White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Tuesday, March 16, 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 thanks for joining me. I'll be doing this every two weeks or so from now on, and I'm thrilled.

Before I get to your questions and comments, some news.

The transcript of the remarks by Bush and Prime Minister Balkenende of the Netherlands in a photo-op after their meeting this morning is now on the White House Web site.

Here's an excerpt:

"Q Thank you, Mr. President. Candidate Kerry has suggested he has support of world leaders. Do you think he should -- that should be a factor in the campaign? Was that an appropriate thing for him to say?

"PRESIDENT BUSH: I think it's -- if you're going to make an accusation in the course of a presidential campaign, you ought to back it up with facts."

That was his comment on the story that dominates this morning's White House Briefing.

David Greene of the Baltimore Sun filed a pool report to his colleagues, in which he offers some observations to supplement the transcript.

Greene said Bush actually laughed when a Dutch reporter said, as part of a question: "Many Dutch people think the war in Iraq has little to do with the war against terrorism, and may actually encourage terrorism."

Greene also explains what was going on when Bush, after calling on Adam Entous of Reuters for a question, said: "You look fine today, Adam. The tie."

Turns out Entous's tie was loose. Green says that "After the tapes stopped rolling, POTUS" -- that's short for President of the United States -- "was kinder to our colleague, telling him, 'It's not as bad as a beeper violation. But it's getting close.'"

Bush also talked about health care and the economy at lunchtime today.

OK, folks, bring it on.


Antwerp, Belgium: It may be that the Administration puts up a brave face, but the Spanish election result must be a blow to their stand. A lot of people and countries around the world keep wondering why this Administration wants to go it alone and leaves the UN on the sidelines. Only cooperation can bring the necessary results in the war against terror and this Administration keeps going it alone. The count of countries supporting the US is just not correct. Even the Netherlands are very much in doubt how to continue (they will pull out their troops too).
I can't understand how this Administration thinks they and only they have the right insights and know how to fight the WOT. Hubris is a very dangerous way of handling this.
Will this even change?

Dan Froomkin: It seems to me there are basically two ways to look at what happened in Spain.

One is that the Spanish electorate turned decisively against the pro-Bush government at the last minute because the government tried to cover up the Al Qaeda link to the bombing and instead blame the Basques -- and because the Spaniards believe that Iraq has nothing to do with the war on terror.

The other is that the Spanish electorate caved into terrorism.

I suspect the second position is strongly held in the White House. And I suspect that will only make them hold their positions about terror and Iraq more strongly and with a greater sense of righteousness.

Readers, do you agree?


Anonymous: Dan, what impact do you think Howard Stern's campaign against Bush will have?

washingtonpost.com: The Howard Factor (Post, March 15)

Dan Froomkin: I must admit that I initially scoffed at the idea. Then I read Howard Kurtz's piece, linked above.


Boston, Mass.: Just wanted to say YAY that you're hosting a chat now. Love the column, and had been wondering if we'd ever see you in here. Best wishes!

Dan Froomkin: Well, gosh. Thanks.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Dan, I very much enjoyed your recent virtual tour of the West Wing offices, but was wondering if such full disclosure might run you afoul of the Patriot Act. Seriously, did you get any grief from the "war president's" minions?

Dan Froomkin: Thank you. I thought it was pretty cool. I did get quite a few e-mails from people suggesting that I had grievously compromised national security by giving terrorists a floor plan of the West Wing. Our carefully considered decision to publish this map had a lot to do with the fact that everyone already knows where the Oval Office is! I don't think there is a scenario in which knowing where the deputy chief of staff sits that puts anyone at greater risk than they are already. And no, no one in the White House has expressed unhappiness. The opposite, actually.


Grand Rapids, Mich.: For the last month or so, it is easy to get the impression that the bulk of the Bush Administration's energy is spent on running for re-election. Is that perception wrong? Every time you see the President on the news, he is either at a campaign stop or on his way to a fund-raiser. With record deficits and considering the massive Bush re-election war chest, why do we taxpayers have to pay to be campaigned to? Is this normal practice for presidential re-elections?

Dan Froomkin: Politics and policy will inevitably be increasingly intertwined in the run-up to the election. I think your normal-practice question is a good one, and one we should address. That said, certain practices, like not really paying the full cost of obvious campaign trips, are definitely routine practice. See, for instance, Mike Allen's story in The Post about this from March 5.


Arlington, Va.: Is President Bush approaching Ronald Reagan's record low number of press conferences? I can't remember a President who held fewer. It's probably a smart move by his handlers due to his difficulties with the spoken word.

Dan Froomkin: To get an answer to your very good question, I shot an e-mail to Martha Joynt Kumar, noted author and professor in the Department of Political Science at Towson University. Kumar seems to live in the White House press basement, where she sees and understands everything, and is writing a book about it for the Johns Hopkins University Press called "Wired for Sound and Pictures: The President and White House Communications Policies."

She says: "He has had 66; 55 joint press conferences and 11 solo ones. Ronald Reagan at this point had 22, all of which were solo ones."

So no. Or yes. It depends on whether you count joint press conferences. There are some who say they aren't as probing.

