When a Background Briefing Is Not Enough

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, March 23, 2005; 11:51 AM

So what did all those White House reporters get out of agreeing to go "on background" yesterday for a preview of today's big meeting in Texas between President Bush, Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin?

Not a whole lot.

In a teleconference, two "senior administration officials" gave reporters a gigantic runaround, refusing to provide any details -- or even the name -- of the initiatives to be announced today.

To find out the real story, you had to talk to the Canadians and the Mexicans.

John Authers writes from Mexico City for the Financial Times: "According to Mexican officials, the new 'North American Initiative' would include measures to improve the region's overall competitiveness by enhancing co-operation in sectors where there is already heavy cross-border trade, such as vehicle parts.

"It would also include measures to facilitate and regulate the flow of migrants between the three Nafta countries."

Brian Laghi and Alan Freeman write in the Toronto Globe and Mail: "Leaders attending today's North American summit in Texas are expected to agree to work together on developing continent-wide screening processes for incoming airport travelers and cargo, The Globe and Mail has learned.

"The agreement is part of a comprehensive work plan to be signed by U.S. President George W. Bush, Prime Minister Paul Martin and Mexican President Vicente Fox. The plan is an expanded version of a partnership deal agreed to by Mr. Bush and Mr. Martin last November when the two leaders met in Ottawa.

"According to a draft document put together March 18, the three leaders would 'develop and implement a North American travelers security strategy to include consistent outcomes and compatible processes for screening methods before departure from a foreign port and at the first port of entry to North America.'

"The agreement would look at how the three countries could share information on 'high-risk travelers.' "

See What You Get?

I wrote in my March 18 column about a meeting of journalists at which there was a great deal of consternation expressed about "those maddening White House briefings where a senior administration official stands in front of an auditorium full of reporters, says nothing remotely controversial, and yet insists on being cloaked in anonymity."

Here's an excerpt from yesterday's "background briefing."

"Q I guess it's -- I guess it's kind of pointless to try and get you guys to give us any specifics -- but the last caller seemed to try and get some idea of the scale of this. I mean, every time these leaders get together in a bilateral format, they announce some effort to speed the flow of people across the borders and trade goods, and at the same time, restrain the flow of terrorists and illegal products. So are you going to give us some idea of whether this is bigger than the U.S.-Canadian agreement -- the post-9/11 U.S.-Canadian agreement? And what has been done in terms of meetings between the ministers to set this up. This really, on the surface of it, doesn't look much more than an annual get-together for these guys.

"SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think, obviously we're not going to scoop the leaders. They're going to have to make the announcement of what they are going to put out. But in order -- I think as you look at what happens tomorrow, I think you'll have to -- as I tried to say in answer to the previous question, there's a number of things you need to look at. One is, what have we put in -- what are we doing that's different from previous announcements that have been made between the leaders. And I think the Bush-Martin announcement from December is probably a good point of contrast to see what we're doing that's -- the difference in scale, in terms of what we're doing. . . .

"Q Is there a name for this initiative? . . .

"SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It does have a name. Are we sharing the name now?

"SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think let's hold off on that at this point.

"Q What should we call it? Should we call it a program, an initiative, a structure, a commission?


The Three Former Amigos

Judy Keen writes in USA Today: "President Bush will try today to improve strained relationships with the leaders of the USA's closest neighbors."

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "Canada is irritated that the United States is keeping its border closed to Canadian beef and maintaining punitive tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber. Washington isn't pleased at the Ottawa government's snub of U.S. plans for a missile defense shield. . . .

"Mexican officials complain about vigilante groups hunting illegal immigrants in Arizona, new U.S. walls being built along the border and the still-stalled status of a guest worker immigration liberalization proposal.

"However, none of these vexing issues dominates the agenda as President Bush meets jointly Wednesday with Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin."

Julie Mason writes in the Houston Chronicle: "When President Bush meets for talks and lunch here today with his counterparts from Canada and Mexico, gritty fare such as border violence, drug smuggling and illegal immigration will not be on the menu."

David Halton reports for Canada's CBC: "Sources tell CBC News that Bush was not enthusiastic about requests from both guests for some private time with the U.S. president. However he did relent and agree to give them each a 20-minute one-on-one meeting when they are at his ranch in Crawford.

"That will give Martin a chance to air Canadian complaints about U.S. trade restrictions: issues like softwood lumber and restrictions on the import of live Canadian cattle.

"Fox will take the opportunity to raise concerns about border fences the U.S. is building across its southern perimeter to block illegal immigrants."

James C. McKinley Jr. writes in the New York Times: "For Mr. Bush and Congress, security tops the agenda. For Mexico, it is a freer flow of migrant workers. For Canada, it is the imperative of foreign and domestic policies that increasingly diverge from Washington's conservative consensus."

Clifford Krauss writes in the New York Times: "With the possible exception of France, no traditional ally has been more consistently at odds with the United States than has Canada."

