White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, June 29, 2005; 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin , who writes the White House Briefing column for washingtonpost.com. He'll answer your questions, take your comments and links, and point you to coverage around the Web.

Today's White House Briefing: World War III.

A transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org . You can e-mail him at froomkin@washingtonpost.com .


Dan Froomkin: Welcome to another edition of White House Talk. Lots to White House talk about today, starting with last night's speech. That was all I wrote about in today's column , headlined: Word War III.


Severna Park, Md.: As a Republican and vet I should probably be mad at your column today, but the lack of reality in the White House is scary. How soon do you expect the polls to show if this has stemmed the bleeding? The gist on CNN last night was that it bought the President time, do you concur?

Dan Froomkin: I'm glad you're not mad at me.

The CNN insta-poll you mention, as I wrote in my column, was hilariously skewed. As Bill Schneider acknowledged ruefully, most of the people who told Gallup they were going to watch the speech, it turns out didn't! And most who did were Republicans.

I don't think the speech will have earth-shattering results. Conventional wisdom is that I'll bump Bush up a point or two.

But as one of my readers pointed out yesterday in an e-mail, the public has been way ahead of the press and the politicians lately when it comes to reacting to what you so eloquently call the "lack of reality in the White House."

So it could also just make things worse for him.


Memphis, Tenn.: Dan,

Can you tell me the reason the White House chose to do this speech at a military base if they weren't going to use the troops in the background? I'm no supporter of the President, but even I know he comes off better when he's got people around him in a less formal setting. If they weren't going to do that, why not just do the speech from the Oval Office?

Dan Froomkin: That's a mystery. More to the point, why come speak to the troops and then hold them silent, at attention? On TV, that came off like they were angry. Then you have a member of the advance team provoking them into one solitary, sort of pathetic, burst of applause? All very weird. And a rare miss by the exceptionally talented advance team.

Did they have to change course along the way? Were they intending Bush to be surrounded by cheering troops, then worried that the press would (appropriately) excoriate them for using the military as campaign-style props? Inquiring minds want to know more.


Charleston, W.V.: On the advice of your column I checked out AmericaSupportsYou.mil

Interesting to search "Democrat" and "Republican" - I'd be interested to see if any messages critical of the administration, or supportive of Democrats, make it on the site.

Was this speech the first time Bush asked Americans directly to serve in the military? Doesn't this change his messages from right after 9/11 (the terrorists win if you don't go about your life as normal)?

Dan Froomkin: I would love to hear about people's results searching the viewable messages at AmericaSupportsYou.mil .

I think it was to Bush's enormous credit that he encouraged people to join the military. Recruitment is in terrible shape, clearly due to his decision to go to war, and I think it's appropriate and right of him to try to do something about it. And yes, as far as I know, this is the first time he's done that.

I will now inevitably get people asking me if he's sending his twins.


Burlington, Vt.: Do people really want Bush impeached? Ignoring (for the sake of argument) the fact that that's not ever gonna happen, would President CHENEY be any kind of solution?

Dan Froomkin: a) It's a small, nascent movement.

b) I'm not sure they've thought it out that far yet.


Washington, D.C.: The reporters in the White House Press corps finally seem to be getting tough with McClellan, but he still dodges everything I understand that's his job but how do you get more honest answers?

Dan Froomkin: I agree that there has been quite the outbreak of assertive questioning, particularly from Terry Moran at ABC, David Gregory of NBC and Bill Plante of CBS. My hat's off to 'em.

But ultimately, yeah, it's useless, beyond making theater. Scott has his marching orders, and he's a good soldier.

A few thoughts:

In some ways, the further you get from the White House, the more accurate your picture of the place is.

Dogged questions are good, but dogged reporting is better.&.

And: Maybe, just maybe, with members of Bush's own party starting to peel off from the official White House groupthink, maybe we'll start to find out more about what's really going on in there.


Silver Spring, Md.: What a great idea the President had last night, flying the flag on the Fourth of July! Wow, I never would have thought of that. It will sure be great to see how many people support his bold plan for Iraq by counting the flags that day!

