Karl Rove, Media Critic

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, April 19, 2005; 12:17 PM

Asked to give a lecture last night about "The Polarized Press: Media and Politics in the Age of Bush," Karl Rove was blunt: It's all the press's fault.

Rove, who has seamlessly blended politics and policy at the Bush White House -- and runs both -- was the honored guest at the 2005 Richard Harwood Lecture in American Journalism at Washington College in Chestertown, in the rural Eastern Shore of Maryland.

Stephen Manning writes for the Associated Press: "The media have started applying the horse race style of campaign coverage to daily reporting on government, leading to adversarial reporting that can obscure the truth just to create conflict, President Bush's chief political strategist said Monday.

"Speaking at a forum at Washington College, Karl Rove said the influx of media outlets and the shrinking shelf life of news in a 24-hour news cycle are to blame. . . .

"Naming specific reporters and news organizations, Rove said the media unfairly created the impression that President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act, introduced early in his first term, was stalled in Congress at every step before its passage.

"But the legislation was passed by the House and Senate with wide margins and was signed by Bush less than a year after it was introduced, Rove said. He said the media have taken a similar approach to the current debate over Social Security.

"'What really gets me is how short the time horizon is for many members of the media of coming to a conclusion of whether something will pass,' he said."

Rove "said the press corps is 'less liberal than it is oppositional' and admitted to being a listener of National Public Radio."

The White House is not releasing the text of Rove's remarks. The lecture series was established in honor of the late Washington Post columnist and ombudsman Richard Harwood. I'm looking forward to hearing what Harwood's son John, the Wall Street Journal's national political editor and moderator of last night's event, has to say about it.

In the meantime, as luck would have it, at least one blogger was in attendance: Steven C. Clemmons, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation whose liberal TheWashingtonNote.com blog is currently focused mostly on rallying opposition to John Bolton's nomination to be ambassador to the United Nations.

"Rove quickly stated that the polarized press got polarized on their own and that the 'age of Bush' had nothing to do with it," Clemmons writes.

"Rove last night was quite amazing and painted a picture of reality that seemed air-tight until the talk was over. During the talk, we were led to believe that the press had been tougher on Bush than on Clinton, that [the press] had been constantly at odds with Bush on nearly all of his policy agenda. . . .

"One observer, Professor Andrew Oros, commented to me that Rove's sleight of hand was even more dramatic than I had considered. Oros said that Rove had bemoaned the fact that we rarely discuss policy in the country and tended not to discuss policy issues on their merits . . . Oros then said that underlying all of Rove's commentary . . . was that it was not good policy that mattered most -- but winning that did."

And Clemmons had this up-close observation: "Rove was born in Colorado and basically raised in Utah before heading off to Texas. When I spoke to him at length at the reception preceding his lecture, he had no accent. By the time of the lecture, his soft Texas twang was perfect."

In Other Rove News

CNN reports: "The White House stands 'strongly' behind Tom DeLay amid ethical questions over the House majority leader's fund- raising and overseas trips, deputy chief of staff Karl Rove said Monday. . . .

"'Tom DeLay is going to continue to be a strong and effective majority leader for the Republicans in the House,' he said on CNN's 'Inside Politics.'"

Here's the transcript of Rove's interview with John King.

"KING: The Democrats see an opening here. . . .

"ROVE: I'm not certain they see an opening, John, I think they're just desperate. They're not offering ideas in the debate, they're not being constructive, so some of the members are taking potshots at Tom DeLay."

The New Rovian Buzz Word: Modernization

Expect to hear a lot more of this new buzzword at the White House when it comes to Social Security: Modernization.

Rove used it twice in his CNN interview, and one of the few new additions to Bush's regular Social Security speech yesterday was this catchy line: "Telling younger workers they have to save money in a 1930s retirement system is like telling them they have to use a cell phone with a rotary dial."

Edwin Chen writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush pressed his case today for shifting some Social Security funds to individual investment accounts, arguing that they would help modernize the retirement program in the same way that cellular telephones have transformed communications."

The South Carolina Visit

Aaron Gould Sheinin writes in the Columbia, S.C., State newspaper: "President Bush used the friendly confines of the S.C. State House on Monday to send a message about his plan to permanently change Social Security: 'I'm just warming up.'

"Bush spoke from the former stomping grounds of one of his most visible Republican critics: U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham. Graham, a former member of the S.C. House, has placed himself squarely at odds with Bush on one major part of the president's plan: How to pay for it.

