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Where the President Isn't

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, December 14, 2005; 1:45 PM

Here's a problem with following the president around all day long: Sometimes the story is where he's not.

Reporting that President Bush steered clear of the White House's own Conference on Aging yesterday -- making him the first president ever to do so -- fell to the regional newspapers and NPR, not the big guys.

It turns out that had Bush attended, he would have been facing a very hostile audience.

So instead, Bush held a photo-op with a hand-picked group of seniors at a swanky retirement home -- and it was well covered by the usual suspects.

The White House Conference

Julie Rovner reported on NPR's All Things Considered: "The once-a-decade White House Conference on Aging is meeting in Washington this week, with the future of Medicare high on its agenda. Medicare was on President Bush's agenda Tuesday, too. But he skipped the White House conference -- making him the first president not to speak to delegates in the event's half-century history.

"While the conference on aging delegates was meeting in a hotel uptown, the White House motorcade set out in the opposite direction, to Greenspring Village, a high-end gated retirement community in suburban Virginia. . . .

"The White House team handpicked the seniors who met with President Bush at the closed meeting."

Stephen Nohlgren writes in the St. Petersburg Times: "While President Bush was in Virginia touting his new Medicare drug plan Tuesday, delegates to the fifth White House Conference on Aging demanded it be overhauled.

"Their paths never crossed.

"Unlike his three predecessors, including his father, Bush will not attend the four-day conference. The administration is well represented there, a White House spokeswoman said.

" 'The purpose of the conference was to develop recommendations for research and action in the field of aging and present a report with their findings to the president,' said spokeswoman Jeanie Mamo. 'The president participated at an event in Springfield, Va., to educate seniors on Medicare prescription drugs and encourage them to sign up with the program.' . . .

"Bush, Republican governors and Republican members of Congress appointed most of this year's 1,200 delegates, which makes the resistance to [the drug plan] particularly striking."

Larry Lipman and Ken Herman write in the Palm Beach Post: "Rather than embracing the Medicare drug law and Bush's call for private Social Security investment accounts, delegates at work sessions on those issues overwhelmingly rejected those positions.

"In nonbinding position statements developed at conference workshops, delegates called for scrapping the 2-year-old Medicare drug law -- which takes effect next month and relies on private insurance companies to provide benefits -- and replacing it with a government-run program similar to how Medicare covers doctor and hospital care.

"Delegates also vehemently rejected any proposal that would divert Social Security payroll taxes into private investment accounts. Such a proposal had been Bush's top domestic priority earlier this year, but has been largely abandoned since the summer."

Lipman wrote yesterday: "Shouts of protest Monday briefly disrupted the carefully scripted White House Conference on Aging as a handful of delegates demanded the right to introduce and modify resolutions from the floor.

"Many of the delegates -- some wearing red campaign-style buttons that read 'Fix Medicare Rx' -- want the ability to offer a resolution that recommends substantially overturning the Medicare drug law by providing drug coverage through the Medicare program rather than private insurers and by allowing the government to negotiate the price of drugs."

Susan Jaffe writes in the Cleveland Plain Dealer: "Robert Binstock, professor of aging, health and society at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, said President Bush's absence was a snub. It didn't help matters that Bush made time Tuesday to visit a retirement community in a Washington suburb.

" 'That he went to speak about Medicare in Virginia today, instead of an assembly of delegates from all over the country indicates that he's afraid to speak in anything but a controlled environment,' Binstock said during a session on improving the Medicare program, which provides health care for 43 million older and disabled Americans.

"Also this year, the rules have changed for delegates, so they cannot debate resolutions.

" 'They've convened the best and the brightest people on aging in the field but they don't want input from us,' said Helene Stone, a retired social worker who works for the Lorain County Council on Aging."

Sean Mussenden writes for the Media General News Service about the conference: "Social Security and Medicare were on everyone's mind.

"And so was the president who wasn't there."

From what I can tell, there's not a word about Bush's no-show -- or anything about the conference at all -- in The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, or even on the Associated Press or Reuters wires.

The Photo Op

By contrast, there was plenty of coverage of Bush's four-minute chat with the handpicked seniors.

David Jackson writes in USA Today: "President Bush acknowledged Tuesday that signing up for the government's new prescription-drug benefits can be a 'daunting task,' but he said help is available for a plan that will save seniors money."

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar writes in the Los Angeles Times: "With the Medicare prescription benefit scheduled to take effect in less than three weeks, President Bush acknowledged Tuesday that navigating the complex program could be a challenge -- a complaint often voiced by its detractors. . . .

"White House spokesman Trent Duffy said the president did not intend to criticize the drug benefit -- one of the main achievements of his administration -- but was merely relaying concerns from a retiree he had just talked to at Greenspring."

Robert Pear of the New York Times worked Bush's comments into his story about another snag in the drug program: "Insurers reported government delays in handling applications for Medicare's new prescription drug benefit on Tuesday, and they said the delays could create problems for some beneficiaries when the coverage became available next month."