Dan Froomkin: It could be quite the turning point, eh?


Fort Collins, Colo.: There is a famous old story about a man who is tried for killing his parents and asks for mercy from the court because he is an orphan. In his speech last night, President Bush claimed that the war in Iraq is necessary to fight the terrorists... who were able to establish themselves there because Saddam Hussein was deposed. Does the White House not see the ironic similarity between the two?

Dan Froomkin: No.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Dan,

Do you think the "stony, untelegenic silence" from the soldiers at Fort Bragg during Bush's speech might reflect a shifting mindset in the armed forces? In your opinion, could it be indicative that they are a bit fed up with the stark disconnect between the President's rhetoric and what they know to be the case on the ground in Iraq?

Dan Froomkin: No, I don't. We are a long way from member of the armed forces in large numbers expressing anything but strong support for their commander in chief. It would be against their nature.

And in fact there were several stories today, including one by the AP's Tim Whitmire chronicling the depth of their continued support.

What you saw, as I mentioned above, was some bizarre stage management.


Chico, Calif.: Is there still a sense that, even though Rove and Company hit the "Rally Base" button hard and often, Bush is still trying to do what he thinks is best for the country?

Dan Froomkin: I think you have just asked one of the most important questions of the second term. It first came to me during all these Social Security events, where the White House was only letting in people who essentially agreed with Bush. Doesn't he seem himself as the president of all the people?

And Rove of course is at the febrile center of this question. As I wrote in my newly updated Who's Who in the White House recently, Rove, with his new deputy chief of staff duties, "is the poster child for how politics and policy have merged in the Bush White House. Traditionally, governing is a considerably different matter than running for office, where winning is everything. Not so with Rove. If he eventually starts losing, he could end up taking the blame for creating a divisive presidency, aimed more at achieving partisan goals than the common good. But if he keeps winning, he will be a kingmaker even as his boss becomes a lame duck -- and his legacy could be a GOP that is indeed the ruling party for decades to come."


Louisville, Ky.: I just reread the transcript and saw the attribution to bin Laden, but isn't "this third world war" a little much? As much as Bush wants to be seen as a war president -- and will apparently fight indefinitely to achieve that status -- doesn't using any sense of "World War III" seem hyperbolic and totally inappropriate?

Dan Froomkin: I am shocked -- SHOCKED -- that Bush's third world war allusion -- poached from the lips of Osama bin Laden no less! -- has not gotten more attention.


Boulder, Colo.: Probably pretty speculative, but--what impact would Time revealing the Plame leaker (as is suggested in Editor and Publisher) today have on the news cycle of the Bush speech?

Dan Froomkin: I think the speech's news cycle has a pretty short half life, unless it begins to outrage people, of course.


Olympia, Wash.: Hi Dan, love your work and these chats, especially.

Do you cover the White House in-person? Do you personally see the exchanges where Scott McClellan declines to actually answer yes or no questions?

What about the President? In his speeches and in the debates -- which I see on TV -- he comes across as stilted, and frankly, kind of intellectually challenged. Does he present a different "aspect" when you're in the same room as he is? Does he exude leadership or competence?

His speech last night came across the TV (to me) as faux sincerity; perhaps I am just a cynical blue stater.

Any insights? Thanks!!

Dan Froomkin: Thank you! I do not go to the White House very often. Which, all in all, I think is an advantage when it comes to writing about the place.

The few times I've seen Bush in person, he was speaking from prepared texts, and I was most taken by the fact that he was, well, not exactly engaging with the text, if you know what I mean. Certainly not like a certain recent past president who often used such texts as outlines at best. Bush was just reading aloud. And not always that effectively. Somehow, that's odder in person than when you see it on TV.

So unlike, say, Reagan, I didn't find him larger than life in person.


Santa Fe, N.M.: Well, you can tell Bush is getting nervous, he actually mentioned Bin Laden in this speech. What do you think will happen, if in August, the Iraqis have not drafted a Constitution?