And Alan Freeman helpfully points out in the Toronto Globe and Mail that: "If Mr. Martin dropped into [Crawford, Tex.], he would find a land of monster pickup trucks, Christian inspirational radio and enthusiastic Bush backers."

Bush Could Face Conservative Backlash

Jesse J. Holland writes for the Associated Press: "Not all conservatives are happy with the decision by Congress and President Bush to intervene in the Terri Schiavo case. Some leaders said Tuesday the new law allowing a federal court review of the case is an example of the big government they have always opposed.

" 'To simply say that the "culture of life," or whatever you call it means that we don't have to pay attention to the principles of federalism or separation of powers is certainly not a conservative viewpoint,' said former Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga."

Adam Nagourney writes in the New York Times: "The vote by Congress to allow the federal courts to take over the Terri Schiavo case has created distress among some conservatives who say that lawmakers violated a cornerstone of conservative philosophy by intervening in the ruling of a state court.

"The emerging debate, carried out against a rush of court decisions and Congressional action, has highlighted a conflict of priorities among conservatives and signals tensions that Republicans are likely to face as Congressional leaders and President Bush push social issues over the next two years, party leaders say."

At yesterday's gaggle, Press Secretary Scott McClellan was asked to react to the district court judge's ruling against reinserting Schiavo's feeding tube.

"We would have preferred a different ruling," he said. "We continue to stand on the side of defending life. This ruling was one step in the process, and we will see what comes of further proceedings."

And About That 'Culture of Life'

Jeff Franks writes for Reuters: "President Bush's intervention for Terry Schiavo has opened old wounds in Texas where death penalty opponents say his words of support for a 'culture of life' ring hollow after so many executions during his time as governor of the state.

"Bush said he stepped into the Schiavo case because the United States should have 'a presumption in favor of life,' but there were 152 executions in Texas during his administration, including some in which the convict's guilt was in doubt, critics said."

Live Online

I'll be Live Online today at 1 p.m. EST. Send me your questions and comments.

Or I could be a bit late. Bush is supposed to hold a three-way news conference starting at about 12:40, and I'd hate to miss it.

Cheney Speaks

The Washington Post's Jim VandeHei scored an interview on Air Force two yesterday, in which Vice President Cheney unsurprisingly defended two recent, highly controversial nominations that he himself is widely seen as having engineered in the first place.

"Vice President Cheney said yesterday that the elevation of White House loyalists and supporters of the Iraq war to key diplomatic posts puts the United States in a stronger position to force changes at the United Nations and improve the U.S. image abroad.

"In an interview aboard Air Force Two, Cheney said the nomination of John R. Bolton to serve as ambassador to the United Nations in particular shows President Bush's commitment to ending corruption and changing the culture at the world body. . . .

"Cheney has been a driving force in the administration's foreign policy and privately advocated for Bolton to get the U.N. job and for longtime ally Paul D. Wolfowitz to head the World Bank. The vice president said top-level changes at the State Department should help set a better course."

Is Bush Backing Down?

Anne E. Kornblut writes in the New York Times that Bush's Social Security message is showing signs of cracking.

"Even as he travels the country selling his Social Security overhaul, President Bush is beginning to acknowledge some of the constraints of his plan for individual accounts. . . .

"And at an event here on Tuesday, as he often does, Mr. Bush modestly described individual accounts as just one idea 'people ought to seriously consider,' rather than a nonnegotiable proposal. His comments, taken together, offer further evidence that the argument for individual accounts remains difficult, and that Mr. Bush may wind up accepting a plan different from the one he first outlined."

Keen-eyed Kornblut notes: "Even the slogan at the president's public events has changed. At the New Mexico event, gone were the banners that once declared the president's interest in 'Strengthening Social Security.'

"Instead they had a more targeted message: 'Keeping Our Promise to Seniors.'"

And what's that at the back of the room? "Unlike most other presidential appearances, the event inside the darkly lit Kiva Auditorium was sparsely attended, with hundreds of empty seats."

Reuters reports: "Seven weeks after launching a drive to remake Social Security, President George W. Bush has visited 18 states and traveled thousands of miles but has had little success in getting the public to warm to his idea of private accounts or in enticing Democrats to bring forth ideas.

"Experts say Bush is getting closer to some crucial decisions on how far he wants to go to broker a compromise he might be able call a victory in his effort to change the national retirement system."

Meanwhile, in Albuquerque

Bush held another essentially newsless "conversation" on Social Security.

Michael A. Fletcher and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "President Bush concluded a three-state swing to sell his plan to restructure Social Security, warning Democratic opponents Tuesday that they will suffer political consequences if they continue to oppose his proposal without providing one of their own."

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "At the start of a potentially crucial congressional recess, in which lawmakers will hear from constituents about President Bush's plans to overhaul Social Security, Bush and his allies asked Democrats and AARP on Tuesday to stop attacking their ideas."

Here's the text of Bush's talk in Albuquerque, and his remarks in a visit to a senior center.

Not Entirely Newsless

If you take Bush at his literal word, then he did make some news yesterday -- announcing a pretty massive change in his private-accounts proposal.

