White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, February 9, 2005; 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.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome. Much to talk about today, including the Bush bubble I wrote about yesterday, Karl Rove's ascension and, yes, the downfall of Jeff Gannon. Plus whatever else is on your mind.

Bring 'em on.


San Jose, Calif.: I really appreciated your early coverage of the Gannon/Guckert affair, but am curious to learn how, as with Kerik, the White House vetting procedure got so lax. Is this part of a trend towards not vetting those put forward by Bush associates? Is there an official policy of calling so-called reporters by their aliases? Would Scott McClellan call a questioner by the name PrincessSparklePony if she put that forward as her alias?

Dan Froomkin: I've been writing about the outrageous Gannon questions for a long time. But in my mind there are two issues here:

1) Do you prevent every crank who wants one from getting day passes to the White House briefing room? Gannon was one of many, and I'd almost be more worried if the White House started getting too controlling on that count.

2) If you're the president or the press secretary, do you call on them? Indeed, do you call on them when you need a lifeline?

I had less of a beef with Gannon than I did with the folks who actually called on him.


Alexandria, Va.: I'm not a fan of the President. My biggest beef is that he does not talk to me. He ignores people who do not share his beliefs. So I appreciate you article on the "bubble." I was appalled by this practice during the campaign but I am even more appalled by the lack of reporters calling him and his supporters on this. I have not even seen a lot about this in the blogs. Is this just too hard of a subject for the press to press?

Dan Froomkin: This is a hard one for the press, yes. A lot of my colleagues are squeamish about appearing to be critical of the president -- even when the issue is one of public access and accountability, and so on.

And there are two attenuating factors:

1) The opposition isn't making much of a fuss about it.

2) Our tendency as reporters, encouraged from our very baby steps in the business, is to eke out news even where there isn't any. So even if Bush says absolutely nothing new at an event, we may try to make it look like he sort of did. The alternative, to write a story that says "Nothing happened" runs contrary to our prime directive.

That said, as I have written before, I think that in your typical conversation about Social Security these days, what is most newsworthy is what is not said, and who is not there. That's a reasonable approach and one more reporters should take.


Portland, Maine: RE: "the red problem" from Bush's Tampa stop. I appreciate you printed Bush's response in full. Did the rest of the major media give Bush's full description of how his plan is saving Social Security as well? Other than the Daily Show that is? You put that response on the 6:30 national news shows and... whew.

Dan Froomkin: A good question. Would that have been a cheap shot? Would it have been perceived as a cheap shot? From my perspective, with my format, I thought it was a no-brainer. I think it was telling on many levels. But can you in fact imagine it on the national news?

(For those who missed it, it's the last few paragraphs of the "Clinton Comparison" section of yesterday's column.)


Severna Park, Md.: So do you really think that Karl Rove's effectivenenss will be reduced in his new position. Will the administrative ash and trash really slow him down?

Dan Froomkin: Well, I was thinking about that more after I filed my column. Maybe, maybe not. It depends what these meetings are like.

I guess I was thinking about the kinds of meetings I have experienced in the world of newspapers and new media. There tended to be a fair amount of disagreement, I write understatedly.

Conceivably, I guess, if a Rove meeting is: 'Here's what I think, get cracking', well then, that might not really slow him down at all.


Arlington, Va.: Hi Mr. Froomkin,

Thanks for the chats -- always fun and interesting.

Now I consider myself a concerned citizen, and, being young (25), I'm very interested in hearing some different proposals for reforming/altering social security. My complaint is, there's been a huge debate thus far, and no real proposal from anyone (at least not that I've seen).

How can Bush promote his plan if he won't give details (or field actual qeustions)? And, conversely, how can Democrats simply say no when Bush says that "Everything is on the table." So far, it just strikes me as a debate that's all politics and no policy.

And people wonder why voter turnout is low... Neither side of the debate has taught the American public much of anything about this complex issue, and neither seems to be trying.

Dan Froomkin: You put your finger on a really good point, which is that we don't really know what Bush is advocating for, at least as far as "fixing" the long-term financing issues.

We know a bit more about his private-accounts idea, though. At least enough for reasonable people to start making up their minds about that.


Washington, D.C.: Re: Jeff "Scratch behind my ears Mr. President" Gannon, I saw an interesting point raised (maybe by you). How can the man get a press pass to the most secure installation in the world while admittedly using an alias?

