White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, March 23, 2005; 1:00 PM


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone, and welcome. President Bush is at this very moment wrapping up a joint press conference with Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin in Waco. Did anyone say anything newsworthy? Stay tuned. I can't answer that question yet.

So I'm more or less ready for your questions and comments. Bring 'em on!


Dan Froomkin: And hey readers! Help me out: I'm supposed to go on TV-Tokyo later today to try to explain Karl Rove to the Japanese. Do any of you know enough about Japanese political history to suggest a possibly analogous figure? I'm thinking, maybe, Kampaku?


Fairfax, Va.: Today's Post provides prime space above the fold to inform us that "Cheney Defends Bush Appointments." Is this really news or just free space for the Administration to sing the praises of its selections? (If Cheney had disagreed with the President that might be news. On the other hand an article reporting that an unusual coalition of conservative groups and the ACLU agree on lapsing parts of the Patriot Act was tucked away in the lower left hand corner of page 6.)

washingtonpost.com: Cheney Defends Bush Appointments (Post, March 23)

Dan Froomkin: Well, as you can imagine, it's hard to get this guy to make news if he doesn't feel like it.

Tim Funk of the Charlotte Observer wrote a wonderful first-person piece a couple weeks ago about his fruitless attempt to get Cheney to say something interesting.

"Me, I'm fishing for some news," he wrote.

"As I leave, pondering my 15 minutes in the White House, I'm not sure whether I feel more like the fisherman or the fish."

I did touch on the unsurprising nature of Cheney's comments in my column today. But I believe it's the first time he's said anything on the record about these astonishing nominations, which many people see as his work.


Louisville, Ky.: Slate has a piece today signifying that Bush has lost the Social Security battle. I'm not sure there is a nationwide consensus that all attempts to privatize have failed. To his credit, if he is failing, he sure is going down swinging. Has he really lost? I mean, finally lost?

Dan Froomkin: You're talking about this piece by Jacob Weisberg.

Polls show that the more people learn about his ideas, the less they like them. In spite of the RNC's attempts to find some good news in the numbers, I think it's safe to say he's losing.

But no, he has not finally lost. As Weisberg himself notes, Bush has quite the habit of wresting victory from defeat -- typically by turning on a dime (without admitting failure.)

That's why so much of the chattering class (see my column today) is starting to look for signs of Bush's next move.


Alexandria, Va.: "Cheney defends administration's choices" harly seems front page headline material.

Perhaps "Cheney actually talks to the Washington Post" is a better headline.

Dan Froomkin: Funny. Somehow, I doubt that was seriously considered.


Dallas, Tex.: You said that Social Security would be Bush's first political defeat as President. Um, how is that trip to Mars coming along? Is the administration that good at letting us forget stuff?

Dan Froomkin: Surely you haven't forgotten our succesful manned mission to Mars!

Look, Bush mentioned that in public, oh, about once. Not a major initiative. And, in fact, I gather it's sort of alive again. See this story by Guy Gugliotta two weeks ago in The Post.

And I would say his first major political defeat actually came when the Senate voted last week to strip his proposed Medicaid cuts from the budget, setting up an enormous confrontation or disaster or both.


Dallas, Tex.: When the administration put in for an $81 Billion Emergency budget, did they not know that we were at war? Why didn't they include this in the regular budget?

Dan Froomkin: Emergency appropriations are a nifty tool for the executive branch, because they can be excluded from certain projections -- and most importantly, because congressional oversight is notoriously lacking.


Washington, D.C.: I'm sure I won't be the first one to suggest this, but 'Japanese Karl Rove' = Godzilla.

Dan Froomkin: Oh golly.


San Antonio, Tex.: I think Rove can best be compared to Shimmi Masaoki.

Dan Froomkin: "A high-ranking chamberlain"? Sounds like a possibility.


Carrboro, N.C.: Dan, when is the press going to drop the absurd "town-hall meeting" or "town-hall style meeting" moniker for Bush's Social Security roadshows?