I also shot an e-mail to Mark Knoller, the extraordinary White House correspondent for CBS News, and the only person with possibly more meticulous records than Kumar. He agrees on the 11 solo news conference figure, but says there have actually been a total of 69 joint ones. "He also has frequent photo ops in which he takes questions (like the one today with the Dutch Prime Minister, in which Bush answered four questions)," Knoller adds. "I don't count those as news conferences, not do I count them."


Philadelphia, Pa.: Dan,
You mentioned in your column last week about a reporter from a small conservative leaning paper who other reporters complained was around simply to ask softball questions. My question is how are reporters creditialed for the White House Press Corp? Do all administrations keep around reporters simply because they will ask easy questions?

Dan Froomkin: You're talking about Jeff Gannon, who I wrote about in my March 11 column.

Credentialing is handled by the White House Press Office. I don't really know the history. And while I don't think the White House Correspondents Association has any say in who gets credentialed, they do have a say, or at least a role in the negotiations, over who gets assigned seats in the briefing room.


Granger, Ind.: Possible guests for your show:

How about Noam Chomsky? Wouldn't it be fun to have him addresing regular readers of the Post?

I really enjoy your column, by the way. It's required reading each day.


washingtonpost.com: Transcript: Author Noam Chomsky (Nov. 26, 2003)

Dan Froomkin: I asked readers in Monday's column to suggest guests I should invite Live Online. (And I'd love to hear your suggestions, either here or by e-mail.)

As producer Meredith notes, Noam Chomsky actually has been Live Online before. And it was quite an amazing performance.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Why don't you have that right-wing reporter on as a guest? Give us a shot at him!

Dan Froomkin: That would be Jeff Gannon again. Jeff and I have had some spirited e-mail exchanges, so this might be fun.


Washington, D.C.: Has the White House responded to Kerry's monthly debate challenge?

Dan Froomkin: I believe your answer is contained in this Washington Post editorial: "No one expects the president to take Mr. Kerry up on his challenge. 'Senator Kerry should finish the debate with himself before he starts trying to explain his positions to the voters,' a Bush campaign spokesman said Saturday."


Chapel Hill, N.C.: Josh Marshall of talkingpointsmemo.com would make a great guest!

Dan Froomkin: Noted.


Charlottesville, Va.: The tone of your headlines since the beginning of this feature has been so overwhelmingly negative, I have begun to wonder whether you are married to Maureen Dowd. We all know that the media creates the tide of momentum that determines the course of presidential elections. Why won't anyone acknowledge in their print that this is typically the low point for incumbent presidential approval in any election cycle, and that at this point in 1984 and 1996 respectively, the eventual losers had sizeable leads over the incumbent president?

Dan Froomkin: The Maureen Dowd crack aside (and no!) -- the thing about my column is that it is one journalist's attempt to distill the information that is out there about the White House, most of it coming from other journalists. The tone of the headlines is sort of beyond my control, for better or for worse.

I think it's safe to say that the time that my column launched, early January, was also about the time that there were starting to be a lot more critical-sounding headlines out there.


Arlington, Va.: Do you consider what you write more akin to an opinion column or an unbiased story? Is the model for these blogs still being hashed out in newsrooms?

Dan Froomkin: The model is absolutely still being hashed out. I happen to think this one is pretty good, and sustainable, but it's evolving. I don't see what I write as an opinion column at all. So what is it? Like I just said, it's an attempt to distill what's out there (and take advantage of the linking power of the Web). And things don't work on the Web if they don't have a voice. So it has a voice.


Brunswick, Maine: Dan,

What's the latest on the investigation into the leaking of a CIA agent's name to Robert Novak? What's your sense of the legs this story will have in November? Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: The last thing I've seen, which I reported in my March 9 column, was an unconfirmed report by Murray Waas in the American Prospect. Waas said that political guru Karl Rove has told investigators that he did indeed spread stories about once-covert CIA operative Valerie Plame all over town -- but only after Robert Novak's column came out.

Just before that, of course, was Tim Brune's big scoop for Newsday on the January subpoenas that requested Air Force One phone records, etc.

Beyond that, we wait. And depending on what emerges, it could amount to a lot, or a little.


Arlington, Va.: I second the John Marshall (www.talkingpointsmemo.com) suggestion as a potential guest. I'm also curious; how much interaction do you have with some of the better political bloggers and which ones do you read, if any?

Dan Froomkin: I read at least a couple dozen blogs a day. Talking Points Memo is of course one of them. I haven't had much interaction with bloggers because, and this is sort of funny, they don't know what to make of me. Newspaper people think I'm a blogger, and some are suspicious, but "real" bloggers, who update their sites all day long and don't get edited and and express their opinions about everything think I'm some sort of weird retro print guy.


Hudson, N.Y.: I have a comment to make about the two different interpretations that you offered concerning the outcome of Spain's elections. I agree with you that the current administration will try to spin the turn of events by saying that Spain caved into terrorism, but how can anyone believe this when you consider that 90% of the people in Spain were against the war in Iraq? Isn't it more logical to conclude that last week's attacks hightened the disgust that was already there for Spain's pro-Bush government - especially since the prime minister tried to play up the possibilty that ETA was responsible for the bombings for his own political gain? I think that the 3/11 terrorist attack made the issue of Spain's cooperation with the U. S. the determining factor in the election, but not because the electorate is afraid to take a stand against terrorism.

