White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, April 21, 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 the former editor of washingtonpost.com. You can also e-mail him at froomkin@washingtonpost.com.

The transcript follows.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House Talk. Bring it on.


Chevy Chase, Md.: I found it hard to believe Dan Bartlett's quote in today's story by Mike Allen saying that the White House is encouraging people to buy the Woodward book. Is that just a ploy so they avoid giving attention to Woodward like they did to Clarke? What are your top sources in the West Wing telling you?

washingtonpost.com: Pentagon Deleted Rumsfeld Comment (Post, April 21)

Dan Froomkin: You know, you can just say the words "George Bush" these days and half of America will think you just said something nice, and the other half will think you just said something mean. Well, that wasn't elegant, but my point is that there's something about Bush, like Clinton, that leaves very few people objective.

Bush supporters I think are genuinely pleased at how decisive and commonsensical Bush comes across in the book -- because that's exactly how they read it. Bush opponents of course see a war-mongering simpleton. Same book. Amazing, huh?


Rochester, N.Y.: I have heard that reporters allow the White House to screen their questions as a way to guarantee that Bush will call on them. This is an outrage, if true. Is it?

Dan Froomkin: No it's not.

I touched on this question in my column this morning. The conspiracy theory that reporters submit their questions ahead of time to the White House is very hot in the blogosphere right now.

But it's completely and utterly preposterous -- and entirely unfounded. I would like to kill it once and for all. There are plenty of legitimate questions about the White House press corps, we shouldn't be wasting our time on this one.

The problem is that the theory got a boost recently from comments attributed to well-respected author/journalist Ron Suskind while on a panel at the Annenberg School for Communication.

Zach Fox wrote in the USC paper, the Daily Trojan: "For each press conference, the White House press secretary asks the reporters for their questions, selects six or seven of the questions to answer and those reporters are the only ones called upon to ask their questions during the press conference, Suskind said."

I don't know if this is what Suskind really said, but it's just plain wrong.

I linked to two reputable bloggers who were wondering about this recently: Washington Monthly blogger Kevin Drum, formerly known as Calpundit and Talking Points Memo blogger Joshua Micah Marshall.

Also, as I wrote in my column on Monday, The New York Times' Elisabeth Bumiller addressed the issue directly in her weekly White House Letter, writing that reporters "do not submit questions to the White House beforehand, but administration officials have a good idea of what's coming from the questions reporters ask at the daily press briefings."

To put this even further to rest, I just e-mailed Mike Allen, White House correspondent for The Washington Post. This is what Mike had to say:

"I have checked this out thoroughly with both colleagues in the press and the staff at the White House and I have no one who has ever heard of a question being submitted in advance. It is simply not done."

OK? Everyone satisfied?


Chicago, Ill.: During the President's prime-time press conference two weeks ago, I was very surprised to see that Karl Rove was seated in the front row, next to Condoleezza Rice and Andrew Card. Doesn't this seem like a peculiar seating arrangement? This is an administration that is being accused (with great validity) of waging war based as much on political calculations and on legitimate security concerns. And yet, here -- during a news conference designed to put these and similar fears to rest -- is the President's chief strategist sitting next to his National Security Advisor. Your thoughts on this?

Dan Froomkin: I don't think it's the least bit surprising. Karl Rove is the "Senior Adviser" to the president. More than anyone else, with the possible exception of Vice President Cheney and Chief of Staff Andy Card, he can get any seat he wants.

What the press corps can't get over (see today's column) is that Rove had a hole in his sock.


Washington, D.C.: During the run up to the Iraq war, many of us anti-war pacifist types were furious with the White House press corps for allowing the administration to get away with broad generalities. At one point, polls showed 70 percent of Americans believed Iraq had something to do with the Sept. 11 attacks.

I was one of those who blamed the press corps for allowing the administration to mislead the nation on that point.

You may not agree, and I'm quite certain they were not the lapdogs I was screaming about at the time. There were a number of reporters who were doing good work, including a Post reporter who experienced difficulties because of his diligent work.

However, there has been a more aggressive nature shown by the press at the White House since last summer.

What was the key moment that you think there was a shift in the reporting of the White House reporters to challenge this administration more?

Dan Froomkin: I think it's been gradual, and you hear a lot of folks saying the corps still has a long ways to go.

There were some interesting stories about the press corps linked to by Romanesko today, not surprisingly.

Joe Hagan in the New York Observer quotes ABC's Terry Moran as saying "We need people who are not polite." And Helen Thomas describes the current White House press corps as "better educated... A lot more finesse, but I don't think they're better reporters."

