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Correction to This Article
An earlier version of the June 9, 2005 White House Briefing column incorrectly reported that Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto contributed to President Bush's campaign. Cavuto was a donor to the 2002 President's Dinner Committee, a fundraising organization for the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
The Foxnewsified Bush Interview

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, June 9, 2005; 1:24 PM

Thanks to Fox News's exclusive interview with President Bush yesterday, the leader of the free world is now on the record when it comes to John Kerry's Yale grades, Laura Bush's presidential aspirations and -- yes -- the Michael Jackson trial's effect on public policy discourse.

Who wants to talk about that messy war in Iraq, or the Downing Street Memo? Not Neil Cavuto, Fox News executive, anchor, commentator and Republican campaign contributor.

Bush did make a bit of news by refusing to rule out the closure of the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But even fellow Fox News anchor John Gibson marveled at Cavuto's line of questioning when Cavuto came on his show later.

Gibson: "So, Neil, I got to ask, how did Michael Jackson come up?"

Cavuto: "Well, I have got to be honest. I brought it up."

Gibson: "Yes."

Cavuto: "I have a theory on this, John. A lot of people think I'm crazy.

"But the president's [Social Security] push, soon as he began his second term, times almost to the week with the approach of the Michael Jackson trial. And I have a view -- and it could be crazy -- and the president readily admitted maybe it was -- that this fixation on the Michael Jackson trial, even in your show right now, takes away from the attention that maybe the president wanted afforded his program on Social Security."

Later, Gibson had this to say: "Now, Neil, nobody can talk to the president very long without bringing up the war."

Cavuto: "Right..."

And yet, somehow the topic never came up. Not a single question, even though according to the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, Americans consider the war in Iraq Bush's number two priority, right after the economy and jobs.

To his credit, Cavuto did ask about the number one priority. He put his question this way "Do you think you get a bum rap in the media on the economy?"

Here's Fox News's partial transcript of the interview. Here's the video: part one, part two and part three.

Gitmo Watch

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush opened the door for the first time yesterday to the idea of shutting down the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a facility that has become a symbol of excess for critics of the United States around the world since it was opened after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"While Bush continued to defend the treatment of prisoners at the camp, he pointedly did not rule out suggestions by two leading Democrats that the facility be closed in an effort to repair the tarnished U.S. image abroad. 'We're exploring all alternatives as to how best to do the main objective, which is to protect America,' Bush told Fox News Channel when asked about the prospect. 'What we don't want to do is let somebody out that comes back and harms us.'"

In spite of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's insistence yesterday that nobody in the administration is considering closing Guantanamo, Baker points out that Bush's comment was probably not just an off-the-cuff remark. White House press secretary Scott McClellan used almost identical language in response to the same question at his briefing yesterday -- twice, in fact -- a clear sign that it was an officially sanctioned talking point of the day.

On Kerry's Grades

The opening question.

"CAVUTO: Mr. President, we knew you had won the election and now we have heard that you had better grades than your opponent too in college.


"CAVUTO: What did you think with the release of those transcripts?

"BUSH: I didn't think much about it. You know, I've always tried to lower expectations, and I feel like if people say, well, you know, maybe, you know, I don't think you handle the tough job, and when you do, it impresses people even more. But my view is the campaign is over.

"CAVUTO: Yes. He was billed as the intellectual, though, and you had better grades in college.

"BUSH: Yes. Well, as I said, I like to lower expectations.


On Laura

Bush: "I don't think she's going to run for office. It's an unusual city here where she gets a couple of good cracks off on her husband at one of these events, and then all of a sudden they've got her running for president. . . .

"She's not going to run for president. But I'll let her say that to you, not me."

On the King of Pop

Bush was talking about Social Security, when Cavuto tried to change the subject.

"CAVUTO: Do you think, though, that the public in this country has been distracted by other events? Even Representative Conyers, a Democrat, not exactly a fan of yours, has said that the media is fixated on things like Michael Jackson. Do you think that's true?

"BUSH: Here's what I think. I think my job is to lead. I think the people in this country want the president of the United States to take on the tough problems if he sees one. And I see one. I really do not worry about the second-guessing and the focus groups and all that.

"CAVUTO: So when you see these polls that show your popularity ebbing a bit, it doesn't frustrate you?

"BUSH: No, not at all.

"CAVUTO: Really?

"BUSH: Polls go up, and polls go down. But I also know my job. See, I could not be here in Washington, D.C., and take on an issue like Social Security and live with myself. . . .

"CAVUTO: But in the meantime, the news channels then hear what you're saying, and then later on, we have this Michael Jackson update. I mean, his trial and his ongoing saga has gripped the nation for the past four-and-a-half, five months as you've been on this campaign.


