White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Friday, May 7, 2004; 11:00 AM

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. I just finished this morning's column, (if it's not up yet, it will be momentarily) so my fingers are tired. But bring it on!


Arlington, Va.: Are you going to apologize for being completely wrong about Bush's apology?

"May 6, 10:55 AM (ET)

Will President Bush ever say he's sorry -- about anything?

Yesterday, all sorts of people who work for Bush apologized for the horrific abuse of Iraqi prisoners at a U.S.-run prison. Press secretary Scott McClellan even apologized on Bush's behalf.

But the president himself? No way."

"May 6, 2:49 PM (ET)

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Bush apologized Thursday for the abuse and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers, saying the scenes of mistreatment had made Americans 'sick to our stomachs.'"

Dan Froomkin: I'm sorry about my timing. My column was only up for a few hours before he came out and made his announcement, making it somewhat out of date.

But I am equally sorry that you misunderstood my column. I wasn't predicting that he would never apologize. I was reporting that he hadn't so far -- contrary even to his talking points, it turns out, for the Arab TV interviews.

That said, my column today parses the whole thing.


Martinez, Calif.: If I understood President Bush correctly during his joint news conference with the President of Jordan, he didn't know about either the "investigative" report or the pictures that the media already had until they were released through the media itself. However, he then seemed to contradict himself by saying that the "investigation" was announced to the World in January. If this was an official announcement --one that I don't recall reading about-- then he knew about it. If he knew abou it, he should have been appalled then, not just when the pictures were disclosed. Why isn't the press looking at President Bush as someone who didn't have a handle on it either. Granted, Secretary Rumsfeld should have been more candid with him, but he should have inquired further about the matter as soon as he heard about it. This is clearly a failure of leadership on his part as well.

Dan Froomkin: I believe it is safe to say that we are still working on determining what happened, and particularly understanding the timing better. As I write in my column today, press secretary Scott McClellan is not exactly helping.


Colchester, Vt.: Love your column.
How big a hole is the President going to dig for us. Can't he see he must personally apologize to the people of Iraq for the mistreatment of the prisoners. Parents don't allow their kids to get away with far less without apology.

Dan Froomkin: Thank you. I raise what I call the "schoolyard test" in my column today. I think "schoolyard tests" should always be applied to presidents, particularly on the issues of truthtelling and apologizing. Interestingly, pretty much all of them, throughout history, would consistently fail.


Ann Arbor, Mich.: Do you think too much is being made of the political impact of the Iraqi prision scandal? For one, Americans have about a one-week attention span. Certainly, by June, they will have completely forgotten about this, if they were paying attention in the first place. Second, I would bet that the vast majority of Americans aren't the least bit troubled about torturing Iraqis. I've heard comments all week such as "they don't follow the Geneva convention, why should we?". The bottom line is that no one will remember this and most don't care anyway.

Dan Froomkin: Your cynicism is probably largely justified. That's the less-discussed effect of the speeded-up news cycle. These stories flame out incredibly fast. That said, this one's not going away quite yet.


Woodbridge, Va.: I did not think President Bush seemed all that "sorry" when he spoke on Arab television. His body language showed he was uncomfortable and almost pissed off that he had to do it. He wasn't really sorry. In fact, like teenagers, Rumsfeld, Bush and the rest of the yahoos running this Country, are just sorry they got caught.

Dan Froomkin: It would be sort of interesting to ask Bush precisely what he's sorry about.


Washington, D.C.: Why don't you ever cite coverage by Bloomberg News, which does truly excellent White House coverage? They're a member of the press pool (Dick Keil is also known as ``Stretch'') at all the events, and some of the analyses they do, especially on economic issues, shoot the moon.

Dan Froomkin: I would constantly be linking to the excellent Bloomberg White House stories if I could consistently find them on the Web. But I can't. Their Web site doesn't seem to post most White House stories, and I can't figure out how to search on it. Any help you could provide would be much appreciated. E-mail me.


