White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Friday, January 28, 2005; 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.

The transcript follows.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome!

My apologies for rescheduling from Wednesday. And as a result, some of the questions I see here are a couple days old -- but still good.

In yesterday's column, I listed a few questions I would have liked to ask at the press conference on Wednesday. I invite you to send me questions you would have liked to ask. Please make them short and not too argumentative? See my December piece in Salon for some helpful guidelines (some of which I didn't follow myself.)

I also wonder if you folks agree that it was bizarre for President Bush not to address the helicopter crash in his opening statement; and what you thought of Vice President Cheney's parka.

OK. Bring it on.


Arlington, Va.: I know Veep Cheney's wardrobe is not your beat, but what was he thinking? Did he forget to pick up his overcoat from the cleaners after the inauguration and all he could do was borrow the jacket of the pilot of Air Force 2?

Dan Froomkin: Robin Givhan's story on this strikes me as the talker of the day.

It's hard to believe that the parka was the plan all along. I wonder if we'll ever hear the story of how it came about. But let's imagine that some horrific glitch meant that he could either wear the parka (and the ski cap) or nothing. Which should he have done?


Cheney's furry parka: You and Robin Gihvan really laid down the smack. Is she the only one to comment on how poorly dressed the VP was? Have other domestic or foreign media jumped on it?

Dan Froomkin: You know, that very same photo was right on washingtonpost.com's home page yesterday afternoon -- with the story about Auschwitz -- and the parka's hideous inappropriateness went right by me. Props to Robin -- and her good eye -- for this one. I just jumped on the bandwagon. I yes, I suspect others will today, as well.


Raleigh, N.C.: Dan,
I've been really impressed with your columns since you came back from vacation (not that I wasn't before!). But I really feel like I notice a change in the tone of your columns in that your actually getting at the truth of what goes on in the White house, and not just doing he said/she said reporting that is so pervasive nowadays.

My question is, have you noticed other journalists starting to ante-up as well to actually do some real journalism and not just stenographism? I've seen a few good reports lately about the truth about social security (and not just talking points), but when I read those interviews the president did with regional reporters, my heart sank again at the credulousness of so many journalists today.

So are we heading out of the dark ages of journalism or do we still have a ways to go?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. It goes back to something I said a minute ago. Journalistic values require us to be a bit adversarial right now -- if for no other reason than to get a responsive answer to our questions. But many of my colleagues are concerned about looking partisan in so doing. That's my best guess, at least.


Washington, D.C.: Question for the next presidential press conference: Mr. President, as Governor of Texas did you ask Alberto Gonzales to make sure that you were excused from jury duty in an attempt to cover-up your DUI arrest?

Dan Froomkin: An excellent question.


Arlington, Va.: Hi Dan,

I love your column, but it's pretty obvious you are no fan of the President. To me, it's fine for you (or a conservative counterpart) to let his or her opinion seep into the reporting in a column because the standards for one are more lax than a news article, but I was wondering if you ever get complaints from people who hold you to the same "No Bias" standard as one would use for a news article? Also, do you have any self-imposed restrictions on what you write or how you write it?

Dan Froomkin: I don't think my column is liberal (or conservative). I understand why you might think so; there may be an adversarial tone to it sometimes. But journalism is all about holding the powerful accountable. And because this president isn't big on holding himself or his team accountable for any of their mistakes, this may put those of us who are covering him in a somewhat adversarial position at times. But it's not partisan.


Alexandria, Va.: Wow, I love that picture of Cheney at the Auschwitz memorial. Slouched over, holding his program, he looks like a sullen 10 year old forced to go to the theater with his mother.

Cheney's action seems insulting to all the victoms of the Holocaust and the other world leaders who treked out in fine attire. Is there protocol for this? Or are dress mistakes typically ignored by the President and company?

Dan Froomkin: Dress mistakes are rarely *made* by the president and company.