While I like "Storytime with Dear Leader" to describe these events, in an attempt to be "fair and balanced," I suggest that future news stories could describe these events as:
"invitation-only meetings"
"supporter-only meetings"
"closed supporter rallies"

Dan Froomkin: Unfortunately, it has come to this: The president regularly says a lot of stuff that isn't exactly true at events that aren't exactly what they appear to be.

And it has also come to this: No one gets in trouble for reporting what he says and calling the events whatever the White House calls them. By contrast, if you consistently point out his errors and regularly describe the events in a unflattering way -- especially without a named or unnamed "critic" to attribute it to -- you are in some danger of being considered a partisan, a kook, and off the reservation. And not just by the White House, but by your colleagues and your editors.

Some people of course take that risk.


Laurel, Md.: Washington, D.C.: I'm sure I won't be the first one to suggest this, but 'Japanese Karl Rove' = Godzilla.

Sorry, but Godzilla isn't Japanese; he's from the Marshall Islands.

Dan Froomkin: Well, scratch that one.


Fairfax, Va.: It is amazing that not much is made of the fact that the White House is using taxpayer dollars for their Social Security propaganda sessions, and treating dissenters like criminals. Is there precendent for use of tax dollars in this manner?

Dan Froomkin: As far as I can tell, no. As political scientist Jeffrey Tulis put it in an essay on the other site I work for, NiemanWatchdog.org: "Certainly, in the past, presidential advance teams have on occasion taken steps to assure friendly audiences. It has not been uncommon for presidents to seek invitations to speak at friendly venues. But systematically screening audiences for an array of speaking tours in the pursuit of a national domestic policy campaign may be a new phenomenon, and one that the president should be asked to defend and justify in terms of his constitutional obligations."


New York, N.Y.: I am just outraged over what has taken place in Washington over the last week. I thought the left-wing folks were a bit nutty in their descriptions of how right-wing religious fanatics were taking over the country. Now, I'm not so sure they are that far off-base. Agree?

Dan Froomkin: In certain cases, where no political downside is immediately apparent, the White House is likely to move with alacrity to make social conservatives happy.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Hi Dan,
As always, thanks for taking questions -- I believe every major newspaper should sponsor online chats with readers -- it would go a long way towards keeping people engaged on substantive issues. My question regards media coverage of the Schiavo case. I have heard barely a mention of the legislation that Bush, as Governor of Texas, signed into law allowing medical doctors to withdraw life support in certain cases over the objections of family members; in fact an infant in Texas was taken off life support this past week as a direct result of that law. I may not have it exactly right but I think that's the gist of it. It seems to me this somewhat contradicts Bush's position on the Schiavo case. Yet I haven't seen much media coverage of this. Am I missing something here?

Dan Froomkin: You're very welcome, and I agree. Reporters (and columnists) benefit from interaction with readers and it's good for the institution, too, in a lot of ways.

There was quite a lot of coverage of the Texas law issue in yesterday's papers. See yesterday's column, and go to the header "The Texas Law."

That said, it's turned out to be a complicated comparison that doesn't easily boil down to a pithy gist.

The discussion continues to rage in the blogosphere, incidentally. See, for starters, Tom Maguire and Mark A.R. Kleiman.


Columbus, Ohio: How can President Bush come out and espouse a pro-living statement like the one he made during his Social Security talk yesterday when he presided over so many deaths while governor of Texas? He referred to "choosing life" if there was any slim decision to be made in a case where death could be an outcome (papraphrase). Isn't this the candidate who smiled when asked during the 2000 campaign whether Texas public defenders were caught napping during death penalty cses?
Yeah, choose life when it's politically expedient.

Dan Froomkin: Everyone's hunting for metaphors and hypocrisy, but it's not quite that simple.

I think everyone would agree that, in the abstract, there's a difference between killing people who have been judged guilty of heinous crimes and killing people who are innocent. You may find both wrong, but that's the distinction the White House is making.

I think Bush is most vulnerable not for his support of the death penalty, which is a position shared by a lot of politicians a lot of folks who identify right-to-life.

I think he may conceivably be vulnerable because of the apparent casualness with which he approached the process of sending people to death. See for instance Alan Berlow's piece in the Atlantic in 2003. He wrote that his examination of clemency memos written by then-Gov. Bush's then-legal counsel Alberto Gonzales "suggests that Governor Bush frequently approved executions based on only the most cursory briefings on the issues in dispute."