Stavanger, Norway: Shouldn't Bush take control of this situation fast? He should immediately fire Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz and replace them those who can convey stature and gravitas to the world -- Colin Powell and John McCain. Someone needs to clean up this mess fast and restore dignity and pride to the American people. Bush cannot possibly know the shame and embarrassment we Americans, including those of us overseas, feel.

Dan Froomkin: That would be one way of doing things. But it might also prolong the half-life of this story. I think the White House is trying to figure out whether they can just wait this one out. Just how Rumsfeld does on the Hill today may inform that.


Washington, D.C.: Dan -- Your reporting is one of the few scarce reasons to hold off writing the obituary for truly independent journalism. It's good to see that there are reporters out there that still make a real attempt to get to the bottom of a story - especially when it comes to this White House.

Seems like the imperial, corporatist attitude that this Adminsitration has taken with the media has begun to show some cracks.
Bush's attempts to use the White House press corps as the ultimate national PA system for his re-election seem to be finally running into some resistance from the free press that some of us still hold sacred.

Have you seen any of the reported scare tactics that this White House reportedly uses on reporters that "misbehave"? Is the WHPC becoming braver? Do you detect any change in the corpoarte heirarchy that runs the news? Are these CEOs starting to see that there may be more money to be made in getting to the bottom of the White House instead of just broadcasting their PR?

Here's to that glass being half full again!

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.

Certainly, the White House has in the past gotten annoyed at certain reporters for articles they wrote, and has found ways to overlook them when returning phone calls or at press conferences, or complained to their editors.

But I don't think the press corps is running scared, at least not now.

That said, modern journalists are deeply afeared of appearing shrill.


Alexandria, Va.: I'd like to offer that President Bush telling the King of Jordan that he is sorry this happened is hardly an apology.

It's like if my wife insults somebody at an office party and I later tell my brother that I was sorry it happened.

Dan Froomkin: Today is analogy day! Anyone got any more?


Austin, Tex.: Do you anticipate any White House people leaving before the election? If so, will another Bush book be in the offing?

(please don't go on vacation until after the election. You have me hooked)

Dan Froomkin: Even if it looks like Bush will win re-election, there's always quite a bit of turnover between terms, and some of it will likely start before the election. But I don't know of anyone enormously significant planning to leave, no, and the book-publishing cycle is not super fast.

Also: I do plan on going on (short) vacations a few more times before the election. Sorry. But doing this five days a week is exhausting.


Rancho Bernardo, Calif.: I find it incomprehensible that Bush, Rumsfeld and Myers all say that they haven't read the Taguba report. Is this credible?

Dan Froomkin: I used to work somewhere where the CEO only read what he called "one-pagers." And he didn't exactly run the most powerful country -- or military -- on the globe. These people, most of the time, get "briefed."


Cincinnati, Ohio: Can you put some perspective on the White House press and their growing demands for apologies. It seems to have grown into a sport where the winner forces an apology. Has this happened in the past or is this indicative of a particular attitude toward this administration?

Thank you.

Dan Froomkin: You raise a good point. But one of the themes that I think is obsessing the press corps these days is Bush's unwillingness to admit his mistakes. That said, we may be harping on it in an unsubtle, and unseemly, way.


Lewiston, N.Y.: How could a President NOT know what is going on in prisoner treatment across the gulag under his command? [Today the New York Times editorially calls this gulag an archipelago.]

Are we witnessing again, as with 9/11, the downside of having a disengaged, incurious President?

Dan Froomkin: You should read the news analysis by Janet Hook in the Los Angeles Times today.

She writes: "One important aspect of Bush's leadership style is his tendency to remain detached from the nitty-gritty details of issues. Some analysts say that may have contributed to the fact that Bush, who had been told in January in general terms about an investigation of prisoner abuse, felt blindsided when he recently learned its full extent."


Austin, Tex.: Hi Dan,

Enjoy your observations and insights. As someone who was in a position to watch Bush closely here in Texas, a lot of what is going on in this administration does not suprise me. Bush always seemed detached from the reality of conditions in the state. I especially recall his statement that he was pretty sure that no child in Texas goes to bed hungry. And this a state with one of the highest percentages of children living in poverty!