Here is the transcript of Bush's remarks.

Bush-Press Glasnost?

NBC Anchor Brian Williams spent at least part of the day Monday hanging out with President Bush -- that itself being news -- and came away with the distinct impression that something's up.

From the transcript of MSNBC's Hardball last night with Chris Matthews:

"MATTHEWS: Did you get a feeling, Brian, that he really wanted to do this interview or his public relations people, his press people, said you have got to get out there and kill this idea that you are isolated?

"WILLIAMS: Very hard to know the motivation, Chris, but we have been lobbying for a good long time. I had not had any exposure to him or chance to ask him any questions since Katrina. A whole lot of people have been after them for more exposure. It was really unprecedented. They allowed us with him in many behind the scenes moments, five different venues, three different sit downs that were brief, but cumulatively, it was a lot of exposure to the president. . . .

"I found that he was comfortable in the job, very jovial and comfortable in his own skin. And we should probably point out that every journey begins with a step, and I suspect they are about to put this president out a lot more.

"I think they view this as having gone well for him. Were there topics I didn't have time . . . to get to, you bet . . . including the false news reports in Iraq, including a lot more on torture -- but others will. And hopefully there will be other opportunities.

"Because of that format we had, it was tough to get a train of thought going and then follow up because you're waiting to get in the next motorcade. But a very interesting day with him to see him interact. . . .

"MATTHEWS: It's going to be very interesting to watch this new development and watching the president come out of, whether it's a bubble or a cocoon or an imaginary line that we are thinking about here. But if he's out to meet the press, it's all the better for the country, I think."

Helping With the Bubble?

Williams asked Bush several questions about the protective bubble in which he operates. So why did the NBC anchor then build one for the president himself?

Williams said that while tagging along with the president he could hear protesters outside the Philadelphia hotel where Bush was speaking yelling "Shame! Shame!"

The third part of the interview took place in that very hotel. And Williams revealed to Matthews: "Something I haven't said before is, to dampen the noise outside the hotel because of the floor we were on, we had mattresses that our production crew had put up against the windows and curtains on the other side, because we had to conduct this interview."

A Presser in the Works?

ABC News's The Note writes that Bush has an interview today with Fox News's Brit Hume, and then speculates:

"The election in Iraq is Thursday and the White House press corps holiday party is that night. It's a very Bartlett/Wallace move to liquor the press up, ply them with lamb chops, and then give them two hours Notice to prepare questions for a presidential news conference. So consider this, White House press corps, your forty-eight hour Notice.

"If you combine the President's habits of having press conference: (a) after some good news and (b) before he leaves for vacation, there's a better than even chance that he will hold a press conference on Friday, according to Jimmy the Greek and ABC News' odds-maker Karen Travers."


Linda Feldmann writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "Under the klieg lights of a prime-time press conference, George W. Bush once famously could not recall any mistakes he had made as president. To his critics, the April 2004 moment cemented the notion that he is unreflective about his policies, an immovable object in the face of facts.

"The reality, however, is different - as demonstrated by a wave of developments. Most striking has been his series of speeches on Iraq in the run-up to Thursday's elections there, culminating in Wednesday's fourth and final address. The M-word - mistake - is still not a part of his vocabulary, but the word 'adjust' is, and is now sprinkled throughout his speeches. . . .

"Throughout Washington there are other signs of course correction. . . .

"One question hovering over this burgeoning image of tactical flexibility is where Vice President Cheney fits in. It is he, some analysts say, who has been the true immovable object of the Bush White House, not the president. While Bush's Iraq rhetoric has shifted, Mr. Cheney's hasn't. It may be that, after five years in office, the president is less reliant on Cheney - especially after it was revealed that he played a role in the embarrassing Valerie Plame scandal, in which the identity of a CIA operative was leaked to the press."

Torture Watch

Liz Sidoti writes for the Associated Press: "Sen. John McCain and President Bush's national security adviser met early Wednesday in hopes of reaching a compromise on the senator's proposed ban on cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of foreign terror suspects.

" 'We continue to chat,' McCain told The Associated Press on his way into his Capitol Hill office for the meeting with national security adviser Stephen Hadley, who arrived just before 7 a.m. The ban on mistreatment of prisoners, and another provision standardizing the interrogation techniques used by U.S. troops, have stalled two defense bills in Congress, including a must-pass wartime spending measure."

Eric Schmitt writes in the New York Times about a new classified set of interrogation methods approved by the Army "that may complicate" those negotiations.

Briefing Follies

The highlight of yesterday's press briefing with Scott McClellan was probably ABC News correspondent Martha Raddatz's determined but futile attempt to get McClellan to flesh out what "completing the mission" really means.

"Q You keep talking about, 'as Iraqi forces are stood up, U.S. forces can stand down.'

"MR. McCLELLAN: That's right.