"CAVUTO: So do you think, I know this is a little outlandish, Mr. President. . . .

"BUSH: No, that's all right, Neil.

"CAVUTO: Do you think that the focus on Michael Jackson has hurt you?

"BUSH: I have no idea. I don't spend a lot of time trying to figure out, you know, the viewing patterns of American TV audiences. I do know that what my job is, and there's a serious problem with Social Security. . . ."

Who is This Cavuto?

Cavuto's last really big interview was in January 2004, when Vice President Cheney told Cavuto he "probably" used an obscenity in an argument the week before on the Senate floor with Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and added that he had no regrets. "I expressed myself rather forcefully, felt better after I had done it," Cheney said.

"Pretty feisty guy, aren't you?" Cavuto asked.

Howard Kurtzprofiled Cavuto in The Washington Post in 2002. Kurtz also discovered last January that Cavuto gave $1,000 to a Republican fundraising dinner with President Bush in 2002.

Bush's Stubborn Streak

Judy Keen and Kathy Kiely write in USA Today: "President Bush is a stubborn man. . . .

"Bush's stubbornness has served him well in the past. Charlie Black, a Republican strategist, notes that Bush's biggest legislative successes, such as tax cuts, education policy and creation of a Medicare prescription-drug benefit, were the result of Bush 'sticking to his guns.' But there are signs his determination to do things his way is beginning to be counterproductive, and the stakes are high. Without progress on his agenda, he risks being viewed as a lame duck when he needs an aura of invincibility: He'll almost certainly face a battle with Congress this year over a Supreme Court nominee."

Bush's Retirement Plans

In a story ostensibly about the plans for a presidential library, Warren Vieth and Edwin Chen of the Los Angeles Times give away a chestnut they've apparently been hoarding since dinnertime on April 30.

"And in comments to the Los Angeles Times, Bush said that his return to private life probably would include work with Texas faith-based organizations that performed social services. He did not elaborate. . . .

"It was at the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents' Assn. in April that Bush said, without hesitation, that he probably would work with faith-based groups and concentrate on establishing his presidential library.

"The comments offered the first glimpses of Bush's thinking about his life after he leaves office."

Social Security Watch

According to the polls, the only part of Bush's message about Social Security that the public seems to have embraced is his doomsaying.

Americans are now more pessimistic about Social Security's future ability to pay benefits than before Bush started evangelizing on the topic.

But all that doomsaying appears to have spilled over and smeared his own proposed solution as well.

Richard Morin and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "President Bush yesterday said his plan to restructure Social Security would improve the program's long-term stability without shrinking the retirement income of older Americans. But a new Washington Post-ABC News survey found a clear majority of the public does not believe that.

"The poll found that 56 percent said the president's plan to couple new personal retirement accounts with a reduction in guaranteed benefits for most Americans would cut the overall retirement income of seniors. About a third -- 32 percent -- said Bush's proposals would result in future retirees receiving more money.

"More troubling for a president who took a political risk by advocating reductions in future guaranteed benefits for all but the poorest Americans is that an even larger majority said the Bush plan would not fix the system's financial problems. More than six in 10 -- 63 percent -- said the proposals would not improve the long-term financial stability of the Social Security system, while 32 percent said it would."

Here are the complete poll results.

The Mastermind Takes Questions

White House economic policy adviser Chuck Blahous, Bush's go-to guy on Social Security, was on Ask the White House yesterday, and took precisely the sort of tough questions from the public that the president won't get near.

Michael from Boston asked: "I noticed on a news site that the President said that the Trust Fund is merely paper IOUs. But aren't they backed by the US Government? Should we be concerned that the Government is going to default on the 'IOUs'?"

Blahous replied: "The question is not whether the government will default on its debt, but rather the meaning of the IOUs in the Trust Fund. The government's credit is sound, but that is a separate matter from the fundamental question of what the Trust Fund really means."

His explanation is worth reading.

Then Dan, from Washington D.C. (not me! I swear!) wrote: "OK, I get that Social Security is pay-as-you-go. So why are people paying more in payroll tax right now than they need to?"

Blahous called that one "a terrific question" -- then dodged it.

Downing Street Memo Watch

On CNN, Jeff Greenfield reflected on the Downing Stret Memo and the coverage it finally got yesterday. (See yesterday's column.)

Richard Wolffe, Newsweek's White House correspondent, tells him: "I think there's a certain amount of Iraq fatigue, at least among the media, which is hard to kind of fathom in some way."

Greenfield himself concludes: "The real power of this memo, then, is its potential to reinforce beliefs that flow from current events. The more worried Americans are about the present, the more pessimistic they become about the future, the more likely they are to have doubts about what really happened in the past."

