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It's the Credibility, Stupid

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, February 3, 2006; 12:45 PM

President Bush's fundamental challenge as he tries to regain his political footing is that most Americans don't trust him anymore.

In the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, for instance, 53 percent of Americans said they do not consider him honest and trustworthy. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found 52 percent of Americans believe the Bush administration intentionally misled the public in making its case for war in Iraq. Serious stuff.

And yet, when Bush faces the press corps -- either en masse, in a news conference, or in the occasional sit-down interview -- the central issue of credibility typically goes unexplored.

That may be why so many Bush critics are so frustrated with the mainstream media coverage of the president -- and why you hear so many fantasies about how Jon Stewart, or a roused Oprah Winfrey, would do a better job.

Some of this came up in my Live Online discussion on Wednesday.

There is a reason members of the press corps don't grill Bush on issues like his credibility. But it's not (as many of my readers often complain) because they're craven.

It's the structure of the relationship. At a typical press conference, there are in fact quite a few tough questions. Consider last week's press conference, when the newest Los Angeles Times White House reporter, James Gerstenzang, asked Bush if his defense of domestic spying wasn't basically a variation on President Nixon's "When the President does it, then that means it is not illegal."

Typically, however, Bush didn't actually answer the question -- choosing to respond with some generic comments about his authority. And, like many tough questions, it was not aggressively followed up. Bush does not tolerate multiple questions from a single reporter, and other reporters are loathe to give up their questions to repeat one from a colleague.

The other thing is that daily news reporters tend to ask breaking-news questions rather than big-picture questions. That's a mistake, especially given how prepared Bush is with a vaguely relevant but usually non-responsive sound bite for virtually any breaking-news question. But it's the nature of the beast.

What about one-on-one interviews? Even for network anchors and the like, the opportunity to quiz the president comes so infrequently that it's hard to resist the temptation to try to cover a lot of ground. The result is then very much the same as in a press conference. Each question results in a mini-filibuster, and rather than have him repeat it, you move on to the next topic.

Consider, for instance, Bush's long interview last week with CBS News's Bob Schieffer. It covered a lot of ground -- but didn't make a lot of news. And with a few exceptions, it didn't get past the talking points.

So what's the solution?

It seems to me the trick would be for the next news outlet that gets a sit-down with the president to devote an entire interview -- a la Oprah v. Frey -- to the issue of credibility. And to be prepared with quotes and clips -- a la Stewart -- to force Bush to directly address the various inconsistent, misleading, or outright false statements that have peppered his presidency.

Such an interview could still be wide ranging, of course. It could cover the issue of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction; his descriptions of the run-up to war; his views of progress in Iraq; his statements -- and then silence -- about the CIA leak investigation; his concealment of -- and then questionable assertions about -- domestic spying; his promises for New Orleans; his stonewalling on the Abramoff lobbying scandal.

I could go on.

And in fact, with the help of you readers, I'd like to put together a series of sample interview questions for the president on the subject of his credibility. E-mail me at froomkin@washingtonpost.com. (And I apologize in advance for not responding to each e-mail.)

Then again, there's another possibility: A reporter could get up at the next press conference and ask a very simple, very basic question: Why should the American public trust you anymore?

At least 53 percent of Americans would like to know his answer.

Bush and Oprah

It's become a recurring fantasy among Bush critics: What if Bush were somehow publicly subjected to the same righteous wrath Oprah Winfrey inflicted on author James Frey last week.

After Frey's book was exposed as partially fabricated, Winfrey apologized for having endorsed it -- and then lit into the author for his deceptions.

Norman Solomon wrote in Huffingtonpost.com on Sunday: "During the 'Oprah' show, while lecturing a powerful book-publishing executive who had served as an enabler for the author's mendacity, Winfrey declared: 'That needs to change.' But what about the powerful news-media executives who keep enabling the president's mendacity?"

Eugene Robinson wrote in his Washington Post opinion column on Tuesday: "If there were justice in the world, George W. Bush would have to give his State of the Union address from Oprah's couch."

Here's cartoonist Mike Luckovich on Monday, imagining just such a scenario.

Margaret Carlson wrote in her Bloomberg opinion column Thursday: "On 'The Daily Show' on the eve of the State of the Union speech this week, Jon Stewart juxtaposed interviews with President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney conducted by the Washington press corps and clips of Oprah Winfrey bringing author James Frey to heel.

"Under Oprah's questioning, Frey was forced to admit he made up big chunks of his so-called memoir, 'A Million Little Pieces.' When he tried to wriggle out of it, she stopped him as if squashing something slimy (which, come to think of it, she was). 'You mean, you lied,' she said.

