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Froomkin's Year in Review

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, December 23, 2005; 10:12 AM

A sampling of White House Briefing columns from 2005:

* January 10: A Tougher Press Corps?

Press coverage of President Bush's second term is shaping up to be distinctly more questioning than that of the first, as major media outlets are increasingly giving voice to skepticism about White House policies, methods and even motives.

* January 13: Once Again, No Regrets

On the same day that the White House conceded that its futile search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was, indeed, finally over, President Bush told Barbara Walters that the invasion of Iraq was "absolutely" worth it.

* January 27: Read My Lips: No New Policy

Capping six days of world-wide confusion, speculation and debate, President Bush weighed in yesterday with his own interpretation of his lofty but enigmatic second inaugural address.

In a hastily called news conference in the White House's basement, Bush essentially said nothing is new.

* February 4: Avoiding the Tough Questions

Good policy can withstand tough scrutiny. And a good politician can tolerate tough questioning.

President Bush is barnstorming through five states to try to drum up support for remaking Social Security, but instead of fleshing things out and confronting his critics, he is surrounding himself with hand-picked flatterers and adoring crowds.

It's quite the throwback to the fall campaign -- and of course that's not a coincidence. It worked last time.

* February 8: Should Tax Dollars Fund Bush's Bubble?

When this happened in the heat of the political season, the events and at least part of the president's travel costs were being paid for by his campaign. But now it's a post-election president spending tax dollars and ostensibly acting in the public interest.

Some of my readers think it's not appropriate.

* February 9: The Karl Rove Ascension

Karl Rove is now, officially, in charge of pretty much everything at the White House.

* February 18: The Scandal That Keeps on Giving

The story of the phony White House reporter who called himself Jeff Gannon just gets curiouser and curiouser every day -- and shows no sign of abating.

* March 21: For Bush, High Drama and Mixed Reviews

It's unanimous here in Washington: We've just witnessed some great political theater. It doesn't get much better than the president rushing home from his beloved ranch to sign emergency, life-or-death legislation passed by Congress in the middle of the night.

* March 30: An Accident or a Policy?

It is flatly un-American for people to be hauled out of a public event with the president of the United States because of, say, a political bumper sticker on their car.

But is it too much to ask the White House to say so?


* April 26: The Minority Leader

[T]he White House must be watching with some concern as President Bush's poll numbers continue to slide beneath the 50-50 mark-- and as Republican members of Congress are not falling in line like they used to.

* April 27: I Wanna Hold Your Hand

There's something about that image of President Bush and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah holding hands as they walked through a field of bluebonnets on Monday that just won't quit.

* May 3: On the Road Again

According to the polls, the more people hear what President Bush has to say about Social Security, the less they like it. But that's not stopping him.

* May 12: Red Alert! Where's the Captain?

Yesterday, even as a goodly swath of official Washington was running panic-stricken into the streets, President Bush was riding his bike in the country, completely unaware of what was going on.

Aides reportedly decided that since he wasn't personally in danger, he didn't need to know.

* May 16: The Empire Strikes Bush

"Revenge of the Sith," it turns out, can also be seen as a cautionary tale for our time -- a blistering critique of the war in Iraq, a reminder of how democracies can give up their freedoms too easily, and an admonition about the seduction of good people by absolute power.

* May 17: The Memo That Won't Quit

Some two weeks after it was first leaked in London, a British memo about the run-up to war in Iraq is finally generating a serious amount of attention from the American media.

* May 20: Exploiting a Misconception

President Bush's meticulously stage-managed presentations on Social Security have slowly shifted into a new phase, in which White House aides find misinformed young people to share the stage with the president and assert that Social Security won't be there at all when they retire.

And rather than correcting them on their misconception. . . . Bush congratulates them on their perspicacity.

* June 9: The Foxnewsified Bush Interview

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.

* June 10: The Increasingly Unpopular President

When President Bush says "polls go up, and polls go down," he's about half right.

* July 6: The Impeachment Question

More than four in 10 Americans, according to a recent Zogby poll, say that if President Bush did not tell the truth about his reasons for going to war with Iraq, Congress should consider holding him accountable through impeachment.

But you wouldn't know it from following the news. Only three mainstream outlets that I can find made even cursory mention of the poll last week when it came out.

* July 12: Will the Stonewall Work?

The Valerie Plame story has finally and undeniably hit the big-time -- with White House chief political strategist Karl Rove now a central figure, press secretary Scott McClellan's stonewalling recalling the darkest moments of previous administrations, and Democrats calling for blood.