Dan Froomkin: The alias issue was indeed an interesting one. Did Gannon recieve special favors? If so, that's an issue. I believe blogger Atrios was the first to bring that up.


Arnold, Md.: Hi Dan-

Longtime reader, first-time poster:

You've written several times about the Talon News White House correspondant, Jeff Gannon. Are you aware that Mr. Gannon is actually a fraud and a shill planted by the Bush Administration?

The story was broken thanks to the collective diligence of the blogosphere (see www.Dailykos.com) who through a little "investigative journalism," uncovered the shill's false identity and lack of press credentials. Now we'd like to know how the White House issued this man a daily pass to the press briefings.

As a mainstream professional journalist, are you troubled in any way by this administation's use of paid pundits to manipulate the mass media? Would you consider this "propaganda?"

Finally, will the mainstream media pick up on this story or have they given up investigative journalism in favor of letting the "internets" do their job?

Thanks for considering these questions.

Dan Froomkin: Look, I don't really know what's up with Gannon, Guckert, whatever. I haven't independently confirmed any of the allegations running around out there in the blogosphere, some of them quite tawdry.

Over the past year, I occasionally thought it was worth noting, when Gannon was called on at the daily briefing and responded with a really outrageous softball, that he was in fact not with what I would consider a legitimate media organization. I did that for months, and everything really hit the fan when he did it at a presidential news conference.

But I have some serious concerns with some of the Gannon-bashing going on out there. First of all, it's gotten awfully personal. And secondly, I can't imagine that Gannon was "placed" there by high-ranking GOP or administration officials.

I think he took advantage of the fact that he could get in (again, he's not the only crank there). Then he took advantage of the fact that McClellan liked using him as a foil.

Gannon's gone, fine. But the heat should be on McClellan, not him. Why did he call on Gannon? Did they ever pre-arrange anything? Did they have any contact with his parent organization?

And yes, those are questions I do think the mainstream press should be asking.


Toronto, Canada: Hi Dan,

Excellent column, and kudos to the Washington Post for hosting these great live forums.

Since GWB has been in office as POTUS, do you have any evidence of anyone who has taken him aside and given him a piece of their mind?

I ask this after reading about the Reid dinner at the White House Monday evening.

Dan Froomkin: Boy, I would have liked to be a fly on the wall for that one!

That's an interesting question, and no, I don't know of any yelling matches. But I wouldn't.

I did write in my Jan. 25 column about a report that Colin Powell walked into the Oval Office last month and, when asked how the war in Iraq was going, told Bush "We're losing" -- and then was asked to leave.


Conway, Ark.: I'm struck how often journalists don't know how to refer to Karl Rove. He's obviously important, but in the lowest-common-denominator speak that you guys often have to use to encompass all readers, it's as if he needs to be introduced in every article he appears. He's not an elected official or a cabinet secretary, so it's assumed only "inside baseball readers" know his name readily in the conventions of journalism.

So, it seems, "Karl Rove, senior advisor to the President" is rank understatement, yet you can't I suppose go around referring to him as "Karl Rove, the man really in charge of everything" without seeming and being biased. Now that he has the official titles, will those issues change? Or will he continue being referred to as "a senior administration official" most of the time anyway?

Dan Froomkin: I think "political guru" has its charm.


Eeking out news even where there isn't any: Hey Dan
When you say that reporters eke out news even when (and where) there isn't any, wouldn't these "slow" news days be better spent unraveling the next layer of the news onion and going a little bit deeper with an "older" story than may have been possible on the day the "older" story broke? When the pool is wide but not very deep, it seems to me that the media is informing the public about a whole lot of nothing instead of helping foster a deeper understanding of a particular issue. Truly, both reporters' time and readers' time may be better spent. What say you?

Dan Froomkin: We do that, too.

Look, it's one thing to skip a school board meeting when there's nothing interesting on the agenda.

It's another not to attend an event held by the president of the United States. We've got to cover those -- the question is how.

But yes, I agree with your central premise. We need to be less reactive.


Minneapolis, Minn.: What's the status of the Plame investigation and the grand jury?

Has anything happened regarding Karl Rove since he appeared before the grand jury right before the election?


Dan Froomkin: Um, you mean, besides his promotion? ;-)

It's crazy how little we know about that investigation. No, I have no idea what's up.