Still, writes Hagan, "many reporters say that the soft-shoe approach works best." He quotes The Post's Mike Allen: "The trick is to balance persistence with the decorum this President insists on... If you yell, all you're going to get is a glare -- guaranteed. The President knows when a question is aimed at tripping him up. He's a lot more likely to make news if you ask something out of genuine curiosity, or that is designed to elicit his thinking about a particular decision or situation."


Columbia, Md.: Good afternoon Mr. Froomkin,

Thanks for taking questions today. I have two questions. First, who do you see, if anyone, departing the Bush administration if he wins re-election in November. There has been talk for months regarding Sec. Powell leaving State and being replace by Dr. Rice. And with him coming under fire for allegedly being at odds with the V.P. and Sec. Rumsfeld it seems like he would make for a good scapegoat, if not a sacrificial lamb.

Secondly, Sen. John McCain from Arizona. has been appearing more and more in media circles promoting his new book and speaking out on various war related issues. He seems to be the voice of reason within the GOP these days. Much more of a middle of the road moderate and in closer touch with mainstream Americans (Pubs & Democrats) than the current administration. Also with all the rumors floating around about a possible V.P. spot on the Kerry ticket, he seems to be the flavor of the month inside the beltway. Do you think he's positioning himself for a possible run for the GOP nomination in 2008?

Thanks for your time and insight.

Dan Froomkin: Two very good questions indeed. You are not alone in asking them. And I am afraid that I am not alone in not knowing the answers.


Lyme, Conn.: Is there a sense that Colin Powell will not be back for a second term in the Bush Administration (assuming Bush wins reelection)? If so, I have trouble balancing this with Secretary Powell's statements that he admired a previous State Department Secretary who remained loyal to both his President and his principles even when his principles dissented from his President. If this is so, why would he then quit when he has a chance for another term of arguing for his principles? If he wishes to remain and it is know he won't be rehired, why doesn't he resign in protest now?

Dan Froomkin: Well, it does seem pretty obvious that Powell would not serve in a second term. But he ain't a quitter.


Alexandria, Va.: You note in your answer to Rochester that there are many "legitimate questions" about the White House press corps. You probably follow this group as closely as anyone.

How do you critique the work of this group? What is your most pointed criticism of the group as a whole, if not of specific reporters?

Dan Froomkin: Well, it's not exactly my place, but.... I think the reporters should follow up each others' questions until they are actually answered. And I think reporters should say "That was not an answer to the question" more and ask again for an answer.

Howard Fineman and Tamara Lipper wrote in Newsweek that before the news conference last week, Bush was warned that "Reporters 'will brother-in-law this,' one aide predicted, using a golf term for a type of teamwork on the course. They'll follow each other's questions, the aides said, serially demanding apologies and specifics on the tumult in Iraq and the findings of the 9/11 commission. 'Really?' the president replied, as in: so what?"

I think brother-in-lawing sounds like a swell idea.

But it can't be nagging, either, because there's a downside: Looking like, in Peggy Noonan's words, a "left-wing Snidely Whiplash."


Omaha, N.E.: I am not usually a defender of George Bush, but in the Woodward interview it was painfully obvious that Mike Wallace has an absolute disdain for George W. Bush. Do you think his rolling of the eyes, gestures, and mocking comments hurt the legitimate questions raised in the interview. With the beating Bush has taken in the media of late, I almost feel sorry for him.

Dan Froomkin: You are not alone there. See Peggy Noonan above.


Richmond, Va.: Is there any chance the Post will run your column in the print edition? It would be more convenient. I have Internet access only at work, but I get in hot water if my boss suspects (accurately, as it happens) that I am goldbricking by reading the Web on company time.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.

But my column wouldn't work in print -- at least I don't think it would -- because links are such an important part of it. Don't you think?


Rockville, Md.: Any reaction to your item about Dr. Rice catching herself saying "As I was telling my husb-, I mean as I was telling President Bush" in a room full of reporters from the NY TIMES! That seems funny on so many levels. Will M Dowd being using this in one of her attack columns?

Dan Froomkin: It's certainly been the topic of much chortling.

I thought Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson's exchange on the topic on CNN's Crossfire yesterday was a stitch.


Anonymous: John?

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.

In the last campaign, you were asked a question about the biggest mistake you'd made in your life, and you used to like to joke that it was trading Sammy Sosa.

You've looked back before 9-11 for what mistakes might have been made. After 9-11, what would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have learned from it?

BUSH: I wish you'd have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it.

John, I'm sure historians will look back and say, gosh, he could've done it better this way or that way. You know, I just -- I'm sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with answer, but it hadn't yet.

I hope - I don't want to sound like I have made no mistakes. I'm confident I have. I just haven't - you just put me under the spot here, and maybe I'm not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one.

This is from the press conference. This does sound like at least some the written questions are submitted beforehand.

Dan Froomkin: Yeah, it sounds like that, you're right. But it's still not true.


Dale City, Va.: Dan,

What did GW mean when he said a certain reporter was a "must call"? Why are there such things and how does a reporter become one?

Dan Froomkin: Dana Milbank answered that question in his Live Online last week.

He said: "It's actually nothing nefarious. At each press conference, he calls on the three wires, the three networks, the cable news stations, and most major dailies -- the Post, the New York Times, the LA Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times -- and often the news weeklies. Then he may call on some others from radio, smaller papers or his personal favorites. He keeps a cheat sheet with the names of the journalists representing each outlet, because most have multiple correspondents."


Brunswick, Maine: Isn't the President supposed to be naming a handpicked commission to look into intelligence issues related to 9-11? Haven't heard a word on it since he decided not to allow members of Congress to select members.

Dan Froomkin: The commission exists, and has had one administrative meeting, but right now their main task is setting up their new office space. Heck, the executive director isn't even coming back from his posting in Iraq until mid-May. (I'm about to publish a guide to its members and staff, maybe later this week, so stay tuned.)

In the meantime, we in the press have a more urgent problem: What to call the thing. Its official name is the "Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction." Bush referred to it as the "Silberman-Robb" commission the other day. Can we call it the "WMD Panel"? Any better ideas?


Albany, N.Y.: I've been a bit mystified by the President's apparent strength in the polls in spite of mounting casualties in Iraq; getting bashed around by Richard Clarke and the 9/11 Commission, and a press conference that got lousy reviews. All this might be expected to reduce the President's popularity, yet the recent Pew poll shows him lengthening his lead over Kerry. What's your take on what's going on?

Dan Froomkin: Read Howard Kurtz this morning on just this question. "I could spin these numbers either way," he says. Then he does.


Richmond, Va.: Well, I disagree. It would work. You could not provide a hyperlink, obviously. But you could provide a one or two sentence summary of the articles. The main thing is to provide your analysis of the White House press dynamic, which seems both shrewd and well-informed.

Dan Froomkin: Well, gosh. Thanks.


Harrisburg, Pa.: Just a comment regarding an old story involving a journalist I knew. He once stated that he knows he is doing his best work when both sides hate what he writes. I corrected him: I believe a journalist writes his best when both sides like what he writes. To that end, Bob Woodward has reached that journalistic height.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Good comment.


Charlottesville, Va.: Is the White House beat now generally regarded as highly as it once was? Do Terry Moran, John Roberts (a nice guy), and David Gregory have anchor chairs waiting for them at the end of their tenure?

Dan Froomkin: At least in print, no, it's really not as highly regarded as it once was. There's a sense that there's too much stenography involved -- and then guys like Woodward swoop in and get the good stuff. That said, on TV, White House correspondents get as much face time as anyone, and the three you mention, among others, certainly have a lot of stature.


Ballston, Va.: I'm dying to know what nickname GWB gave to Bob Woodward!;

"Nosy"? "Scribbly"? "Redford"?

Please try to find out for us.

Dan Froomkin: I'm on it.


Charlotte, N.C.: Chuck Hagel asked yesterday if a military draft may not be in order at some point in the near future. What is the reaction around the White House when the 'D' word comes up? Is anyone floating this idea inside the White House?

Dan Froomkin: I haven't heard a peep about a draft. Andy Card was asked about this on Ask the White House the other day. His response: "The President has said he will take the advice regarding the need for troops from the military commanders responsible for winning the war against terror. We have an all volunteer military in this country and it serves us very well. I have heard no call from any of our military leaders for a return to the draft."


Big Horn, Wyo.: Dan:

Doesn't it concern you a great deal that people would even ask whether reporters submit their press conference questions in advance? To put it indelicately, the press's answers sound remarkably Nixonesque, as in "I am not a crook".

Dan Froomkin: But we're really not crooks!


Arlington, Va.: 'Plan of Attack' deals with the administration as it prepares and goes to war. Besides Powell's Pottery Barn analogy was there any thought given to the huge burden that post war Iraq presented? In other words, could someone write a book titled 'Plan of Reconstruction'? From what I've seen that book would be more like a pamphlet stapled and paper clipped together.

Dan Froomkin: James Fallows had a fascinating piece on this topic in The Atlantic a couple months ago. It's called "Blind Into Baghdad; The U.S. occupation of Iraq is a debacle not because the government did no planning but because a vast amount of expert planning was willfully ignored by the people in charge. The inside story of a historic failure."


Northfield, Minn.: Dan, Thanks for your column. It's great to have a site where someone tells it straight. To put it mildly, many of your colleagues seem to be more interested in their own observations and alleged insights than in simply keeping track of the news.

Now my question: What's the view inside the White House about whether the news conference was a success? Much of the commentary seems dismissive; But much of my anecdotal evidence among friends and neighbors suggests Bush stated his intentions with force and clarity.

Dan Froomkin: I was actually out of town last week, drat the luck. Here's what Bumiller of the Times wrote on Monday: "Administration officials said the goal at Tuesday's news conference was to regain control of the national political conversation and to explain to Americans the president's reasons for remaining in Iraq," and "his supporters called him passionate and unwavering." (Even while "his critics called him inarticulate and unfocused.")


Alexandria, Va.: I can't be the only one confused by the relationship between the Washington Post and WashingtonPost.com.

Do White House reporters Mike Allen and Dana Milbank report to you? Or are they your supervisor? Or are they somehow separate operations?

Dan Froomkin: Mike and Dana work for The Washington Post newspaper. I write a column for washingtonpost.com, which has an entirely separate office and hierarchy in Arlington. Mike and Dana and their editors have been spectacularly helpful to me, and treat me like a colleague, for which I am deeply grateful. Of course, to most Web readers, none of this matters, because we all show up on the same Web site, but there you have it.


Gulfport, Miss.: Is Woodward's professional status on this latest book pretty close to an embedded reporter? It troubles me that he backs off parts of his own book, such as the Saudi promise to drop oil prices before the election.

Dan Froomkin: That's an interesting metaphor.

But not necessarily a good one.

Woodward is in a class of his own. And if you read my column from yesterday, I think it can be argued that he didn't back off at all, he was misunderstood.

Speaking of Woodward, Romanesko's column just led me to two neat NPR stories. Mike Pesca of NPR looks at how Woodward does what he does. Similarly, David Gergen talks to Robert Siegel on NPR about the allure of being interviewed by Bob Woodward and Woodward's stature in Washington.


Boston, Mass.: Sorry to raise a topic you laid to rest, but I think many people's suspicion of the president's questions being scripted may stem from his last prime time news conference. During that conference, the president, at one point in between questions, shuffled a few note cards and mumbled something like, 'hold on I have a list here.' I don't know if it showed up on the transcript or not, but I thought the same thing when I saw it and was quite irked. In fact before last week's press conference I discussed this with a friend and we both agreed what a mockery it would be if that was true. Still, I accept your findings on the matter and appreciate the research.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. As Dana explains above, there was a list, but it was of reporters he "had" to call, not of their questions!


Philadelphia, Pa.: Having read today's stories about how the Bushies are now promoting Woodward's book I wonder now who's been zooming whom?

Dan Froomkin: Woodward's books tend to defy easy categorization.


Boston, Mass.: Dan,
Do you have any sense on Rove's preparations for presidential debates? The president has not shown himself to be mentally quick on his feet (cf. the recent press conference); does this mean we can anticipate hard-line insistence on a minimum number of debates?

Dan Froomkin: I can't imagine that the campaign will want to debate much. They'll have to do at least a couple, I'm sure, but there's all sorts of reasons the White House would want to do as few as possible.


Washington, D.C.: Why is it that, once again, the mass media is giving GW Bush a get out of jail free card, regarding his appearing side by side with VP Cheney in the upcoming hearings? I can only imagine what would have been said if Clinton sat next to Gore and testified.
Any thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: I think a lot of people think it's very odd. But what would you have the press do? Write about it over and over again? There's not much new to say, is there?


Los Angeles, Calif.: Im sorry I if someone else has already asked but it seems that the issues surrounding the events in Iraq are overshadowing domestic issues. I know that the war is on everyone's mind but it seems like the press corps is allowing the administration to draw attention away from what they're doing at home?

Dan Froomkin: Well, you're right about where all the attention is going, that's for sure. There wasn't one single question about domestic policy at the news conference last week.


Washington, D.C.: Dubya's a better debater than Kerry. The president can stick to a script (it's a challenge he can master). Kerry is above being scripted, and he'll want to think on his feet. The script, which is developed and focus group tested will beat Kerry every time.

Dan Froomkin: So maybe they will agree to more debates!


Dan Froomkin: Thank you everyone for your very excellent questions and comments. I'm sorry I couldn't get to them all.

Check out my White House Briefing column daily -- and I'll be back Live Online in two weeks.

You can also e-mail me at froomkin@washingtonpost.com.


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