White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Thursday, December 2, 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 also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org. You can e-mail him at froomkin@washingtonpost.com.

The transcript follows.


Dan Froomkin: Welcome, everybody. Today's column is about what appears to be the test-launch of a new chapter in Bush foreign policy: Diplomacy without accommodation. Is that a contradiction? You tell me.

I've also been amused by the sometimes more blunt nature of the Canadian coverage of Bush's visit, as I wrote about in yesterday's column. One reporter, for instance, referred to the joint Canadian-U.S. statement as "bureacratic bumpf." What are the pluses and minuses of that sort of approach to coverage?

I look forward to responding to your questions and comments. So bring it on!


Afton, Va.: Please tell Mike Allen that if he is frustrated by the difficulty of questioning his president, we are more so. Why do they keep trying? Would it not be better just to commit some good old-fashioned journalism? Find a topic like Social Security and concentrate on telling readers how the country will be affected by republican plans. Forget trying to question this individual.

Dan Froomkin: You raise an excellent point, which I actually will be addressing in the next few days at some length.

We could ask better questions, I do believe. But the best White House stories will always come through intensive reporting, rather than through something the president says.


Dan Froomkin: This just in from the Associated Press: President Bush on Thursday chose Nebraska Gov. Mike Johanns as secretary of agriculture to oversee the nation's farm and food programs, an administration official said.

Also: President Bush is offering an in-person thank-you to U.S. troops next week with a visit to Camp Pendleton in California.

In a short press availability this morning from the Oval Office after meeting with Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, Bush said he was standing firm on the Jan. 30 date for Iraqi elections; said the Ukranian elections "ought to be free from any foreign influence"; called for a "full and fair and open accounting" of the United Nations oil-for-food program; and said he had personally approved an expansion of U.S. troop levels in Iraq ahead of the elections.


Dan Froomkin: Oh, and here's a link to the Mike Allen piece mentioned above.


Toronto, Ontario (that's in Canada).: In your column today you stated that "the fact remains that your average Canadian is not a fan of Bush's policies -- and, truth be told, may at the same time be suffering from a bit of an inferiority complex." I am continuously amused by this type of American arrogance. In fact, as a proud Canadian, I feel greatly superior as I know I can go anywhere in the world and not worry about being targeted personally for the aggressive imperialistic stance of my government.
So, my question is, do you genuinely believe that most Canadians have this feeling of inferiority, or, like most Americans, did you hear this on CNN?

Dan Froomkin: As the president himself noted/quoted yesterday, it's not always easy to sleep next to the elephant.


Columbia, Md.: The question I'm burning to know the answer to: Did President Bush eat the Alberta beef medallions?

Dan Froomkin: Quoth the president yesterday: "I proudly ate some Alberta beef last night and -- (laughter) -- I'm still standing."

And while I was looking for that link, I saw the White House Web site has posted the transcript of his Oval Office photo op today.


San Diego, Calif.: Dan, you quoted Chris Suellentrop of Slate as saying that George Bush "coined the term 'political capital' " Not so. Professor Richard Neustadt coined it in a 1950's book that has remained an important text in the study of the history of the American presidency.
Keep up the good work.

Dan Froomkin: Actually, I quoted Suellentrop as saying, accurately: "Bush doesn't get credit for coining this one, but he is its greatest popularizer."


Downtown, Washington, D.C.: Dan --
I look forward to your column every day, but I'm worried. Will you continue to do this column, or was this mostly an election year thing? I sure hope you will continue -- this administration needs someone to be watching it and you are my favorite source for what's going on. Please keep up the good work.

Dan Froomkin: Can I just say how touched I am by that question? Thank you. And thanks, too, to all the people expressing concern about my being under the weather yesterday. (I postponed this chat yesterday on account of a headcold, but I'm feeling a lot better today, thank you.)

Yes, I intend to go on. The plan has always been to go on, no matter who won. The White House deserves the most intense scrutiny journalism can bring to bear, and I'm just doing my little part.

I should warn you that the column will soon go on a fairly long holiday hiatus -- but will be back.


Arlington, Va.: The Bush trip to Canada didn't have much news, so instead I read Washington Post stories yesterday about reporters getting flu shots and eating scones, and reporters trying to come up with questions to ask the President.

The Valerie Plame stories these days are all about principled reporters refusing to give out information about confidential sources, barely mentioning anymore the original controversies in the case, and not mentioning any administration officials.

And today (and last night), the paper and television are full of stories on Tom Browaw's departure and Rather's impending departure.

So, not to sound too ungrateful for some good reporting in the past year, but, is the reading/watching public going to get any substantive news from the White House? I know that they run a tight ship over there, but it seems like, rather than dig around and press officials in Washington, Journalists have turned more and more to talking about themselves. I know it's hard to get White House officials to talk, but to me, reading about journalists is not compelling, and it's usually not the real news of the day. Just venting a little frusteration of a reader who follows the news, but still feels uninformed. What are your thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: I think you are also seeing some increasingly aggressive reporting into how Bush actually intends to change tax policy and how he proposes to pay for Social Security personal investment accounts, and how it all adss up -- or does not.