Washington, D.C.: Since Bush is demanding that Democrats come to the table and negotiate with him on Social Security, or face political consequences -- which is either really brave or really stupid of him, considering that he's basically insisting Democrats sign onto a politically unpopular idea -- does this signal a new era of bipartisanism, where the Republicans return the favor by negotiating with the Democrats on a more regular basis?

Dan Froomkin: I would wait until you see bipartisan behavior before making anything of his bipartisan talk.


Boca Raton, Fla.: Dan,

The Terri Schiavo matter is indeed very sad. Our heart goes out to her, her husband, her parents, and her caregivers.

President Bush has talked about how the election has given him the political capital to move on as he wishes.

Why do he think he risks losing what little he has left on a matter that belongs in the courts anyway? All very strange to me.

Dan Froomkin: However you feel about this, I think the White House clearly saw this as something Bush could do without expending any political capital at all.

He had to make a personal sacrifice, in coming back from Crawford and waking up in the middle of the night. But he didn't call any chits in for this one. Quite the contrary -- he may have paid up some.


Anonymous: Do you get the sense that this Administration is in a vulnerable position right now? Social Security, Medicaid, Terry Schiavo... are Democrats going to take advantage of some of this stuff, or just flounder and let them spin it to their advantage?

Dan Froomkin: I see a few vulnerabilities, but the White House continues to utterly dominate -- and even define the terms of -- the political discourse in this country.

That puts them in a very strong position, no matter how many nattering negativists are out there in the periphery.

That's not to say it couldn't change, but it hasn't yet and I don't see any signs that it will soon.


Dallas, Tex.: I've read that it costs $34,000 per hour to operate Air Force One. How can the cost be justified for the president to go around the country for staged events that exclude anyone that disagrees with him or at least those who disagree and are demogrates? I don't understand how he gets away with such hypocrisy all the time -- these sorts of issue never make it to the MSM -- With this administration, you could fill broadcast after broadcast just reporting on the lies!

Dan Froomkin: Well, this doesn't fully answer your question, and in fact it's also a question, but: Where is the congressional oversight?


Mendon, Ohio: Do you know if President Bush has a living will?

How about Vice President Cheney?

Dan Froomkin: Great question. Press secretary Scott McClellan was asked about that the other day, and said he didn't know but would find out. When and if he reports back, I'll let you know.


Herndon, Va.: Toyotomi Hideyoshi is probably as close a historical analog to Karl Rove as Japanese history has. A poor peasant farmer, (and apparently extremely ugly) he could never be Shogun himself, but through his utter ruthlessness and ability to manipulate the Scions of the Daimyo clans he ruled all but in name for most of his life

Dan Froomkin: Spooky.


Chicago, Ill.: Do you think it's significant for Democrats to be warming up to small government principles? Is it a trend worth following or are they just being anti-Bush contrarians?

Dan Froomkin: Wasn't it Clinton who said "the era of big government is over"?


Yonkers, N.Y.: Hi Dan

I enjoy reading your WH briefings.
I have a few related questions.

Do all (if not all, approximately what percent of) questions asked of President Bush at official press conferences have to be submitted in advance?

Has anyone asked the President directly if he had been wired for any of the debates with Senator Kerry?

If not, why not?
If so, did he give a direct answer?


Dan Froomkin: Reporter DO NOT submit their questions in advance. But they tend to ask questions that are entirely predictable, ergo Bush's general lack of apparent surprise. He hasn't actually gotten an advance copy, but what's the difference?

And yes, as I reported in my Oct. 26 column, ABC's Charlie Gibson did indeed ask Bush about the bulge. Bush joked around, and then said it was his shirt.


Washington, D.C.: Should the media continue covering these "conversation" that Bush and his politicos arrange with screened, friendly audiences as news? They are clearly not "news" but propoganda rallies for his agenda. How do you feel about that?

Dan Froomkin: Well, we certainly need to attend. You never know, something unplanned might happen.

But it's my feeling that if he literally doesn't say anything new, we shouldn't write a story that makes it sound like he did.