* July 18: A Sidestep and a Backtrack

Does President Bush still intend to fire anyone found to be involved in the leak of Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA operative?

Simple question, really. After all, that's what he said on June 10, 2004 .

But now that Karl Rove, Bush's closest adviser, has been implicated in the leak, Bush's standard seems to have changed.

* August 15: Troubles Follow Bush

Just about now, President Bush is probably wishing he'd built a secret back way out of his ranch.

And maybe something similar for Iraq as well.

Cindy Sheehan and her growing band of followers are camped out for the duration along the only road leading out of Bush's sprawling Crawford estate. The grieving mother of a soldier killed in Iraq has emerged as a powerful focal point for the hitherto amorphous majority of Americans who, according to a recent poll, want to see U.S. troops start leaving Iraq now.

* August 26: Bush's Secret Dinner -- With the Press

About 50 members of the White House press corps accepted President Bush's invitation last night to come over to his house in Crawford, eat his food, drink his booze, hang around the pool and schmooze with him -- while promising not to tell anyone what he said afterward.

* August 31: Bush's Second Great Challenge

As the enormity of the disaster along the Gulf Coast slowly comes into focus, President Bush breaks off his vacation to return to Washington today and confront what may be the second great challenge of his presidency.

* September 2: The Gulf Between Rhetoric and Reality

On his tour of the devastated Gulf Coast today, President Bush runs smack into another kind of gulf -- one between what his administration says it is doing and what the American public is watching on television.

* September 7: Demanding Answers

In the wake of a mortifyingly slow government response to the Gulf Coast disaster, the press is demanding answers from the White House with unprecedented vigor.

* September 12: Now They Tell Us

Is Bush the commanding, decisive, jovial president you've been hearing about for years in so much of the mainstream press? . . .

Judging from the blistering analyses in Time, Newsweek, and elsewhere these past few days, it turns out that Bush is in fact fidgety, cold and snappish in private. He yells at those who dare give him bad news and is therefore not surprisingly surrounded by an echo chamber of terrified sycophants.

* September 13: Was Kanye West Right?

Rap star Kanye West's seemingly radical off-script assertion two weeks ago during a Hurricane Katrina telethon that "George Bush doesn't care about black people" has become a full-blown topic of public policy debate.

* September 20: Scandal Visits the White House

The Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal reached into the White House yesterday, picking off President Bush's top procurement official -- who just barely had time to resign before being arrested.

* September 30: Miller's Big Secret

Can it be? That after all that, New York Times reporter Judith Miller sat in jail for 12 weeks to protect the confidentiality of a very senior White House aide -- even though the aide repeatedly made it clear he didn't want protecting?

That somehow Miller was more intent on keeping their conversations secret than the aide was?

* October 14: Caught on Tape

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.

* October 20: Former Insider Lashes Out

It didn't make the front page this morning, but it seems to me that it's a big deal when a former top administration official declares that a secret cabal led by the vice president has hijacked U.S. foreign policy, inveigled the president, condoned torture and crippled the ability of the government to respond to emergencies.

* October 21: Fitzgerald Launches Web Site

Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald has just launched his own brand-new Web site.

Could it be that he's getting ready to release some new legal documents? Like, maybe, some indictments? It's certainly not the action of an office about to fold up its tents and go home.

* November 1: The White House Stonewall

The indictment of Scooter Libby on Friday was not just an embarrassment for the White House -- it also raised serious questions about the way President Bush's inner circle does business.

But rather than addressing any of these questions, Bush and his aides are stonewalling. Rather than taking steps to rebuild their credibility, they are trying to change the subject. Rather than apologize, they are refusing to admit anything is wrong.

* November 8: Bush's Tortured Logic

Just what did President Bush mean yesterday when he said: "We don't torture?"

News outlets all over the world reported Bush's words as if they were definitive. But they are in fact enigmatic at best, because it's not at all clear what the president's definition of torture is.

* November 14: Bush's Third Campaign

President Bush on Friday launched his third presidential campaign -- this one to salvage his reputation, and what's left of his second term.

His goal this time is not to win an election; it's to gain back the public trust.

* November 16: The Scoop on Woodward

In a startling development reported in today's Washington Post, it now appears that Bob Woodward was the first reporter to whom a senior administration official leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.

* November 29: Bush's Shrinking Safety Zone

What does it say about the president of the United States that he won't go anywhere near ordinary citizens any more? And that he'll only speak to captive audiences?

President Bush's safety zone these days doesn't appear to extend very far beyond military bases, other federal installations and Republican fundraisers.

