply push my own views. I'm supposed to be for the president someone who can present the whole range of options and views that he has and if I have my own views I'll let him know that but I'll always identify them as my own views, not as the only view that he has to hear."

Vice President Cheney was out and about. He spoke with NPR's Juan Williams and reiterated his positions that the "jury is still out" on whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and that there were indeed ties between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.

The NPR Web site offers extra audio not heard on the radio.

The Case of the Missing Documents

On the back flap of Ron Suskind's controversial book, "The Price of Loyalty," right under his bio, is a promise: "Original documents available on"

But they aren't there.

Suskind has often said he based a lot of his book, a tell-all from former Treasury secretary Paul H. O'Neill, on a two CD-ROM set of 19,000 documents that O'Neill received from the department's general counsel after his dismissal -- and turned over to Suskind without even opening them.

Last night, at a Washington bookstore, Suskind indicated that the documents' absence has something to do with the inquiry launched by the Treasury Department the day after Suskind and O'Neill appeared on "60 Minutes."

"It has been my hope to offer the documents to the public [online] . . . but at this juncture, and I can only say so much about this. . . . I can't do some of the things that I was planning to do and I can't really go beyond that right now."

The Treasury inquiry was launched after the CBS show flashed the image of a document that used the word "secret" -- apparently to describe another document that in fact was not in O'Neill's stash. O'Neill has said that what he received from Treasury and turned over to Suskind was an electronic file of all nonclassified information that crossed his desk as secretary. "There's nothing stamped classified in there," Suskind said last night.

Earlier in his talk at the Politics and Prose bookstore, Suskind likened the White House's reaction to his book -- specifically, the Treasury inquiry -- to the tactics of Sen. Joe McCarthy and the leaking of the identity of Joseph C. Wilson IV's CIA-agent wife. (Wilson, a former ambassador, has said he thinks Bush administration officials blew his wife's CIA cover by leaking her name to a syndicated newspaper columnist to retaliate against him for publicly challenging U.S. intelligence reports that Iraq was seeking uranium for nuclear weapons in Africa.)

Suskind suggested that when a book like his comes out, the revelations in it might actually be less revealing than the reaction to it. "That's when people see the teeth," he said.About the Treasury inquiry, he said, "That's a showing of the teeth. Those teeth ought to bring a reaction."

Most presidential administrations, he said, "see secrecy as a necessary evil. This administration sees it as a virtue. That's a big jump."

The Plame Game

Speaking of Joe Wilson and his wife, Dana Priest and Allan Lengel write in The Washington Post (second half of story) that Democratic members of key House committees are "frustrated by a lack of information about . . . the FBI's probe of who disclosed the identity of a CIA case officer, Valerie Plame, who was undercover." They are introducing a "Resolution of Inquiry, an infrequently used device to compel the executive branch to turn over information to Congress."

Douglas Jehl writes in the New York Times that "A group of former intelligence officers is pressing Congressional leaders to open an immediate inquiry" into the matter.

Road Trip, Day One

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times: "The White House insisted on Wednesday that President Bush's State of the Union speech was not the opening shot of his re-election campaign. But that did not stop the president from taking a relatively small job-training initiative that he included in the speech to two of the most hotly contested states in the coming election, Ohio and Arizona. . . .

"He carried Ohio in 2000 by a mere 165,000 votes and Arizona by even fewer, roughly 100,000 votes."

Amy Goldstein writes in The Washington Post that "the president depicted those proposals, totaling about $550 million next year, as heirs to a major revision of public education that he pushed through Congress his first year in office.

" 'No child should be left behind in the education system,' Bush said, invoking the name of the 2001 education law. 'No worker left behind because we haven't created a flexible system in order to get skills.' "

But, Goldstein writes, "critics noted that Bush had tried each of the past three years to cut the Labor Department's job-training efforts for adults by as much as 10 percent."

Last night, as Jon Kamman writes in the Arizona Republic, Bush "had an evening of sports talk at a Mexican restaurant with the Valley's leading lights of baseball and basketball."