Fact of the matter, if former Lt. Governor Bob Bullock had not helped him out, Bush would have had a pretty lackluster record as governor. That said, his record in retrospect is hardly enviable as the state has been suffering through budget shortfalls, largely a legacy of his tax cuts that he touted as qualifying him for the presidency.

I was baffled though that he did not offer an up-front apology when he appeared on the Arab television the other day. I get the sense -- and remember, this is colored by my observations of him as governor -- that he just does not have a solid grasp on the reality of the situation.

If I had to pick one thing that best describes Bush, it would be his inability -- or lack of desire -- to look down the road to see what effects his policies produce.

That's my take -- would like to hear yours.

My take is that Bush is not uncaring, as much that he is unknowing

Dan Froomkin: See the link to the LA Times story above.

I think it is safe to say that he's not big on nuance.

But is that a bad thing?

Red America says no!


New York, N.Y.: Isn't it to Bush's advantage to keep Rumsfeld dangling like a pinata for a while so he rather than Bush is the focal point of the torture scandal?

Dan Froomkin: Thank you for the pinata analogy. Any others?


Irvine, Calif.: I thought that DOD's Pace said that the White House had been in the know even before January of this year about wide-spread abuses we had propagated onto the Iraqis. Was it?

Dan Froomkin: From Mike Allen's story today:

"Marine Gen. Peter Pace, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday on CBS's 'Early Show' that beginning in mid-January, everyone 'up the chain of command . . . was kept apprised orally of the ongoing investigation.'

"Asked if Bush 'was well aware of the situation,' Pace replied: 'Yes.'"

We're trying to get to the bottom of this.


Columbia, Md.: How about:
Rumsfield's apology for the not knowing about the treatment of the prisoners is like Clinton's apolgy for denying having sex with Monica.

Dan Froomkin: Well, it's an analogy all right.


Rockford, Ill.: In his appearence before the press one week ago with the Canadian Prime Minister, Bush said as a result of US occupation, "there are no longer torture chambers or rape rooms" in Iraq.

This, of course, came AFTER the photos hit the press. Why has there been so little discussion of this initial denial of torture?

Dan Froomkin: From my column yesterday, which no one read because Bush apologized and it vanished off the home page:

Much has been made of the fact that Bush is still using a line from his stump speech about how the torture chambers in Iraq are closed.

But here's something no one seems to have noticed: He has made a change. Now he's saying whose torture chambers.

Up until lately, the line generally went "Because we acted, torture chambers are closed."

That was up until early Tuesday afternoon. See, for instance, his remarks in Lebanon or Maumes, Ohio.

But since Tuesday night -- or by the time he got to Cincinnati -- he's been more specific. The exact words now: "Because our coalition acted, Saddam's torture chambers are closed."

And he's used that precise phrasing two more times since then.


Annandale, Va.: As far as the President's apology is concerned, I never heard him apologize. He said that he apologized to the King of Jordan but we didn't hear him actually do it. He didn't apologize to the Iraqi people, nor to the American people for the irreparable damage to America's reputation worldwide. Just how bad does it have to get before we demand accountability?

And they called Reagan the Teflon President.

Dan Froomkin: Teflon. An oldie but a goodie, analogy-wise.


Austin, Tex.: 1. What do you think are the odds of a substantial shakeup in the administration and some public changing of course before the election? Something along the lines of "We made some mistakes, and here's what we're going to do about it." (I know this is generally considered to be inconceivable, but the "everything is rosy" line is getting hard to sustain.)

2. Do I understand correctly that you basically think we'll have a pretty good idea of Rumsfeld's future by the end of the day today?

Dan Froomkin: A shakeup would be utterly and completely contrary to the message the Bush White House is trying to emanate right now, i.e. decisiveness, bold leadership, no cutting and running, things are moving in the right direction.

So no way.

I won't predict anything about Rumsfeld, though. He's a survivor. But he's definitely in trouble.


Washington, D.C.: Are your going to print a retraction since he apologized yesterday?

Dan Froomkin: Sorry, no.


