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While I'm Away

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, August 25, 2006; 12:50 PM

White House Briefing is going dark next week (back on Tuesday, Sept. 5), but you still have lots of ways to keep up with what's going on at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Here are a few thoughts.

Not Your Ordinary White House Correspondent

I recently updated my list of White House correspondents , which includes whenever possible links to their latest stories as well as their bios, and even -- in a growing number of cases -- their blogs.

Go read the work of someone you don't normally read. Compare and contrast.

Being a White House correspondent is in some ways a really rotten job. It involves spending a lot of time waiting around for nonevents. The briefings are very low on news. Access to the president is almost nonexistent.

But it remains a hugely important function.

And especially when so many of President Bush's utterances cry out to be put in context and for fact-checking -- rather than just stenography -- each reporter and each news organization goes about meeting that challenge in a different way. Some, to be blunt, don't do it at all. Others do it subtly. A few are more direct.

Which correspondents do you think are doing a good job? Which do you think aren't? And why? I'd be interested in hearing.

Investigative Reporters

And while every major Washington bureau should have, in addition to a White House correspondent, a White House investigative reporter -- someone who won't suffer from ruffling a few feathers, and who'll dig, dig, dig -- in the meantime, you'll have to make do with the dynamic duo of the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh and the National Journal's Murray Waas .

Finding Authentic Voices

I came to the following conclusion a while ago: Bush has become such a divisive figure in American politics that when he speaks, there are some Americans who hear everything he says as the gospel -- and others who hear everything he says as (charitably) baloney. And there are remarkably few Americans in between.

Covering Bush, therefore, poses a particular challenge to traditional political reporters, who generally see their role as trying to play it down the middle. Because there may really be no middle anymore.

Put it this way: When Bush asserts something that one group of people thinks is demonstrably false, and another group thinks is demonstrably true, refusing to call it one way or the other doesn't exactly generate credibility with either group. And that's a big problem if pretty much everyone is in one group or the other.

Fox News , Rush Limbaugh and other rightward-leaning media outlets do an excellent and authentic job of conveying the Bush-as-gospel point of view.

But if you're looking for the Bush-as-baloney view, the best place to go these days may be the humorists.

Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert get a lot of grief from traditional journalists because they're not, of course, journalists. But their treatment of Bush has a certain authenticity to it nevertheless. At least they're not pretending that there is a middle.

And yet Stewart and Colbert are actually relatively dull and flabby compared to true Zen masters of calling baloney: The political cartoonists.

Some of you have noticed that I've been linking to political cartoons more often these days, and that's why. How they cut through everyone's baloney so effectively -- and in so few words! -- is beyond me. I'm in awe.

So while I'm gone, go visit and browse through the archives of Tom Toles and Mike Luckovich , Pat Oliphant and Ann Telnaes , Stuart Carlson , Tony Auth , Ben Sargent , Nick Anderson , and Steve Sack -- just for starters.

Have I left out your favorite? Let me know.

Exclusive Interviews

As part of the White House's public-relations efforts to seize the initiative on the coverage of the Hurricane Katrina anniversary, Bush sat down for short interviews with a handful of Gulf Coast television stations yesterday.

But what was at least as interesting as what he said on-camera was what he said off-camera.

Here is an excerpt of his chat with Michael Hill on New Orleans' WGNO-TV:

Hill: "If you had to give a grade to the governor, for instance, [Louisiana] Gov. [Kathleen] Blanco, what grade would you give her for her performance throughout this?"

Bush: "Yeah, I'm not going to fall into the trap. I'll give you my grade. On my grade, I could have -- we -- the federal government, and I'm responsible for the federal government, could have done better in coordinating with the state and local government in its response. And we've learned lessons from that. I would give myself a good grade for getting a big check written for the area. And my grade is "incomplete" about how, eliminating bureaucratic hurdles. My friend [New Orleans] Mayor [Ray] Nagin has expressed concern about bureaucracies. All he's got to do is tell Don Powell where the bureaucratic hurdles are and I will get engaged to help him move them."

Here's a report from Mike Hoss of WWL-TV in New Orleans.

Says Bush: "I understand the frustrations, but the people have got to understand that the federal government has made a strong financial commitment, but we're not stopping, and we want to work with the governor and the mayor to make sure the money gets to the people."

Says Hoss: "We only had a limited time today in our one-on-one interview, but after it was over, he told the crew to turn off all the cameras, and he leaned over and he asked me, 'So what about the Reggie Bush deal? How are fans liking that? Do you think Houston made the wrong call in going with Mario Williams?' He asked about Tom Benson. He talked about the Saints and their amazing season ticket sales and what that's done for New Orleans and the region. So, we spent about three or four minutes talking about that."

(Reggie Bush, for the sports-impaired, is no relation. As Tom Weir writes for USA Today, he is a New Orleans Saints running back and the season's most anticipated NFL rookie.)