Here's a Reuters photo&imageID=1000925605 .

Pool reporter Rick Pearson of the Chicago Tribune filed some details in his report:

"At the Tee Pee Mexican Food restaurant . . . POTUS sat inside a Formica-tabled, orange cushioned booth inside the front door. On POTUS right was Bob Brenly, manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the National League baseball club. On POTUS left, in a chair sticking out into the aisle was Jerry Colangelo, a local sports icon who is managing general partner of the Diamondbacks and the lead of the Phoenix Suns ownership. Across the table from POTUS was Artie Moreno, the new owner of the Anaheim Angels. On Moreno's left was Joe Garagiola Jr., vice president and general manager of the Diamondbacks. Three sombreros hung from the wall over the group, as did a painting of a young Latino girl. Brown bottles of Michelob Ultras and gold plastic tumblers sat in front of Brenly, Colangelo, Garagioloa and Moreno. Bush shook hands with them and with the owner of the restaurant, Art Killeen. Chips and salsa was on the table and a glass of water was in front of POTUS. The squat one-story taco and enchilada restaurant is described by locals as a longtime favorite of more than 44 years and having food better than the place looks."

The White House Web site offers text of Bush's remarks in Ohio, his remarks in Phoenix, a background briefing by a "Senior Administration Official" on the jobs initiative, and Scott McClellan's Press Gaggle.

Road Trip, Day Two

As Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press reports, Bush is off to Roswell, N.M., to focus on the global war against al Qaeda and other terrorist networks. He will speak before an audience of first responders, law enforcement officials and cadets from the New Mexico Military Institute. He will also deliver a 10-minute address by telephone to the March for Life Fund's abortion protest in Washington

Steve Holland of Reuters notes that "Roswell is hallowed ground for UFO conspiracy theorists, a place where a celebrated legend about an alien spacecraft crashing in 1947 is part of the local lore."

State of the Union, Day Two

Elisabeth Bumiller in the New York Times lays bare some of the political driving forces behind the address. Bush advisers tell her that he cast himself as America's moral leader not just to appeal to his base, but in an attempt to net "a bigger, more important group: married women with children, who voted for Bill Clinton in 1996 and Mr. Bush in 2000. In 2004, that group is, as always, up for grabs."

Bumiller writes that "Many Democrats said the subtext of the large part of Mr. Bush's speech devoted to traditional values, if not the entire speech, had been aimed squarely at Dr. Dean. . . . But by scheduling the speech only 24 hours after the Iowa caucuses, Democrats said, the White House had no time to tailor it to Senator John Kerry's victory there."

Lisa de Moraes writes in The Washington Post that Bush's TV ratings were down. He got "43 million viewers Tuesday night . . . about 20 million fewer viewers than last year's State of the Union." And even worse, he fumbled most of "a whopping 29 million-viewer lead-in" on Fox from "American Idol."

In the Wall Street Journal, Greg Hitt explains the mechanics behind the reaction shots in his story about how "once a somber presidential report on the soundness of the nation, the event has become another prime-time reality-TV special."

Gallup's instant-reaction poll of State of the Union speech watchers found that ratings were lower than last year. "And Bush's overall policy rating, about the same as last year, is much lower than what he received after his first two State of the Union speeches and lower than what President Bill Clinton received in his first-term speeches."

It was a day in the media spotlight for Ashley Pearson, after President Bush included a letter Ashley wrote in his State of the Union address.

Amy Forliti of the Associated Press writes that "the wide-eyed 10-year-old found herself in a media whirlwind." You can watch Ashley and her family on yesterday's Today show.

Blogging Google Web Bombs

Tom McNichol updates us in the New York Times on the unlikely electoral battle over what you get when you type the phrase miserable failure" into the Google search box. It's not just President Bush anymore.

Dick Cheney's Impenetrable Brown Cloud

I thought we could resolve this mystery together, readers, but I do not feel confident that we have got the bottom of it. I have been flooded with dozens of sometimes very imaginative responses to my "brown cloud" query, including a few likely suspects, but nothing that I consider truly definitive. Lacking closure, I reached out to someone you think would know, the vice president's own press secretary. But he was no help at all, really.

