White House Talk

Dan Froomkin & Ronald Kessler
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, August 4, 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.

This week Froomkin was joined by Ronald Kessler, former Washington Post reporter and now author of the forthcoming book, "A Matter of Character: Inside the White House of George W. Bush."

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org. You can e-mail him at froomkin@washingtonpost.com.

The transcript follows.


Dan Froomkin : I'd like to welcome Ronald Kessler, former Washington Post reporter and best-selling author. Ron's new book is already on Republican reading lists, even though it's not even for sale until tomorrow!

Ron, you are no doubt aware that there are a lot of people out there who think poorly of George W. Bush. Do you think your book will change anyone's mind? Or is it just another title on the pro-Bush side of the deeply divided and increasingly huge Bush booklist?

Ronald Kessler: Many of my friends and some of my family members are not exactly Bush fans so I am very comfortable dealing with the arguments on the other side. In fact I voted for Al Gore I am a little ashamed to say. Lets face it, most people are totally polarized on this subject and very few will change their minds. But, like all writers, I hope that the facts will make a difference to some people. One interesting aspect of the book is how it addresses the fact that Bush is trying to restore the use of phonics to reading instruction. Because phonics is not used in many schools as much as 60 percent of 4th graders, particularly blacks and Hispanics, can't read a simple children's book. Ironically the New York City public schools where Bush is most despised do not teach phonics but yet the toniest private schools in New York City do teach phonics. So you have the Bush haters with their illiterate children because they resist Bush's effort to restore phonics to reading instruction.


Newport Beach, California: I'm interested in how Mr. Kessler was able to maintain an unbiased viewpoint while preparing for and writing his book.

Also, what, in Mr. Kessler's opinion, made the White House want to be available to him, but not to most other journalists?

Ronald Kessler: Good question.

This book does have a point of view. I think I address all of the major objections to Bush, but I am not going to pretend that I do not have a position. At the same time, as someone who voted for Gore, I obviously did approach this with an open mind. I think with my experience in writing about the FBI and CIA I understand more than most people how important Bush's initiatives are in protecting us. We live in a different world. We have terrorists. We have weapons of mass destruction. And that requires new thinking. I think the people who oppose Bush's initiatives are not thinking with that long-term view. Unfortunately those who most criticize bush for taking action are the same ones who criticize him for not taking enough action before 9/11.


Midwest: Do I believe that President Bush has firm principles and believes he is right? Yes. Do I think that he is misguided in some of those principles and does not pay attention to facts that would contradict his beliefs? Yes. The point isn't that he "has character", it's that he believes so strongly that he is right that he is unwilling to compromise. He was elected with less than 50% of the popular vote, yet rather than governing from the center (which would seem to have been the mandate and which I hoped he would do as a "uniter and not a divider"), he veered to the right and has stayed there. I think his strong belief that he is right (and has made no mistakes), coupled with the nature of his religious faith, is actually scary. Can you see that view of Bush as having any validity?

Ronald Kessler: A lot of these impressions come from the media which often relies on third-hand accounts of what really goes on in this White House. Along with Bob Woodward I think I was able to get inside and find out how they really operate. The fact is that the reason bush has people like Colin Powell in his camp is that he does want a diversity of opinions and in the end he makes the decision. He is not a puppet of Karl Rove or Dick Cheney. But, what is needed in the war on terror is someone who is uncompromising in taking measures to protect us, not someone who changes course based on the latest polls.


Vienna, VA: Mr. Kessler,

Given President Bush's reputation for loyalty, how do you explain him allowing George Tenet and the CIA to receive the bulk of the blame for Iraq? Aren't there others in the administration who were much more responsible for the decision to go to war? And why didn't Bush attend Tenet's farewell?

Ronald Kessler: The fact is that the CIA along with every other intelligence service in the world thought that Saddam did have weapons of mass destruction. Even Saddam's generals thought that they were supposed to use chemical weapons in the latest war, so how do you get behind that, but clearly the misinformation - if it was misinformation - came from the CIA and not from the Bush people.

I quoted George Tenet in the book as saying that what really has made a difference in the war on terror is the support that Bush gave from the start to George Tenet and the CIA. That is the way you really make a difference on the war on terror - by supporting the CIA with resources and not imposing a risk adverse atmosphere which occurred when Bill Clinton was president.


Dan Froomkin : Ron, there's still a lot of mystery surrounding the five months in 1972 when Bush was allegedly doing his National Guard duty in Alabama, because there's no record that he did anything but show up one day for a dental exam.

Heck, Doonesbury's Garry Trudeau has even put up a $10,000 reward for anyone who could prove Bush did his duty.

You're quite proud of your investigative skills, and your book makes it clear that you tracked down all sorts of people who knew Bush at virtually every point in his life. But not Alabama.