"Bush did not address that issue during his 40-minute speech before a joint assembly of the state House and Senate."

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "Bush suggested it is not unreasonable to expect an annual yield of 9 percent on market investments, which is much higher than some economists forecast for coming years."

And he notes: "The president did not mention that personal accounts would make Social Security checks susceptible to precipitous dips in the market, which critics say is particularly troublesome for lower-income workers who rely on Social Security's guaranteed benefit for the bulk of their retirement income."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times that Bush spoke of a variety of ways to address solvency, including raising the retirement age and progressive indexation.

"Mr. Bush's embrace of the cacophony of ideas is part of a White House strategy to pivot from promoting a sense of crisis about Social Security, as Mr. Bush has sought to do in travels around the country over the past six weeks, to offering solutions," Bumiller writes.

Here's the transcript of Bush's speech.

Who Clapped and Why?

Lauren Markoe writes in the State about some different reactions to the event.

Republican U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint "said Bush did an excellent job of explaining how Social Security will collapse if nothing is done to fix it. 'I looked around the room and who was clapping? Even Democrats were clapping. It's hard to deny the problem.'

"But U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-Columbia, who watched the speech on television and said he could not tell who was clapping, was upset by the applauding lawmakers.

"'The largest and most sustained applause came in the speech where he made the biggest misrepresentation of the facts,' Clyburn said. 'I don't understand why those people sit there and applaud that. They know better.'"

Clyburn was referring to the stock line in Bush's speech where he talks about the Thrift Savings Plan, and says that "if setting up a personal savings account is good enough for a member of the United States Congress, it is good enough for workers all across America."

Bush never points out that the TSP is available only in addition to Social Security and does not replace any part of it, unlike the president's proposed "carve-out" accounts.

Not Exactly Authoritative

In his speech yesterday, Bush added a local angle:

"I don't know if you've ever heard of Dutch Fork High School in Irmo. I met a very innovative teacher who assigned her students this assignment: Why don't you write letters to the editor about their impressions of Social Security? Here's what one of her students wrote: 'By the time my generation gets to the age to draw Social Security, there will be no money left for us to draw on.' This is a young high school student writing that. This isn't a professor in economics. This is a high school student. He said, 'I don't know about other people, but I don't like the sound of that.' People are beginning to get the message that there is a problem in Social Security."

I called over to Dutch Fork yesterday afternoon and spoke to Laurie Humphrey, the government and economics teacher who encouraged her students to write letters for extra credit -- and then faxed them to the White House.

She was enormously proud that the president had mentioned her students. "Today was just such an amazing day," she said.

"Often the young people think their voices can't be heard, and it's neat that in this case their voices have been heard," she said.

As for Social Security, "it's been one of my pet peeves for 10 years," Humphrey said. "Something's going to have to happen, either taxes are going to rise or benefits are going to have to be reduced."

Students today don't have the vaguest idea what's happening to the money being deducted out of their paychecks for Social Security, she said. "They have always been under the impression that it's going someplace and being kept for them, and it's not," she said.

But does that mean that there will literally be nothing left when they retire? (After all, even the most pessimistic forecasts say that the system will be able to pay out at least 75 percent of what is currently promised them.)

"That's my student's opinion; that's certainly not mine," Humphrey said. "I don't think that's necessarily true. . . . But they're 17 and 18 year old kids, and I refuse to edit their letters."

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET.

Bush on CNBC

Bush sat down for an interview with Ron Insana of CNBC, to be shown in its entirety today.

Here is video and text of a few excerpts:

Insana on Social Security: "Do you think the retirement age should be raised to above 70 for those youngsters?"

Bush: "That's certainly one of the options. As I recall, President Clinton, my predecessor, suggested that might be a good part of the fix. There is a variety of things on the table."

Insana on gas prices: "Some of your loyal opponents on Capitol Hill made some cynical comments Monday that you don't mind high oil prices, because they help some of your friends in the oil business. How would you respond to a statement like that?"

Bush: "I am the president of everybody. Of course I'm worried about gasoline prices. And a high price of crude drives the price of gasoline. Listen, I've been talking to Congress for three or four years now about getting a plan in place, getting a bill to my desk, that reflects a comprehensive energy plan."

Poll Watch

Joel Roberts writes for CBS News: "President Bush doesn't fare very well in the latest CBS News poll with an approval rating of just 44 percent and still limp support for his proposed Social Security overhaul."

Here are the complete poll results.

