White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, June 30, 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 also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org. You can e-mail him at froomkin@washingtonpost.com.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone. I'm eager to get to your questions and comments. In today's column I posed you readers this question: If you had a 10-minute interview with President Bush, what question would you ask?

And hey, I have another question as well, for a project I may be working on: Who do you think are the greatest (still living) White House correspondents from the past several decades -- and why?

OK. Bring it on!


Holmdel, N.J.: Dan, you had insisted that journalists do not provide questions beforehand to the White House for the President's press appearances. However, it seems that his handlers still managed to get Carol Coleman of RTE to submit her questions three days ahead of her interview. Although this was not a press appearance, do you still stand by your claim?

Dan Froomkin: Already a lot of questions stacked up about Carole Coleman, the Irish correspondent who interviewed Bush last week. Bush got snippy with her when she tried to move him along -- and the White House later complained about her tone.

In a debrief with one of her colleagues, she mentioned that she had submitted her questions three days ahead of time and -- BLAMMO -- the blogosphere went wild. The conspiracy theory -- that I tried to kill once and for all (ha!) in a Live Online last April -- is that the White House press corps are such lapdogs that they allow the White House to screen their questions. The theory is once again in full blossom.

But as for Coleman, I explained in my column yesterday that all Coleman was asked for was a general heads-up about what she was interested in. She wasn't obliged to stick to pre-approved anything. The White House told me that; her network flack confirmed it. Everyone, please stand down.

Let me put this as simply as I can: The reason Bush is rarely surprised by questions is that the questions are rarely surprising.

They are also often multi-layered and multi-part -- a doomed attempt to illicit more information -- and as a result he can sort of pick whatever part he wants and riff off that.

Ergo: This is why I am asking YOU readers what questions YOU think he should be asked. I'm hoping to get, and provide, inspiration! Surprise me!


Washington, D.C.: Dear Dan:
I noticed that Bush got in a snit from his interview with the Irish reporter. I thought she was respectful to him but at the same time asking appropriate and tough questions. I was wondering your oppinions on this -- do you think he got mad because he has gotten so used to the T-Ball kind of questions that he's tossed at Press Conferences, and from what I hear these questions have to be submitted in advance. What's your oppinion of the type of relationship the press should have with the President, any President?
By the way, I would really like the see the Big Media boys graduate to at least asking Little League type questions, but thats probably too much to ask.

Dan Froomkin: Look, like pretty much any journalist, I find it extremely galling that, most of the time, when someone asks Bush or press secretary Scott McClellan a question, they don't get what I would call a direct answer. This is of course a tradition going way back in the White House, but it's sometimes better, sometimes worse. (With Clinton, you had the opposite problem; too much answer!)

As for big-league questions. Tim Russert's a big leaguer, and I thought his initial questions for Bush in that Oval Office interview were generally strong. But I thought he let Bush ramble way too much in response, and didn't follow up as aggressively as he should have (possibly because so much time had now been taken up already.) But others found him disrespectful.

Look at the Coleman thing. After her interview, the White House filed a formal complaint with the Irish Embassy! Now, mind you, she wasn't going to get another Bush interview in her lifetime anyway, but imagine if she had been hoping to...


Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.: Mr. President, Have you thought of a mistake yet?

Dan Froomkin: I'm going to post some of the questions I've gotten so far for the president. That was the first.


Crestwood, N.Y.: Given the chance, I'd ask Bush the same question Michael Moore asks the fleeing Congressmen in the movie: If Iraq is a righteous cause, are you willing to sign up your daughters to fight in this war?

Dan Froomkin: OK.


Portland, Ore.: Mr. President:
You've been labelled the "CEO President". As a past CEO myself, I know that one of the toughest, but most important things you MUST do is fire people. Why haven't you fired several of your top officials over their outright lies and incompetence, including treason against a CIA operative (Plame)? To me this looks very very weak, rather than "CEO-like".

Dan Froomkin: OK.


