White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, October 6, 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. One point I amazingly didn't get around to making in my just-finished omnibus vice-presidential debate column today was that while John Edwards mentioned John Kerry quite a bit, Vice President Cheney barely mentioned President Bush at all! Isn't that odd?

And of course many observers are suggesting that Cheney did a considerably better job of advocating Bush administration policy than Bush did last week.

Incidentally, Bush reappeared, as it were, this morning. Here's the text of his speech in Wilkes-Barre this morning.

I'm looking forward to your questions and comments.


College Park, Md.: Though I don't think there was any clear winner in the debate last night, there may be one loser, George Bush. Bush's reliance on such clichéd expressions as "you know what's in my heart blah, blah, blah" lacks the substance and knowledge displayed by the other three men in the race. Is there the risk that he'll come across like a lightweight, and is Dr. Phil writing Bush's copy?

Dan Froomkin: I received a quite moving e-mail from the heartland the other day, talking about how the Eastern media establishment is blind to the considerable appeal of Bush's "from the heart" rhetoric. I think there may be something to that.


Anonymous: Dan, the White House must be high-fiving each other over Gwen Ifill's questions last night -- my lord, what was that woman thinking? She couldn't even keep track of whose turn it was to answer!;

Dan Froomkin: It grieves me that the debate format prevents moderators from following up. But I thought Ifill did a very nice job last night, and right down the middle. What do others think?


Douglassville, Pa.: Good afternoon Dan,
Your "Briefing" is a must read every day.

Considering recent comments on Iraq by Ambassador Bremer and Secretary Rumsfeld, is the White House's version of Iraqi reality coming unglued?

Dan Froomkin: Thank you for your kind words.

As for your question, we will find out on Nov. 2, I suspect. Until then, it's anyone's guess/spin/whatever.


Arlington, Va.: It may be me but the major speech that the President gave in Pennsylvania this morning doesn't seem that major to me. It appears to be the same old mix of I'm better than Kerry who is dangerous. Is this one going to fall into the same black hole as the State of the Union speech this year? Also, who was the crowd her addressed?

washingtonpost.com: Bush Attacks Kerry on Security, Economy (washingtonpost.com, Oct. 6)

Dan Froomkin: I was so busy finishing up my column that I couldn't watch the speech, and I've just skimmed the text.

It looks to me like it has some new zingers in it. I'm not sure what else is new. Anyone want to pitch in?

The fact that the White House changed its plans abruptly and then announced the speech would be "significant" has certainly got the attention of the press corps, which smells... something.

Here's Matea Gold and Edwin Chen in the LA Times this morning, sniffing around.


Marblehead, Mass.: Perhaps it's easier for the person making policy to defend it?

Dan Froomkin: That's cold.


Washington, D.C.: The polls might disagree on who won yesterday's debate. The Democrats saw John Edward as the winner as the Republicans say Dick Cheney.
My question is, how will the great performance of his VP in last night's debate affect Bush? All of us, including Bush himself, know he's not going to out-shine Cheney on substance. Bush also knows he has to do better than what he did in the first debate, although the subject of the first debate was thought to have been his forte. Now his own VP out performed him, how much pressure does this put on the President to do better than or equal to Cheney?

Dan Froomkin: That's a very good question. Is the pressure even higher on Bush now that Cheney has been so articulate?


Gaithersburg, Md.: Dan -- Thanks for the chats, they are a great public service. I wanted to offer my opinion that the two Post editorials following the two debates have been sorely wanting.

The one after Bush v. Kerry purported, essentially, that the debate was a tie! It is not being even-handed to call things even when they are so clearly one-sided.

And, today's editorial stated that Cheney "was right to chide the Kerry-Edwards team for appearing insufficiently appreciative of the allies and Iraqis who have fought alongside U.S. troops." This is absurdly partisan, to endorse Cheney's disingenuous, spinning reply to Edwards on-target statement that we have taken 90 percent of COALITION casualties (confirmed in the Post's own fact-checking article).

