Caught on Tape

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, October 14, 2005; 3:00 PM

White House spokesman Scott McClellan repeatedly insisted that the troops participating in a videoconference from Iraq with President Bush yesterday morning hadn't been coached.

But the satellite feed of painstaking rehearsals led by a senior Pentagon official said otherwise.

And as a result, television journalists for once had a field day exposing the sleight of hand to which they are more often accessories.

Up until now, the degree to which most Bush events are meticulously choreographed has not been a great story for TV. That's because the elaborate preparations -- the stage-setting, the screening and prepping of participants, and any number of steps to ensure that nothing remotely like dissent intrudes upon the president -- all typically happen behind the curtain.

In fact, TV tends to lap up precisely the kind of stirring, spotless imagery the White House normally cranks out for public consumption.

But yesterday, all that changed when an errant satellite feed fell in their laps.

Suddenly, instead of covering a highly artificial and largely newsless event the normal way -- broadcasting the desired images, playing the hoary sound bites and making it seem like something new was said -- pretty much everyone today led with the artifice.


It was extraordinary.

Brian Williams and Andrea Mitchell turned four full minutes at the top of "NBC Nightly News" into a report on the imbroglio -- and a discourse on the staged nature of so many White House events. (If the Williams/Mitchell link isn't working, Kelly O'Donnell used some of the same video this morning on the Today Show.)

Here's Williams:

"It was billed as a chance for the president to hear directly from the troops in Iraq. The White House called it a 'back and forth,' a 'give and take,' and so reporters who cover the White House were summoned this morning to witness a live video link between the commander in chief and the U.S. soldiers in the field, as the elections approach in Iraq.

"The problem was, before the event was broadcast live on cable TV, the satellite picture from Iraq was being beamed back to television newsrooms here in the U.S. It showed a full-blown rehearsal of the president's questions, in advance, along with the soldiers' answers and coaching from the administration.

"While we should quickly point out this was hardly the first staged political event we have covered -- and we've seen a lot of them in the past -- today's encounter was billed as spontaneous. Instead, it appeared to follow a script."

Williams then turned things over to Mitchell, who showed a brief clip of deputy assistant defense secretary Allison Barber coaching the troops:

"If he gives us a question that is not something that we have scripted, Captain Kennedy, you are going to have that mike and that's your chance to impress us all. Master Sergeant Lombardo, when you are talking about the president coming to see you in New York, take a little breath before that so you can be talking directly to him. You got a real message there, ok?"

Says Mitchell, showing video of Bush on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln: "This isn't the first time the administration used troops to help sell the Iraq war.

"In fact, the Bush White House has choreographed everything from town hall meetings on Social Security to campaign events with planted questions. Many administrations, Democrat and Republican, stage-manage events. Often the news media ignore the choreography."

But the satellite feed, Mitchell concluded, offered "a rare look behind the curtain of a White House trying to sell an increasingly unpopular war."

Here's Terry Moran on ABC last night: "Well, as you know, this is a White House that's prided itself on expert stage managing and polished events of Mr. Bush's public appearances. Today, we got a glimpse behind the scenes.

"It was billed as a simple, straightforward back and forth conversation, a video teleconference between the president and a group of soldiers in Iraq. . . . But those questions, it turns out, came as no surprise to the soldiers. . . .

"Before the president appeared, Allison Barber, a senior Pentagon official, prepped the troops thoroughly, and in a rare White House slip-up, was caught on camera."

Lara Logan reported on the "CBS Evening News" that Bush's message "was overshadowed by questions about how much staging went into the event."

And even Fox News was in high dudgeon.

Here's Shepard Smith: "At least one senior military official tells Fox News that he is livid over the handling of U.S. troops in Iraq before their talk by satellite live with the president. . . .

"As the White House tries to prop up support for an increasingly unpopular war, today -- to hear it from military brass -- it used soldiers as props on stage.

"One commander tells Fox it was scripted and rehearsed -- the troops were told what to say to the president and how to say it. And that, says another senior officer today, is outrageous.

"It's certainly not the first time a photo op has been staged for the president -- far from it -- but it's the first time we know of that such a staging has touched off such anger."

On comes Carl Cameron: "First, the White House and the Pentagon claimed it was not rehearsed. But for 45 minutes before the event, the hand-picked soldiers practiced their answers with the Pentagon official from D.C. who, in her own words, drilled them on the president's likely questions and their, quote, scripted responses.

"There are folks here at the White House now walking around shaking their heads about how badly it appears to have gone."

On CNN this morning, Miles O'Brien amused himself by apparently reading from a transcript of what Barber said during the rehearsal.

"Here's the part I like," he said. " 'OK, so let's work on that answer a little bit, Captain Kennedy. Why don't you work on -- "We're working with the Iraqi soldiers and to my right is Master Sergeant." ' And then a little later, she says, 'You know, a few smiles wouldn't hurt back here on the TV.' A few smiles."

But it's doubtful that anyone has had as much fun with this story as MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, who under the rubric "White House follies" last night paired what he called "the president's choreographed satellite back-slapping session with the troops" with "the press secretary's knee-capping session with the White House press corps."