Portland, Ore.: Isn't it ironic that the Arab world gets an apology from Bush for prisoner abuse at the hands of American soldiers, while Americans, who have died by the hundreds, get no similar apology from this administration for being dragged into a senseless war, based on calculated lies and false premises? Do you think Bush will ever aplogize to the American people?

Dan Froomkin: I do not think Bush will ever apologize for going to war in Iraq, no.


Europe: President Bush is seen as a steadfast leader who doesn't budge in front of public outcry. His PR people must be real wizards!

Yesterday's apology fits a pattern. Bush first resists public demand, but eventually gives in. The most telling example would be the 9/11 commission story. First he resisted even creating a commission. He resisted Condoleeza Rice testifying. He resisted testifying himself, and so on.
On a more substantive issue, look at "post?!-"war planning(?!) in Iraq.

So my question would be. Could the campaign against Kerry's flip-flops eventually backfire?

Dan Froomkin: Hello, Europe. Yes, that's a definite pattern. Although here he didn't actually say he wasn't going to apologize.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Who's that older fellow that asks the long and very obtuse questions at the briefings? He's got a loud, deep voice and everyone seems to roll their eyes when he starts talking.

What's his story?

Dan Froomkin: I believe you are referring to Les Kinsolving, one of the quirkier denizens of the briefing room.


Washington, D.C.: Your parsing of the apology seems a bit cynical. Sorry is sorry is sorry. The man said he was sorry. He said it in public (whether he said it in private first is irrelevant). Still, it doesn't change the facts of what happened. The real question is: will he or anyone one under him be held responsible for the actions committed in the name of Bush's policy?

Dan Froomkin: I'm an absolutist about apologies. You can ask my wife. They should be completely straightforward and loophole-free or they don't count.

Haven't you ever gotten an apology that, well, it didn't really feel like one? I was just raising the issue.

And Bush was certainly quite eloquent about how bad he felt seeing those pictures.


Gaithersburg, Md.: There have been a lot of opinion articles on the web recently comparing Bush to a failed CEO. Basically, he delegates and delegates, but never follows through. Do you agree with this desription? What "value added" does Bush himself bring to the administration?

Oh, and what Bush said yesterday was NOT a credible apoology. "I said I was sorry" is not the same as "I'm sorry."

Dan Froomkin: Well, at the very least, like all CEOs, he defines the culture of the place. That's huge.


West Orange, N.J.: This is a two part question: Do you expect the Bush poll numbers to continue their downward free fall based on the fallout from gruesome Iraq torture pix, the gloomy economic picture/job losses and the perception of the Bush administration is unraveling before our eyes. And how does this whole scenario play outside the beltway in Middle America especially with swing voters and independents? Love your column.

Dan Froomkin: I am not a good prognosticator.

I know two things: 1) It's still a looooong way until the election. and 2) The recent poll dip seems attributed, amazingly enough, mostly to disillusionment about the economy. So apparently these shifts are somewhat out of sync with the news. I have no idea whether increased dissatisfaction with Iraq will hurt Bush in the polls, because we really haven't seen it yet.


Arlington, Va.: Is the Bush presidency like a Ford Pinto, everything is fine until you get rear-ended?

Dan Froomkin: Well, that's an analogy all right.


Alexandria, Va.: "Will Condi use the A word when she testifies before the 9/11 panel?" -- "Will Rummy use the T word when talking about prisoner abuse?" -- "Will W. use the A word directly to the Iraqi people?"

It seems that the Clinton years are still among the press corps. As you mention in your column today, everything has become about "parsing".

How do we get our political leaders and the press that cover them to focus more about the macro-effects of their policies and hold them accountable as opposed to caring what words they utter?

Dan Froomkin: I feel ashamed. Your question is excellent. I don't have an answer.


Analogy: When you insist on keeping the lid on tight, eventually some of the bubbles on top boil over.

Dan Froomkin: Also an analogy.


Arlington, Va.: Liked your parse of Bush's speech a lot - I thought that one was going to slip by the media...What possible advantage is there for Bush in not offering a clear, genuine apology, in this context?

Dan Froomkin: Who likes to apologize?