Who writes these darn things!? (Is this where Allawi's speechwriter moved on to?)

washingtonpost.com: Editorial: Cheney vs. Edwards (Post, Oct. 6)

Dan Froomkin: You'll forgive me for ducking, but nobody on the news side has ever benefitted from speculating about what happens on the editorial side.


Boston, Mass.: Most of the rhetoric, spin, blogging, whatever you want to call it, seems to be hinging on one point Cheney made. That he never met Edwards before. If this is truly what the debate has boiled down to, I can't imagine either side scored any points here.

Dan Froomkin: Yes and no. In some ways it's a trivial story, and maybe I should be ashamed that I led my column with it, and maybe it's a distraction from the genuinely important issues.

But it's also kind of fun and dramatic.

And one could argue that it speaks to Cheney's credibility, which I think was a key part of Edwards's case last night.


Gambrills, Md.: You used to run a "Plame watch" in your daily column. Do you think it's likely that we'll see that portion of your column reappear anytime before the election? Although there aren't many stories out there, the fact that a Senior Administration Official leaked the identity of a covert CIA spy does actually bother a lot of people.

Dan Froomkin: I run "Plame Watch" when there's something to see. Right now, things are quiet again. I expect some more stories soon, though.

I mean, at this point, does anyone actually expect any indictments before the election? If that's off the table, that's a pretty big story in itself, isn't it?


Delmar, N.Y.: According to the lead article in the Washington Post today, a report that constitutes the most definitive assessment of Iraq's arms program under Saddam Hussein at the time of our invasion will show he had no WMD. This is consistent with numerous other reports and assessments that Saddam Hussein posed little or no threat to the United States. The President and other administration officials continually make the point that we had no choice but to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein because he refused to disarm. How could he have satisfied the conditions posed by President Bush to disarm if he had no arms in the first place? Wasn't the precondition for Saddam Hussein to avoid war the performance of an impossible task? Disarm when he had no arms in the first place! How come no one ever makes this point to wit that there was nothing Saddam Hussein could have done to deflect this Administration's plans for invasion?

washingtonpost.com: Report Discounts Iraqi Arms Threat (Post, Oct. 6)

Dan Froomkin: Look, I don't think anyone would deny that Saddamn had a credibility problem. The onus was legitimately on him to prove that he didn't have WMD, and he failed to meet that onus -- at least by the Bush deadline.

Also, the White House yesterday was stressing the report's finding that Saddam was trying to undermine the sanctions against Iraq, so he could once again start amassing WMD.

That said, I suspect this report is very bad news for the White House. It reminds people of what is possibly the Bush campaign's greatest weakness: The fact that we went to war, for one reason or another, on false pretenses.


New York: Why did Ifill ask a question where she wanted the candidates to not use their running mates' names? It was so weird, especially when she told Edwards he had broken the "rule."

Dan Froomkin: OK, I didn't get that one either. (Especially since Cheney had essentially been following that rule all along!)


Washington, D.C.: Do you have a take on how well the "Ask President Bush" events has prepared the President for Friday night? It would seem that taking regular people questions, even if they were hand-picked soft-toss ones, would be good "batting practice" for him. Do you think too much soft toss has left his bat slow?
(You can tell I flipped between baseball and the debate last night)

Dan Froomkin: Bush is great at softballs. He was great to start with, and the "Ask President Bush" events have made him even better. He also is great when he can connect with a friendly crowd. The huge unknown about Friday is will the crowd of "soft" Bush and Kerry supporters -- whoever they turn out to be -- ask softballs, or hardballs, or screwballs? If the latter two, then the "APB" events will turn out to have served him quite poorly, I suspect. If the former, it's Kerry who's at a tremendous disadvantage.

There was a funny exchange about this topic that I quoted in yesterday's column, toward the bottom.


Charles Town, W.Va.: What did you think of the exchange about Cheney's gay daughter? I thought the kind words from Kerry largely "de-fanged" Cheney.

Cheney declined to follow up and defend the administration's support for a Constitutional Amendment, and after that exchange he declined at least a couple of times to follow-up on other issues.

Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, he stopped zinging Edwards with the sharp one liners.

Dan Froomkin: Much speculation today about who defanged who with that exchange. It was certainly the most human and touching moment of the night.

I should also note that, after two mysterious no-shows during the Republican National Convention, Mary Cheney, the vice president's lesbian daughter, did join the rest of the Cheney family onstage post-debate.


Boston, Mass.: Does the "Bush uses an earpiece" story have legs? Is it being investigated? Is it credible? Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest it is. It would certainly explain a lot about his speech pattern in unscripted scenarios.

Dan Froomkin: So far, this story remains in the tinfoil-hat domain. But have you noticed how quickly some stories move from there to the front page these days? I'm keeping an "ear" out for any developments.


Middletown, Conn.: Dan: I really enjoy the column, and start hovering over the computer at noon each day waiting for it to appear.

I was kind of surprised last night that Edwards skipped over one very obvious line of defense against Cheney's attacks on his "inexperience." Why didn't Edwards remind everyone that his experience certainly matched up with Dubya's when the latter was running in 2000?

Dan Froomkin: Did you notice how neither Edwards nor Cheney actually spent much time defending themselves against the attacks by the other? Very clever, if you ask me. Especially when the moderator can't ask follow-ups. Better to stay on message.

You'll notice Cheney didn't spend much time defending Halliburton either! In fact, I think he actually gave up time, rather than go there.


Takoma Park, Md.: Hi Dan, love your column!

Question: were you nervous (like I was!) last night when Edwards started talking about Cheney's family when the gay marriage topic came up? I almost stopped breathing, I was afraid that would be TOO personal if not handled correctly. While some have lamented that Cheney didn't take his response time (just using it to thank Edwards for his kind comments), I don't think there was anything else he could say. Any thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks!

And yes! That was by far the most this-could-go-anywhere moment of the night.

I think there were lots of other things Cheney could have said.


Washington, D.C.: Dan -- I just checked the link to this morning's Wilkes Barre speech. Reading all the (applause) (boo) inserts is a hoot. MAkes Prez Bush seem even more like a game show host. Well he was a cheerleader after all, not the quarterback.

Dan Froomkin: You know, I have a question in to the White House about this, to wit: If you transcribe all the pro-Bush audience noises, why don't you transcribe the hecklers? (Rare as they are.)

I particularly like counting how many "o"'s they put in the "boo"'s. There have been as many as five!


Washington: Do you have any info about how the questions or even the audience for the town meeting debate is being chosen? Do people apply to be in the audience? Do they have to give party affiliation, or who they support, if anyone? Are the questions vetted by anyone, and in particular do representatives from the parties' national committees get to see the questions?

There doesn't seem to be a lot of info out there about how the town meeting is being planned.

Dan Froomkin: I don't know the details. I'll try to find out by tomorrow morning's column. Good question.


Conway, Ark.: What is a "soft" supporter? What identifying information will be provided Friday about these amorphous questioners? I imagine bloggers on both sides will be Googling each and every one of them to see if they're in fact county chairmen or donors to the campaign (not exactly "soft" supporters).

By the way, it was the bloggers who broke the "Cheney met Edwards multiple times before" info last night, in case you're looking for evidence of your blogging info command center or whatever you call it...

Dan Froomkin: You mean my parallel pajama-people processor postulate?

I haven't had a chance to comb the blogosphere yet regarding the veep debates, but I've spot-checked and seen some interesting stuff already.

I firmly believe that bloggers, if not now then soon, will be fact-checking the heck out of everything and everyone, and I couldn't be happier.


Liverpool, U.K.: Much has been said about President Bush's disputed service in the National Guard 30 years' ago (as well as the Dan Rather/CBS documents controversy). However, it seems that the U.S. media has overlooked a similar situation concerning Vice-President Cheney. Could you shed any light on this?

Dan Froomkin: Well, if you believe the very worst about Cheney is true, he went to enormous lengths not to get drafted and hasn't talked about it much since. Even if true, is that really so outrageous? Hypocritical, maybe.