"Q Whether or not the insurgents are defeated, whether or not there's a civil war, as there are more and more Iraqi security forces, does the U.S. just start pulling out?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, as they have the capability --

"Q No matter what the conditions on the ground are.

"MR. McCLELLAN: As they have the capability to be able to protect themselves, not only from external threats, but from internal threats, then we will be able to stand down coalition forces. And that's what the President has talked about at length.

"Q So, no matter what the conditions are on the ground?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sorry?

"Q No matter what the conditions are on the ground, if there are more Iraqi troops --

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I'm not going to get into -- get into speculation. I think the President has very clearly outlined it in the remarks he's been making. It's very clearly outlined in our National Strategy for Victory in Iraq."

Oversight Watch?

Spencer S. Hsu writes in The Washington Post: "Democrats yesterday pushed a Republican-led House panel investigating the response to Hurricane Katrina to vote today to subpoena the White House, saying the Bush administration is refusing to produce key documents to 'run out the clock' on the three-month-old investigation."

Who Gets Briefed?

Bush and senior aides yesterday briefed a group of Republican senators on the war in Iraq. Here's a White House photo .

This morning, Bush was scheduled to meet with some House Democrats as well -- just not members of the increasingly adversarial leadership. Among those I've been told were invited: Reps. Ike Skelton of Missouri, Tom Lantos and Howard Berman of California, and Stephanie Herseth of South Dakota. It appears that all of them have a few things in common: They voted for the war and oppose Rep. Jack Murtha's proposal to begin pulling troops out of Iraq right away.

Plame Watch

Rob Christensen writes in the Raleigh News and Observer: "Newspaper columnist Robert Novak is still not naming his source in the Valerie Plame affair, but he says he is pretty sure the name is no mystery to President Bush.

" 'I'm confident the president knows who the source is,' Novak told a luncheon audience at the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh on Tuesday. 'I'd be amazed if he doesn't.'

" 'So I say, "Don't bug me. Don't bug Bob Woodward. Bug the president as to whether he should reveal who the source is." ' . . .

"Novak said his role in the Plame affair 'snowballed out of proportion' as a result of a 'campaign by the left.'

"But he also blamed 'extremely bad management of the issue by the White House. Once you give an issue to a special prosecutor, you lose control of it.' "

Byron York writes in the National Review: "There have been rumors flying around Washington in the last few days that Karl Rove, the president's top political adviser, might soon be indicted in the CIA leak investigation. At least for now, the rumors appear to be based on someone hearing that someone else had heard something, or that someone had gotten a sense that something was about to happen and told someone else. Are there any facts to back up such gossip and guessing? No one seems to know.

"But it is true that there is growing nervousness among people who support Rove's side in the case. They know that prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald, in addition to presenting some new evidence to a new federal grand jury, has also re-presented previously-gathered evidence to that grand jury. To most observers, that suggests Fitzgerald could be planning to indict someone."

Blogger Digby has a primer on the Rove storyline.


Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in Washington Post about a reader who found herself practically sitting in on a meeting between Scooter Libby and his lawyers at a Capitol Hill eatery yesterday.

"Libby -- the former veep aide indicted in the Valerie Plame leak investigation, the most closely shrouded federal prosecution in recent years -- was at the next table, she said, while his defense attorneys, Ted Wells and William Jeffress, had a loud and 'lively discussion' about matters such as who will draft discovery letters and petitions. She heard Wells say he hopes Karl Rove will not be indicted because he fears the press coverage would complicate Libby's defense. Jeffress, meanwhile, speculated that Time's Viveca Novak could be the next reporter to lose her job because of the probe."

The Dingell Lunch

Bush and the first lady hosted a luncheon in their private quarters at the White House for Rep. John Dingell yesterday, honoring the Michigan Democrat's 50 years in Congress.

Richard Ryan wrote in the Detroit News in October: "Even though he no longer wields the chairman's gavel, Dingell's longevity and the respect of his colleagues still give him considerable clout.

"In fact, during negotiations over legislation regulating health maintenance organizations, President Bush told the congressman that he was the 'biggest pain in the ass on Capitol Hill.'

" 'I said 'Mr. President, thank you,' '' Dingell said. "That's one of the nicest compliments that I've gotten. And I want you to know that I am going to work very hard to enhance that reputation.'"

Here's a White House photo of Bush and Dingell sharing a quiet moment yesterday.

Off Broadway Humor

New York Times theater critic Jason Zinoman reviews " Fear Itself: Secrets of the White House ."

"[S]oothing the pain of liberals seems to be the object. And on that front, this show succeeded for at least one audience member on the night I attended. When Emperor Butch (Ken Perlstein, whose eyebrows do most of his acting), a cowboy warmonger based on the president, bent down and allowed his wife, Mommy (Susan Patrick), to spank him with a wire hanger, there was a cathartic cry from the back of house: 'Give it to him!' "

But it's no rave review: "The satire is obvious and muddled. (Why does Bush literally gun down the press if it is also in his pocket?)"

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