We should either write nothing, or write about what was not said, about who was not there, and about the important questions that were neither asked nor answered.


Washington, D.C.: Speaking of Bush's abrupt return from Crawford, I'm amazed that this White House, famous for both its secrecy and dramatic flair, spoke openly about Bush being woken up in the middle of the night to sign the bill, presumably in his PJs. Kind of takes some of the shine off the story, doesn't it? Wouldn't a story about Bush keeping vigil in the Oval Office while reading the Bible, play better among the Republican faithful?

Dan Froomkin: You seem to be suggesting that either the White House should have outright lied about this, or that Bush should have given up a lot of his treasured shut-eye. Neither is White House policy.


New York, N.Y.: For explaining Karl Rove to Japanese people, I suggest kuromaku. I believe it's literal meaning is the black curtain at the back of the stage in Kabuki. In post-war politics, it refers to a behind the scenes fixer.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks! But Rove is so much more than a fixer -- and he's increasingly in front of the curtain these days.


Astoria, N.Y.: As much as I want to talk about Schiavo, I am way to disgusted to go there, so I will ask a question about President Bush's bubbles, which you (and it seems you are in the minority on coverage) cover so well. So what do you think is the White House's rational for creating bubbles and avoiding any and all dissent at President Bush's public engagements? Are they afraid of bad press? Are the afraid that President Bush is so incompetent he can't be faced with dissention and negative questions? Everyone knows these bubbles exist, so what exactly is there purpose? The press is doing a better overall job of referring to these engagements as "Pep rallies" (which is what they are) as you have noted in your column, so wouldn't it do the White House some good to get some people in there that do disagree and create a real discussion. President Bush keeps saying he wants discussion on Social Security and doesn't a well informed discussion involve many points of view? Does creating these bubbles really serve an interest? Is President Bush that afraid or is it his handlers? Many thanks and keep up the good work.

Dan Froomkin: Those are fine questions, and I can't really give you the answer.

I did have one reader e-mail me yesterday with his thought, which I didn't have enough room to print in today's column. Here it is:

Joseph Britt from Kennesaw, Ga., writes: "Personally, I think the media is missing an obvious motivation behind this particular White House campaign. Bush likes these events; he loves the applause and approval. The regular order of the White House seems to frustrate and bore him. It may be that the main point of having these campaign-style events is to allow Bush to do campaign-style events."


Bethesda, Md.: Shouldn't any news story that covers one of these "barnstorming" appearances specifically include the statement "the crowd, which had been vetted and limited to..." in it? I find in my casual chatting with people, most are still not aware of this Orwellian practice. Read: They are not fully informed by our much-too-polite press.

Dan Froomkin: Yes. Even though it's now virtually standard operating procedure for this White House, it is so unusual in the greater scheme of things, and such a potentially significant change from past practices, that it deserves constant mention. And, as I wrote in yesterday's column, it's actually sometimes getting in the lead now -- not just a few boilerplate paragraphs after the jump.

Is the president the president of all the people, or only those who support him? If the former -- and of course it's the former -- why isn't he acting more like it? Why won't he invite everyone into his events?


Anonymous: I read with interest in your column that President Bush said (apparently with a straight face) "in complex cases its always best to err on the side of life" as justification for signature on the Schiavo bill.

Why did not a single member of the travelling press corps step up and ask him to reconcile that statement with his record in Texas as governor presiding over a record number of executions and granting only one repieve?

Dan Froomkin: That would have been a fair question. Obviously, Bush thought those executions were well-deserved. But would he go so far as to say that they were all "simple" cases? I don't think so. Then, ideally, you would follow up by asking him for evidence of how in those admittedly complex cases he erred on the side of life. Because there's evidence that he didn't.


Lyme, Conn.: Are the neocons extending their power or are the being shoved out of the State and Defense Department into less influential positions?

Dan Froomkin: I would tend to believe the former. But it's worth keeping an eye on.


Ashland, Mo.: Is it possible that there is not more concern about President Bush's events because people do not read newspapers, watch the evening news, or buy news magazines as they once did? Perhaps, political reporting isn't seen as particularly relevant, particularly reporting about process, style and events as opposed to outcomes.