Whereas if you believe the very worst about Bush, he used his family influence to bump someone else out of a safe, stateside posting, failed to meet his National Guard obligations, refused a direct order, defrauded the U.S. government, used his family influence to get honorably discharged, and has lied about it since. If true, that would be outrageous.

That said, the story is just not high on anyone's radar any more.


Washington, D.C.: There's been a lot written about the Bush campaign's strategy of allowing only committed supporters to their events. Isn't this a poor strategy? Isn't the point of a campaign event to sway undecided voters?

Dan Froomkin: There's something to be said for motivating your base, too.

And you could argue that positive media coverage of a friendly event can influence the swing voters more than letting some of them in and risking an incident.


San Antonio, Tex.: "I received a quite moving e-mail from the heartland the other day, talking about how the Eastern media establishment is blind to the considerable appeal of Bush's "from the heart" rhetoric. I think there may be something to that."

I think you're on to something huge here, Dan. Do you think people from the heartland/red states are just more trusting, perhaps less inquisitive, than voters from the blue states, who may be more cynical and more inclined to dissect both the administration's policies and the candidates' remarks? How does one investigate/comment on these soft, immeasurable differences?

Dan Froomkin: You put reporters on it!


Columbia, Md.: I feel that a lot of people had a chance to get to know Edwards for the first time last night, and I think they may have been impressed enough as non-committed voters to want to vote for him. What do you think?

Dan Froomkin: I have a sneaking suspicion that Edwards did much better with the undecideds than the pundits think. I admit that is partly because I was watching the cool-o undecided-o-meter on cbsnews.com last night, and it looked like the undecideds were pretty keen on Edwards, and pretty down on Cheney. It had a little scale, and it actually went into the negative zone a few times when Cheney was speaking, and soared higher during some of Edwards's statements than it ever did in Bush-Kerry. (It also looked to me like it went negative for a few seconds when Dan Rather's face appeared, but that could have been a technical glitch, I suppose.)


Pierre, S.D.: If I were Rove, I would have Cheney "fill in" on the remaining two debates. President Bush would be unavailable and the VP would step up for him. Don't you think Cheney v. Kerry would be a much more even matchup?

Dan Froomkin: You trying to start a "dump Bush" movement?


College Park, Md.: Unlike last Tuesday's debate, I think this one was pretty much a draw, and that one's opinion on the matter will come down to pre-debate opinions (i.e., who you supported). They went at it pretty relentlessly, both stretching the truth at times. Only one thing surprised me. I expected Cheney to excel in the format it was set in, as we've seen him do so often on Sunday mornings, but Edwards did very well and was able to put Cheney on the defensive, which eliminated Cheney's edge in the discussion. They both had their collection of selected facts and delivered them well. Cheney had the more difficult task of defending the not-too-glamorous record of the past three years (e.g., job losses, sky-rocketing health care costs, chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan), and it was a real cutting blow that Edwards landed when he rattled off the different votes Cheney had made when he was in the house (e.g., voting against MLK Day, a resolution to demand the release of Mandela, Head Start, etc.). Not much compassion there. What's Scott saying about the debate?

Dan Froomkin: Thank you. Here's what Scott said today: "The President watched the
debate last night in the Residence, and he called the Vice President afterwards, and told him he did an outstanding job. The Vice President clearly contrasted the differences on the big priorities facing the American people."


Charlottesville, Va.: How many times did Cheney decline to use his allotted rebuttal time?

Given the gravity of the issues, didn't you find that a little flippant, even offensive?

Dan Froomkin: Offensive, no. It's quite a contrast, though, when you think about it. Both Bush and Cheney at various times didn't use all their allocated time. Kerry and Edwards used pretty much every second.


Boston, Mass.: After watching the vice presidential debate, the headline this morning should have been "CHENEY BEATS BUSH."

Dan Froomkin: Funny!


Dan Froomkin: Thanks, everyone. Great questions. Sorry I couldn't take more of them. See you in two week here, and every day, around mid-day, on the home page.


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