Indianapolis, Ind.: Mr. Bush:

You campaigned on the assertion that you would be a "uniter and not a divider" but your approval ratings are astonishingly low among African Americans and many other ethnic minorities. Why do you think this is so?

Dan Froomkin: Another.


Harriman, N.Y.: Here's my question for your hypothetical 10 minutes with the President: Now that we have somewhat cleared up the circumstances under which you learned that the Trade Center had been hit on 9/11, can you tell us whether it crossed your mind that this event may have some relation to the possibility raised in the PDB you recieved a month earlier of domestic attacks on the United States by Al Qaeda. If so, can you tell us when in the sequence of 9/11 events did you first recollect the warning on the PDB?

One other thing, Mr. Froomkin: as they say on talk radio I find your column indispensable. I am at a loss when you are on vacation and when you are unable to post until late in the morning, I get nervous about the prospect that you will post at all that day. Please keep up this work.

Dan Froomkin: A sure fire way to get your question posted.


Arlington, Tex.: Question for POTUS: Your administration advocates decency, integrity, family values, and elevating the tone in Washington. Do you defend the Vice President's language recently on the Senate floor?

Dan Froomkin: Interesting.


Portland, Maine: Dan,

To be honest, I don't think I'd ask anything of consequence of the President because he'd just respond with his stock answers. So I think I'd rather talk to him about baseball. And not antitrust issues or anything, more like "If Sandy Koufax pitched to Barry Bonds, who'd win?"

Dan Froomkin: There is that risk.


College Park, Md.: If I could ask Bush a question, I'd ask what he was thinking on September 11 as he sat in the Florida classroom for several minutes after learning that the twin towers were hit.

Dan Froomkin: Lots of variations of that one coming in.


Great Falls, Va.: How does "My Pet Goat" end?

Dan Froomkin: Nasty.


Takoma Park, Md.: If I could ask Bush a question in a press conference, I would probably ask how he is coping with his alcoholism with all the stresses of the job of POTUS. What kind of response do you think that would elicit from Bush?

Dan Froomkin: You know, that reminds me of another pressure White House correspondents are under. They're not just worried about getting blackballed by the White House, they're worried about getting fired from their jobs if their bosses think they are out of line.

OK, I'm going to take some questions for me now, for a few minutes.


Phoenix, N.Y.: It seems the tone around the White House has become more and more sour over the past few months. Bush looks tense and sounds snappish with reporters. Are we who follow the news from a distance reading too much into things, or is Bush (or his aides) a bit on edge? Will this effect his abiltity to lay out a postive vision for his second term to would be voters?

Dan Froomkin: I wrote a column entitled "Testy, Testy, Testy" the other day, raising that issue as a possibility. But keep in mind that just hours before the Coleman interview, he'd been staring down the federal prosecutor on the Valerie Plame case. That can't be any fun.

As for the positive vision: He will continue to speak about how optimistic he is, no matter what.


Washington, D.C.: Dan, I was wholly troubled by the idea (mentioned in Meyerson's column on Cheney today) that Jeb Bush will likely run for president. That's just plain depressing. As a former Florida voter (and I anticipate moving back around the time of the '08 election), I am disgusted by his record, and can't believe that folks down there elected him to two terms. Is there acutal talk out there anywhere that he'll run? I'd like to say the American people won't be duped by yet another puppet president whose strings are pulled entirely by his ideology, but I have to reserve judgement until after November.

Dan Froomkin: Here's that Harold Meyerson column, with its eye-catching lead: "Hey, you! The snarl in the suit! Yeah, you, Dick Cheney: Go **** yourself!"

As for Jeb Bush, I don't know. But I can tell you that it is the not-so-secret desire of many of us in the Washington press corps that the next several decades bring us as many Bush dynasty vs. Clinton dynasty matchups as possible. So we are sort of rooting for Jeb and Hillary ... and Jenna and Barbara and Chelsea.


Phoenix, Ariz.: Hey Dan, it's your favorite fan in Phoenix. In your column today, you write:

Michael Buchanan of the BBC writes: "Who is the most important person to President Bush's re-election hopes?