"It's like watching the Jesse Ventura show," he said after showing extensive clips of the troop rehearsal, and the ensuing event.

Olbermann asked Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank to explain what happened.

"It really is inexplicable," Milbank said. "This was a White House that did everything right, in terms of imagery, and now they just seem to have completely lost their mojo on fairly simple things. . . .

"It is tempting to say that none of this would have happened if Karl Rove were still alive, but that is oversimplifying. . . .

"I think what you are seeing here is a White House now sitting at 38 percent in the polls, and it has never been there before, and there's a bit of a panic setting in. They don't really know how to get out of this. They have always operated being out in front before and they don't know how to run it from behind."

The NewsBusters blog has a transcript of much of Olbermann's show.

On the Radio

David Greene of NPR offers listeners four and a half minutes of audio from the rehearsal. He explains: "While it's common to use a trial run to ensure things go smoothly when the president arrives, the event, recorded by NPR, offered some insights into the meticulous nature of advance work."

In the Papers

Thomas M. DeFrank and Corky Siemaszko write in the New York Daily News: "President Bush's supposedly unscripted Q&A session with the troops in Iraq yesterday was unmasked as a sham when a Pentagon official was caught coaching the soldiers Bush was going to question. . . .

"The White House is notorious for stage-managing Bush's events, notably the town hall meetings where prepicked participants ask Bush carefully screened questions. But it's rare that Bush's handlers get caught doing it so brazenly."

Jim VandeHei, writing in The Washington Post, describes it as "one of the stranger and most awkwardly staged publicity events of the Bush presidency. . . .

"Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) was not impressed. 'The American people and our brave troops deserve better than a photo-op for the president and a pep rally about Iraq,' he said. 'They deserve a plan. Unfortunately, today's event only served to highlight the fact that the president refuses to engage in a frank conversation about the realities on the ground.' . . .

"After a day of White House damage control, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence T. Di Rita put out a statement last night apologizing for 'any perception that [the soldiers] were told what to say' at the event. 'It is not the case,' he said. Di Rita said technological challenges prompted government officials to advise the soldiers what questions they would be asked 'solely to help the troops feel at ease during an obviously unique experience.' He said the soldiers decided who would answer."

Warren Vieth and Mark Mazzetti write in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush touched off a new round of controversy over his policies in Iraq on Thursday when he conducted a videoconference interview about this weekend's constitutional referendum with a small group of handpicked troops stationed in Iraq who reinforced his upbeat view of the conflict."

The Event

The ultimate irony was that after all that rehearsing -- and maybe because of that rehearsing -- the event seemed awkward at best. It was choreographed, as Olbermann put it, "like your fifth grade class play was choreographed."

Pay close attention -- here's the transcript, here's the video -- and you'll notice that the answers Bush gets to his questions are not very responsive, as if Bush didn't ask the questions in the order the troops were expecting.

Bush asks if the Iraqi troops have improved, and Capt. Steven Pratt tells him about all the rehearsals for voting day.

Bush asks what the locals think, and Capt. David Williams explains that voter registration is up -- and then describes what someone else has heard from the locals, since he himself evidently hasn't spoken to any.

Bush asks how life has changed since the troops first got there, and Master Sgt. Corine Lombardo tells him about the time she met Bush before in New York after 9/11 -- and then answers his earlier question about whether Iraqi troops have improved.

Bush's own delivery was awkward, and his attempts at bonhomie were stymied by the time-lag.

Sense of Foreboding

Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post: "A series of scandals involving some of the most powerful Republicans in Washington have converged to disrupt President Bush's agenda, distract aides and allies, and exacerbate political problems for an already weakened administration, according to party strategists and White House advisers.

"With Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove returning to a grand jury as early as today, associates said the architect of Bush's presidency has been preoccupied with his legal troubles, a diversion that some say contributed to the troubled handling of Harriet Miers's nomination to the Supreme Court. White House officials are privately bracing for the possibility that Rove or other officials could be indicted in the next two weeks. . . .

"Several Republicans close to Bush said they believe the CIA leak investigation has taken a particular toll, reducing Rove's role in key decisions and prompting Bush to rely on other, less sure-footed advisers. . . .

"Two Republicans close to the White House said officials are nervous that Rove and Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby, the two most powerful staffers in the federal government, could be indicted by special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald within two weeks. While the idea struck many on the Bush team as unfathomable a few months ago, now the common assumption is that both men could be in trouble."

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times that White House staffers are worried about indictments that have "the potential to upend the professional lives of everyone at the White House for the remainder of Mr. Bush's second term. . . .

"The result, say administration officials and friends and allies on the outside who speak regularly with them, is a mood of intense uncertainty in the White House that veers in some cases into fear of the personal and political consequences and anger at having been caught in the snare of a special prosecutor. . . .