Herndon, Va.: Not a question, just a comment...thanks for those Social Security talking points over at niemanwatchdog. I used to think that this whole debate had some merit to it, but after doing a little research I realize it just boils down to more ideology and partisan politics. Keep up the good work.

Dan Froomkin: What, you mean this little thing? Aw, shucks.


Washington, D.C.: Hiya Dan
To what do you attribute the public's lack of attention to the Medicare shortfalls? This is a much more pressing issue than Social Security, but it has not gained any traction in Bush's second term. What gives?

Dan Froomkin: We haven't written about it enough. And has it even made the evening news once?


Fargo, N.D.: During the State of the Union, Bush specifically mentioned asbestos when talking about frivolous lawsuits. Blame the victimization of the American legal system by the Bushies aside, the coincidence of The Post's report on the Grace Co and asbestos in Montana jumped out at me. What's the story on why he specifically cited asbestos in the State of the Union?

From the land of lost Secret Service gas masks . Thanks for your always-interesting briefing in the Post.

Dan Froomkin: Bush's line about asbestos struck a lot of people as coming out of nowhere. But it was not the first time Bush has raised the issue. He had one of his conversations about it last month (and no, there were no proponents of asbestos litigation up there on stage with him.)

It's part of his whole liability cap platform.

The timing was not good, though, was it.


Los Angeles, Calif.: I've got one word for President Bush's Social Security program: E-Trade. If people want to invest a portion of their income in the stock market, they can do it themselves by opening an account themselves.

Dan Froomkin: The biggest mistake that people, and reporters, can make in the debate about Social Security is trying to oversimplify. Opening an E-trade account is not like the federal government's Thrift Savings Plan is not like private Social Security accounts is not like Social Security as we know it.

It is our great challenge as journalists to clarify -- but not oversimplify. And not bore our readers to death.


Anacortes, Wash.: Bush has stated in the past numerous times that he wants to play the role of uniter, implying atleast that he was capable of acknowledging the divide between the two major parties. In his usual fashion he has further elevated to a position of influence on domestic policy issues, the man who has become the poster child for the dirty politics smear campaigns we have unfortunately become all to used to. Its another example of a president who will say one thing, with his tongue firmly wedged against his cheek while he plans for and does exactly the opposite. Further polarization of the two parties will in no way serve the american people. Turning our goverment into another buisness monopoly run by only republican conservatives is not in the best interest of America.

Dan Froomkin: Well, it would be hard to call Karl Rove a bipartisan kind of guy, wouldn't it?


Cleveland, Ohio: I received a news update this morning from Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting regarding the New York Times killing a story about Bush's use of an electronic device during the first debate. Any chance this will be discussed openly and honestly in the media and that, if proved, accurate, Bush will be outed as the liar he is?

Dan Froomkin: The report you are talking about has gotten a fair amount of buzz, so I feel obliged to answer your question, even though I'm not really comfortable doing so.

For one, I don't have any direct knowledge of the facts, and this is pure speculation on my part.

But my view is that there is no chance whatsoever that the Times had anything remotely like definitive proof that Bush was using an electronic device during the debate. If they had, they would have printed it.

They may have had a lighthearted story about this scientist who swore he had figured out what the bulge was. And they may have then decided they shouldn't run something like that before the election.

That's my best guess. Emphasis on the word guess.

Now that said, I am still curious about what the bulge was and don't like the White House stonewall on the topic, even if it is a security device of some sort.

And it wouldn't hurt for the Times to explain what they had.


Laurel, Md.: The link between asbestos in the State of the Union and the president was sitting right behind him. Isn't Haliburton involved in some asbestos litigation?

Dan Froomkin: Well, there is that, too. See, for instance, this story: Halliburton to begin asbestos settlement payouts


McLean, Va.: Hi Dan
The Democrats and others have done a rather poor job defining Social Security as insurance against poverty rather than an investment mechanism. To do this well requires a look back at the conditions that existed when the program started and the political will to use the government as a safety net to insure older Americans did not fall below an arguable minimum standard of living. As you allude in your "other" column, there are real differences between the way the program started and has been used, and the way it is being portrayed in the last 19 days. Great job. I only hope more readers get a chance to spend a few minutes absorbing it.

Dan Froomkin: Thank you.

The fact that journalists haven't made this more clear -- and that the language of investment seeps more and more into the shorthand they use to explain things -- I find alarming.


