Cramming at White House U.

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Wednesday, April 28, 2004; 11:10 AM

As tomorrow's 9:30 a.m. session with the 9/11 commission approaches, President Bush is prepping hard for what may be one of his most important tests ever.

Bush was by no accounts much of a student, either at Yale or at Harvard Business School, but reports are that at White House U., he's hitting the books pretty hard and getting face time with professors Cheney, Rice and Card, among others.

Unlike most students, he's also spending a fair amount of time with his lawyer, who will be at his side -- along with Vice President Cheney -- when the questions start coming.

Mike Allen and Dana Milbank write in The Washington Post: "President Bush has met with White House aides and has been consulting with Vice President Cheney in preparation for Bush and Cheney's appearance before the Sept. 11 commission tomorrow morning, administration officials said yesterday. . . .

"Bush and Cheney have done joint preparation, some of it by phone, according to a senior administration official. Bush has also been preparing for his testimony with [White House counsel Alberto R.] Gonzales, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. 'I expect he will continue to visit with those individuals over the next couple of days,' McClellan said. 'And the counsel's office provided him some materials from that time period to look over. And he will continue to look over some of those documents from that time period to refresh his memory.'"

No Transcript

Yesterday's big news: There will be no full record of the session, even by the White House.

Elisabeth Bumiller and Philip Shenon write in the New York Times: "The White House said on Tuesday that there would be no recording or formal transcription of the historic joint interview of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney by the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. . . . "

John Roberts reports for CBS News: "The White House today claimed that commission interviews with Bill Clinton and Al Gore were not transcribed.

"But in fact, CBS News has learned, those sessions were recorded and will eventually be transcribed.

"Presidential historians today complained that not allowing a transcript of the president's interview will rob the nation of an accurate record of a pivotal moment in history and will only serve to cast more suspicion on what the White House is trying to keep out of the public eye."

The Post's Allen and Milbank report: "The decision, following a practice President Ronald Reagan used in 1987 when appearing before a commission probing the Iran-contra matter, removes the possibility that the transcript would become a political issue and precludes any subpoena."

Contentious News Briefing

Greg Miller and Edwin Chen write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush plans to do most of the talking when he and Vice President Dick Cheney meet behind closed doors Thursday with the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks, White House officials said Tuesday. . . .

"At a contentious news briefing Tuesday, McClellan rejected suggestions that by appearing together, Bush and Cheney would be exposing themselves to criticism and even ridicule.

"'That's not the way you should be looking at this,' McClellan said. 'This is about helping the commission piece together all the information they have already been provided access to, and helping them complete their important work.'"

Contentious? You could say so. Here's the text of McClellan's press briefing.

One excerpt:

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, the President is already under oath as the President of the United States. But let me go back to when the President signed the legislation creating this commission.

"Q He's under oath 24 hours a day? (Laughter.)"

Tom Raum writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's closed-door testimony to the Sept. 11 commission alongside Vice President Dick Cheney carries political risks for the White House. Leaning too much on Cheney could make Bush look weak, and inconsistencies with other officials could raise new questions."

Sample Questions

Adam Entous writes for Reuters: "While details of the commission's line of inquiry remain secret, it is clear from previous public hearings that the panel of five Republicans and five Democrats will press for answers to a now-famous Washington question: 'What did the president know and when did he know it?'"

Judy Keen and Mimi Hall write in USA Today that "Bush and Cheney are likely to be asked:

"* Whether they considered military retaliation for the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. Intelligence officials concluded shortly before Bush took office that al-Qaeda was responsible for the attack that killed 17 sailors.

"* How Bush responded to an Aug. 6, 2001, CIA memo that warned of al-Qaeda's intent to hijack commercial jets.

"* Why it took the administration eight months to develop a new counterterrorism policy after taking office."

Commission member and former Democratic congressman Timothy J. Roemer was on CNN with Wolf Blitzer yesterday.

"I think what we want to know -- and I can only speak for myself on this -- is, what I would want to know is, one, was this a priority for this administration? How did the president personally make it a priority, an urgent priority, especially in the spring and summer of 2001, when people were saying, their hair is on fire, the chatter was coming in and saying something big was about to happen.