"Political adviser Karl Rove? Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld? Vice-President Dick Cheney?

"All will undoubtedly play some role in how November's presidential election turns out, but arguably the man who will trump them all is Iraq's Prime Minister Ayad Allawi."

I would argue that it is John McCain. Mc Cain is arguably the most important person in the presidential race not running for president--he's wanted by both sides, is on the WMD committee, the Armed Services Committee. He's everywhere there's a story. How do you respond to the claim that he may produce the percentage point or two that may swing the election?

Dan Froomkin: I think you may be on to something. I am quite sure the Bush/Cheney campaign was delighted and relieved to see him on stage with their guy two weeks ago, rather than with Kerry.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Dan,

I'm sure you're getting a lot of great questions for the President. Any chance we'll see another prime-time press conference? The last one was so much fun.


Dan Froomkin: I don't know. If he thinks he's going to have to answer any of the questions you guys are sending in, he'd be wise to give it a pass! ;-)


Philadelphia, Pa.: Dan,

I must say that I find it hypocritical that all these conservatives who have been up in arms over indecency for the past few months, don't seem to care when the VP is telling a Senator to F--- himself. I can imagine the situation wouldn't have been dismissed so quickly if it had been Senator Leahy saying that to VP Cheney.

Dan Froomkin: I think the White House is very lucky that this story is dying down so fast.


Bethpage, N.Y.: I have been reading your column for several months now and very much appreciate your objective analyses. What is your view of whether there is any healthy reduction in ego (emerging humbleness)within the Oval Office? My view is that if a more humble tone were more evident from Jan 2000, beyond Sept 11, 2001 and into any confrontation with Saddam Hussein, Bush would not find himself at serious risk of losing this election.

Dan Froomkin: Thank you for your kind words.

I just can't imagine President Bush turning over a new leaf in the next four months.


Marblehead, Mass.: The Post today is full of talk about how recent Supreme Court decisions and congressional action suggest that the Bush White House has gone too far grabbing power and justifying it by the wars we're enmeshed in. It certainly puts a sinister spin on "the war president" tag Bush has constantly called himself. Any chance he may back off of that? Buchan's comment on the Supreme Court rulings sounded like a promise to find a way around any interference with the Bush policies on detainees and a determination to hold people until the end of the conflict, which no one thinks actually has an end. Do you think congress and the Court are going to continue to resume their rightful place, or is this just temporary? Is there a distinction between the Republican controlled congress and the White House?

Dan Froomkin: This question obviously came yesterday. Nobody's writing about it today anymore.

And I don't know what will happen. I do know this has been an extroardinary run for the executive branch.

Congress... ah, Congress. It's a bit dysfunctional right now. And the Republicans are not even in lockstep with each other. See today's Jonathan Weisman story in The Post.


Arlington, Va.: As to White House correspondnets, it would be hard to beat Dan Rather during the Nixon era when he took a lot of criticism for asking Nixon about Watergate issues. He persisted.

Dan Froomkin: OK. Thanks.


Damascus, Md.: If anyone answers something other than "Helen Thomas" for greatest living White House correspondent, please submit their email to a spam server for me. That woman is a treasure. And so incredibly gracious -- she still answers all her fan mail. Yes, I still have those messages in my inbox from a year ago, why do you ask?

Dan Froomkin: I'm thinking of asking them what advice they have for today's correspondents. Of course, Helen's still there, so we can see for ourselves.


Tuscon, Ariz.: Greatest living White House Journalist: Helen Thomas hands down. This lady has asked the toughest of the tough questions to many Presidents. She has helped keep democracy alive and set a standards for the rest of the crowd!

Dan Froomkin: Another vote for Helen.


San Antonio, Tex.: Is Helen Thomas still active in the White House press corps... or has she been banished?

Dan Froomkin: She is still there. She's got a front-row seat for the briefings. In fact, her name's actually engraved on her chair in the briefing room She is responsible for much of the haranguing you hear in McClellan's briefings.

She has, however, been banished, more or less, from the presidential news conferences, where she's way in the back and never called on anymore.