Did you try? Do you have anything to add to this debate?

Ronald Kessler: Well that is a good example of media bias because the Washington Post quoted an individual as saying that Bush did show up for guard duty in Alabama and would read flight manuals in his office, but was that a page one story with a headline? No, it was buried near the end of a story that was inside the paper. A lot of these phony issues can be solved with a little common sense. In this case Bush obviously attended guard sessions, otherwise he would not have learned to fly and would not have been honorable discharged.


Rochester NY: Hi Mr. Kessler,
I wonder what you think of John Dean's book saying that the Bush White House is worse than Nixon's?

I'm also wondering if you think that decision making is flawed in the White House (vis WMDs for example) and if people like Ms. Rice, Mr. Card, Mr. Rumsfeld, or Mr. Cheney have any awareness of this?


Ronald Kessler: I try to respond to somewhat ridiculous claims that a president who engaged in a criminal conspiracy was worse than a president who committed a sin of removing a dictator who had killed 300,000 people, in a reasonable fashion and I appreciate it when other people on the other side engage in these discussions in a reasonable way. Obviously a lot of people become very emotional about these issues, but I think if you actually look at this with an unbiased approach you'll see that George Bush can not be compared with Richard Nixon and Nixon's criminal activity.


Ronald Kessler: The question I have for the anti-war people is, if you really think the war was wrong do you think that we should restore Saddam Hussein to power? I think we know the answer to that question and I really don't see how the anti-war people can have it both ways, saying that Bush is a criminal or Nazi for removing Saddam while being perfectly happy that Saddam was removed.


Ronald Kessler: In response to a previous question, you might think that since I admired the way Bush is conducting the war on terror the White House would readily cooperate on this book. Not the case. First, as we know, this White House has a button down strategy when dealing with the media. It's a strategy that Bush developed because he doesn't want leaks and differing factions within the White House to fight their battles through the press. And so it turned out that getting access to this White House was even more difficult than penetrating the FBI and the CIA for my previous books. As I explained in the note posted with this interview, I had to demonstrate that I could do the book regardless. I was able to do that because I have secret service sources and also was able to interview maids, butlers, Air Force One stewards, who would give me the inside scoop. Finally Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, checked me out with FBI and CIA sources and Bush finally agreed to cooperate.


Alexandria VA: Ron, since your new book about President Bush's character is based on interviews with his senior aides in the White House and his old friends (according to your website), how do you know you weren't getting spun? Did you balance their (I assume glowing) accounts with those of others who might have seen or worked with GWB in a different light?

Ronald Kessler: One way that I did obtain verification is by interviewing the secret service sources and insiders who I mentioned previously. To me, the way people behave behind the scenes is an important clue to their character. If you ignore those clues you get a Richard Nixon or a Lyndon Johnson, people who are arrogant or apt to engage in ethical violations. What I found was that in contrast to Bill and Hillary Clinton for example, George Bush and Laura treat people around them with respect. Hillary in particular can be vicious with the so-called "little people" whom the Clintons claim to feel compassion for. Hillary in fact fired a White House usher because he returned the call of Barbara Bush who needed help with her computer. The man had four children and couldn't find a job for a year. When we deal with electricians, plumbers or friends, we expect them to tell the truth and not talk out of both sides of their mouths, and yet when we look at politicians we tend to focus on their acting ability on television. When we do that we often suffer the consequences.


Dan Froomkin : Ron, The Post article you were talking about, Few Can Offer Confirmation Of Bush's Guard Service; Friends and Acquaintances Lack Firsthand Knowledge from February of this year clearly states:

"Only one person has vivid recollections of serving with Bush at Dannelly field. John B. 'Bill' Calhoun, 69 -- whose name was provided by a Republican ally of Bush's -- said he saw Bush sign in at the 187th eight to 10 times for about eight hours each from May to October 1972.

"But Calhoun remembers seeing Bush at Dannelly at times in mid-1972 when the White House acknowledges Bush was not pulling Guard duty in Alabama yet; his first drills were in October, according to the White House. White House press secretary Scott McClellan on Friday was at a loss to reconcile the discrepancy."

So can you reconcile it? And did your investigation not find anyone else who saw him in Alabama?

Ronald Kessler: I relied on the Washington Post story which did not report any discrepancies. It was a story by Mike Allen and Lois Romano that appeared on February 13, 2004 and I don't have any more information on the subject except that it has been reported that many of the records in question have been destroyed. This is as foolish an issue as the Halliburton issue and the Patriot Act issue. In the case of Halliburton, Dick Cheney does not benefit based on Halliburton's fortunes. It would be like me saying that I favor the Washington Post because I will receive a pension from the company some day. He even took out an insurance policy to cover his differed compensation if Halliburton went under. That fact is rarely mentioned in the media. In the case of the Patriot Act there are constant stories saying that the FBI is rummaging around in libraries to see what we read. The FBI has no interest in what we read. The FBI is interested in preventing another 9/11 by looking at computer records such as the computer communications that the 9/11 hijackers used. In fact the Patriot Act requires that a judge approve any such searches for records whereas before a grand jury which often acts as a rubber stamp would approve them.