"Two, about policy, how did the president and the vice president reach out to other people on the National Security Council and their staffs and the other agencies to say, where's the policy to address the threats that we're hearing from George Tenet? And, three, I think this could be a very positive meeting. Nobody can make the bureaucracies change more quickly and more fundamentally than the president of the United States."

The President and Vietnam

Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) continues to try to make Bush's murky tenure with the Texas Air National Guard an issue -- as the president's operatives try to make an issue of the Vietnam veteran's antiwar activities after he returned home.

Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen write in The Washington Post: "In an interview with an Ohio newspaper, Kerry continued the fight over Vietnam-era military service, chiding Bush and Vice President Cheney for avoiding active service.

"One day after Kerry attacked Bush's National Guard service for the first time, the presumptive Democratic nominee's campaign circulated a dossier designed to undercut the president's contention that he fulfilled his service duties more than 30 years ago. Bush served in the Texas National Air Guard from 1968 to 1973, although it is unclear what he did during his final year.

"'I think a lot of veterans are going to be very angry at a president who can't account for his own service in the National Guard, and a vice president who got every deferment in the world and decided he had better things to do, criticizing somebody who fought for their country and served,' Kerry told the Dayton Daily News. Kerry's campaign provided the media access to his remarks."

Jodi Wilgoren writes in the New York Times that Kerry "echoed those attacks in an interview in Cleveland for the MSNBC program 'Hardball' and was still talking about it on Tuesday night at a fund-raiser here that raised $800,000.'s Alex Johnson reports on the "Hardball" interview: "Kerry said he had not seen a statement his campaign issued Tuesday accusing Bush of receiving special treatment during his service in the Guard and of failing to prove that he showed up for duty during part of his service. But he said the president had a responsibility to lay such questions to rest.

"'You know why he should answer that question? Because I answered the questions,' said Kerry, who remained largely silent earlier this year when the controversy over Bush's military record flared anew."

Here's a video excerpt from "Hardball."

Here's William Hershey's story in the Dayton Daily News.

Here's the Kerry campaign's press release listing "key unanswered questions" about Bush's service.

The Bush/Cheney campaign responded with a statement: "John Kerry has not detailed a credible alternative to President Bush's decisive leadership in the war on terror and his record on defense and security measures raises serious questions about his judgment," wrote Nicolle Devenish. "Instead of explaining his record, John Kerry has turned to political attacks on the president."

She also noted that Kerry in 1992 promised not to "divide America over who served and how."

Karen Hughes Watch

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post: "Presidential adviser Karen Hughes responded yesterday to criticism that, in a television interview, she had compared participants in Sunday's abortion rights march in Washington to terrorists, calling that interpretation 'a gross distortion' of her remarks."

In a interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Sunday, Hughes said that "the fundamental difference between us and the terror network we fight is that we value every life," and that "our enemies in the terror network, as we're seeing repeatedly in the headlines these days, don't value any life, not even the innocent and not even their own."

Hughes is not backing off. In an e-mail to The Post, she denied likening protesters to terrorists: "That is a gross distortion and I would never make such a comparison. Surely even the most strident of partisans, and reasonable people on both sides of the abortion issue, can agree that we have been reminded of the precious nature of human life and that we ought to work to reduce the number of abortions in America."

Supreme Court Watch

Charles Lane writes in The Washington Post: "The Supreme Court gave what seemed like a sympathetic hearing to Vice President Cheney's arguments for White House confidentiality yesterday, as several justices expressed concern about the validity of lawsuits by two public interest groups trying to gain access to the internal workings of the energy policy task force Cheney headed in 2001."

Stephen Henderson writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "The Bush administration's top lawyer told the Supreme Court on Tuesday that the Constitution gives the president and vice president near-unassailable authority to make policy without disclosing who or what influences it.

"The case is one of several tests of presidential power this term and, like the others, it carries the potential for a strong rebuke of the president's assertion of power."

Linda Greenhouse writes in the New York Times: "While the argument was lively enough in its exploration of the niceties of civil procedure, it must have been a baffling letdown to any spectators drawn to the courtroom by the various controversies swirling around this case such as whether Justice Antonin Scalia's duck-hunting trip with Mr. Cheney should have required him to recuse himself or what role disgraced Enron executives might have had in shaping the panel's recommendations."