The test for reporters will be how effectively we pursue stories like that, and the test for editors will be how prominently they play them.


Woodinville, Wash.: Now that the election is over, has Bush gone in for that annual physical which he blew off this past August?

Dan Froomkin: A fine question. No, I don't think so. Maybe someone should ask at today's press briefing....


Rockville, Md.: Has anyone in the White House taken a position on whether the administration wants the Speaker to bring the intelligence bill up for a vote regardless of whether a majority of Republicans support it? It seems like all I hear is that they really do support the bill itself (just like the assualt weapons ban).

Dan Froomkin: Jury's still out on whether the White House really truly deeply wants to see this passed or not. Stay tuned. I think it was John Roberts on CBS last night who said the White House would send some letter to the Hill today....


Gallery place, Washington, D.C.: Not a question, just a comment: Nice double entendre in your headline today. I snorted water through my nose when I saw it! Keep up the good work.

Dan Froomkin: As a daily newspaper reporter, my goal was always for readers to spit up their coffee when they read something I wrote. As someone who is now read mostly by office-workers at mid-day, I guess water-snorting is the next best thing.


Ashland, Mo.: Do you think there will be fewer news conferences? If so, is this influenced by a belief that the press was hostile to Bush and he beat them, so there is no reason to have press conferences? Or is there a notion that the press simply doesn't ask the right questions because its perspectives tend to be left of center?

Dan Froomkin: I fear there will be fewer. I hope there will be more. And I will soon be urging my colleagues to demand that there be more. Stay tuned.


Gitmo: The man who writes a memo sanctioning torture is now looking to be the US Attorney General? Someone wake me... it must be 1984. What is the likelihood that this guy will be leading our "Justice" department?

Dan Froomkin: It would appear to be a done deal, although there are a lot of important questions the panel should ask Gonzales while they have the chance.


Philadelphia, Pa.: Dan,

As you noted in your column, Pres. Bush essentially went to Canada, and told them he doesn't really care if they disagreed with his Iraq policy or other administration plans. Now I never would want our leader to do things based on their popularity in other nations, but how exactly will this attitude mend rifts we have had with other countries?

Dan Froomkin: The fact is that Canada's governing class was by all accounts charmed to smithereens by Bush's visit, they were clamoring for dinner tickets, apparently there's some sort of holy war up there right now about who got to see him and who didn't. So it appears possible that by sheer starpower and charm and force of will, Bush can win people over even while not actually changing his positions.


Ellicott City, Md.: How is "Diplomacy without accommodation" a new Bush policy?

Dan Froomkin: Well, arguably there is a new focus on "diplomacy".


Washington, D.C.: Dan - sorry to hear you are under the weather -- too bad you couldn't get one of those Canadian flu shots. Did you hear Ms. Wonkette on CSPAN this weekend opining on journalism vs blogism? She did talk briefly about traditional journalism organizations also incorporating blog-type columns. She commented that it's a cautious hybrid in that the news organization-related blogger is somewhat constrained by the policies of the paper. So -- do you consider your regular contribution to the Post a blog or a column? Are you considered a columnist by the Post? Keep up the good work -- whatever it is.....

Dan Froomkin: Ms. Wonkette is not only a superb potty-mouth but an astute observer of my situation.


Washington, D.C.: Dan -- I'm just curious about something. You do great work, but do you ever actually go to the White House? Do you attend the gaggles or the briefings? Do you travel with the president? And, do you hold a White House hard press pass? (i.e., are you credentialed?)

Dan Froomkin: I do occasionally go to the White House, for briefings and events. I don't attend the gaggles, since I'm busy writing my column at gaggle-time. And no, I never travel with the president.

So no, I don't spend a lot of time there. I'm a new breed: Meta-journalist. Has its ups and downs.


Toronto, Canada: President Bush came with a substantial speach, well enough researched to include some context forming quotes from past Canadian leaders and enough humour to make him easy to listen to. He looked and sounded like a statesman this time out.

Do you agree that he has stepped up his game? Do you think this is a first step forward in remaking his international image?

Dan Froomkin: I think those who were hoping that Bush would alter course in any substantive way were disappointed. Otherwise, it was a hit.


Wichita, Kan.: Hi,
On the site, Niemanwatchdog.org, there's an article about the potential adverse impact of the declining value of the U.S. dollar. There was also an editorial in today's NY Times on the same subject. Can you tell if the White House administration has any concern about the record debt, borrowing, and our weakening dollar? Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for reading my "other" site! I think this is an enormously important issue, just starting to get a lot of attention, with much more to come. If the deficit continues to grow, at some (unkonwn) point foreign countries will inevitably stop lending us money, the dollar will crash and the effect on our country will be disastrous.