"Cut to 'The Daily Show,' and Cheney fairly beaming as CNBC's Lawrence Kudlow lobbed softballs at him. ('Isn't the economy kind of an underrated story?')

"What a waste of Oprah's time exposing the likes of James Frey when there are so many government liars who need exposing. To cite one not-so-trivial example: If we had to pick one person to interview the president, and the choice was between Oprah and the New York Times editor who approved all those stories about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, I'd choose Oprah any day."

Here, from the Crooks and Liars blog, is a video clip from Stewart's show Monday night.

"For people who lie in Oprah's world, there are consequences," Stewart says. "In this world, apparently gift baskets. . . .

"Why does James Frey get tougher treatment than our government? Well, I'll tell you why. He misled us into a book we had no business getting into."

Greg Mitchell wrote a column Wednesday in Editor and Publisher, imagining Bush in the Frey role.

Cheney the Bold

Bush at least has been going through the motions lately of subjecting himself to the press's scrutiny. Vice President Cheney? Not so much.

The closest he's come to taking tough questions lately was an interview Wednesday with Rush Limbaugh.

Here's the transcript of the telephone interview.

A sample exchange, about the State of the Union address:

"Q Would you call that speech cautious? It's been said -- the last word I would associate with it. I thought it was bold. I thought the statement of American values, the statement of American future was just -- I loved it. I don't see where people -- people in the media today called him -- he's cautious -- modest.

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: No, I would agree with you, Rush . . . I thought it was one of the best State of the Union speeches I'd ever heard because it was broadly thematic and did hit on what I thought were some major, major items."

The Limbaugh appearance is simply the last in a string of obsequious interviews granted to friendly broadcasters. Since the start of the year, Cheney has made himself available for questions from the following conservative talk-show hosts, and no one else:

* Hugh Hewitt on January 20. Sample question: "All right. Yesterday on CNN, Jack Cafferty suggested that the administration may be timing the release of the Osama tape whenever bad news rears its head. A little bit crazy, but what do you react -- what's Dick Cheney's reaction when commentary like that comes out of a major network?"

* Larry Kudlow on January 19. Sample question: "Do you get a fair shake in the media? Do you get a fair shake in the media on the economy? Isn't the economy kind of an underrated story? But in fact, you and the President -- until very recently -- haven't done much to sell that underrated story?"

* Neil Cavuto on January 19. Sample question: "You know, Hillary Clinton made some comments, as I'm sure you're aware, too, on Iran, first of all, faulting your administration for downgrading the threat, then a couple of days earlier, saying that the Republican Congress is 'run like a plantation.' What do you make of her?"

* Sean Hannity on January 11. Sample question: "Howard Dean said the idea that we're going to win this war is an idea that unfortunately is plain wrong. John Kerry said that there's no reason young American soldiers need to be going into the homes of Iraqis in the dead of night, terrorizing kids and children, women, and breaking the customs, et cetera. When you hear that, what is your reaction? And do you think it puts our troops in greater harm?"

* Tony Snow on January 11. Sample question: "Everybody wants me to ask you . . . would you please reconsider and think about running for President?"

What Cheney and Libby Knew

Murray Waas writes in the National Journal: "Vice President Cheney and his then-Chief of Staff I. Lewis 'Scooter' Libby were personally informed in June 2003 that the CIA no longer considered credible the allegations that Saddam Hussein had attempted to procure uranium from the African nation of Niger, according to government records and interviews with current and former officials. The new CIA assessment came just as Libby and other senior administration officials were embarking on an effort to discredit an administration critic who had also been saying that the allegations were untrue. . . .

"Despite the CIA's findings, Libby attempted to discredit former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had been sent on a CIA-sponsored mission to Niger the previous year to investigate the claims, which he concluded were baseless. . . .

"The new disclosures raise questions as to why Libby and other Bush administration officials continued their efforts to discredit Wilson -- even as they were told that claims about Iraq's having procured uranium from Niger were most likely a hoax."

As Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger wrote in a detailed October Los Angeles Times story, no longer available online, Libby's interest in Wilson was no passing fancy: "Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff was so angry about the public statements of former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, a Bush administration critic married to an undercover CIA officer, that he monitored all of Wilson's television appearances and urged the White House to mount an aggressive public campaign against him, former aides say."

Judd Legum notes in the liberal Think Progress blog that three months after receiving the memo Waas discloses, Cheney appeared on NBC's Meet the Press and made it sound like the Niger claim was still plausible. "I don't know what the truth is on the ground with respect to that," Cheney said.

An Intriguing Question

And in his personal blog, Waas raises another interesting question, based on the January 9 letter from special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald to Libby's legal team that was filed with the court earlier this week.

Libby's lawyers have apparently requested that Fitzgerald turn over 11 months' worth of Presidential Daily Briefs (or PDBs). The PDB is the very closely held and highly classified compilation of that day's most significant national security intelligence.

