Bush vs. the Governors

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, March 1, 2005; 1:10 PM

President Bush welcomed the fractious members of the National Governors Association to the White House yesterday morning and spoke for 15 minutes about his plans for the second term.

The press was allowed to watch that. And the White House released a transcript.

But when the time came for the governors to ask Bush some questions, the press was shooed out. And no transcript was made available.

That's really too bad. Because in the view of at least one governor, it wasn't pretty. (This is a corrected version of this column. An earlier version of this column, then titled "Bush Gets an Earful," incorrectly interpreted the following story to suggest that the governor made his comments directly to Bush.)

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times that Montana's new governor "made some sharp comments after Bush tried to promote his Social Security overhaul to a group of governors consumed by other matters.

"A no-nonsense rancher and wheat farmer who took office six weeks ago in a Republican state, Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer likened the president's pitch to a magic show trick featuring a rabbit in a hat.

"He also compared it to a bull auction hawking lousy studs.

" 'I was watching the governors around the room,' said Schweitzer, comparing the group to potential livestock buyers who assess the wares and express their intentions with head-nods or nose-crinkles.

" 'I was seeing more of this,' he said, crinkling his nose as if detecting a foul odor, 'than I was of this,' he said, nodding his head. 'I didn't see a lot of buyers in the room.' "

In his opening remarks, Bush said: "I'm coming to your states -- I'm coming to a lot of states between now and whenever Congress decides to take this issue on, head-on -- to remind people not only we have a problem, but we have an obligation to fix it. And I'm looking forward to this debate."

The Medicaid Brigade

Wallsten writes that "Schweitzer compared Bush's promotion of Social Security changes to a magician with a hat in his right hand that he is waving around with 'wide gestures' to distract his audience.

" 'Today we're talking about Social Security, something that might happen 20, 30, 40 years from now,' Schweitzer said. 'But guess what's really happening, over in the left hand? We're cutting Medicaid. We're cutting programs in the heartland.' "

And indeed, it was Medicaid that was most on the governors' minds yesterday.

Peter Baker and Dan Balz write in The Washington Post: "President Bush promised yesterday to collaborate with the nation's governors on a plan to restructure Medicaid, but administration officials and governors expressed pessimism that they could reach quick agreement on a package of cost-saving changes in the health care program for the poor that Bush's budget targets for $60 billion in cuts over 10 years."

Some Undercurrents

John Harwood and Sarah Lueck write in the Wall Street Journal about Gov. Mark Warner's leading role in the Medicaid skirmish -- possibly presaging a much larger battle ahead.

"The Virginia Democrat, who heads the National Governors Association, sees the Medicaid fight as just part of a broader dollars-and-cents debate that could carry his party back to power. By presiding over a shift to record budget deficits from record surpluses, Mr. Bush has given Democrats an opportunity to make headway with a message of fiscal responsibility and straight talk, Mr. Warner says."

Well, what does Karl Rove think of that?

Harwood and Lueck write: "After a 2004 in which the economy grew 4.4%, the White House says that fiscal-responsibility attacks won't get Democrats far. 'For a Democrat to assert that is to assert we've got to raise taxes,' says Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, the president's top political adviser. He notes that Mr. Bush's adversaries lack credibility in any case, adding, 'Show me a Democrat who wants to spend less.' "

Secretary Who?

At yesterday's event, Bush -- and I'm not sure whether he was joking or not -- exhibited some trouble recalling the name of his new secretary of agriculture, former Nebraska governor Mike Johanns, who joined him on stage.

From the transcript: "I appreciate the members of my Cabinet who are here. Your name is?

"MR. JOHANNS: Johanns. (Laughter.)

"THE PRESIDENT: It takes a while to get to know every member of the Cabinet. (Laughter.)"

I'd write this off except that just the night before, the White House press office had to send out a corrected transcript of Bush's toast at the governors association's dinner -- because they spelled Johanns's name wrong.

Social Security Overhaul: The Clock Is Ticking

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "White House officials are telling Republican lawmakers and allies on K Street that they must begin to overcome opposition to President Bush's proposal for changing Social Security within six weeks, GOP strategists said yesterday.

"The GOP strategists stressed that the six-week goal is not a hard deadline for a political breakthrough, but they said the public's tepid view of Social Security change cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely."

Allen also notes this important-to-us-wonks development: "The Treasury Department yesterday announced the formation of a Social Security 'war room' and the hiring of three full-time employees to help coordinate and refine the administration's message on the issue. The war room, which the administration is calling the Social Security Information Center, will track lawmakers' remarks to their local news outlets, to help the White House detect signs of Republican concern or Democratic compromise."

David E. Rosenbaum writes in the New York Times: "Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the chairman of the Finance Committee, said Monday that if public opinion did not soon begin to swing in favor of President Bush's Social Security plan, it would be an indication that the plan was in trouble."