Annapolis, Md.: Dan - you are absolutely right, the heat should be on McClellan and the BA, not on Gannon personally. Given the tactics the BA uses with the bubble trips, it doesn't surprise me that McClellan would call on reporters that would ask him the questions he wanted. What amazes me about the Gannon issue though is the power of the blogosphere to affect a story this way. How do mainstream reporters feel about this, and do you think we'll see that power grow as a result of this kind of thing?

Dan Froomkin: I think this will be an interesting test case of the blogosphere's ability to "investigatively report."

On the one hand, this shows the incredible potential of parallel processing of people power. On the other hand, a lot of what I've seen out there is exagerated and tawdry and very personal.

I kind of wanted Gannon gone, or at least wanted McClellan to stop calling on him. But I didn't necessarily want his scalp.


Cambridge, Mass.: Wait -- did you say in your column today that earnings over $90K are not taxed? What? Isn't that fiscally counterintuitive?

Dan Froomkin: The Social Security payroll tax is capped at $90,000. So Bill Gates pays as much as Karl Rove.


Arlington, Va.: How can Bush get away with his outrageous exclusionary tactics at taxpayer paid events such as his post-State of the Union barnstorming tour? It is one thing for his campaign to pull this stuff but as president it is anti-democratic and downright cowardly. Did the Secret Service assist in removing undesirables as they did at Bush's campaign events?? These tactics sound like something done by some of the regimes Bush so righteeously denounces.

Dan Froomkin: Well, one of your points reminds me that there is still some good reporting to be done. For instance, are these events like the campaign events in that if someone did show up with a anti-Bush T-shirt, they would be ejected?


Newark, Del.: Dan,

In the Social Security debate, is the White house willing to compromise to find a solution? There seems to be a plethora of options to correct the problems with social security. Solutions that can include private accounts. Or is it "my way or the highway" for the White House.

Dan Froomkin: Bush says he is open to various ways of solving the problem, as long as they don't involve an increase in the payroll tax. (But would increasing the cap qualify as an increase?)

A separate issue is private accounts. And there's no sign of flexibility there, at least not yet.

But he does reverse himself sometimes, abruptly and without looking back.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Dan - Here's a question I'd like to hear asked of President Bush -- "Do you personally believe in evolution or do you believe in the literal interpretation of the creation story as told in the Bible?"

Dan Froomkin: You know, on the one hand I'd very much like to hear the answer to that question. On the other hand, what's the point, other than to create more division?

I'd rather ask how he thinks science teachers should be presenting evolution in public classrooms. That's a legitimate public policy question these days.

That said, I suspect that the president is not a creationist. He talks the evangelical talk, but doesn't really walk the walk, from what we can tell.


Suitland, Md.: Doesn't the addition of Karl Rove as Deputy Chief of Staff just add yet another "yes sir" person to the complicilatory environment that is Bush's administration?

Dan Froomkin: No, sir. He's the person people say "yes, sir" to!


Chicago, Ill.: Thanks for the link to the economic contradiction story. I've been wondering if the crisis hysteria about a system that relies completely on wage taxes is an implicit admission by the Bush administration that this jobless recovery is more or less permanent.

Dan Froomkin: I do so love economic conspiracy theories.


Alexandria, Va.: How will Andy Card handle the promotion of Rove to Deputy Chief of Staff? Can Andy use his Jedi Memory Trick on Rove to reel him in? Or is Rove more like a bucking bronco: hard to control and strong-willed?

Dan Froomkin: That's one of the big questions here. There's some speculation that Rove is getting ready to take over from Card, if Card should leave.

Card obviously must have gone along with this, but willingly?

Remember what Card said when Karen Hughes announced she was leaving. Let me find it.

Here. This is from Ron Suskind's piece in Esquire in 2003:

"[L]ast spring, when I spoke to White House chief of staff Andrew Card, he sounded an alarm about the unfettered rise of Rove in the wake of senior adviser Karen Hughes's resignation: 'I'll need designees, people trusted by the president that I can elevate for various needs to balance against Karl. . . . They are going to have to really step up, but it won't be easy. Karl is a formidable adversary.'"


Dan Froomkin: OK, thanks everyone. Our time is up. Marvelous questions as always, and I wish I could have gotten to more. Talk to you again here in two weeks, and every weekday in the column.


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