In his response, Fitzgerald wrote that he had never asked the White House for any PDBs at all -- but that, in fact, he did receive a "very discrete amount of material relating to PDBs" based on his generic request for any documents related to Wilson, Plame, and Wilson's trip to Niger.

So, as Waas asks: "Did President Bush personally receive information during his morning intelligence briefings about Joe Wilson's mission to Niger?"

Libby Watch

Toni Locy writes for the Associated Press: "A federal judge on Friday set former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby's trial date in the CIA leak case for January 2007, two months after the midterm congressional elections."

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times that "the managers of the fund-raising effort on behalf of Mr. Libby say they have already reached the $2 million mark and expect to increase the pace when they start a fund-raising Web site."

Domestic Spying Sparks Hill Slugfest

Spencer S. Hsu and Walter Pincus write in The Washington Post that the annual briefing on global threats for the Senate intelligence committee yesterday "sparked a fierce partisan battle over President Bush's widening claims of executive power, centered on the recently disclosed program of warrantless eavesdropping on the phone calls and e-mails of people in the United States suspected of communicating with terrorists overseas. Democrats charged that the White House has politicized the handling of intelligence by launching a week-long public defense of its efforts while refusing to divulge to Congress details of the program's reach.

"Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate panel, invoked the reliance on questionable intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war and alleged a 'disturbing pattern' by the administration 'to selectively release intelligence information that supports its policy or political agenda, while withholding equally pertinent information that does not.'

"Rockefeller, one of the few members of Congress briefed on the spy program, asked 'whether the very independence of the U.S. intelligence community has been co-opted . . . by the strong, controlling hand of the White House.'

"The charges provoked a withering response from Republicans, led by committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who said Democrats were minimizing the threat of terrorism for political gain."

Looking for Answers

Charles Babington writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration's reluctance to provide lawmakers with documents related to domestic surveillance, the response to Hurricane Katrina and other matters prompted stern complaints from Congress yesterday, as Democrats in particular vowed to push for more aggressive oversight of the executive branch."

Katrina Watch

Bruce Alpert and Laura Maggi write in the New Orleans Times-Picayune: "The debate over how to rebuild homes and communities destroyed by Hurricane Katrina erupted into public warfare between Louisiana and the White House on Thursday as the Bush administration sharply denounced the state's preferred solution and the author of the Louisiana plan accused the administration of misleading the public in an effort to kill the proposal."

Bush in Minnesota

Bush gave a long unscripted speech on Minnesota yesterday on competitiveness.

But apparently he hadn't gotten the memo about his energy policy. On Wednesday, just a day after he called in his State of the Union address for America to break its addiction to oil, his energy secretary and national economic adviser said that the president didn't mean it literally. See yesterday's column.

As Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "On Thursday, Mr. Bush went even further in calling for independence from Middle East oil in a speech on scientific innovation and research.

" 'I'm confident that we'll be able to say to the American people when this research is complete that the United States is on our way to no dependence on oil from the Middle East,' Mr. Bush said to applause from several hundred employees and Republican supporters at 3M headquarters here."

Here's the transcript of his speech.

Post-It Follies

Eric Black writes in the Minneapolis Star Tribune: "President Bush, meaning to pay homage to one of his host's famous products, attached a 3M Post-it note to the first page of his speech Wednesday. But things soon came unglued.

"'Gotta take my Post-it note off my speech here,' Bush said as he warmed up the crowd, mostly made up of 3M employees. That got a laugh, as he displayed the note and affixed it to the front of the podium.

"The laughter turned into a groan from the audience as the Post-it immediately came unstuck and floated to the ground. 'My fault,' Bush riposted, in the main unscripted moment of the speech. 'I should have cleaned off the podium.'"

Here's a Reuters photo of the falling sticky.

Presidential Humor

Julie Mason writes in the Houston Chronicle about how Bush shared a podium at the National Prayer Breakfast yesterday with Rock star Bono, who "challenged the president to tithe an additional 1 percent of the federal budget to the poor."

Bush responded with a joke.

Here's the transcript.

"I was trying to figure out what to say about Bono," Bush said. "And a story jumped to mind about these really good Texas preachers. And he got going in a sermon and a fellow jumped up in the back and said, 'Use me, Lord, use me.' And the preacher ignored him, and finished his sermon. Next Sunday he gets up, and cranking on another sermon. And the guy jumps up and says, 'Use me, Lord, use me.' And after the service, he walked up to him and said, 'If you're serious, I'd like for you to paint the pews.' Next Sunday, he's preaching, the guy stands up and says, 'Use me, Lord, use me, but only in an advisory capacity.'"

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