Alexandria, VA: I think that we have coined a new phrase here today. A Bush Non-Apologist.

Ronald Kessler: It's unfortunate that the Bush haters often rely on snickering or calling Bush stupid or simply saying that someone is biased to make their point. I welcome a discussion of the issues if it is done in a respectful way.


Austin, Texas: I have to disagree with you about Bush taking a position and sticking with it.

For one, Bush was against HOmeland Security Department and then changed his mind when polls came out against his decision.

Another, he was against developing an Independent 9/11 Commission and then changed his mind after the polls came out against him again.

So how can you say he is not a "flip-flopper".

Ronald Kessler: It depends on what the facts are. You could certainly make an argument on both sides on establishing a Homeland Security Department of a 9/11 Commission. I don't say that Bush never considers politics in developing his positions. I think when he favored a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage he was obviously aware that it would never pass and that it would get him votes on the conservative side, but on the important issues involving our security he evaluates the facts, he comes to a decision and then he sticks with it. I quoted in the book Collister "Terry" Johnson, Jr. who was a close Bush friend and a roommate at Yale as saying that when he "makes up his mind to do something, he considers the pros and cons and advice, and once he decides, he does it. It took fewer than two months to decide he wanted to marry Laura, so when he goes ahead and does it and people say ?wait a minute! You have to think about that' that is perceived as arrogance, but he has already listened to those arguments."


Pelham Manor, NY: Dan, Dear God, I just got through reading his attack on Hillary and the 'little people" thing.This man is a Bush groupy not a journalist!; Tell me, WHY did you have him on?

Dan Froomkin: I thought it would make for a lively Live Online. And judging from all the questions pouring in, I was right.


Arlington, VA: It seems that lately the President has decided to run against a candidate whose name must be "Straw Man." I keep hearing this absurd comments that often begin with "some people say ...," such as 'some people say people of color are not capable of democratic government' or "it is a ridiculous notion to assert that because the United States is on the offense, more people want to hurt us. We're on the offense because people do want to hurt us."

The problem is NO ONE IS SAYING THESE THINGS. They are all in the President's imagination. Does anyone call the Administration on these things? I would love to hear that one-word question, "Who?"

Dan Froomkin : Washington Post White House correspondent Dana Milbank had a column about this very issue back in June. And in my column yesterday I noted the implication by Bush that Kerry wanted to negotiate with Al Qaeda. Ron, the straw-man rhetorical device is fundamentally dishonest. How does this fit in with your assessment of the president?

Ronald Kessler: There are a huge number of people who have said these very things - that Arabs are not capable of understanding democracy, or that we should negotiate with Al Qaeda. Kerry is not one of those who said we should negotiate with Al Qaeda. What is worrisome about John Kerry is that he is someone who takes a position on both sides of almost every issue. As Jay Leno said, as a result he has twice as many enemies and as a result had to double the size of his secret service detail. If an electrician or a plumber kept giving you different stories about whether and item had to be fixed or not, or how much it would cost, you would never deal with that person unless you were a fool. Yet we accept that kind of vacillating and posturing in our politicians almost as if we think we don't deserve anything better. That is exactly what we don't need in perusing the war on terror.


Washington DC: The nation was under attack, and he sat for seven minutes like an imbecile. Wouldn't a man of real character have gotten up, calmly, and said "Excuse me, children, there's something I need to take care of." Wouldn't a man of real character have taken charge, instead of leaving the defense of our country to, at best, Dick Cheney? This was his defining moment, and we saw his real character.

Ronald Kessler: First, Bush's explanation was that he didn't want to create panic in the country by rushing off. If you put yourself in his position and you already know that we obviously are under attack and it is pretty clear who did it, would you want to rush off and be barraged by advice from aides and information from all over or would you want to first think through what this means, what levers of power can be used, how to respond on TV. In other words, developing a strategy in my view was more important than jumping into the fray and saying "I'm in charge." The 9/11 Commission focused a lot on whether planes could have been shot down at that moment. The truth is that the problem went back much further when the CIA's budget was slashed by Democrats and Bill Clinton and a risk atmosphere was imposed. Because the way to protect us is not to shoot planes out of the sky over crowded cities after the plot has already unfolded. The way to protect us is to penetrate al Quada, to uncover the plot before it unfolds. To do that you need a strong CIA and a strong FBI, agencies that have the support of the president and the resources to do the job. What people don't realize is that Bush meets every morning with the FBI and CIA directors and essentially he is the CEO of the war on terror, prodding them, giving them support and focusing them. In contrast bill Clinton almost never met with his FBI or CIA director. You can't get any better support than meeting every morning with the president and that is what is making a real difference on the war on terror.


medfod, MA: Lively chat? That's your goal? I am really not looking here for Fox News-style hand-puppet partisanship. This is really a low point in Washington Post on-line discussions.... Please refer to the informative way that Dana Priest, a real journalist, discusses issues and news.