Dan Froomkin: I don't know what it means, but I almost fell off the couch when I heard it. As I wrote in my August 12, 2004 column (and it was still largely true until yesterday) Bush treated bin Laden a lot like those wizards in the Harry Potter books treat He Who Must Not Be Named.

I won't make any predictions about the constitution, sorry!


Decatur, Ga.: I watched the President last night in hopes he'd reveal the "clear path to victory" that his handlers promised earlier in the day. Did I miss something? Did he deliver that? The speech sounded very familiar and I heard nothing new in it. That said, do you believe this speech was more about "rallying the base" than anything else? It seems like he was trying to energize his supporters more than answering his critics or persuading his constituents (the American public). What do you think?

Dan Froomkin: You didn't miss anything except for a pretty bold change in rhetoric that I don't think is aimed solely at the base. Bush is trying (and don't underestimate his bully pulpit) to take the country back to bygone days of early post-9/11, when the country (not just the base) was behind him.


Chicago, Ill. : DAN: Putting aside the text of last night's speech for a moment, I haven't seen much coverage/reaction to the President's physical appearance last night. To me, he looked tired, low on energy and stressed out. His delivery seemed flat as well (even by Bush's low standards). Could his pre-speech meeting with families of deceased soldiers effected him? Is it just me, or did the President have a below average performance (or worse) last night?

Dan Froomkin: You know, Bush is in the eye of the beholder.

Some people thought he was spot-on last night. They also liked his speech. Others didn't and didn't.

I thought he was about average, with one possible exception. He kept shifting his eyes from one side to the other, like maybe his TelePrompters were spread out more than usual?


Greenbelt, Md.: So with their poll numbers down and the failure of Bush's speech last night, what's the over/under on when we get a new, vague and indecipherable terror alert from the White House?

I'll be the first to weigh in. It will be the middle of next week, so as not to interfere with 4th of July spending and traveling, but soon enough to grab attention before vacation season starts in earnest. Yup, sounds about right.

Dan Froomkin: If things really worked that way, you don't think they would have sounded the alarm already? You conspiracy theorists are always well advised to consider another alternative: Incompetence. See this fascinating report from NBC about the bogus analysis that led to terror alert in Dec. 2003.


Arlington, Va.: Trust me. We've thought all the way to President Hastert. It's not encouraging.

Dan Froomkin: A nascent impeachmentist is heard from.


Los Angeles, Calif.: RE: "Reading Aloud" Isn't that what the President really looked like he was doing last night? Was it just me or did the President appear not engaged or up to the task? Will Americans see this guy, with his war (and perhaps his legacy) on the line, just going through the motions and loose even more confidence in him?

Dan Froomkin: Find someone who supports the president and liked the speech who thinks he looked disengaged, and we'll talk.


Arlington, Va.: Dan:

Am I the only one who thinks President Bush should stop using the line that Americans need to realize we are fighting terrorist in Iraq and not in the U.S.?

How are we going to get all the Iraqis on our side if they hear us essentially say "We've decided to fight terrorism but have chosen your country to be our battleground!"

I would think he would want to stop using that argument and frame it around terrorist are trying to steal Iraqis's freedoms and we are going to make sure that it doesn't happen.

Bush seems to be sending the wrong signals with the "we're fighting terrorist abroad so we don't have to fight them here" line.

Dan Froomkin: I asked a similar question a few weeks back in an item I wrote for NiemanWatchdog.org about the wave after wave of suicide bombers: "To the extent that foreign terrorists are being lured to Iraq to blow themselves up, how do the Iraqis feel about being the bait?"


Laurel, Md.: Dan, a few weeks ago, the Neimanwatchdog.org Web site to which you link included a chart relating President Bush's approval rating with the price of gasoline. With the former enough of a problem now for the President to make a major speech with no new content, is the White House also trying any new initiatives about the latter?

Despite what reporters may think about how awful the WMD deception was, I suspect the fact that gasoline is up 50% since the invasion is motivating a lot of the disillusion about Iraq.

Dan Froomkin: Actually, that link was from my April 8 column right here on washingtonpost.com. It suggested a pretty strong inverse correlation between Bush's approval ratings and the price of gas.