A few interesting findings:

• "Do you approve or disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling the campaign against terrorism?" 53 percent approve, 41 percent disapprove.

• "Do you approve or disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling the situation with Iraq?" 56 percent disapprove, 39 percent approve.

That's an amazing difference considering that, according to Bush, Iraq is the front line of the war on terror.

The latest Harris Poll finds: "The last month has not been a good one for President Bush and the Republicans. Most people have opposed the President's proposals for reforming Social Security and most were unhappy with the positions taken by Republicans in the Terri Schiavo case. The result is that the president's job ratings have fallen to 44 percent positive, 56 percent negative, the worst numbers of his presidency, and a drop from 48 percent positive, 51 percent negative in February (and 50% positive, 49% negative last November). . . .

"Vice President Dick Cheney's ratings are currently 37 percent positive, 60 percent negative, down sharply from 45 percent positive, 52 percent negative in February."

Cheney's Taxes

I noted in yesterday's column that the vice president and his wife actually paid $102,663 of their total $393,518 tax bill on April 15. According to my limited understanding of tax law, it seemed to me that one might be under-witholding if one had to pay that much at the last minute.

I asked for help from the experts, and I sure got some.

Terrence O'Donnell, a partner at the Williams & Connolly law firm, e-mailed me, suggesting I give him a call.

"I represent the VP," he said. "His estimated payments were precisely in accordance with the law . . . There is no under-withholding, there is no penalty, there is no violation of tax law."

Apparently, the IRS has "safe harbor" rules, including one that states that "if you withhold 110 percent of the previous year's taxes, spread over four quarters, then you've withheld properly," and that's what the Cheneys did.

O'Donnell assured me: "He got very good advice."

Cheney in Oklahoma

Cheney speaks at the 10th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing Tuesday. It will be interesting to see how he talks about domestic terrorism -- a topic that's gotten very little attention since Sept. 11, 2001, and which to some extent challenges Bush's assertion that democracy is the antidote to terror.

Frank Davies writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers that "the threat of domestic terrorism is being overshadowed by foreign terrorism, even though domestic terrorists have greater access than ever to knowledge they could use to kill large numbers of people."

Bush and Lincoln

Steven Thomma writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers that Bush will dedicate the $115 million Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., today. Here is the museum's Web site.

WMD Commission Threatened to Resign

Shaun Waterman writes for United Press International: "Members of the presidential commission that examined U.S. intelligence failures told White House officials that they would resign en masse if President Bush did not ensure the nation's spy agencies cooperated with their inquiry -- and had to repeat the threat more than once.

"Laurence H. Silberman, the federal judge who was co-chairman of the inquiry, said he told officials, 'If we did not get support from the White House at any time we ran into any difficulties, I and others would resign.'

"'I did occasionally have to remind the White House of the commitment I had made to resign -- [to] focus their attention,' Judge Silberman said at a Washington breakfast organized by the American Bar Association last week."

Bush and the Pool

Jim Lakely of the Washington Times and Matt Cooper of Time filed a pool report to their press peers yesterday from South Carolina about Bush's "unexpected stop at Rockaway Athletic club, a sports bar and restaurant where he bellied up to the bar to order the Pimento Cheeseburger (priced at $5.10 on the menu.)"

Standing in front of a metal bucket of peanuts, Bush apparently couldn't resist poking a little fun at the press.

"Y'all just work for peanuts, right?" he said.

"Then the leader of the world's remaining superpower said: 'I gotta get me a burger.' At that point he looked at pooler Jim Lakely and said: 'Make sure you spend your money.' He asked Adam Entous of Reuters if he followed him around everywhere and Adam replied: 'Yes, sir.' After POTUS ordered, the waitress told him that was 'a good choice.' POTUS, glancing at the pool, said 'You would think these people would be ordering something to eat.' (laughter) He then ordered the cheeseburger. 'I'm getting the pimento cheeseburger. It's what everyone recommends.' Then we loaded up and went to the airport."

Local reporters Lee Bandy and Lauren Markoe, writing in a column called "The Buzz" took note of the ensuing controversy.

"Pool reporters dutifully distributed their report to their colleagues, but then sent a correction: 'palmetto cheeseburger,' not 'pimento cheeseburger.'

"After further deliberation, they sent out another correction: pimento, not palmetto.

"Sorry guys. The Buzz regrets to report you got it wrong all three times. Although there is a ton of pimento cheese on it, it's technically a 'Rockaway burger.'"

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