Janet Hook and Richard Simon write in the Los Angeles Times: "Many lawmakers held town hall meetings to discuss Social Security during last week's congressional recess, and many Republicans were pounded by skeptical questions about the president's plan."

Meanwhile, Bush's barnstorming resumes Friday.

David Espo writes for the Associated Press: "Beyond trips announced this week for New Jersey and Indiana, Republicans say Bush plans a Southern swing next week, with stops expected in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Louisiana."

Poll Watch

Jim Drinkard writes in USA Today about the latest USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll: "Only one in three Americans approve of President Bush's handling of Social Security, his lowest rating on the issue since he took office. . . .

"The poll showed higher public approval for AARP, the 35-million-member retiree organization that is leading the opposition to Bush's plan, than for the president."

Here are the poll results.

On Message

Jim Drinkard writes in USA Today: "The Bush administration is using the massive machinery of the Social Security Administration to promote the president's view that the government retirement system is in urgent need of an overhaul, Democrats in Congress charged Monday.

"House Democrats led by Rep. Henry Waxman of California say significantly more pessimistic messages are being put out to the public by Social Security since Bush took office."

Here's the report.

Guckert/Gannon Watch

Joe Strup writes for Editor & Publisher: "The White House Correspondents Association announced Monday that it would not seek changes to the White House press-credentialing process, despite complaints from several members that controversial former reporter James Guckert had been able to gain the same access as any other reporter for two years.

"Ron Hutcheson, WHCA president and a Knight Ridder White House correspondent, said the decision occurred during Monday's meeting of the WHCA board. It was the first such meeting of the board since Guckert, who uses the name Jeff Gannon, drew attention with his partisan questions and questionable past.

" 'The board felt like none of us were happy about Gannon being in the briefing room, but we all view it as the price we pay for a system that favors inclusion over keeping someone out,' Hutcheson told E&P. 'While not perfect, [the current system] is geared toward letting people in.' "

In the meantime, I'm anticipating an increase in requests for day passes from bloggers, partisan operatives and writers from obscure Web sites.

How will that pan out?

Here's a hot-off-the-blog report from the field from Garrett M. Graff, who blogs about D.C. media gossip for Fishbowl D.C.: "The short version? The day passes aren't exactly easy to get. We were smoothly and professionally rejected access by the White House Press Office in under an hour this morning."

Fun With Gannongate

Meanwhile, Bryan Virasami and William Murphy report for Newsday: "A 'correspondent' from the fake news show The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was outside City Hall yesterday to get some answers from City Council Speaker Gifford Miller. . . .

" 'Mr. Speaker, Mr. Speaker,' he shouted, as if in a White House news conference, identifying himself as 'Dino Ironbody.'

"His question: 'How do you feel about the president's awesome plan to privatize Social Security?' "

And the political cartoonists are now on the Gannon story. Here's Rob Rogers, Mike Luckovich and Tom Tomorrow.

Fleischer Watch

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer is on book tour.

Howard Kurtz writes: "Fleischer's book, 'Taking Heat,' is out today, and while his style isn't to smack people around, he is the first Bush administration insider to offer a sustained indictment of the media. White House correspondents, he says, are mostly liberal. Mostly negative. Mostly opposed to tax cuts. Mostly unwilling to give his president a break. Mostly interested in whipping up conflict. . . .

"Pressed about his penchant for robotic spin, Fleischer says both he and White House reporters have become performers since the White House began allowing the daily sessions to be televised: 'The modern-day briefing room has lost a lot of its value. The press is playing its aggressive role and the press secretary is playing a defensive role. The press focuses on, "Isn't everything wrong?" and the press secretary, myself included, focuses on, "Isn't everything good?" ' "

In the book, Fleischer criticizes Hearst columnist Helen Thomas for asking loaded questions. Here's what Thomas tells Kurtz:

" 'The questions I asked should have been asked by 10 more reporters in the run-up to war, which proved that everything they said was not true.' She says Fleischer was not only a spokesman for the president but 'owed credibility to the American people. I'm sure he got mad at me. He had to defend what was indefensible, in my opinion.' "

Michiko Kakutani reviews the book for the New York Times today, calling it "tedious and tendentious. . . . In short, it's an extended exercise in Mr. Fleischer's spinning his own earlier spin."

Kakutani writes: "Although this book's dedication says 'a free press helps keep our nation free,' Mr. Fleischer often sounds aggrieved by reporters doing their job -- asking questions, probing issues, holding government officials accountable to the people. . . .

"In what seems meant as praise of his boss, Mr. Fleischer writes that President Bush 'was disciplined, knew what he wanted to say and was seldom "off message" '; he 'would often repeat the same statement to the press, no matter how many different ways they asked their questions.' The same might be said of Mr. Fleischer. In the case of the former, it has made for an administration accused by its critics of being secretive, insular and defensive. In the case of the latter, it has made for a book that feels insular, defensive and wholly predictable."