Dan Froomkin: I just got an e-mail about the Cheney parka that I wanted to share. The reader writes:

"Have you no shame? In your obvious disdain for the Bush Administration you take pop shots at the Vice President for his attire during a ceremony at Auschwitz. It is your right not to agree with the Administration of course but you have done so without remembering a rather important thing. Vice President Dick Cheney has a heart condition! The man has to stay bundled up in the cold or he risks infection much more so than the average person. He has to protect himself from the cold! If you knew of anyone with a heart ailment you would know this. Dick Cheney was there to commemorate the horrors that the Nazi Regime wrought on the world and instead of noting that he was there and applauding that someone from the Administration was there you lambaste the man for his attire."


Arlington, Va.: Your Niemanwatchdog.org site demonstrates the dangers of the ostensibly noble media goal of being more "questioning." Because most media folks are liberal, this inevitably leads in practice to the questioning of just one side: Republicans. Isn't it better to just report the arguments from both sides and let the chips fall where they may?

Dan Froomkin: There's no such thing as a bad question.

Or, wait, let me rephrase that: There's no such thing as a bad hardball question.


Duxbury, Mass.: Why do I keep wanting to cut and paste Bush's face onto Leonardo DiCaprio while he's shouting from the Titanic "I'm king of the world!? Shouldn't he be more concerned about making sure the trains are running on time instead of exporting democracy to the Middle East? By the way, wasn't Hitler democratically elected?

Dan Froomkin: You know, we could probably all do with a few less Hitler analogies.

But as for the "king of the world" comment, here's an animated political cartoon from Bill Mitchell that you might like.


Chicago, Ill.: I just received an email from "Prince Harry" in London. He writes: "How dare Mr. Cheney try to steal the spotlight from me! Has he no shame?"

Dan Froomkin: Funny. I wonder if we'll remember all this come Halloween.


Boston, Mass.: Oh please "Mr. Have You No Shame". Cheney could have dressed warmly without looking like he was going ice fishing. How about those chemical hand/foot warmers, a respectable hat, and long underwear. I was absolutely disgusted by the picture of Cheney. I would never go to any cemetary, ever, dressed anything like that (and neither did Mrs. Cheney).

This is not a political issue. Cheney looked like he was going to a football game, not an incredibly solemn event. His health has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with it.

Dan Froomkin: This really has touched a nerve, hasn't it.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Hi Dan,
Welcome back to chat world! Sent you an email about this yesterday but will repeat here in briefer form. Question for the PTOS: "Is means testing on the table for Social Security reform?"
Thanks Dan, for the columns and the chats.

Dan Froomkin: In all of the stories I have read, there has been very little, if any, discussion about a means test. It's apparently still too hot to touch.

A means test, of course, would mean that people making over a certain amount of money wouldn't get their full (or any) Social Security check.

Social Security is a funny beast, of course. It looks like a retirement plan, but mostly acts like an insurance plan. The means test would make it even less like the former and more like the latter.


Raleigh, N.C.: In response to the email stating you have no shame.

If Cheney's heart condition was such an issue, why did he wear a dress overcoat and no hat at the inauguration? And why did he only wear an overcoat today?

Dan Froomkin: Thank you.


Burke, Va.: Adversarrial Questions. They are absolutly necessary, and you need to ask them of any person with power. I didn't notice a lot of easy questions for Clinton.

Dan Froomkin: Thank you.


Pt. Richmond, Calif.: Does Bush ever have any moments of doubt or shame regarding Iraq, in the way that LBJ had them about Vietnam? I was struck by Bush's lack of emotional affected when discussing the downed helicopter with the 31 dead soldiers, just 30 minutes after it happened. Someone in the White House claimed quite rightly that you can't highlight some deaths and not others -- but does he show any real sorrow on any occasion whatsoever?

Dan Froomkin: I can't recall ever seeing him visibly affected in public. But I could be wrong. Anyone want to pitch in here?

Beyond that, I can't say.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Are you following the WMD Commission? What's the story with those guys?
I see their public statements are super brief and they are only meeting with administration supporters. What kind of report are we going to see come March? Is this going to be another "blame the intelligence community" whitewash report?

Dan Froomkin: How can you "follow" a commission that meets in near total secrecy? I have no idea what they're going to say. It will be interesting if they actually end up blaming someone (finally). But because they operated in the dark, and for all I know aren't talking to external critics, they haven't exactly built up a reservoir of confidence and good feeling in the public or the press.