But if you look at it now, you'll see the correlation is getting weaker. As the good doctor himself noted, in early May in particular, Bush's approval ratings were going down sharply -- even as gas prices were also going down.


Ellicott City, Md.: So what is the problem with giving a list of Iraq objectives, tasks that need to be completed before we leave? Something like a checklist so we the people can see that progress is being made? This is not a timeline that the White House keeps shifting the argument to, but just a list of goals so that there is someway to quantifiably say we are making progress.

Dan Froomkin: I think that's a fine question.


Washington, D.C.: Boy, the conservative shouting heads can really point the spotlight toward (or away from) whatever they want; much better than the liberal ones can.

Examples: Howard Dean's comment about how "some" Republicans didn't have to work for a living was morphed into a broadside about all Republicans. On the other hand, Karl Rove spoke about how liberals (no modifier) offered terrorists "therapy and understanding," but somehow his defense was that he was only talking about "some" liberals.

And why no more attention to Rove's assertion that liberals' motive is to put our troops in greater danger?

Dan Froomkin: Oh yeah, Karl Rove's speech about liberals. I'd almost forgotten.

I think you answer your own question, to some extent. The conservative talking heads vastly outnumber and outdo the liberal ones, day in and day out.

That said, the news cycle is also very, very fast.


Washington, D.C.: I saw that a Washington Post-ABC poll said that only 13 percent of Americans are in favor of a withdrawal from Iraq. It is also evident that The Post's editors do not favor a timetable for withdrawal. Next time, why don't you ask people "should the U.S. military still be in Iraq one year from now?" See what kind of results you get then.

Dan Froomkin: The Post poll did find that 13 percent of Americans support an immediate withdrawal. Considering that I can't think of a major political figure who has advocated that, i.e. it's not even on the political radar, 3 percent is a pretty huge number, if you ask me.

And yes, I would be more interested in getting at such questions as: How soon do you want us out? Do you think there's a clear plan for getting out? (Gallup asked; 61 percent said no.) Etc.


McLean, Va.: Dan,

Why did the press give Bush's speech prime time-front page coverage when there was NO NEWS in the speech? It was free PR for the same old li(n)es.

Instances like these fuel the perception that the press is little more than Bush's lap dog.

Dan Froomkin: Well, there was some news there. But it wasn't so much the news most papers headlined, i.e. "Bush: War 'Worth It'".

It was that Bush invoked 9/11 so much, talked about World War III, and in spite of the clamor refused to explain in detail how we're going to get out of there.

But most of the mainstream media is a creature of instinct, driven to write about what the president said, first and foremost. The analysis, the omissions and the fact checking tend to get bumped inside. The White House knows that and takes advantage of it.


Middletown, Conn.: How does the White House select the dead soldiers' families with whom Bush will deign to speak? I think he met with roughly half of the Fort Bragg families last night. What I'm wondering is if the White House advance team vets families in advance so he will only get families prepared to believe that their sacrifices were worth it.

Dan Froomkin: That's a fine question and I would like to get the answer, too. I have talked to members of several families of dead soldiers who oppose the war, and none of them, as far as I know, have ever had the chance to meet the president. I have a hard time believing that is just coincidence.


Clifton, Va.: Dan, I think the first step in dogged reporting is being confrontational at news conferences. Giving lip service to non answers does nothing but spawn more non answers, as you've pointed out many times. More bloggers asking more pointed questions seems to be shaking reporters out of their slumber. Do you think this trend will continue, or will the usual summer slowdown occur regardless?

Dan Froomkin: Yes it's a good start, but just a start. Yes I think it will continue. No, not through August. Nothing continues through August in Washington.


New York, N.Y.: I could only watch the speech in small bits - Bush's face is often awash with inappropriate emotions (i.e. smiling when threatening someone or smirking wishfully when he gets through a list of names (any names for that matter as the lists don't seem to be anything but rote memorization)). It was tiresome and repetitive. The cracking voice and stiff smile are strictly sentimentalism as far as I can tell. He's a bad actor.

Dan Froomkin: Well, like I said, Bush is in the eye of the beholder. And you've got quite an angry eye.


Washington, D.C.: I thought the well-behaved or well-trained silence seemed weird given that we are so used to lots of applause in these big speeches a la the State of the Union etc. but I though it must be the military way. But then everybody applauded at once at what I didn't even think was an applause line. When the applause started I couldn't even recall what the line was...and they all applauded together. Did an applause light come on or something? It was so bizarre and of course there was not news, just the same repetition of assertions as facts. No surprise there. I thought the applause burst was the most interesting part of the speech.

Dan Froomkin: As I mentioned before, several people on the scene reported that a member of Bush's staff started the applause that one time, and the soldiers chimed in.


Leesburg, Va.: Funny that you should mention Bush shifting his eyes back-and-forth a lot last night - my husband remarked on the same thing. It seemed to me that he did the "eye thing" whenever he said something that was either evasive or inconvenient but phrased to his advantage... you know, what we used to call lying when a Democrat did it? Maybe his eyes shift around a lot because he can't handle looking the soldiers in the eyes.

Dan Froomkin: I just think he was looking side to side, myself.

Strange eye movement can indeed be a sign of lying -- right up there with touching your nose and your ear. Go look at Clinton's grand jury testimony, for example.


State College, Pa.: I posted a message of support at America Supports You that basically said "I support the troops, but I don't agree with the leadership" in very simple terms. Guess what, it didn't show up in the search results... I am not holding my breath. But it begs a larger question... is this a free speech violation?

Dan Froomkin: Well, try a more positive one, and see if it shows up, and then e-mail me at froomkin@washingtonpost.com with the results!


Duxbury, Mass.: Just to let you know the Bush screening of attendees to his events continues- my son is training at Ft. Bragg and said only a few pre-screened individuals from each unit was allowed to attend last night's speech.

Dan Froomkin: Prescreened for what? Have him e-mail me.


Dallas, Tex.: Hi Dan, I enjoy your column everyday!

Now that Bush has asked young men to enlist, has anyone asked (or will ask) him whether or not he does the same thing to his twins?

Dan Froomkin: Hi! I knew I'd find that question here somewhere.


Douglassville, Pa.: Re: Americasupportsyou.mil:

Keyword search:

pray - 9,425

god - 5,488

Christian - 96

Islam / Muslim - 4

Republican - 46

Democrat - 18

media - 230

democracy - 137

Interesting results.

Dan Froomkin: Fabulous. Thanks.


Where the bases are: Dan, I live in North Carolina, do you have any idea why the military loves this president? From where I sit it looks like an abusive relationship to me. Maybe some of our generals should visit Oprah?

Dan Froomkin: Yeah, I'll suggest that to the next Marine I run into.


Dumfries, Va.: I think one of the greatest missteps this administration made was not in harnessing the American urge to do something as a nation after September 11. Now we are asked to fly a flag and enlist? Do you believe that the opportunity has passed for him to rally a united America?

Dan Froomkin: Yes, it passed a long, long time ago, and I suspect history will not look kindly on the missed opportunity. Heck, why stop with a united America. It could have been a united world, maybe.


Austin, Tex.: Dan - Great column. Great service to concerned citizens. Thank you! It seems every time the President gives a "new" speech about Iraq (White House, aircraft carrier deck, War College and now Ft. Bragg) the only thing "new" is the REASON for the war (WMD, liberating Iraqis, spreading freedom and now fighting the same terrorists who were responsible for 9/11). Hasn't anyone at the White House figured out that the constantly changing rationale gives citizens the impression that the President is not being truthful? Hasn't this lack of credibility been largely responsible for the public's loss of confidence in the President and the war he started?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for the kind word.

But as far as the changing rationales, up until now, it's been working just fine.


Dan Froomkin: I've got to go. Your questions today were particularly excellent and voluminous and I am very very sorry I wasn't able to get to more of them. I'll try to keep them in mind for future columns. Keep reading, and I'll see you again here in two weeks.


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