Dan Froomkin: That is indeed a distinct possibility.


Chicago, Ill.: To explain Karl Rove, how about karaoke? He writes the script and demands that his followers follow the dot and sing along. Anyone that misses a beat is thrown off the stage.

Dan Froomkin: You evidently go to much less forgiving karaoke bars than I do.


Washington, D.C.: Regarding where is the congressional oversight on the President's use of Air Force One to stage his "conversations" on Social Security -- they are on Air Force One and the stage with him. Not only are they not providing oversight, but they are participating in the misuse of the funds.

Dan Froomkin: Well, you could argue that the leadership of the congressional oversight committees are there with him -- but certainly not the Democrats.

I'm sort of amazed that with all the clever ways Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) has come up with to get publicity for his Government Reform Minority Office that he hasn't poked into this.


Arlington, Va.: Do you get the sense that the Bush White House realizes that Tom DeLay and Bill Frist miscalculated on the Schiavo fiasco?

Surely their polls showed what other polls are showing: the American people don't want Bush and Rove and Frist and DeLay making end-of-life decisions for their families?

I don't perceive the White House is interested only in playing to their yahoo base.

Dan Froomkin: I'm not sure anyone miscalculated. Who's going to remember what about this six months from now?


Burke, Va.: "And I would say his first major political defeat actually came when the Senate voted last week to strip his proposed Medicaid cuts from the budget, setting up an enormous confrontation or disaster or both. "

What disaster -- more debt? Why this White House laughs at debt. This White House loves debt. This White House belives by going ever deeper into debt they can cut social programs. The only disaster that could happen would be a run on the dollar.

Dan Froomkin: OK, that one, then.


Toledo, Ohio: You ask: where is the congressional oversight?

It's too busy investigating baseball players, emasculating the ethics committee, and interfering in family matters.

Dan Froomkin: That does sound like a lot of work.


Washington, D.C.: Jim VandeHei's story on the front page of the Post today is about how Cheney agrees with Bush's appointments. Wow. That's shocking huh? Very newsworthy. I know that what the Post wanted to do was to show they got an interview with Cheney. But I find it pathetic that the Post had total access to the VP on Air Force One and this was what they got out of it. So many stories buried over these years, and I am sure many more to come. I guess you guys have to get as much mileage from it as you can. So this is my question, do you guys plan to ever ask an actual question to anybody in this administration over the next 4 years? Or even further, perhaps step way out on a limb and ask a follow-up when your question hasn't been answered? Because if you don't I would like to find out now so I can stop hoping that maybe my next morning's paper might have something newsworthy.

Dan Froomkin: I can't speak for Jim or The Post, but I am quite sure that he asked plenty of real questions and follow ups.

These guys don't like to say much, and apparently there are no real negative consequences in return.

I think our challenge as journalists is to form clear, strong, apolitical questions that it is clearly in the public interest to get answered. And if they aren't answered, we should say so.


Ellicott City, Md.: Those comments from the local reporters seem to have more bite than the comments seen from the big papers. If Bush is losing the battle when he is bypassing the big papers what could he do next? Start his own newspaper?

Dan Froomkin: How about his own television studio? Oh wait, he's already done that!


Laurel, Md.: Now we learn that the Republicans have a trumping order of issues. The sanctity of marriage trumps the rights of gays and state's rights, but the "culture of life" trumps the sanctity of marriage and state's rights. Seems like state's rights is really on the very bottom level in this order. Could you or some reporter you know please ask for a flow chart or block diagram for us to follow? Also, we need to know when this "culture of life" trumps other things because it doesn't seem to matter in Texas (Bush's 1999 law giving hospitals the power to overrule family in removing life support and his hand waiving over death penalty cases) and Virginia (the struggle over removing life support from a man a few years ago, I saw a story in the Post last night about it). So we'll need that chart to include which states matter and which don't.

Dan Froomkin: That would be an interesting flow chart indeed.

OK folks -- thanks for all the great questions. I wish I could have answered many more.

See you again in two weeks here, and every afternoon on the home page.


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