Middle East Watch

Steven R. Weisman writes in the New York Times: "Less than six weeks after President Bush's Inaugural Address appealing for democratic reforms in the Middle East, the United States is coping with an unaccustomed problem: a region churning with fresh demands for democracy, fresh opportunities and fresh potential for instability. . . .

"Administration officials say Mr. Bush's calls for democracy in the region have been secondary to the ripple effect of the elections, however imperfect, held by Palestinians and Iraqis in January, and the open, messy but still invigorating political jockeying among those peoples after the balloting."

Bill Sammon writes in the Washington Times: "The White House, buoyed by the fall of Lebanon's pro-Syria government and other signs of democratization throughout the Middle East, yesterday proclaimed that 'democracy and freedom are on the march.'

"Although careful not to gloat over encouraging developments that still could turn sour, administration officials were heartened by the speed with which President Bush's foreign policy of introducing liberty to the Middle East appears to be bearing fruit."

Torture Watch

Glenn Kessler writes in The Washington Post: "The State Department's annual human rights report released yesterday criticized countries for a range of interrogation practices it labeled as torture, including sleep deprivation for detainees, confining prisoners in contorted positions, stripping and blindfolding them and threatening them with dogs -- methods similar to those approved at times by the Bush administration for use on detainees in U.S. custody."

Brian Knowlton writes for the International Herald Tribune that the report also "detailed an array of human rights abuses last year by the Iraqi government, including torture, rape and illegal detentions by police officers and functionaries of the interim administration that took power in June."

Here's the Iraq chapter.

And at yesterday's press briefing, Press Secretary Scott McClellan was asked: "Has the President ever issued an order against torture of prisoners? And do we still send prisoners to Syria to be tortured? . . . Why do we still hear these stories then?"

McClellan's response, in part: "If there are allegations of wrongdoing, then the President expects those allegations to be fully investigated and if there is actual wrongdoing that occurs, then people need to be held to account. The President has made that very clear."

If there are allegations of wrongdoing? It seems like it's one thing for McClellan to dodge the question; another for him to do so by suggesting that the allegations of wrongdoing are hypothetical.

Today's Calendar

Bush was speaking this morning at the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Leadership Conference.

The New Social Secretary

Roxanne Roberts writes in The Washington Post about Lea Berman, the White House's new social secretary.

"Berman's mandate is simple: To carry out the wishes of Laura Bush as graciously, efficiently and unobtrusively as possible.

" 'When she tells me what she wants, then I'll make sure she gets what she wants,' says Berman. And you don't doubt her for a second."

Novak Watch

Richard Leiby writes in The Washington Post: "He's been known for 40 years as Washington's journalistic 'prince of darkness,' but cranky, arch-conservative pundit Bob Novak believes he's doing God's work."

So he tells Vanity Fair in a profile that hits the stands tomorrow.

Leiby notes: "The 74-year-old columnist and CNN commentator remains mum on a great mystery of the moment: his legal status in the Valerie Plame leak case."

The Wead Tapes

The New York Times reports: "Doug Wead, the author and former campaign adviser who taped conversations with President Bush when Mr. Bush was governor of Texas, said Monday that he had given the tapes to 'the president's counsel.' . . .

"Trent Duffy, a spokesman for the White House, said, 'The tapes are in private hands, not at the White House, and as far as the White House is concerned, this is a closed matter.' "

So if he didn't give them to White House Counsel Harriet Miers, who did he give them to? The only private lawyer I know who has represented Bush lately is James E. Sharp, who I first wrote about in my June 3, 2004, column. Sharp was sitting at Bush's side a few weeks later when special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald questioned him in the Oval Office for more than an hour about the Valerie Plame leak (see my June 25, 2004, column.)

Executive Power Watch

R. Jeffrey Smith writes in The Washington Post: "A federal judge in South Carolina ruled yesterday that the Bush administration lacks statutory and constitutional authority to indefinitely imprison without criminal charges a U.S. citizen who was designated an 'enemy combatant.' "

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times that the ruling says "that President Bush had greatly overstepped his authority by detaining an American citizen as an enemy combatant for nearly three years without filing criminal charges."

Senior Administration Official Watch

Anonymous official watcher Jack Schafer writes in Slate: "Like insatiable vermin eating and rutting their way through a bulging grain elevator, anonymice continue to multiply in the pages of the top dailies. This proliferation comes despite the public promises made by some newspapers to stamp out -- or at least reduce -- the number of anonymous sources quoted."

He provides some recent examples.

"As you scan these excerpts, ask yourself: How newsworthy are the anonymous comments? My quick reading? Not very. Then why do newspapers fill themselves with the vapid mouthings of 'senior administration officials' every time the president or the secretary of state goes on tour?

"If you're a frustrated member of the press corps and would like to drop a dime on the anonymice cited below, send e-mail to pressbox@hotmail.com."

I proposed something similar in my Live Online last week. So cc: froomkin@washingtonpost.com while you're at it.

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