Dan Froomkin: Interesting point.


Oakton, Va.: The other explanation for the Spanish result is that the people their believe that the war in Iraq and the war against terrorism are two different things, and that the voting reflects their view of the war in Iraq, not their view of terrorism. However, since Aznar's party was ahead in the polls before the terrorist attack, it would seem that the swing in votes was related to terrorism, not Iraq. I can't tell what individuals were really thinking, but it certainly must be a gratifying result for Al Qaeda. We will have to wait and see if new government in Spain has been intimidated into dropping out of the war against terrorism.

Dan Froomkin: And another interesting point.


Dan Froomkin: Lots of folks are e-mailing me today about the Kerry misquote issue.

A Boston Globe reporter initially told folks he had heard Kerry say: "I've met foreign leaders who can't go out and say this publicly, but, boy, they look at you and say, `You have got to win this; you have got to beat this guy; we need a new policy.' Things like that."

Then, after rechecking the audiotape, he realized that Kerry didn't say "foreign leaders", he said "more leaders."

But as Jodi Wilgoren writes in the New York Times: "The remark was part of Mr. Kerry's response to an observation by his Florida finance chairman that when traveling abroad, he had met people who 'hate Bush, but they know we're going to get rid of him.'"

And as Dan Balz wrote in The Post: "That small wording change did not alter the context of Kerry's remarks at the fundraiser, nor had Kerry ever suggested otherwise."


Washington, D.C. - Is it just me?: Is it just me, or is the Bush administration begining to look, collectively, a bit shaken or even desperate? The whining that Kerry name his leadership-level supporters, the admission by the Globe reporter that the inclusion of the word "foreign" was a transcription error, the numeric-spin on the horrible and worsening employment figures, etc. all add up to what looks like a scared administration.


Dan Froomkin: I would say nervous, not scared. Eight months to go!


Raleigh, N.C.: What is your day like? Covering the White House, I envision you have early start and work contacts/reports through the day with story deadline in afternoon?

Dan Froomkin: I am at my desk at 6 a.m. -- and I am not a morning person. The goal is to get the column up by 10 a.m. or so.


Washington, D.C.: Do you think the issue of Bush's unclear military record is done?

Dan Froomkin: No I don't. This somewhat odd story from the Sunday Spokane Spokesman-Review is getting some attention in the blogosphere, for instance. I may weigh in again in tomorrow's column


Denver, Colo.: Spain 3/11: A terrorist attack triggering a change of government is a huge issue, probably the biggest of 2004. But I've yet to read in print or blogs a good account of why terrorist casualties resulted in an antigovernment approach. I would think terrorism works to the advantage of more hawkish positions; I'm think of US, Turkey, Italy, Israel, and India, as a result, my guess being the sense of preceived shared challenge. Have you or have your heard why there should be a "Spanish exception"?

Dan Froomkin: Excellent question. You and I both will be watching this story carefully. It certainly had the opposite effect in this country -- and the "October Surprise" conspiracy theories of course presuppose that a last-minute drama favors the incumbent. So let's get to the bottom of this "Spanish exception"!


Newark, Del.: Could you comment on Kerry's jab at McClellan's overtly entering the political fray with respect to the "foreign leaders support me" fracas? Anything to his criticism, i.e., have press secretary's historically refrained from this type of stuff as Kerry seems to imply?

Dan Froomkin: Watching McClellan decide -- and then explain -- which questions are political and which aren't is going to be a spectator sport this year.


Houston, Tex.: During his rare press conferences, Bush appears to direct his calls to questioners from a prepared list. Are the questions reviewed in advance?

Besides Helen Thomas, who else has been banished to the back of the room?

Dan Froomkin: I think Bush called on a pre-arranged list of questionners at his last solo news conference, but I can assure you he didn't know what they were going to ask.


Fairfax, Va.: Could you please invite Karen Kwiatkowski?

This seems a very credible woman with important things to say re our run-up to the war and national security.

This story should definitely get as much exposure as possible.

Dan Froomkin: There are several people who would obviously like me to link to this story, which Salon.com is calling "The New Pentagon Papers," in which "A high-ranking military officer reveals how Defense Department extremists suppressed information and twisted the truth to drive the country to war."


Arlington, Va.: Someone mentioned having a more conservative guest on live. What about Andrew Sullivan? He seems to have some interesting, divided views about the current administration. Plus, he's also a dual-print/blogger (www.andrewsullivan.com).

Dan Froomkin: But he's so underexposed! Ha ha just kidding. Consider him on my list.


Dan Froomkin: So many excellent questions! So little time. I'll be back Live Online in two weeks. In the meantime, send me your questions, suggestions, comments and Web links by e-mail, to froomkin@washingtonpost.com and check out White House Briefing every weekday morning.

Thanks for coming!


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