"Mr. Bush joked late last year with Matthew Cooper, a reporter for Time magazine, about why Mr. Cooper was not yet in jail for fighting a subpoena demanding that he testify about a conversation with a source who later turned out to be Mr. Rove. These days, though, the leak investigation is almost never spoken of openly within the West Wing, and certainly not made light of, administration officials say."

It was a madhouse this morning at the stakeout spot affectionately knows as "Monica Beach," as Rove entered a federal courthouse.

Poll Watch

A Fox News poll "finds 40 percent of Americans today approve and 51 percent disapprove of the job Bush is doing as president. This is a new low for the president's approval rating -- though down only 1 point from last month's low of 41 percent approval.

"As has been the case for much of his presidency, Bush's approval rating shows a huge partisan gap; however, this is the first time of his presidency that approval among Republicans has dropped below 80 percent."

The Pew Research Center reports: "President George W. Bush's poll numbers are going from bad to worse. His job approval rating has fallen to another new low, as has public satisfaction with national conditions, which now stands at just 29%. And for the first time since taking office in 2001, a plurality of Americans believe that George W. Bush will be viewed as an unsuccessful president."

Incidentally, for those of you who read yesterday's column about Bush's two percent approval rating among blacks in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, the Pew poll has a larger sample and it finds Bush's approval rating among blacks at 12 percent, down only slightly from 14 in July. Here are those results.

Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll with Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart, told me late yesterday that the 2 percent figure was "a striking finding." He said that 2 percent may be on the most extreme point within the margin of error, but nevertheless reflects that "something significant has happened" to black public opinion since Hurricane Katrina.

McClellan's Very Bad Day

Even by recent standards, yesterday's news briefing was a doozy.

I have neither the time nor space to do it justice.

But first, McClellan tried umbrage as a way to deflect questions about the troop videoconference.

"Q Scott, why did the administration feel it was necessary to coach the soldiers that the President talked to this morning in Iraq?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry, I don't know what you're suggesting.

"Q Well, they discussed the questions ahead of time. They were told exactly what the President would ask, and they were coached, in terms of who would answer what question, and how they would pass the microphone.

"MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry, are you suggesting that what our troops were saying was not sincere, or what they said was not their own thoughts?"

Then, when Hearst columnist and briefing room elder stateswoman Helen Thomas asked him about Iraq, he accused her of being soft on terror.

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, Helen, the President recognizes that we are engaged in a global war on terrorism. And when you're engaged in a war, it's not always pleasant, and it's certainly a last resort. But when you engage in a war, you take the fight to the enemy, you go on the offense. And that's exactly what we are doing. We are fighting them there so that we don't have to fight them here. September 11th taught us --

"THOMAS: It has nothing to do with -- Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you have a very different view of the war on terrorism, and I'm sure you're opposed to the broader war on terrorism. The President recognizes this requires a comprehensive strategy, and that this is a broad war, that it is not a law enforcement matter."

McClellan then called on Terry Moran, but Moran jumped to Thomas's defense.

"MORAN: On what basis do you say Helen is opposed to the broader war on terrorism?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, she certainly expressed her concerns about Afghanistan and Iraq and going into those two countries. I think I can go back and pull up her comments over the course of the past couple of years.

"MORAN: And speak for her, which is odd.

"MR. McCLELLAN: No, I said she may be, because certainly if you look at her comments over the course of the past couple of years, she's expressed her concerns -- "

"THOMAS: "I'm opposed to preemptive war, unprovoked preemptive war."

He continued his stonewall on all matters even vaguely related to the CIA leak case.

And after a long and fruitless back-and-forth with CBS News's John Roberts, McClellan criticized Roberts' coverage of the Miers nomination.

At one point, CNN'S Bob Franken shouted out: "Scott, isn't the idea we ask the questions and you provide the answers?"

McClellan responded: "Yes, and I was providing the answer. Can I not say what I want to say? . . . Isn't it my right to talk and say what I want to?"

Miers Watch

The Washington Post's Fred Barbash is blogging the Miers nomination.

More Axes of Evil?

Douglas Jehl writes in the New York Times: "Two months before the invasion of Iraq, President Bush told Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain that he 'wanted to go beyond Iraq' in dealing with the spread of illicit weapons and mentioned Saudi Arabia and Pakistan on a list of countries posing particular problems, according to notes taken by one of Mr. Blair's advisers cited in a new book. . . .

"The document is revealing in other ways not described in the book. It records a conversation between the leaders a day before they met in Washington, and shows that they discussed whether to seek a second United Nations resolution imposing an ultimatum on Iraq before beginning any military action. . . .

" 'His biggest concern was looking weak,' the British document says, describing Mr. Bush."

Pinter vs. Bush

The Nobel Committee may just have a grudge against President Bush.

First they give the peace prize to administration critic Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Then they give the literature prize to Harold Pinter, who has called British Prime Minister Tony Blair a "deluded idiot" and Bush a "mass murderer."

Pinter's own Web site offers a window into the author's feelings about American militarism. For instance, one poem starts:

"Here they go again,

"The Yanks in their armoured parade

"Chanting their ballads of joy

"As they gallop across the big world

"Praising America's God."

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