I put together the authoritative WMD Commission Web page -- ages ago. But I haven't had a lot to work with since.


San Jose, Calif.: Mr. Froomkin,

Do you expect the press will be more assertive pushing the White House for specific answers ?


Dan Froomkin: If they smell blood. Otherwise, I'm not so sure.


Arlington, Va.: What possible basis is there for concluding that the President got out of jury duty to hide his DUI? Neither the judge nor any attorney said the issue ever come up. Why isn't it more plausible that, as governor of one of the largest states in the Union, he had other important issues to deal with?

Dan Froomkin: That's not what Michael Isikoff reports in this Newsweek story.

No one has picked this story up, but no one has refuted it either, as far as I know.


Arlington, Va.: Why haven't Robin Gihvan (or you) acknowledged that VP Cheney, an older man with a heart condition, wore what you deem more appropriate attire inside the museum, and that the military parka was only worn in the outside?

Dan Froomkin: Here's a whole bunch of Cheney photos, via Yahoo. A quick glance suggests that he's wearing an appropriate coat today, and wasn't wearing any coat inside yesterday (why would he?).

Are you suggesting he had another coat? Ooh, the plot thickens.


Detroit, Mich.: Better late than never!

Regarding Bush's "Ownership Society," I thought this was going to be rolled out during the Presidential debates. Any thoughts on why it was put on hold?

Also, do you know who are some of the chief architects behind the concept?

Muchas gracias.

Dan Froomkin: I'm betting..... Karl Rove.

But I'm not sure. In fact, as I argued the other day on NiemanWatchdog, this whole ownership society idea needs to be much more fully fleshed out for the public to come to an informed decision about whether they want one or not.

Knight-Ridder's Steven Thomma made a good start today.


Washington, D.C.: Here's a question I'd like to pose to Bush: "Sir, in the past week, the warnings about the imminent threat global warming poses have become more dire, and your closest ally Tony Blair has called on America to start following the lead of the rest of the world when it comes to the environment instead of insisting on setting the tone. You've always resisted this call, citing the harm to American industries. Will there ever be a point where the desires of the rest of the world outweigh any economic damage the US might suffer as a result of instituting stricter environmental controls, regardless of whether you personally believe the evidence of global warming?"

Dan Froomkin: I would edit that one down a bit --

But yes, I would very much like to hear his thoughts on this issue. Blair has been "translating" Bush to Europe lately, especially on global warming, but I wonder if it's accurate -- or if it's more like Honey "translating" Duke in Doonesbury.


Winnipeg, Canada: I think you've all missed the boat on the Cheney parka thing. It's an obvious case of product placement: look how he stands out from the crowd.

Dan Froomkin: Definitely hard to miss.


Chicago, Ill.: Your column today did a pretty good job of illustrating how out of touch this president and his supporters are. But you know they get a lot practice -- they've attacked three cartoon characters recently by my count (Sponge Bob, The Simpsons, and Buster the Bunny).

Dan Froomkin: You're saying they watch too many cartoons?


Austin, Tex.: Is it customary to have two swearing-in ceremonies for a new Secretary of State? I realize the one today was purely ceremonial, but why the need for two? Was there some need to rush Dr. Rice into the position immediately after being approved by the Senate?

Dan Froomkin: Reasonable question. I'm guessing Colin Powell didn't want to wait another second.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Hey, I just noticed that Robin Givhan's story about Cheney's attire just made the CNN website (Other News).

While I agree that Cheney's ski parka and boots looked wholly inappropriate, what I don't understand is how Lynne let him out of the house (so to speak) with that on in the first place? She must not have had the "You're not wearing THAT, are you" conversation with him that morning.

Dan Froomkin: I think it's got legs, this story.


DC Math Class: Dan, In the press conference the other day, Bush said,

"And here's the problem: As dictated by just math, there is the -- the system will be in the red in 13 years. And in 2042, the system will be broke. That's because people are living longer and the number of people paying into the Social Security trust is dwindling."