"It's the interest off your personal account that will complement your Social Security check, no matter how big or little it is, that you're getting from the federal government," he said. "That's important to remember."

That's also, I'm quite sure, not what he meant to say. The official White House idea is that retirees with private accounts would generally have to use the proceeds to buy an annuity.

The way annuities generally work is that they pay you a monthly amount until you die -- and when you die, there's nothing left. You're not getting just the interest, you're by definition eating your way all the way through the capital.

It's only trust funds that work the way Bush was talking about.

Cheney in Reno

Fletcher and VandeHei write that at his Social Security appearance in Reno yesterday, "Cheney said several Democrats have privately told him they are willing to strike a deal on Social Security at the appropriate time. 'The approach that we have seen that has been adopted publicly by both Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, and Harry Reid . . . has been initially no' to everything, he said. 'I think we are beginning to chip away at that.'

"In response to a question, Cheney raised the prospect that Social Security survivors' benefits 'could be addressed' as part of the broader debate. That differs from the stated position of Bush. . . . "

Banned in Tucson

Tucson resident and White House Briefing reader Homer Thiel called my attention to this article by Cassie Tomlin in the University of Arizona Daily Wildcat. Bush was in Tucson on Monday, as I wrote about in yesterday's column.

Tomlin gives one example of how the Bush event maintained its pep-rally atmosphere: "A UA student was banned from attending President Bush's Social Security forum at the Tucson Convention Center yesterday.

"UA Young Democrat Steven Gerner, a political science and pre-pharmacy sophomore, said he and three other Young Democrats had been waiting in line with their tickets for about 40 minutes when a staff member approached him and asked to read his T-shirt.

"Gerner was the only one of the four wearing a UAYD T-shirt, which read, 'Don't be a smart (image of a donkey, the Democratic Party symbol). UA Young Democrats.'"

The story also features a photo of a 13-year-old girl being led away in handcuffs after she threw an egg at Bush's motorcade.

More on Social Security

David Gregory was on the NBC Nightly News reporting: "The challenge for the White House is that while recent polls show that younger workers, the real target of the President's proposals, are generally warm to the idea of personal accounts, most seniors don't like the idea, and politically, it's seniors who have the clout."

Adam Shell writes in USA Today that "when it comes to managing money, studies done by a leading human resources firm to track the financial acumen of the masses show that most Americans don't know what they are doing. That's a big negative for Bush, whose plan is based on his belief that most Americans want to, and are capable of, building a profitable portfolio made up of stocks and bonds."

Remember Tora Bora?

Robert Burns writes for the Associated Press about a government document that "represents the first definitive statement from the Pentagon that [Osama] bin Laden, the mastermind of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was at Tora Bora and evaded his pursuers.

"President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney asserted during the presidential election that commanders did not know whether bin Laden was at Tora Bora when U.S. and allied Afghan forces attacked there in December 2001. They dismissed assertions by Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, that the military had missed a chance to capture or kill bin Laden while al-Qaida made a last stand in the mountainous area along the Pakistan border."

Watch the Martins

Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post: "It's a big month for the Martin family of Washington.

"On March 16, Kevin J. Martin was named chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Yesterday, Washington lawyer Catherine J. Martin, who has worked at the Commerce Department and has been a spokeswoman for Vice President Cheney, was named White House deputy communications director for policy and planning. This is Washington power-couple level."

Bush's Roots

Blogger Holden is turning out to be even more obsessive about poring over Bush's remarks than I am.

Holden noticed this Bush comment from Albuquerque, talking about going back to Crawford: "I like to get home. I like to remember -- to go back to my roots, where I was from."

Holden then provides a photographic overview of where Bush is really from. Hint: It ain't Crawford.

Footwear Watch

From an e-mail to the White House press corps: "The Crawford In-town Travel Pool needs to gather at 7:15 am CST in the Waco Hilton Lobby. Note: Travel Pool should wear ranch appropriate shoes."

Watch for the White Light

NBC6 in South Florida talks to Kristopher Geyer-Roberts about his visit to the White House, presenting the annual message of the Boy Scouts of America to the president.

"We were in the West Wing. We were waiting in the hallway, and when the door opens, there is all this white light and he says, 'What are you waiting for? Come on in,' " Geyer-Roberts said. "It was the thrill of my life."

Easter Egg Roll

It's on, for Monday, March 28. Here are the details.

Twins Watch

Eyder Peralta writes in the Houston Chronicle: "As an April fool's joke, Maxim is taking on the Bush twins.

"The April issue of the men's magazine, which hit newsstands Tuesday, has a photo illustration of Jenna and Barbara Bush, plumage in the air and sporting lingerie in what is meant to be the aftermath of a pillow fight."

And yes, the Chronicle has the doctored photo.

Bush and the Bald

Washington Monthly blogger Kevin Drum is suddenly fascinated by what appears to be, according to this blogger and this blogger, something of a fetish for the president: touching bald people's pates.

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