Here is video and a transcript of Bush's interview with Doug Walker of WLOX-TV in Mississippi:

Walker: "There's a feeling, a growing feeling, of discontent in Mississippi that the lion's share of the attention is going to New Orleans -- as evidenced today on the front page of USA Today with not one mention of Mississippi. Is Mississippi being forgotten by the government and the nation?"

Bush: "You know, I don't know, I can't speak about a factor (sic) of the nation -- you know, the people who are printing the news. But I can tell you about the government, and the answer is absolutely not. This government is focused equally on Mississippi as it is on Louisiana. And one reason why we, of course, remained focused is you've got a governor who's got a lot of influence up here, and you've got senators who've got influence up here. And so our efforts are equal in trying to help people recover."

Walker: "With the performance of FEMA. if you were to ask people in Mississippi, if they were to grade FEMA, maybe a 'D' possibly an 'F.' How would you grade FEMA's performance in the wake of Hurricane Katrina? Can any agency be prepared for something like this?"

Bush: "Well I think, let me just speak to the whole federal government. There's things we could have done better, in coordinating. Although I would tell you in Mississippi, I think the efforts were very well coordinated."

Walker writes about his own post-camera chat: "After our six minutes was up, there was no hurry to leave, so President Bush and I began to chat.

"For almost fifteen minutes, Mr. Bush asked me question after question about our recovery. . . .

"He also asked about rebuilding efforts, and was very candid about FEMA, and how the agency performed in the wake of the storm."

So off-camera, he was candid about FEMA? What did he say?

Katrina Redux

Brendan Murray writes for Bloomberg: "Hurricane Katrina's flood waters have long since receded. The human toll and political wreckage wrought by the killer storm continue to haunt George W. Bush almost a year later. . . .

"Bush has never appeared comfortable talking about the catastrophe, and the storm's continuing ability to bedevil him makes it a domestic counterpart to the Iraq war -- a setback that fundamentally altered perceptions of a presidency."

Possibly the best example of that is this Pew Poll from March, which asked people to describe Bush in one word.

"The single word most frequently associated with George W. Bush today is 'incompetent,' and close behind are two other increasingly mentioned descriptors: 'idiot' and 'liar.' All three are mentioned far more often today than a year ago."

Bush Confronted By a Critic

After arriving in Maine yesterday, but before heading off to his family compound for a long weekend, Bush stopped to meet with the families of five slain service members.

Kevin Wack writes in the Kennebec Journal: "One anti-war widow said she used the opportunity to voice her objections to Bush's policies.

" 'I said it's time to stop the bleeding,' said Hildi Halley, whose husband, Army National Guard Capt. Patrick Damon, died June 15 in Afghanistan. 'It's time to swallow our pride and find a solution.'

"She said Bush responded by saying 'there was no point in us having a philosophical discussion about the pros and cons of the war.'

"The president became emotional, Halley said, when she tearfully described the impact her 41-year-old husband's death has had on herself and their two kids, ages 12 and 14, both of whom attended the meeting.

" 'He wept and hugged me and apologized for my pain,' Halley said."

Kennebunkport Watch

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush returned to his parents' century-old oceanfront retreat here Thursday for the first time in his second term, putting aside the troubles of the world to some extent for a brief spell of fishing and family. . . .

"The day after returning from Kennebunkport on Sunday, Bush plans to head to the Gulf Coast to mark the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and soon after will travel to the sites of terrorist attacks to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks."

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush went fishing Thursday off the rocky coast of Maine where his great-grandfather built an oceanfront estate that has become entwined with American presidential history."

Ann Compton blogs for ABC News: "The Bush clan planned a summer gathering for a big family wedding, but the weekend has taken on the drama and scope of a political dynasty saga. Several generations including President George Walker Bush and First Lady Laura Bush were coming to the family homestead on Walker's Point in Kennebunkport, Maine, for Saturday's wedding at the ocean-front St. Ann's Church.

"Then the groom's grandmother died. The Walker family now gathers for a weekend that takes on the poetic quality of a metaphor for the circle of life."

James Gerstenzang writes in the Los Angeles Times that Bush would rather be in Crawford, where he can hide from the cameras. Maybe because of wire photos like these.

About Iran

Infight! Infight!

Helene Cooper writes in the New York Times: "Everyone agreed that Iran had not met the most crucial requirement: that it suspend uranium enrichment. Everyone agreed that sanctions were the next step. But disagreement on just how to get to that step reflected a familiar division: between the State Department and America's European allies on one side, and hard-liners in the Bush administration, particularly in Vice President Dick Cheney's office, on the other side, according to officials involved in the discussions.

"Officials representing the vice president, including John P. Hannah, a national security aide, argued that by not slamming the Iranian document from the start, the United States was allowing Iran's response to appear reasonable.