Washington, D.C.: Writing about the prison abuse (but not torture yet?) scandal seems easy enough. But where are the reporters willing to risk something to write about the illegal exposure of Joseph Wilson's wife as a CIA operative?

Dan Froomkin: You know, we're waiting for that darn grand jury to do something! In the meantime, you can amuse yourself with Slate's "Condensed Joseph Wilson."


San Antonio, Tex.: Referring to the national day of prayer -- why hasn't the national media exposed this for what it is? I've noted in some local press that the organization will not allow members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) to pray at their events, because their Christian teachings differ. Doesn't this sort of exclusivity at a time when we need to be pulling together merit some scrutiny?

Dan Froomkin: I wrote a little about this in my column today.

David D. Kirkpatrick wrote about some of this in the New York Times today. Alan Cooperman wrote about it some in yesterday's Washington Post.


St. Petersburg, Fla.: Why isn't the Bush Administration's sorry record on the environment discussed more. This guy is trying to undo all the gains that have been achieved during the last century. Ex. looting of the old growth forests and giving subsidies to the timber industry in addition to allowing them to destroy our heritage. American taxpayers lost over 1 billion due to these subsidies. Why is this not brought to the attention of the American public?

Dan Froomkin: I'm surprised at how little the major media is writing about the environment, and the Bush policies. Bruce Barcott had quite a scathing cover story in the New York Times Magazine a month ago, but other than that, I haven't seen much.

I guess we're too busy writing about Iraq. And the T-word. And the A-word.


Damascus, Md.: Thank you for your column; it's my favorite lunchtime read.

CBS said that they delayed showing their prison abuse story for two weeks, at the request of the Pentagon. So someone should have had at least a 2 week heads-up that this story was coming.

And this is the best they can do? The spin, media handling, international relations, and just general competence of this whole scandal seems grossly incompetant. Where is the famed Rovian media savvy?

Dan Froomkin: Well, Rove is really ticked. The Wall Street Journal today reports: "White House aides are livid over the Pentagon's handling of the prison abuses. Chief political adviser Karl Rove privately complained that Mr. Bush was 'blindsided,' aides said."

Robin Wright of The Washington Post also took note of Rove's concerns: "The White House is so gloomy about the repercussions that senior adviser Karl Rove suggested this week that the consequences of the graphic photographs documenting the U.S. abuse of Iraqi detainees are so enormous that it will take decades for the United States to recover, according to a Bush adviser."


Dan Froomkin: Hey, before I forget: Don't go away after I'm done. Up at noon is none other than Ron Suskind, author of "The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House and the Education of Paul O'Neill."


Nashville, Tenn.: It was reported in the British media (about a month ago) that conditions and treatment at Guantanamo Bay were terrible, possibly approaching or even exceeding the horrors we now know were perpetrated at Abu Ghraib. That reported was based on interviews with a former detainee (British citizen), found to pose no risk to anyone after two years of incarceration and allowed to go home almost immediately after landing near London. Do you consider these reports to be credible? Why didn't these reports get any traction in the American media? What do you think are the important distinctions, if any, between Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo?

Thanks for taking my question.

Dan Froomkin: Photographs.


New York, N.Y.: Do White House reporters follow any particular blogs -- either to get story ideas or to have a sense of how a story is playing with a particular interest group?

Dan Froomkin: You know, I should do a survey. I think the answer is yes, and it's the usual suspects, probably. I certainly frequently check Talking Points Memo, Andrew Sullivan, Instapundit, Kevin Drum. Many, many others.


Durham, N.C.: I like you column. It sounds to me the president is showing regret, not apologizing. This reminds me the incident with China, one concern over apology is possible legal consequences. What do you think?

Dan Froomkin: Oh yeah, let's blame the lawyers.

No, I don't see that as a possible reason. By the way, the other thing it isn't: Taking responsbility.


Portland, Ore.: If Rumsfeld were to be fired, isn't it possible that he might do something to damage Bush's reelection bid? Maybe he's not going to be fired because he, like G. Tenet has the goods on this administration.

Dan Froomkin: Or because he'd write a best-seller!


Dan Froomkin: OK everyone. Thanks for all the great questions. Now go pester Ron Suskind.


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