East Setauket, N.Y.: Mr. President, in your 2000 campaign you indicated you would lead with humility. Can you give us instances in which you have been humble in your duties as president?

Dan Froomkin: Back to your questions.


Sims, N.C.: Question -- Name 20 of the soldiers who you have sent to their deaths.

Dan Froomkin:  


Salem, Ore.: Question for Bush:

Mr. President, can you show with specific metrics where Iraqi citizens are better off today than the day before we invaded?

Dan Froomkin: OK.


Arlington, Va.: Mr. President, what did you know about Valerie Plame and when did you know it?

Dan Froomkin: OK.


Washington, D.C.: So, Mr. President, who are we going to "pre-emptively strike" next? Who's next on your list?

Dan Froomkin: OK.


Terry Moran: Just because he is SOOO cute!;

Dan Froomkin: And some more responses to my best-correspondent query...


Indianapolis, Ind.: Powell's public cries over Sudan are something of an insult. Any fool can see the US has neither the resources or the troop strenght to do anything about it. What he's doing looks like cheap political posturing. Comments?

Dan Froomkin: Anybody who's been following this story (not easy, given how little was written about it until recently) should be grateful that it is now on the White House's radar. Why don't we give them a chance?


Washington, D.C.: Is it my imagination, or was President Bush's scribbled "Let freedom reign!" (on the note from "Condi" announcing the handover of sovereignty) the sort of Polaroid moment that's an administration specialty? For one thing, who was Bush supposedly writing that to?

It was strange to see reporters on CNN waving their instantly-released photo of the note like a scrap of the Shroud of Turin-- like many things with the White House press corps, it's both amusing and disturbing to see how easily they're spun.

Dan Froomkin: That was an irresistable visual, I must say. (I can't even help linking to it again.)

I doubt it was orchestrated, but whoever decided to release it is a genius. It was all over the media coverage, and not just TV. Descriptions of it even led many of the print reports the next day.

What I didn't fathom was why more people weren't confused about the "reign" part. As many readers have e-mailed me, "Let Freedom Ring" is the more familiar phrase, as in from "America (My Country 'Tis of Thee) and the Martin Luther King Jr. "I Have a Dream" speech. "Let Freedom Reign," while it makes some sense, may be mostly a Southerner's homonym -- or dyslexia?


Washington, D.C.: Dan -- on the hand-off -- what's up with the confiscated cell phones?? lesson learned: carry at least two cell phones so you can leave one on in your pocket? And Bush's comments about this being a civics lesson to the rest of the Middle East -- we're going to smash all the other countries, kill a few thousand people and bring them democracy too? And one last question, where's Jerry?

Dan Froomkin: In reverse order:

3) Re: Jerry. Al Kamen writes today that "Former Iraq viceroy L. Paul Bremer's heels had barely scuttered across the tarmac to his plane Monday when the new Iraqi government proudly unfurled the nation's flag." And it wasn't the flag Bremer wanted!. Bremer is so 20 minutes ago.

2) You're being a bit cynical. I think everyone can agree that if it were possible, a real democracy in the middle of the Middle East would be a great thing.

1) You are alluding to Howard Kurtz's Media Notes column yesterday. I like your idea. I'll start putting my backup piece in my sock.


Altoona, Pa.: Mr. President, why are protestors cordoned off blocks and miles away from appearances? Do you ever make any effort to go and talk to or meet with them?

Dan Froomkin: Some more questions for Bush.


Washington, D.C.: Ask him how much a gallon of milk costs?

Dan Froomkin: That's what they call a trick question. Didn't his Dad fall for that one?


Hamburg, Germanu: Mr. President, given your enthusiastic support for Turkey's entry into the EU, could you outline what you believe the EU is and what membership entails? Follow-up: Why are you not granting Mexico the same privileges?

Dan Froomkin: Interesting analogy.


Damascus, Md.: Mr President, is invading Iraq starting to look like as good an idea as trading Sammy Sosa?

Dan Froomkin: That would get a laugh.


