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White House Hotheads

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, June 16, 2006; 1:14 PM

Inspired by my fun-loving colleagues at Wonkette, who are compiling a list of White House Hotties , allow me to put forth today's contenders for the title of White House Hothead.

* There's Tony Snow, who yesterday made a particular mess of things in the White House briefing room.

* There's just-arrived domestic policy adviser Karl Zinsmeister, out with a new interview in which he talks about sex ("it's intense, it's fire"!) and its role in perpetuating what he has previously described as a "morally repugnant" underclass.

* And there's Vice President Dick Cheney making some controversial, unsupported assertions on right-wing talk radio.

Snow on the Rocks

We'll start with Tony Snow, who unleashed what may well have been the most inappropriate answer of his rocky one-month tenure at yesterday's briefing .

Here's a question Snow certainly knew was coming:

"Q Tony, American deaths in Iraq have reached 2,500. Is there any response or reaction from the President on that?"

And here is Snow's initial response:

"It's a number, and every time there's one of these 500 benchmarks people want something."

Yup, they sure do want something. Like maybe some sensitivity to the loss of life from the man speaking on behalf of the White House, for starters.

Snow also apologized yesterday for an earlier stumble: confusing one black congresswoman (Sheila Jackson-Lee, who attended a White House meeting last week) -- with another (Cynthia McKinney, who wasn't even there).

But more importantly, Snow yesterday amply illustrated his emerging -- and highly irritating -- modus operandi: When he doesn't want to answer a question, which is often the case, he either pleads ignorance or gets argumentative -- or both. And an increasingly common tactic: Demanding that reporters define the terms that he himself has just used.

Here's one exchange from yesterday, with Peter Baker of The Washington Post:

"Q Tony, the investigation of Karl Rove is now over. Why is it, then, inappropriate for the President of the White House, three years later, to finally give us some sort of explanation or assessment, judgment, of Karl Rove's actions when it had nothing to do with the Libby trial?

"MR. SNOW: Because, as you know, there is -- well, they may have. There is talk that he may be called . . ."

Rove played an important role in the leak of Valerie Plame's identity, but publicly denied it through then-press secretary Scott McClellan and in television interviews.

Pressing on, Baker noted that "Scott McClellan has nothing to do with the Libby trial, [Rove's] conversation with ABC News has nothing to do with the Libby trial.

"MR. SNOW: Well, that's fine. I will continue my statement first. I can't give you any texture or background on the Scott/Karl stuff, because I wasn't here. But the President made it pretty clear that a lot of this stuff -- and as you know, Peter, once you get up on the stand, and Karl may be called to the stand -- they can ask about anything.

"And so it is our view that we're simply not going to get involved in making comments on something that may be brought to trial, when Scooter Libby is still under indictment and is going to go to trial with the special prosecutor."

Baker of course was correct. His question had nothing to do with the Libby trial. But he moved on:

"Q Let me ask a general question then. In 2000, the President said it wasn't enough to simply not be indicted in the White House, that he had a higher ethical standard. Is that, in fact, still the ethical standard --

"MR. SNOW: Yes.

"Q -- or, in fact, should we interpret from his comments yesterday that as long as you're not indicted, everything is fine?

"MR. SNOW: Apparently, you've indicted Karl.

"Q No, I'm asking a question.

"MR. SNOW: And yes, the answer is, the ethical standard still applies.

"Q And what is the ethical standard?

"MR. SNOW: You tell me."

But the capper had to be Snow's obstinate obfuscation of the administration's position on permanent military bases in Iraq -- a highly contentious and significant issue.

According to Agence France Presse , Snow had addressed the issue quite directly at the off-camera morning gaggle: "At a morning exchange with reporters, spokesman Tony Snow said it was 'wrong' to say that the United States planned to keep troops in Iraq forever, even after Iraqi security forces are up and running.

"Prodded about the construction of permanent military facilities in the war-torn country, Snow replied: 'No permanent bases. Don't have permanent bases anywhere.' "

Sounds clear, huh? But when Hearst columnist and White House gadfly Helen Thomas brought the issue up again at the briefing, Snow was pugnatiatuis and equivocal.

"Q Would you like to reaffirm what you said earlier today, that the U.S. wants no permanent bases in Iraq?

"MR. SNOW: Well, I think -- let me -- because -- can you define what a permanent base is?"

At the end of the exchange, the administration's position was as unclear as ever.

The Zinsmeister

On Tuesday, Peter Baker wrote in The Washington Post: "While most White House aides carefully trim their public commentary, they can't take back what they said before arriving in the West Wing, and few in this day and age arrive with a more provocative paper trail than Karl Zinsmeister, who started his new job yesterday. . . .

"A review of years of articles reveals a formidable thinker with a powerful sense of what he considers right and wrong. As Zinsmeister sees it, racial profiling by the police makes sense; the military, if anything, treats terrorist suspects too gently; and casual sex has led to wrecked cities, violence and 'endless human misery.' In a 'soft, often amoral, and self-indulgent age,' he warned, some children 'will be ruined without a whip hand,' and he assured that 'things generally go better with God.' . . .

"For Zinsmeister, provocation has been his stock in trade."

Yesterday, another interview with Zinsmeister emerged, adding to a portrait of a firebrand with an outright contempt for both the upper and lower classes of American society. And his contempt for the lower class, in particular, seems intertwined with his passionate interest in sex as a social issue.

In an interview with Ben Wattenberg on PBS's "Think Tank" show, taped before Zinsmeister was named to his high-level White House post, Zinsmeister also acknowledges that he "used to be a Marxist," but now, "if I had to put myself in any label I'd say I'm a militant middle American advocate."

Zinsmeister tells Wattenberg that "family breakdown . . . is the root not only of our poverty problem; it's the root of our crime problem, the root of our drug problem; it's the root of many of our social pathologies."

And he traces the family breakdown, at least in part, to one of his favorite topics: Sex. (Also see his April 2006 article on the topic.)

About sex, he tells Wattenberg: "It's something -- it's intense; it's fire. It drives people to insanity. . . . People fall in love with prostitutes. People kill prostitutes. All kinds of things happen in the heat of sexual passion, so my point is because it's fire it needs to be governed and treated with respect and treated carefully."

And, he says: "An awful lot of what we've been talking about earlier in this show, you know, family structure and crime rates and poverty levels grow directly out of sexual choices."

Just after Bush appointed Zinsmeister to his post, Josh Gerstein of the New York Sun reported that Zinsmeister had altered his own quotes in a Syracuse New Times profile of him, when he re-posted it on his own magazine's Web site.

One of the key quotes Zinsmeister changed was this one: "People in Washington are morally repugnant, cheating, shifty human beings."

Here's the "Zinsmeistered" version: "I learned in Washington that there is an 'overclass' in this country stocked with cheating, shifty human beings that's just as morally repugnant as our 'underclass.' "

But the second version may be an even more shocking and inappropriate thing for the White House's chief domestic policy advisor to say.

As one of my readers, Seth Green, e-mailed me at the time: "Personally, I am much more offended by his describing as morally repugnant all of the 'underclass' (generally a reference to the poor) than describing 'people in Washington' (which can legitimately, if not literally, be read to refer only to politicians) in that way."

Cheney's Assertions

Vice President Cheney, who consents to interviews almost exclusively with right-wing talk-show hosts these days, used Sean Hannity yesterday to put forth some highly contestable assertions, some new, some old, knowing he wouldn't be forced to support them.

The White House kindly transcribed the interview and e-mailed it to the press corps.

A new assertion, as reported by Agence France Presse : "Cheney said that the war in Iraq was 'in part responsible' for the absence of terrorist attacks in the United States since the September 11, 2001 strikes."

The full quote: "Iraq was a safe haven for terrorists, it had a guy running it who had started two wars, who had produced and used weapons of mass destruction. Taking down Saddam Hussein was exactly the right thing to do.

"It's also, I think, in part responsible for the fact that we haven't been hit again in nearly five years. That's no accident. The fact is, we've taken the battle to the enemy. That's been the key to the safety and security of the American people these last few years, and we need to continue to do it."

That's quite a claim -- but does he have any evidence to back it up? Hannity certainly didn't ask for any.

An old assertion, as reported by Jonathan Weisman and Charles Babington in The Washington Post: "Vice President Cheney weighed in, taking note of [Sen. John F.] Kerry's statement earlier this week urging fellow Democrats who joined him in authorizing force in 2002 to acknowledge that the war is a mistake. 'I'm not surprised at John Kerry switching his position yet again,' Cheney said on Sean Hannity's radio talk show. Kerry is charging 'that somehow he was misled,' the vice president said. 'He wasn't misled. He saw the same intelligence all the rest of us saw. He knew what an evil actor Saddam Hussein was.' "

But of course it's been repeatedly established that members of Congress did not get to see the same intelligence as Bush and Cheney -- not even close. Just for example, as reported by Murray Waas in the National Journal in March, there was a "classified one-page summary of a National Intelligence Estimate, specifically written for Bush in October 2002. The summary said that although 'most agencies judge' that the aluminum tubes were 'related to a uranium enrichment effort,' the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research and the Energy Department's intelligence branch 'believe that the tubes more likely are intended for conventional weapons.' " Not only did Congress never get to see it, but the White House still doesn't want to acknowledge it existed.

Hannity didn't challenge Cheney's assertion, of course. And Greg Sargent , who writes the American Prospect's blog on political coverage, slams The Post for printing it without debunking it.

The War Over the War

Congress was debating the war yesterday, in a carefully scripted exercise directed by the Republican leadership.

Weisman and Babington write how the House Republicans were "bolstered by a 74-page document drafted by the White House and distributed by the Pentagon, replete with talking points, quotations and timelines to back administration policy."

Al Kamen writes in The Washington Post about how Traci Scott, who works in the Pentagon's legislative affairs office, sent that document out to the wrong mailing list -- one which included Democrats.

Liz Marlantes writes for ABC News: "Thursday afternoon, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) sent a letter to Rumsfeld complaining that his office had spent 'taxpayer dollars to produce partisan political documents.' Lautenberg also suggested that the document may have violated laws prohibiting the Executive Branch from using taxpayer dollars for lobbying and propaganda activities.

"The Pentagon later said the document was produced by the National Security Council -- but did not offer an explanation as to why it was sent out by the Office of the Secretary of Defense."

Americablogger John Aravosis Web-publishes the document .

Froomkin on the Radio

I'll be on Washington Post Radio shortly after 2 p.m. today.

Gift Watch

Olivier Knox reports for AFP: "World leaders showered US President George W. Bush in 2004 with gifts including guns, cases of wine and one 'Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook,' the US State Department reported.

"Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah gave Bush the $15 paperback guide -- which teaches readers how to escape a mountain lion or killer bees and 'How to Take a Punch' -- as well as DVDs of the classic movies 'Singing in the Rain' and 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' it said. . . .

"Hungarian Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy gave Bush a braided brown leather whip, worth $125."

Brendan Murray and Ryan J. Donmoyer write for Bloomberg: "The vice president of China gave his U.S. counterpart, Vice President Dick Cheney, an out-of-print copy of Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War,' valued at $3,600."

The Smoking Gun Web site has an annotated list.

Poll Watch

The Bush presidency is apparently making Bill Clinton's look better by contrast, and Bush's father's look worse by association.

Jeffrey M. Jones writes for Gallup News Service: "A new Gallup Poll finds a significant increase in Americans' judgments of Bill Clinton's performance as president, as well as significant declines in reviews of the elder George Bush. Most other recent presidents' ratings have not changed in the last four years. John F. Kennedy remains the most positively rated of the former presidents tested, while Richard Nixon gets the lowest marks."

Rove on the Internet

Before his public appearance Monday night at a Republican fundraiser in New Hampshire, Rove gave an interview to the conservative VictoryNH.com Web site. One topic that came up was the Internet.

Rove: "I do also think that the Internet has proven to be a more powerful tool on our side than it has been for the other side. It has proven to be a tool on our side to sort of unite Conservatives and have a healthy intra-movement dialogue. But it's essentially been something that has helped us gain in influence and broaden our appeal. Among Democrats, my sense is that the blog world has tended to strengthen the far Left of the Democratic Party at the expense of liberal, but somewhat less liberal, members of their party. It has tended to sort of drive their party even further to the Left rather than focusing on good ideas that would help unite people around common goals and common purposes. Instead, the Internet for the Left of the Democratic Party has served as a way to mobilize hate and anger -- hate and anger, first and foremost, at this President and Conservatives, but then also at people within their own party whom they consider to be less than completely loyal to this very narrow, very out-of-the-mainstream, very far Left-wing ideology that they tend to represent.

"VNH: How do you see this affecting the next couple of cycles?

"Rove: You know, I don't know! Again, we're sort of feeling our way along. I do think the Internet is going to continue to be an enormously powerful tool for organization, which we're now only beginning to understand and apply. I think it's going to have a huge impact upon providing alternative means by which people collect political information on which they make decisions -- particularly talk radio on our side and the Internet on both sides. But again, and maybe I'm just too optimistic about it, I think it's going to tend to strengthen the Conservative movement because our focus is so much on ideas; and where, by nature, our movement is optimistic and forward-looking and, if you will, progressive: How can we help expand freedom and democracy? How can we expand markets? What are the game-changing reforms that we can build into public policy that will strengthen the power of the individual over their own lives and destiny? I think that's where our focus is. I think the Democrat focus, or at least the Internet blog world focus, if you will, is, 'How can we punish our enemies and express our anger?' "

The Union Leader on Rove

The fiscally conservative Manchester Union Leader was not impressed by Rove's visit to New Hampshire: "Karl Rove might not have lied to special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald about his role in publicly identifying CIA employee Valerie Plame, but he told one heck of a whopper when he stopped in Manchester on Monday.

"Speaking of what separates Democrats from Republicans, President Bush's top political adviser said, 'They're for more spending. We're for less spending.'

"Republicans for less spending? Less than what?"

A Winning Decision

Bush yesterday signed a proclamation designating 140,000 square miles of sea and uninhabited islands northwest of Hawaii a national monument, affording federal protection for the home of 7,000 marine species.

The New York Times editorial board raved: "An unfamiliar but highly appealing side of President Bush showed itself at the White House yesterday. . . . Mr. Bush made exemplary use of presidential power yesterday. We hope he does more of it.

The Washington Post editorial board raved: "Mr. Bush's action offers an exciting example of assertive action to put essential areas beyond further human destruction."

Cartoonist Tom Toles was less impressed.

Late Night Humor

Jay Leno, via Agweb : "The sad part of President Bush's trip, he's so unpopular, he had to sneak back into this country."

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