Joan Biskupic writes in USA Today: "The justices' remarks cut both ways: Some suggested that the administration wants an unwarranted exemption from federal rules that dictate when documents should be released, or that the White House had no right to appeal a lower court's preliminary order that Cheney produce the records. But other justices expressed concern that requiring even a limited release of the panel's papers would interfere with the executive branch's ability to seek outside guidance in policy decisions."

Scalia Watch

William Neikirk writes in the Chicago Tribune: "Among those peppering both sides with questions was Justice Antonin Scalia, who stirred up a political storm when it was revealed he went on duck-hunting trip to Louisiana with Cheney, an old friend, shortly after the court agreed to hear the vice president's appeal. Scalia refused to step aside from the case.

"In his questions, Scalia expressed sympathy with the administration's position, challenging an argument by the two public interest groups that energy industry interests had 'de facto' membership on the task force. They had no power to vote on the decisions, the justice said, and so could not be classified as members.

"Scalia also said the president has the right to refuse to reveal details of such discussions."

Here's audio of the arguments and background on the case, from

Staffer Faces Senators

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times: "For much of his White House service, Brett Kavanaugh has been a central figure in President Bush's efforts to fill the nation's appeals courts with recognized conservatives.

"So when Mr. Kavanaugh came before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday as a nominee himself for an appeals court post, no one was surprised when he was verbally batted around by the panel's Democrats, who have complained that Mr. Bush is trying to tilt the nation's courts rightward."

Charles Hurt writes in the Washington Times: "During 3½ hours of tough -- sometimes combative -- questioning, Mr. Kavanaugh became a lightning rod for the most acrimonious issues that have divided Washington in recent years.

Brian Wilson has a video report for Fox News.

Jesse J. Holland of the Associated Press writes that Kavanaugh was also asked if anyone at the White House knew about Democratic memos on judicial nominees being taken from Senate computers by GOP Senate aides.

"I don't know of anyone who was aware of this matter until we heard about it through the media," Kavanaugh said.

Today's Calendar

President Bush's only public event is a photo-op with the prime minister of Sweden.

No Big Agenda

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times that in contrast to his 2000 campaign, "Mr. Bush has so far offered little in the way of major new proposals. The few efforts he has made to set out a fresh, visionary agenda, like his call in January for a manned mission to Mars or his plan to overhaul the immigration system, have disappeared from his own speeches and hardly show up on the national radar screen.

"What he is left with is a list of proposals that he has been trying for the last several years to push through Congress, like his energy bill and his plan to restrict lawsuit awards against doctors and corporations, plus smaller-bore ideas that, however important and worthy, are hardly the kind that define a presidency."

Case in point: Susan Heavey of Reuters reports that "President Bush on Tuesday created a new position to coordinate bar codes on drug bottles, paperless medical records and other high-tech government health initiatives."

Baltimore Visit

Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes in the Baltimore Sun: "In his fourth visit to the Baltimore area as president, Bush met with about 140 physicians and veterans to advance his proposal to use information technology to cut costs, reduce medical errors and improve care. . . .

"Sitting on a stool holding a microphone, Bush held a 37-minute staged chat in an auditorium at the medical center, quizzing two of his Cabinet officials and two Baltimore health leaders about the benefits of electronic health records."

As VandeHei and Allen note in their Post story this morning (mentioned above): "Bush has left political attacks to Cheney and other surrogates. He did not mention his challenger by name Tuesday and again focused on narrow policy proposals. Bush spoke about medical technology at a veterans hospital in Baltimore, to an audience that included veterans in uniform who had been hurriedly rounded up."

Here is the text of Bush's remarks on health care information technology.

The Big Dinner

Richard Leiby reports in his Washington Post column on who's sitting with whom at the White House Correspondent's Association Dinner on Saturday night.

Triumph of the Hacks?

That was the title of a panel discussion at the Cato Institute yesterday, inspired by a recent Washington Monthly article by Bruce Reed, formerly domestic policy adviser for Bill Clinton and now president of the Democratic Leadership Council.