Salon media critic Eric Boehlert writes: "In an age of instant communications, the American mainstream media has taken an exceedingly long time -- as if news of the memo had traveled by vessel across the Atlantic Ocean -- to report on the leaked document. Nor has it considered its grave implications -- namely, that President Bush lied to the American people and Congress during the run-up to the war with Iraq when he insisted over and over again that war was his administration's last option."

Paul Koring writes in Toronto's Globe and Mail: "A leaked memo that failed to hurt British Prime Minister Tony Blair may yet do some damage to U.S. President George W. Bush -- but not if the U.S. news media continue to ignore it, as they did for weeks."

Bush Ex Tempore

Here's the transcript of Bush's meandering talk yesterday to a meeting of builders and contractors at the Capital Hilton."One of the main jobs we have here in Washington is to protect our country. You see, not only did the attacks help accelerate a recession, the attacks reminded us that we are at war," he said at one point.

Later, he asked the audience: "Do you realize we've got 250 million years of coal?"

The White House stenographers had to give that one a "[sic]" because in fact, the United States has only 250 years of coal reserves, not 250 million years.

On Medical Liability

Off on a tangent, Bush also offered an insight into his precedent-shattering move to establish federal rules in an area historically left to the states: liability law.

"When I first came to Washington I wasn't so sure this was a federal issue. You know, being the former governor of a state, I kind of felt like the states could take care of medical liability issues. But you see, all these lawsuits cause docs to practice what they call defensive medicine. They practice more medicine than necessary just in case they get sued. And all these lawsuits are running up the cost of medicine because premiums go up that they pass on to the bill payer. Well, it just so happened the federal government pays a lot of medical bills. So you were paying Medicare and Medicaid and veterans benefits. It is estimated that these junk lawsuits are costing taxpayers about $27 billion a year.

"And so I decided, well, maybe this wasn't a state issue; maybe this was a federal issue since it's affecting our federal budget so much, and it's a federal issue that requires a federal response."

The Economic Policy Institute, by the way, takes issue with Bush's $27 billion figure.

The Immigration Message

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "With his plan for overhauling immigration law stalled on Capitol Hill, President Bush told Congressional leaders on Wednesday that he had not done a very good job of selling the idea to the American people and would renew his call for the legislation, the White House and Representative Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, said.

"'I don't think I'm betraying a confidence,' Mr. DeLay told reporters. 'He admitted that he hasn't done a very good job in being clear to the American people where he's coming from and he's going to try to do better.'"

Climate Changes

Andrew C. Revken writes in the New York Times, following up on his own story from yesterday: "Bush administration officials said yesterday that revisions to reports on climate change made by Philip A. Cooney, a former oil-industry lobbyist now working at the White House, were part of the normal review before publishing projects that involved many agencies.

"At his morning briefing for reporters, the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, defended Mr. Cooney's participation and said the reports were 'scientifically sound.'"

It was another contentious briefing yesterday.

Pardon Watch

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush granted pardons to seven people Wednesday, including a man court-martialed by the Air Force in 1978. Bush has issued 46 pardons and sentence commutations during 52 months in office. . . .

"Some pardons, like the one President Ford gave Richard Nixon in 1974, protect recipients from going to jail or cut short their sentences. But Bush has granted clemency mainly to allow people who committed relatively minor offenses and long ago served their sentences to clear their names."

Turkey Watch

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush praised Turkey yesterday as a close, democratic ally in the Middle East but stopped short of meeting Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's plea for greater U.S. assistance to defeat a Turkish terrorist group operating out of northern Iraq."

Bush's photo-op with Erdogan (here's the transcript) was a big dud for the press pool. "POTUS responded to a few shouted questions with a quick wink," wrote pooler Mike Soraghan of the Denver Post.

The highlight for the pool, he wrote, was a brief visit from the new White House puppy, Miss Beazley, "who trotted into the West Wing as we waited to show off her summer cut."

Bush Gets His Pick

Charles Babington writes in The Washington Post: "The Senate confirmed Janice Rogers Brown to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit yesterday, handing President Bush and his conservative supporters a long-sought addition to the nation's second most influential court."

Target Practice

Rone Tempest, Greg Krikorian and Lee Romney write in the Los Angeles Times that one of the Northern California men charged with alleged terrorist connections "allegedly told federal agents that he attended a terrorist camp in Pakistan for six months in 2003-04 and was instructed on attacking targets in the United States.

"Included in the training, Hamid Hayat reportedly told agents, was target practice using pictures of President Bush."

Impeachment Watch

In Salon, four constitutional scholars weigh the issue of whether the Downing Street Memo is grounds to debate the impeachment of the president.

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