Look for Bush's new economic team to have to deal with this head-on, whether they like it or not. But it may take a while for it to come together.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Froomkin, sorry to be blunt but when is the White House press corps going to stop playing lapdog to this administration? When are the facts going to get reported rather than the spun sugar that Rove, Card and company present as the truth? It is infuriating to me, as an average citizen, that the White House press corps had repeatedly "reported" as fact this administration's half-truths and outright lies for the past 4 years. While the press is not a public institution it does have (or purports to have) a public mission: to report the truth. So when can we expect that to happen? Yes, the administration is highly secretive and controlling. But whatever happened to the doggedness of the Watergate days to ferret out the truth? Now Woodward seems to have become one of the White House's official spokesmen. Unbelievable.

Dan Froomkin: Woodward, you'll recall, was not a White House correspondent. So maybe the solution to the problem, as you see it, lies outside the White House press corps.

That said, I saw signs of a greater resistance to spin during the presidential debates. And many media outlets are rotating in new players for the second term. So stay tuned.


College Park, Md.: The administration's attempt to define "enemy combatant" in federal court relies on such equally amorphous terms as "terrorist" or "terrorism." Has the American public become so benumbed by the word "terrorism" that any use its derivations in an argument render that argument instantly plausible?

Dan Froomkin: In today's Post, Carol D. Leonnig writes that under questioning by a federal judge about the indefinite imprisonment of terror suspects, "the military agreed it could imprison a Muslim teacher whose class includes a family with Taliban connections. It also agreed that it could detain a man who does not report his suspicions that his cousin may be an al Qaeda member, or a reporter who knows where Osama bin Laden is located but does not divulge the information to protect an anonymous source."

We'll see how that case ends up. It will be telling.


Ontario, Canada: Your comment on star power was quite acute, but I doubt that Bush advanced his agenda in Canadian political circles in the least.

Perhaps Bush is just demonstrating that he's not an international pariah? "I can do what I want and you still have to be nice to me?"

Dan Froomkin: Well, there is a tradition of presidents burnishing their image through international travel. All that pomp and protocol, particularly if you stick with the heads of state. You'll note Bush chose not to speak in Parliament, where he might have gotten heckled.


Arlington, Va.: With regard to the term "political capital," I remember the term being used frequently in the press during Bush I, as that President Bush was criticized for not using the political capital engendered by Gulf War I and his then-astronomical approval ratings to promote a more active domestic agenda. Perhaps the current Bush is using the expression with a hint of irony, knowing that it was used as a criticism of his father.

Dan Froomkin: Not irony, so much. More that the lesson was learned.


Greely, Colo.: What do you make of the nomination of Mike Johanns as Ag. Secretary? Given his strong support for biotech and research into drought preparedness, do you think he will have any influence to reverse the Administration's and Congress recent gutting of the National Science Foundation's budget?

Dan Froomkin: You obviously know more about him now than I do.

But by tomorrow morning, I will be an expert!


Alameda, Calif.: Who was in the audience in Nova Scotia? Is it true this was the FIRST native English speaking, non-hand picked, non- Republican supporters only audience Bush has faced in North America for a year?

Dan Froomkin: Ha. I suppose it's possible. But those Canadians are very polite, eh?


Milwaukee, Wis.: Given the fact that Condi Rice admitted to failure to do her job as the head of National Security and that she misinterpreted information about WMDs in Iraq, does she have a chance to be confirmed by the Senate to be the Secretary of State?

In the corporate sector, people who perform so poorly in their jobs usually get fired, not promoted. How come journalists are not addressing the inconsistencies of the "first MBA president" who consistently envokes "merit" as an important principle of US social culture, but operates his government along the lines of a machine-based politics of patronage?

Dan Froomkin: She will get confirmed, and mainstream journalists are not writing about either her failures or the inconsistency you refer to because the opposition party isn't making an issue of them, so where's the news peg? That is a gross simplification, of course, but not inaccurate.


pluses and minuses : All pluses, zero minuses. So called "objectove" or "balanced" journalism has blinders that allow for the unscrupulous to sneak by. Or as Hunter S. Thompson said about Nixon, "Nixon slipped by the filters of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see him clearly...and the shock of recognition was a slap in the face."

Look at Global Warming...folks are still using dubious non-scientists and getting equal time in articles under the "both sides" game, while the Ice Caps have now proven to be melting.

Dan Froomkin: This in response to my question about Canadian v. US press coverage. Thanks.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Hello Dan, thanks for the forum. Is Karl Rove's salary footed by taxpayers? If so, how far back in our history has a President's political advisor, ala the type of role Rove plays, been on the taxpayer's payroll? In my opinion, we shouldn't be paying the salary of someone who also runs a President's campaign. Your thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: Yes, indeed. According to my handy-dandy (and exclusive) White House Staff List he's at the top of the White House pay scale, earning 157,000 of your tax dollars a year.

I have wondered how people like him divided up their duties during the campaign.


Woodley Park, Washington, D.C.: Downtown DC is right -- your column rocks. Enjoy the holiday and come back to us refreshed and ready to dig for the important stories!

Dan Froomkin: Thank you ever so much. Doing this chat is like a tonic. Almost as good as Robitussin.

Good bye for now!


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