"State Department officials, on the other hand, pressed to 'keep the temperature down,' as one American put it. They pushed for a concerted media strategy that would help keep Russia and China on board the already fragile coalition trying to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions, American and European diplomats recounted."

The Mysterious ISG

Robert Dreyfuss writes in the Washington Monthly about James M. Baker III's highly mysterious Iraq Study Group.

Meet Jay Hein

Alan Cooperman writes in The Washington Post: "The White House announced Jay F. Hein's appointment at 6:30 p.m. on a Thursday three weeks ago, the kind of timing usually reserved for news the administration wants to bury.

"Hein is the new director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, the third person since 2000 who has headed President Bush's effort to help religious groups win public funding to counsel addicts, mentor prisoners' children and provide other social services. Before he took up his duties this week, the position had been vacant for more than two months.

"To some supporters of the president's 'faith-based initiative,' those circumstances are a stark indicator of how low one of Bush's signature programs has fallen in the priorities of his second-term, wartime administration."

The Zinsmeister

Thomas Frank , in a New York Times opinion column (subscription required), introduces readers to "Karl Zinsmeister, formerly the editor of the American Enterprise Institute's flagship magazine and now the president's chief domestic policy adviser. In right-wing circles he is regarded as an intellectual heavyweight. What his career really shows us, though, is the looming exhaustion of the conservative intellectual system; its hopeless addiction to dusty, crumbling cliches; and a blindness to the reality of conservative power so persistent and so bizarre that it amounts to self-deception or, in Zinsmeister's case, delusion."

Bush on the Couch

Justin Frank , a Washington psychoanalyst and author of the eviscerating 2004 book "Bush on the Couch" (see this June 2004 Live Online ) writes on Huffingtonpost.com that Bush needs a mental status exam, to go along with his physical.

See the coincidental, but thematically similar, Tom Toles cartoon.

Wishing the President Poorly

Via Romenesko , I found Michael Miner marveling in the Chicago Reader about an odd question in the latest Fox News poll .

One of the questions was: "Would you say you want President Bush to succeed or not?"

Miner writes: "The results: 51 percent of the Democrats, 34 percent of the independents, and 7 percent of the Republicans said no, they don't want Bush to succeed. . . .

"Conservative sites lit up over the fresh evidence that whatever the latest news might be from Iraq, liberals and Democrats are to be scorned and pitied for their rancid souls."

Up Close and Personal

John Hinderaker wrote on the conservative Powerline blog on Tuesday: "I had the opportunity this afternoon to be part of a relatively small group who heard President Bush talk, extemporaneously, for around forty minutes. It was an absolutely riveting experience. It was the best I've ever seen him. Not only that; it may have been the best I've ever seen any politician."

Traffic Nightmare Averted

Michael D. Shear writes in The Washington Post: "On Tuesday, the Secret Service asked Virginia officials if they would be kind enough to shut down all of the HOV lanes on I-395 from 1 to 7 p.m. the next day so President Bush could get where he needed to be, according to state officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of discussing the president's travel.

"The request was made ahead of a fundraiser for Sen. George Allen (R) held at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at a house near Mount Vernon -- a good hour's drive from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. during a typical rush hour."

Luckily, Virginia officials were able to "convince those in Washington of the commuter -- and political -- nightmare that could ensue, one Richmond official said."

Bush went by helicopter instead.

My Pet Goat, Revisited

Liz Babiarz writes in the Sarasota Herald Tribune: "Five years ago, Tyler Radkey was one of 16 second-graders at Emma E. Booker Elementary School reading the book, 'My Pet Goat,' to the president of the United States.

"Like his classmates, Tyler, then 7, didn't understand what was happening when Bush's face turned red, after an urgent whisper in his ear, and why he suddenly had to leave the room.

"His first inclination was that Bush had to use the bathroom 'really bad.' "

Perhaps Tyler should have been impressed that Bush could hold it in for so long. This video , so memorably used in Michael Moore's 'Fahrenheit 9/11', and available on The Memory Hole Web site, shows that Bush didn't move for several minutes after learning that the country was under attack.

Babiarz writes: "With a crush of attention they have come to expect as another 9/11 anniversary approaches, the former Booker Elementary students were brought together by the school district Wednesday for interviews with the media, including the Herald-Tribune, the Associated Press, CNN and ABC. . . .

"After he shook the president's hand, he said, he was impressed with Bush. But after years of watching the news coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan, Tyler has a different opinion.

" 'He can do a better job,' said Tyler, now a seventh-grader at Booker Middle School. 'Since he came [into office], there's been wars and people killed and other awful things. It's just not right.' "

Others disagreed: " 'He did what he had to do,' said Stevenson Tose-Rigell, who was in fifth grade and in the media center with Bush on 9/11. 'You can't judge a man on seven minutes. It's not like he could get from Sarasota to New York City in seven minutes to save someone.' "

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