In my math class if I buy trillions of dollars of US Treasury Bonds and then one day I quit buying them I am not 'in the red'. Bush's statement is wrong and made repeatedly.

Did Bush miss math class? What about other press folk?

Dan Froomkin: Well, you remember how unimpressed he was with Al Gore's fancy/fuzzy math four-plus years ago. It's not his strong point.

And some reporters called him on it. Some didn't.


Washington, D.C.: While I agree with the clothing criticism written about our inappropriate VP yesterday, there seems to be less criticism about the substance of his speech. I am personally offended that he ostensibly used the memory of Auschwitz as a reminder / justification for his war on Iraq (the constant use of terror and evil in his speech). Why has there been less mention of this aspect of our VP's inappropriate lack of sensitivity? Or has there and I haven't seen it?

Dan Froomkin: Well, he didn't *overtly* liken North Korea to the Nazis. So that earned him a pass, I guess.


Arlington, Va.: I don't think the VP's coat is all that attractive, but it hardly seems like front page news. The vehemence with which his critics are pursuing this point comes across as using Auschwitz as a political club to hit the man. Certainly, I'm willing to bet that none of today's chatters criticizing the VP's coat (nor Dan, nor Robin G.) voted for him.

Dan Froomkin: I think it's an entirely reasonable litmus test to see if people who are Cheney supporters feel it was appropriate or inappropriate.

It's like the complaints about the spending for Bush's inaugural. I took them with a big grain of salt until polls showed a lot of Bush voters thought it was in bad taste, as well.

Let's see how this plays out, with your concerns in mind.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Dan,
Thursday's White House Briefing mentioned there were two softball questions at the press conference.
The first was from Jeff "scratch behind my ears while I wag my tail, Mr. President" Gannon.
What was the one from the Washington Times?

Dan Froomkin: "Q Mr. President, Senator Ted Kennedy recently repeated his characterization of Iraq as a 'quagmire' and has called it your Vietnam. And the questioning of Alberto Gonzales and Condi Rice in the Senate has been largely used by Democrats to criticize your entire Iraq program, especially what you're trying to do postwar. I wonder if you have any response to those criticisms. And what kind of an effect do you think these statements have on the morale of our troops and on the confidence of the Iraqi people that what you're trying to do over there is going to succeed?"


Arlington, Va.: In response to my question, you blatantly misrepresent the scope of Michael Iskoff's article. As I stated, nowhere in the article does the judge or other atorney suggest that it was fear of the DUI coming that lead to Bush's removal. Their only dispute is that Gonzalez didn't acknowledge the off-the-record meeting.
Isikoff is the only person who makes the link to the DUI, when he states that "Bush's summons to serve as a juror in the drunken-driving case was, in retrospect, a fateful moment in his political career"
Notice the use of the phrase "in retrospect"

Dan Froomkin: That's an interesting point, about Gonzales's intent.

But if you stipulate that he did try in chambers to spring Bush, which the three other people at this alleged meeting say was the case, then:

1) Gonzales would still appear to have misled the Senate in his written statements and

2) Why did he come up with some wild theory instead of just saying, he's really busy.


Boston, Mass.: The jacket is a bit unfortunate, but all this rancor over it is a bit much. The memorial is for the victims not to snicker at what anyone is wearing. People are remembering the tragedy all over the world an any given persons jacket is trivial in comparison. Everyone makes it sound like 6 million people would rise out of the ground if Cheney had an overcoat on.

Dan Froomkin: Thank you. A sobering point.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: That question you cited from the Washington Times is not a softball question. A softball question is "what's your favorite food."

This was a leading question like "what makes you so great." It was much worse than a softball question.

Dan Froomkin: Hmm. I'll have to mull that one.


Arlington, Va.: What was your impression of a reporter asking President about a dissident jailed in Jordan for criticizing his own government? Do you approve of this type of gotcha questioning?

Dan Froomkin: I would have been happier if Bush had been able to answer.

I think it was a good, but unfortunately a little too obscure, example of the contradictions Bush faces, talking about liberty the way he did but also operating in a world of realpolitik.

I'd like to present Bush with several other such cases, and get him to explain what U.S. policy is.