Reed wrote: "Strip away the job titles and party labels, and you will find two kinds of people in Washington: political hacks and policy wonks."

In short, the problem with hacks is that they're obsessed with politics and don't really care about the details of whatever policy they're advocating for. The problem with wonks is that they're so interested in the details that they don't care about the results.

On the panel, Reed stressed the importance of having an equilibrium between wonks and hacks in a White House.

Fellow panelist Ron Suskind, author of the third-most-recent Bush White House expose, said he thinks the problem is that White House wonks just don't get a hearing from the people who matter.

Asked to give an example of a Bush administration decision that was not a hack triumph, final panelist David Frum, author and former Bush speechwriter, said that the hacks were actually against the war in Iraq.

So it was a wonk war? That led to some debate over lunch about whether Bush wonks may have a problem sufficiently considering opposing viewpoints, traditionally a wonk characteristic.

And for those trying to figure out who's a wonk and who's a hack, here's a complication: In some rare cases, you can be a hack and a wonk at the same time.

"Clinton was by far the best hack and the best wonk in his administration," Reed asserted.

And, in fact, after the discussion, when asked to name some wonks in the current White House, all three panelists said the greatest wonk in the Bush administration is also the greatest hack: Karl Rove.

"He's the top hack and the top wonk," said Frum.

Suskind agreed, but grudgingly, noting that Rove is only the top wonk because the current White House suffers from "a bit of a vacuum" of wonkery.

Reed said that Josh Bolten, who was Bush's deputy chief of staff before becoming director of the Office of Management and Budget, is definitely a wonk.

Reed described a simple test to determine if someone is a wonk or a hack: Do you know the difference between Medicare and Medicaid? If you do, you're a wonk.

Middle East Assurances

Reuters reports: "After his recent strong statements supporting Israel, President George W. Bush is considering giving written assurances to Jordan's King Abdullah that the issue of Jewish settlements and Palestinian refugees will be decided in negotiations. . . .

"Bush and Abdullah are scheduled to meet in Washington next week after the Jordanian king postponed a visit originally planned for April 20 in protest at Bush's stance on Israel."

AFP reports: "The assurances would come in the form of written letters of guarantee or statements of clarification aimed at assuaging Arab anger and confusion over Bush's April 14 endorsement of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's controversial disengagement plan . . . officials said."

Pottery Barn Watch

Washington Post columnist Al Kamen tracks the genesis of the deeply flawed "Pottery Barn" analogy made famous by Bob Woodward's book.

Job Opening, Part I

Marian Burros writes in the New York Times: "After almost 25 years as pastry chef at the White House, where he boasted that he never made the same dessert twice, Roland Mesnier is hanging up his toque at the end of July. . . .

"Though the Bush administration is known for its early-to-bed lifestyle, Mr. Mesnier said he has been busier than ever. 'Because of the events going on around the world, there have been more visiting heads of state than in any other administrations,' he said. 'Instead of state dinners, there have been more working dinners, working lunches. Some of them are at the last minute.'"

Job Opening, Part II

So what's it take to be a White House correspondent?

USA Today is looking for one. Here's the job description:

"USA TODAY is seeking a candidate with superior reporting and writing skills to provide high-quality coverage of the White House and administration. Must be able to handle breaking news on deadline as well as develop significant enterprise. Must have a proven track record for breaking exclusive stories. Demonstrated news judgment, superior writing skills and proven ability to work with little direct supervision is required. Based in Washington, this position requires frequent travel. Five years or more reporting experience required. Must have a sophisticated understanding of Washington and politics and a proven ability to write compelling, reader-focused stories about both. "

Another Bush Book, Only Different

This one is made up of 10 tear-off Bush bumperstickers suggested by readers of the distinctly anti-Bush Daily Kos blog.

For instance:

* Asses of Evil

* Thanks for Not Paying Attention

* Four More Wars!

Late Night Humor

From NBC's "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" via Reuters:

"President Bush's campaign is now attacking John Kerry for throwing away some of his medals to protest the Vietnam War. Bush did not have any medals to throw away, but in his defense he did have all his services records thrown out."

© 2004