You may recall where this all began. In Tuesday's column, I urged you all to read the transcript of an interview Cheney did with reporters from USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

I noted one exchange in particular, where the softball question was, in part: "You must be well aware of the caricature of you that has evolved over the last three years, the whole undisclosed location thing, the sinister force behind the President's policies. What do you make of that? And do you feel compelled to deal with it, especially in the context of this campaign that's just beginning?"

Cheney's answer, also in part, was: "Why do I want to deal with it? What's wrong with my image? . . . Am I brown cloud? Am I the evil genius in the corner that nobody ever sees come out of his hole? It's a nice way to operate, actually."

So what did he mean by brown cloud? I asked you for help.

I will be blunt. There was a whole class of respondents to my question -- the plurality, in fact -- who will not be quoted here. Their suggestions are scatological in nature, and not fit even for the wild and woolly Web site of a family newspaper. Although Dave Barry could probably get away with it.

Here are some of the printable suggestions.

Ed Crowder: "Brown Cloud" sounds like one of Dubya's nicknames.

Karin Kopesky: "A toxin, aerosolized as a WMD."

Scott Jansson of Stanford University was the first to suggest that it is a reference to Pigpen from the "Peanuts" comic strip. Pigpen (see drawing) trailed around a cloud of dirt wherever he went. Half a dozen other readers agreed.

John Treveiler of Chester, S.C., was the first of a handful of reader to suggest that it was a reference to Joe Btfsplk, a character in the Li'l Abner comic strips. (See drawing.) Not long after his e-mail, Joyce Nowak also voted for Btfsplk (which is pronounced by making a raspberry sound). She explained that "this character always had a dark cloud hanging over him. Unfortunate things happened wherever he went. Sounds like Cheney to me."

Barbara Griffin of Pittsburgh writes: "This is easy! He's referring to the Winnie-the-Pooh story where Pooh coats himself in mud, holds onto a blue balloon, and floats up to a bee hive in a tree in an attempt to fool the bees into thinking he is a cloud so that he can steal their honey."

In the Tuesday column, I proffered one possibility, that it was a reference to the strip of visible pollutants sometimes seen along the horizon in some American cities, and increasingly across Asia.

Several of you, particularly those who are familiar with Denver smog, said that was it.

Stuart Strum, Austin, Tex.: "I would suggest that the 'brown cloud' reference is indeed one to air pollution. Denver's serious air quality problems actually spread northward to Wyoming, Cheney's home state, and Wyoming residents often speak of Denver and Colorado with derision. Many Wyoming residents see Denver as a decadent city that despoils their rural paradise, and the 'brown cloud' is the symbol of all that is bad from their neighbor to the south."

Thinking I could put this conundrum to rest, I called the White House. But Cheney spokesman Kevin Kellems only drew out the mystery. "I think the color of the cloud, and the meaning of the color of the cloud, are in the eye of the beholder," he said, enigmatically.

Has he heard the vice president use that term before? "I haven't heard it, but I haven't been working for him that long." It should also be noted that Kellems expressed admiration for this correspondent. "You're into some heavy reporting and very tricky questions," he said.

An outlier theory, to be sure, but my favorite response, came from Robert Carlisle of Arlington: "It's a stretch. . . . But this is a vital point in this classic book, and Cheney is as well read as they come . . . ... and this brown cloud does sum up a hidden unknowable menace . . . "

"A troop of horses had broken out of the fenced paddock of the Railway Company. They came on like a whirlwind, and dashed over the line snorting, kicking, squealing in a compact, piebald, tossing mob of bay, brown, grey backs, eyes staring, necks extended, nostrils red, long tails streaming. As soon as they had leaped upon the road the thick dust flew upwards from under their hoofs, and within six yards of Giorgio only a brown cloud with vague forms of necks and cruppers rolled by, making the soil tremble on its passage."

"From Nostromo, by Joseph Conrad."

© 2004