And speaking of Valerie Plame...: Evidently both the president and vice president have been questioned in this investigation. Is the word on the street that this will end up in the administration's favor before the elections or not?

Dan Froomkin: It wouldn't be a "White House Talk" without a Valerie Plame question. Nobody knows! We were all taken by surprise by Bush's meeting. This grand jury secrecy thing is the real thing. There's speculation that they're wrapping up, but who knows?


Ashland, Mo.: A contrarian notion: The country would be better served if the president was provided questions in advance and the public knew what they were in advance so they could grade him on his answers and which questions he chose to answer. The current system is way to ego driven on all sides.

Dan Froomkin: Way contrarian. I kinda like it!


Dallas, Tex.: Why hasn't more been made to explain the impact inflation has on the highly touted consumer spending report for May? The Bush White House with the help of a mindless media apparatus is using misleading and corrupt numbers to bolster the false concept of a robust economic recovery.

Dan Froomkin: I anticipate some much more aggressive economic reporting in the coming months as the issue becomes even more potent politically. I think we've got to examine such seminal question as: Who is better off today than they were four years ago? And I suspect we will find that, by and large, wage-earners are not better off.


Washington, D.C.: Cheney got booed at Yankee stadium last night and I am curious whether there are ever any polls done on his job approval. Considering the expanding role he has played in 9/11, Iraq and most policy decisions, I would think this might be important information for both the white house and Kerry to track.

Dan Froomkin: Pollsters do indeed track Cheney's approval rating, though not as devotedly as they do Bush's.

I believe the last time the Washington Post/ABC poll asked was in March. That poll found 35% favorable, 43% unfavorable.

Pollingreport.com does a bang-up job of aggregating polls like that.


Under K Street, Washington, D.C.:
Question for POTUS:

"Mr. President, why is Helen Thomas sitting in the back of the room?"

Dan Froomkin: Too funny.


Under Freedom's Re, IN: Do they even allow homonyms in the South? Massachusetts, sure, but...

Dan Froomkin: Also funny.


Annapolis, Md.: Do you rember Osama Bin Laden? And,if you do, do you think that our forces will ever be able to catch him? I seem to remember that you swore that we would not stop hunting for him until he was caught.

Dan Froomkin: OK.


Cheney's F-bomb: Okay, I know Cheney's dropping of the F-bomb and the Post's reprinting of it was like, so last week. BUT, it seems the language itself has distracted everyone from a much more important issue.

Isn't it rather inappropriate for the sitting VP to try to influence an ongoing Congressional inquiry? My understanding based on the reporting was that Cheney was giving Leahy grief for the Halliburton investigation. Isn't that improper?

Why, oh why, is no one lamenting this abuse of power?

Dan Froomkin: I hadn't even thought of that.


And more to the contrary: But the president should not be allowed to know WHO is going to ask which questions, so that he can't avoid them a la poor Helen, who surely doesn't deserve this treatment.

Dan Froomkin: I'm quite sure he doesn't know who will ask what. We're predictable, but not THAT predictable.


Anonymous: 10 minutes with Bush? That's about five questions, so here we go.

1. What was your FIRST thought when you heard that the second plane had hit the World Trade center. (I'll confess my first thought was that some air traffic controller was going to be fired.)

2. Why do you need your questions prepared before you are interviewed?

3. Why don't you stand erect or sit straight when you are addressing the public? (I was also taught that good posture lends credibility.)

4. How important will fear be in the campaign?

5. Who was your first black friend?

Dan Froomkin: Actually, at his prime-time press conference, he averaged three minutes per answer.


Rosslyn, Va.: Dan, I simply love your 'White House Briefing' columns!

Dan Froomkin: And on that lovely note, I must be going.

Thanks for all the great questions -- and so many more that I wasn't able to get to.

You can always e-mail me at froomkin@washingtonpost.com. And don't miss my column, White House Briefing, Monday through Friday, showing up on the home page late mornings.

(But Harriman, NY: Brace yourself! I'm taking a long Fourth of July Weekend.)


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