Chillicothe, Mo.: Haven't seen the president visibly affected? What about Ashley's ad? Moreover, different people react in different ways. Simply because someone doesn't react the way you would doesn't mean their incorrect or you are correct.

Dan Froomkin: First of all, you're absolutely right that just because someone doesn't wear their heart on their sleeve doesn't make them unfeeling.

But it's also reasonable for the American people to want to know, viscerally, that their president cares, viscerally, about the loss of life in a war he chose to start.

As for Ashley, if she's who I'm thinking about, she's the little girl who lost her mom on Sept. 11, and there's a famous picture of Bush hugging her affectionately.

That was about Sept. 11, not about the war.


Fairfax, Va.: The rancor over Cheney's outfit is not happening in a vacumn. Rumsfeld's failing to sign letters to the parents of deceased soldiers, Wolfowitz not rememebering how many troops have died and numerous Bush actions of the same tone deaf type are the context in which Cheney's dress is evaluated, don't you think?

Dan Froomkin: That may very well be. But I am also sensitive to the other reader's concern that this could also turn into a bunch of Bush/Cheney haters trying to blow something out of proportion. We shall see.


Columbus, Ohio: A medical note for Have you no shame...

There is no causal relationship between exposure to cold weather and the likelihood of contracting a viral or bacterial infection. Once and for all, you don't "catch your death" from going out in the cold with wet hair. (You can, of course, suffer hypothermia and other exposure-related problems, but that is a whole other story.)

Please desist with the misinformation.

Dan Froomkin: You know, my wife keeps on telling me that.

But my mother raised me otherwise.


Rochester, N.Y.: The new Sec. of Education, Margaret Spellings, used her second day on the job to castigate PBS for planning to air a cartoon, "Postcards from Buster," that showed two vermont families with gay parents. That the parents were gay was not emphasized in the story line, but the Secretary not so subtlely reminded PBS of their mission to educate and their dependency on government funding. Is this really the most pressing issue she could address and what does this say about where the Bush appointees are headed on cultural issues?

washingtonpost.com: PBS's 'Buster' Gets An Education (Post, Jan. 27)

Dan Froomkin: Part of her job may be paying back the social conservatives for helping Bush get elected.

Or she just thought it was the right thing to do.


Ann Arbor, Mich.: I've had a number of conversations today about Cheney's coat. As some one who had family members perish at Auschwitz and some one who recently visited the sight, I thought it was inappropriate, but not inexcusable. Defintely not front page news. Certainly it was no more or less appropriate that the Washington Post running a Dell computer advertisment at the beginning of its photo slideshow on Auschwitz...

Dan Froomkin: Interesting observations. Thank you.


New York, N.Y.: Dan, I really enjoy your column and web discussions.

I don't think the V.P.'s attire rises to the level of "snorklegate." His attending the memorial demonstrated the high value the administration places on remembering Aushwitz's victims and its condeming their executioners.

The administration has many more substantive vs. style issues that the press can raise.

Keep up the good work.

Dan Froomkin: Snorklegate? I have no idea what you're talking about. Even Google draws a blank.


Alexandria, Va.: Isn't the coat flap have about as much to do with respect as Clinton and his staff running around the Oval Office in jeans, t-shirts and (on at least one occasion) a track suit? Tacky, yes. Real news, no.

Dan Froomkin: Well, Bush rather famously banned jeans from the Oval Office. So he apparently has established that clothing and respect can be linked.


New York, N.Y.: In the 70's we called the faux fur-trimmed, hooded parkas "snorkel jackets." Therefore, "snorklegate." Get it?

Dan Froomkin: Ah!


Houston, Tex.: The real story of the Auschwitz observance isn't the VP's attire. The real story is why wasn't the president there?

Dan Froomkin: Thank you.


Bunker Hill, W.Va.: Who cares what the VP wears. He is there for the fallen victims of the holocaust not a fashion show!

Dan Froomkin: And thank you.


Dan Froomkin: Thank you everyone for your wonderful questions and comments. I'm sorry I couldn't get to more of them.

See you again here in two weeks, and every weekday on the washingtonpost.com home page.


© 2005 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive