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Adding Insult to Expulsion

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, August 3, 2006; 1:02 PM

President Bush's cheeky, newsless visit to the White House briefing room yesterday was an appropriate sendoff for a press corps that has been unable to get much if any advantage from its physical proximity to Bush's inner sanctum.

Reporters, who for decades have occupied a decrepit warren of cubicles in the West Wing just beyond the briefing room, are being relocated to temporary quarters across the street to enable a badly needed renovation.

But the fact that the press corps dwelled just a few yards from the Oval Office was deceptive. Any reporter actually trying to take a step beyond the press secretary's office into the rest of the West Wing would have been wrestled to the ground by Secret Service agents.

And whether journalists are caged in a centrally-located pen -- or in one a little further away -- doesn't really matter so long as this White House continues to treat the establishment press with thinly-disguised contempt. The spin, the secrets, the non-answers and the unprecedented lack of access are an insult not only to journalists, but to the public that depends on us to fully inform them about what's really going on in the White House.

So there was something entirely appropriate about Bush stopping by the briefing room yesterday not to answer (or even be asked) a single substantive question -- but to insult pretty much everyone in spitting distance.

Here's the transcript ; here's the video .

Spotting Marlin Fitzwater among the visiting luminaries, the president razzed his father's notoriously homely press secretary: "Marlin, you're looking as pretty as ever."

Tweaking his own press secretary, Tony Snow, Bush said "I want to thank the former spin meisters for joining me up here. Tell my people how to do it, will you?"

When Cox Newspaper reporter Ken Herman responded with a quip to Bush's question about how long the renovation was expected to take -- "We're setting no timetables, Mr. President," Herman said -- Bush responded by calling him a "crackpot." All in good fun, of course.

"It looks a little crowded in here. And so you want to double the size?" Bush taunted the audience. "Forget it."

He needled the television personalities in the audience: "The last time I had a press conference in here, it felt like it was outside. As a matter of fact, some of your makeup was running."

Asked a sycophantic question about the press corps itself -- by chief briefing-room bootlicker Raghubir Goyal, who represents an Indian newspaper I'm not even sure really exists -- Bush responded sarcastically: "It's a beautiful bunch of people."

And when former ABC White House correspondent Sam Donaldson, famous for shouting out important questions to Ronald Reagan, asked Bush an idiotic one -- "Mr. President, should Mel Gibson be forgiven?" -- Bush responded: "Is that Sam Donaldson? Forget it. You're a has-been. We don't have to answer has-been's questions."

Even a press corps used to chuckling and guffawing at Bush's frat-boy towel-snapping responded with what the White House transcribers recorded as an "Ohhhhh!" over that one.

All in all, an appropriately ugly and useless sendoff to a room where both respect and self-respect have been in short supply.

The Coverage

Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Peter Wallsten write in the Los Angeles Times: "The White House on Wednesday bade farewell, at least temporarily, to a frequent thorn in the Bush administration's side: the presidential press corps, whose members are moving across the street to make way for a nine-month renovation of their currently cramped quarters."

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post that Bush "seemed to be smiling a lot as he contemplated life without reporters underfoot.

"For now, the media will be moved to a government building next to Lafayette Square, where press secretary Tony Snow will conduct briefings. Except for a handful of pool reporters kept in a trailer and television correspondents doing stand-ups on the lawn, the White House will be free of the media for the duration. . . .

"Snow tried to dispel any fears of a secret plot to never let the press back in. 'There will, indeed, be a new press room,' he said. 'It will be right here in this very spot, and the carpets will be clean, the electric -- the connections will be up-to-date, and it will be a more congenial and helpful work environment for all.'"

Jessica Yellin reports for ABC News that some reporters are "spinning conspiracy theories -- that the White House won't let the press corps back in.

"'All they have to say is, "Oh, the fire officials deem the place a fire hazard and there's not enough room for all of you," ' one reporter said. 'Then they turn it into more White House offices.'"

But here's the most plausible-sounding assurance yet: "Snow added that he looked forward to getting the press back as soon as possible because he would have to make the daily walk to the new space, which could make for 'bad hair days.'"

After his remarks, Bush wandered over the front row of seats for a little glad-handing. Yochi J. Dreazen writes for the Wall Street Journal that "when he was told that it was the birthday (86th, for those who keep track of such things) of White House press corps doyenne Helen Thomas, an acerbic critic of his administration, Bush leaned in close to her and asked Thomas to give him a big kiss. She opted not to."

Brian Williams bid a wistful goodbye on NBC to his old stomping grounds; Jim Axelrod filed a light-hearted report for CBS. For more images, the White House Web site has a panorama of the briefing room, and a virtual tour led by former press secretary Scott McClellan.

Here are some pictures from yesterday, on FishbowlDC.

Conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh thought Bush was in excellent form. "This is the guy I know!" he exclaimed.

The White House's New Toys

William Douglas writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "When reporters return from their temporary quarters across Pennsylvania Avenue, they'll find new digs with new technology, likely including a high-tech 'video wall' behind the podium. That could transform the daily press briefing into a more video-friendly event - and it could also enable the Bush administration to take its message directly to the people, circumventing the journalists sitting in the remodeled room. . . .

"'There is a skirmish between the president and journalists over who controls the news agenda,' said S. Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, an independent research institute. 'These new toys will aid the administration in setting the agenda by giving them more time, more video evidence, and a larger profile.' . . .

"That could transform the daily briefing into more of a made-for-TV presentation that resembles a newscast, but one produced by the White House, not the independent media, said Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University.

"'The equivalent of press releases could go out without interruption or analysis.' Thompson said. 'We have evidence that they are thinking along that line - video news releases.'"

Hope for Both

Here is the transcript of Snow's press briefing , just before Bush's arrival.

Snow: "There will be a new press room. For all of those of you who have been asking questions, there will, indeed, be a new press room. It will be right here. It is not going to be in a distant part of town. It will be right here in this very spot and the carpets will be clean, the electric -- the connections will be up-to-date, and it will be a more congenial and helpful work environment for all."

Helen Thomas: "Better answers?"

Snow: "In response to better questions."

Vacation Begins

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "Heading for his Texas ranch, President Bush will take his shortest summer vacation yet with turmoil in the Middle East and an uncertain future for his Republican Party in fall elections."

Richard Benedetto writes for USA Today: "Analysts see Bush's shorter vacation as partly a response to the angry criticism last year from the hurricane-devastated Gulf Coast that he and his administration were slow to respond to the disaster. Bush cut his month-long Texas stay by two days. . . .

"White House press secretary Tony Snow says Bush is taking a shorter break not because of criticism but because he has other things to do, including campaigning for Republican candidates in the fall elections, pushing for immigration reform and attending a family wedding in Kennebunkport, Maine. He plans to be in Louisiana and Mississippi on the Aug. 29 anniversary of Katrina and might return to Crawford for two days after that.

"Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be at the ranch, where they will monitor the Middle East, Iraq and the United Nations. 'He's going to be working a lot, and people are going to see it,' Snow says."

Bush the Evangelist

Former Newsday and Knight Ridder White House correspondent Saul Friedman writes on NiemanWatchdog.org: "I believe this to be the first time in modern American history that a president's religion, in this case his Christian fundamentalism, has become a decisive factor in his foreign and domestic policies. It's a factor that has been under-reported, to say the least, and that begs for press attention. . .

"It may help explain George W. Bush's single-mindedness, his oblivious inability to face reality as his war in Iraq, his war against terror and his policies towards Arabs and Israeli have collapsed."

Friedman also castigates Tony Snow for his treatment of Helen Thomas at the July 18 press briefing .

"She pointed out, correctly, that the U.S. was perceived to have endorsed 'collective punishment,' against Lebanon and Palestine. His reply: 'Well thank you for the Hezbollah view.'" Friedman writes.

"Not since the Vietnam war when an American official asked the press, 'Which side are you on,' have I heard a presidential flack insult an impugn a reporter's integrity for asking a legitimate question. Never in my dozen or so years asking tough questions of Larry Speakes, Marlin Fitzwater, Mike McCurry and even Ron Ziegler during Watergate, did I hear such a snide insult."

Iraq Watch

In the wake of the death of a senator's nephew in Iraq, David Stout writes in the New York Times: "A White House aide, who requested anonymity because his information was preliminary, said Wednesday that he knew of no top Bush administration official who had a relative who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Detainee Watch

R. Jeffrey Smith writes in The Washington Post: "The military's top uniformed lawyers, appearing at a Senate hearing yesterday, criticized key provisions of a proposed new U.S. plan for special military courts, affirming that they did not see eye to eye with the senior Bush administration political appointees who developed the plan and presented it to them last week.

"The lawyers' rare, open disagreement with civilian officials at the Pentagon, the Justice Department and the White House came during discussions of proposed new rules for the use of evidence derived from hearsay or coercion and the possible exclusion of defendants from the trials in some circumstances."

War Crimes Watch

Kate Zernike writes for the New York Times: "Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales pressed Congress on Wednesday to refine the definition of war crimes prohibited under the Geneva Conventions."

Signing Statements Watch

I wrote in yesterday's column about a whole bunch of smaller newspapers that have editorialized against Bush's use of signing statements to flout the will of Congress.

In my Live Online yesterday, a reader from Dallas wondered how many of those papers had endorsed Bush in 2004. I thought that was a great question, and asked my readers for help tracking that down.

Reader Nicole from Minnesota was the first (of several) to respond.

She wrote: "I found this list of 2004 presidential endorsements. The papers in your column broke down this way:

"Kerry: Florida Today; Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader; Battle Creek (Mich.) Enquirer; The Buffalo News; The Berkshire (Mass.) Eagle.

"Bush: Appleton (Wisc.) Post-Crescent; Yakima (Wash.) Herald-Republic; Loveland (Colo.) Daily Reporter-Herald; Lebanon (Pa.) Daily News."

The Waterloo-Cedar Falls (Iowa) Courier did not endorse either candidate. And none of my readers could determine who the Reading (Pa.) Eagle endorsed.

But the point it, it's pretty bipartisan.

In the Bunker

Michael Bronner writes in Vanity Fair, based on never-before-released tapes from the control room of NORAD's Northeast headquarters: "In his bunker under the White House, Vice President Cheney was not notified about United 93 until 10:02 -- only one minute before the airliner impacted the ground. Yet it was with dark bravado that the vice president and others in the Bush administration would later recount sober deliberations about the prospect of shooting down United 93."

Claude Allen Update

Ernesto LondoƱo writes in The Washington Post: "Former White House adviser Claude A. Allen is expected to plead guilty tomorrow to a misdemeanor theft charge after reaching a deal with Montgomery County prosecutors that probably will spare him from jail, according to court documents filed yesterday. . . .

"Allen was arrested after Montgomery police accused him of stealing more than $5,000 in merchandise from Target and Hecht's stores through a refund scheme."

But Barbara Barrett writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "Allen, 45, will plead guilty to fraudulently stealing items worth less than $500 from a Target store in suburban Montgomery County, Md., near his Gaithersburg home, according to documents filed Wednesday in the county's Circuit Court. . . .

"The prosecutor and defense attorneys have asked that Allen receive no jail time, but rather pay $850 in restitution to Target Corp. and serve one month's probation. . . .

"Friends of Allen, a well-known conservative who rose from a senator's press aide to one of the top jobs in the White House, said Wednesday that the criminal conviction shouldn't keep him from a future in politics."

Cuba Watch

Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press: "The White House and Congress, caught unaware by Fidel Castro's illness, prepared Wednesday for a possible showdown in Cuba as lawmakers drafted legislation that would give millions of dollars to dissidents who fight for democratic change. . . .

"The handover was a surprise to the White House and Congress, one senator said.

"'The president's comment was that everybody was caught by surprise, and we'll have to wait and see' what U.S. action is necessary, said Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, who discussed the developments with President Bush on Tuesday."

Poll Watch

Two new polls show Bush's approval rating at 40 percent.

A Gallup Poll earlier this week found Bush with 40 percent approval, up from 37 the week before -- but found an all-time high of 55 percent of American wanting U.S. troops in Iraq either withdrawn immediately (19) or within a year (36).

And here is this morning's Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll . From the summary: "[N]o matter what the president does, he cannot shake the perception of the American public that his policies -- foreign or domestic -- are not working, according to a new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll. . . .

"The poll is continuing to show an intensity gap on the way people feel about Bush's job performance. Since the beginning of the year, respondents have expressed more intense negative feelings than those who have expressed more positive feelings. . . . For example, nearly three-fifths of those surveyed disapprove of the way the president is handling his job, which includes nearly 43% who 'strongly' disapprove, compared to just 20% who 'strongly' approve (overall approval rating is 40%).

"The war in Iraq and now the war in the Middle East between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon is a huge gray cloud over Bush's administration. . . . Most Americans think Bush is reacting to dealing with the problems of terrorism rather than having a clear, formulated plan. . . .

"One reason for the weaker support of the president's handling of the war on terrorism is belief that terrorism has increased because of the situation in Iraq (52%), a dramatic shift since a January 2006 Times/Bloomberg where just a third felt that way. . . . They also feel it is just a matter of time before there is an attack, rather than any thing the government or intelligence agencies can do."

The Amazing Shrinking President

Daniel Engber of Slate tries to explain why Bush latest medical report shows that he's lost one-quarter of an inch in height.

Older people do shrink, he writes, "but it's usually a slow process. Men who are around Bush's age -- he just turned 60 -- tend to lose around a tenth of a centimeter in height every year. . . .

"We can only speculate that the apparent shrinkage is the result of a measurement error."

Is This Mic On?

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek.com that Bush and British Prime Minister Blair, who was visiting last week, "coordinated their jokes as much as their foreign policy. Bush opened his joint press conference with Blair by joking about his recent encounter with an open microphone in St. Petersburg, Russia -- which the British media have dubbed his 'Yo Blair!' moment. 'As you know, we've got a close relationship,' Bush deadpanned. 'You share with me your perspective -- and you let me know when the microphone is on.' Bush tapped his White House microphone and Blair chuckled out loud.

"In fact, the two leaders rehearsed their moment of levity. Bush had alerted Blair to the joke before the two left the Oval Office, moments earlier. One of Blair's aides suggested that Bush could milk the joke by tapping the microphone for good measure. 'They all thought it was hilarious,' said the senior Bush aide."

Cartoon Watch

Here are Mike Luckovich on Bush's moment of opportunity; Stuart Carlson on oil dependency; John Deering on Bush's Middle East policy; Bob Gorrell on Bush's desktop; and Tom Toles on Bush on Jeopardy.

Online Humor

AddictingGames is out with the Bush Backrub game. "President George Bush's back rub to German Chancellor Angela Merkel had her flailing her arms with fury and the rest of us in tears (of laughter or embarrassment). Now you can relive the legendary moment. . . . "

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