Dan Froomkin: I'm a huge Dana Priest fan.

But on this particular Live Online, I have a guest, and I'm letting him talk.


Dan Froomkin : Ron, I gather you're talking about this story. But on the Calhoun issue it was superseded by the one I mentioned above. So there's an outstanding discrepancy.

And I gather you yourself did not find anyone who remembered seeing him in the Alabama guard.

Ronald Kessler: I don't see how anybody can claim to remember exactly when they were in a particular place that far back.


Damascus, MD: Mr Kessler.

In your interviews with currently serving Secret Service agents and White House Staff, did you seriously think you were going to hear any negative reports from people who are working for someone as famously vindictive as the Bush family? Look at how they've trashed everyone who has left their team in the past four years, and tell us again that you think those worker bees would have been brave enough to tell you the truth.

Ronald Kessler: Well, the way we in the media find out anything is that we talk to people who often do still work for the subjects of the stories. Bob Woodward did the same thing after being given White House access and what is necessary is to compare the stories with other accounts and with other corroborative information.

The people who have worked for Bush and written books accusing him of all kinds of nefarious things, in the case of Paul O'Neill was someone who had been fired, and in the case of Richard Clarke, was someone who had been rejected for a job that he applied for. And in the case of Paul O'Neill, he actually subsequently retracted all of his major claims, but the media pretty much ignored those retractions.


Washington DC: Mr. Kessler - How thoughtful of you to include the 2 "cheap shots" that you excluded from your books, in your introduction to this chat. Edited out once, does this make them even cheaper????

Ronald Kessler: Good one! My defense is that in the case of the Hillary item, I originally used in the draft of the book the actual unkind remark. Now I am not revealing that.

In the case of the Kerry item, in the book it appeared as if he still tipped only 10 percent in the Senate dining room. I'm making it clear in this note that the item came from my previous book, "Inside Congress," and therefore may not be up to date.


Dan Froomkin : You left out of your recitation of Bush's childhood one incident that the last author I had Live Online thought was pretty seminal: that Bush exploded firecrackers inside of frogs as a youngster.

He also apparently branded pledges on the buttocks with a hot coat-hanger while at Yale.

Any thoughts about how those reflect his character?

Ronald Kessler: I have never seen any substantiation for either of those claims.


Ronald Kessler: I mentioned before media bias. In the book I go into the fact that Gail Sheehy in Vanity Fair claimed that Bush is dyslexic. She based that on large part on a statement by an expert whom she quoted as saying he was dyslexic. I talked to the expert and she told me that in fact she had told me that he is NOT dyslexic because dyslexia entails having difficulty with reading, Bush has no difficulty reading although he certainly mangles his words.


Los Angeles, CA: Do you agree that the press corps has lost much of its power? It was unable to hold the White House from launching a war in Iraq when by all rights, they should have done so much more. You are all complicit in the murder of thousands of Iraqi civilians.

Have a nice day.

Dan Froomkin : I think this is what they call a rhetorical question. But Ron, you've watched the White House and the corps for a while. Has it gotten more submissive over time? Or more marginalized?

Ronald Kessler: I think that the press corps has forgotten what it's supposed to be doing, which is to report the facts, uncover real abuses, and address misinformation. When Woodward and Bernstein did Watergate -- and I was there -- you never saw the kind of opinion and unsubstantiated information and biased reporting that we see today. I think that is one reason why a lot of media outlets are experiencing a decline in readership, or viewers.


Dan Froomkin : Ron, thanks so much for joining us today. You certainly have stirred up my readers.

Ronald Kessler: Let me add one more thing to my last comment.

In the case of Bush, you have these caricatures created by the media, that he is a right-wing zealout, who is intolerant, even though Condi Rice and Colin Powell hold the highest positions blacks have ever had in the government.

He was obsessed with going into Iraq, even though according to another caricature, he has a short attention span.

He is stubborn and never changes his views, even though he is also portrayed as being a puppet of Karl Rove or Dick Cheney.

And I think the most obnoxious characterization is that because he believes in God, he must be some kind of nut.

I like to evaluate people based on their actions. To me, 95 percent of being president is about making us secure. In that respect, based on all my dealings with FBI people and CIA people, I think Bush is someone who is critically important to protecting us.

Thank you all for joining this discussion.


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