* December 19: Imbalance of Power?

President Bush's acknowledgment that he unilaterally approved domestic spying is the latest piece of evidence supporting complaints that his White House operates essentially unchecked by the legislative and judicial branches.

Domestic Spying Watch

Barton Gellman writes in today's Washington Post: "The Bush administration requested, and Congress rejected, war-making authority 'in the United States' in negotiations over the joint resolution passed days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to an opinion article by former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) in today's Washington Post. . . .

"The Justice Department acknowledged yesterday, in a letter to Congress , that the president's October 2001 eavesdropping order did not comply with 'the "procedures" of' the law that has regulated domestic espionage since 1978. . . .

"Yesterday's letter, signed by Assistant Attorney General William Moschella, asserted that Congress implicitly created an exception to FISA's warrant requirement by authorizing President Bush to use military force in response to the destruction of the World Trade Center and a wing of the Pentagon. The congressional resolution of Sept. 18, 2001, formally titled ' Authorization for the Use of Military Force ,' made no reference to surveillance or to the president's intelligence-gathering powers, and the Bush administration made no public claim of new authority until news accounts disclosed the secret NSA operation."

Jonathan S. Landay and Warren P. Strobel write for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Safeguarding the security of the United States outweighs individuals' rights to privacy, the Bush administration asserted on Friday in a letter to Congress defending a top-secret operation that has been eavesdropping on Americans without court authorization."

Charlie Savage writes in the Boston Globe: "The National Security Agency, in carrying out President Bush's order to intercept the international phone calls and e-mails of Americans suspected of links to Al Qaeda, has probably been using computers to monitor all other Americans' international communications as well, according to specialists familiar with the workings of the NSA."

Donna Cassata writes for the Associated Press: "If President Bush, buffeted by criticism over domestic spying, needs allies on wielding executive authority, he may look no further than his choices for the Supreme Court.

"As federal appeals court judges, Chief Justice John Roberts and nominee Samuel Alito often sided with the government on cases upholding its powers. Roberts backed the president's wartime authority to use a military commission to try terrorist suspects; Alito supported the FBI's reliance on warrantless video surveillance."

Congress v. Bush

Jim VandeHei and Charles Babington write in The Washington Post: "After four years in which Congress repeatedly lay down while President Bush dictated his priorities, 2005 will go down as the year legislators stood up."

Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times: "At nearly every crucial turn in recent weeks, it was a group of Republicans, painfully aware of President Bush's decline in popularity, who broke from the White House and the party leadership in the House and Senate and forced concessions in major legislation or stalled it until the bitter end."

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Since taking office, Bush has placed the highest priority on unifying his party behind an agenda of bold conservative change, even at the price of provoking intense resistance from Democrats and sharply polarizing the electorate."

Tough Year

Reuters reports: "By most accounts, it was a tough year for President George W. Bush, marked by a drop in public support for the Iraq war, legislative setbacks on Social Security and arctic oil drilling and a politically disastrous initial response to Hurricane Katrina.

"But according to a White House fact sheet , 2005 was a year full of 'accomplishments' -- six, single-spaced pages worth distributed to reporters as Bush left town for his holiday break."

Cheney Gets a Raise

The Associated Press reports that Bush yesterday approved a pay increase for federal officials that takes Vice President Cheney's salary from $208,100 to $212,100.

Cheney's iPod

In Wednesday's column , I took note of Associated Press reporter Nedra Pickler 's item about Cheney's iPod. Apparently, after most of the electric outlets on his plane went out recently, Cheney insisted that recharging his iPod was more important than letting reporters revive their laptops.

Blogger Will Bunch started speculating on the vice president's playlist: "King of Pain," by the Police; "Total Eclipse of the Heart," by Bonnie Tyler.

But blogger Atrios brings up a very good point. "I'm a bit confused," he writes. "They could've just plugged the iPod into one of the laptops and charged them both at the same time."

Froomkin Watch

This is my last column of 2005, and my last column for a while. My wife, Paige Fitzgerald, and I are expecting our first child any day now, and I plan on taking several weeks off to spend time with the two of them. The column will return -- probably sometime in late January.

To all the readers who have e-mailed me this year, thank you. I'm sorry that the volume has recently made it impossible for me to respond personally, but please know how much I value your input and how much it informs my work. Keep it coming.

I am also deeply grateful to all the readers who have posted supportive comments here and elsewhere.

And my warmest thanks to my wonderful editors and diligent producers.

Have a wonderful holiday, everyone.

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