White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, September 21, 2005; 1:00 PM


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome. My column today is about how President Bush's proposed massive spending spree in the Gulf Coast is ripping apart his ruling party.


, I wrote about the White House official who barely had time to resign before being arrested.


's column was about how the White House won't say how much the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast will cost or who will pay for it.

And it's been a slow few days, compared to

last week


I'm here to answer your questions and respond to your comments. And I have one question for you: I've been thinking about writing something about the Bush Doctrine. As in, what it is now? Or what's left of it? This week's deal with North Korea would seem to make the answer even more of a puzzle. So my question for you is: What does the "Bush Doctrine" mean to you?


Washington, D.C.: Dan,

Help me out here. Just what, exactly, is the President trying to do with his twice-weekly jaunts to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast?

I can't imagine that these trips accomplish anything, including changing anyone's opinion of the Federal response to the disaster.

Thanks, your column is the best!

Dan Froomkin: This White House, better than most, recognizes the value of visuals. I remember an aide being quoted once as saying that presidential events should be as effective on TV with the sound off as with the sound on.

Putting Bush on the scene -- over and over again -- is meant to create the image of an involved, informed, and concerned president.

The idea is to drown out other images from the public consciousness. Like, for instance, the images of American citizens waiting for days for their government to come to their rescue.


Boynton Beach, Fla.: Have we reached the point where Republicans in the House and Senate are more concerned about their ability to win re-election next year than to support Bush policies?

Dan Froomkin: Maybe. But don't underestimate the White House's ability to make the two sound like the same thing.


Reading, Mass.: Can we close the book on the Cindy Sheehan phenomenon? In retrospect was this story a media driven story that ran out of gas?

Is there a viable anti-War movement in the country? Who in political power is advocating withdrawal from Iraq?

Dan Froomkin: Well, you can probably close the books on Cindy Sheehan, thanks to Katrina.

And if you mean by anti-war movement a large, well-organized movement with many public faces, well, no, there's not much sign of that. (There's a big antiwar march in Washington this weekend, which might prove me wrong. We'll see.)

But possibly the most amazing, mysterious, and uncovered story in America today is that -- by golly -- there's an actual silent majority out there. They think Iraq was a mistake, and they want out. In fact, they want out now -- or at least starting now. It shows up in almost every poll. In particular, post-Katrina, they want to stop spending all that money over there, and spend it over here instead.

Who speaks for them? Nobody that the press is listening to, which is either a reflection on the press, or on the people who the press listens to, or both.


Manhattan, N.Y.: Have the White House PR folks lost their touch? The New Orleans speech, to me, looked downright spooky. Like a haunted house in the background.

Dan Froomkin: Ah, and there you have the downside of being image obsessed. Technically, I gather this was quite an accomplishment: Warm tungsten lights on the president, massive candlepower on the backdrop. But the net effect was not only bizarre but inappropriate. Throw in Bush's wooden delivery, his (possibly mis-buttoned) dress shirt, and you've got a rare but massive misstep by the masters of image manipulation. Almost up there with the glorious "Mission Accomplished" banner. But they bounced back from that one, and they may still bounce back from this one.


San Diego, Calif.: Hi Dan, I love your column. But why did The Post decide to put it in the "Opinions" section? All us regular readers know you are pro-accountability; that's why we read your column. I think this placement in Opinions is somewhat misleading; since when did fact-checking and accountability become opinion?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for the kind words, and thanks for noticing. I don't see myself as an opinion columnist -- but some others do.

That said, there's no doubt that I have a "voice" -- or you might say "tone". I write with a freedom that I would not have were I, say, a beat reporter.

And all labeling aside, I am absolutely delighted to be part of the newly relaunched, reinvigorated "

Opinions Section

of washingtonpost.com, which is so full of vitality and voices, and which I think really succeeds in calling attention to the ways in which washingtonpost.com is by far the most exciting newspaper site around. Look at all those blogs they're launching! Look at all those intelligent, informed voices -- for free!

Regular readers know how much I like quoting people. Here's an excuse to quote myself. As I wrote in an


about the future of news Web sites for the Online Journalism Review more than a year ago: "Online, journalists should not conceal their fascination for the topics they cover. They should not hide behind the traditional bland construction of news stories. They should still be fair, of course, but they should also have voice and passion -- and sometimes even outrage. There is a risk here that the line between news and opinion may get blurry, but so be it. We should be turning our online journalists into personalities -- even celebrities -- rather than encouraging them to be as faceless as their print colleagues. The Internet demands voice."


Washington, D.C.: First, love your work, the White House Briefing is a daily must-read. My question though is this, do reporters read other reporters in their own newspapers before publishing their pieces? I ask this because sometimes it seems like there will be a story in The Post, usually on the front page, in which various talking points from one side or the other will be reported without comment or analysis and then deeper in the paper, like A27, another piece will actually examine and debunk (or at least as much as The Post actually does this) the talking points. Why not combine the two instead of letting those in power just robotically repeat what they've been told to say.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for the kind words. And while I think you are being a bit harsh in your critique, I agree with your basic point. It reminds me of the coverage of the presidential debates, where there would be one article describing what Bush and Kerry said -- and then another one "truth-squadding" them. That truth-squading should have been right there in the main piece!

Now there may be a legitimate difference between the straight news stories and the "analysis" pieces that sometimes run separately -- but I don't think there's room in either place for straight regurgitation.


Bush Doctrine: For four years the Bush Doctrine was "cut taxes and get reelected." He succeeded.

At the beginning of his second term, Bush was evidently taught the meaning of the word "legacy" and adopted the new Bush Doctrine "Do something or other about Social Security." He failed.

Now the Bush Doctrine is "stay afloat," in other words, as the administration has basically said to everyone from the people trapped in New Orleans to the members of his own party up for reelection in 2006, "Every man for himself!"

Dan Froomkin: Thank you. Keep 'em coming. Although I was sort of thinking more specifically about foreign policy, I'll take all comers.


Laurel, Md.: Hi Dan - I've been wondering, how do you write your column? I mean the mechanics of actually pulling all the material together. Do you do the research yourself, or do you have assistants that help you compile the various sources that you site? And do you have a set of sources that you check every day?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for asking. At the risk of divulging trade secrets: I have no assistants. I have lots of bookmarks and lots of RSS feeds. And I love reading this stuff!


Sterling, Va.: When is Fitzpatrick's investigation gonna' rap up? Its been - what? 2 years? There has to be some time limit on how long he can plod along. Is his new boss going to have a say in the matter? What can we know about the investigation and what can the grand jury seal up about the participants? Lots of questions...


Dan Froomkin: Fitzpatrick, Fitzgerald, what's the difference?

I think most everyone is assuming that he's about to wrap up. But I wish that didn't mean a moratorium on continuing to do some reporting.

The big question, once he's done, is how much he'll tell us. Even if he charges someone, that doesn't mean that a ton of grand jury testimony won't stay secret. And that would be a shame.


Arlington, Va.: Just want you to know how popular you are. I print your column out everyday and read it on the Metro - last Thursday, two gentlemen asked if they could read over my shoulder, and of course I always take the opportunity to spread your word!

Dan Froomkin: That is so great to hear. Thanks.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Dan,

Thanks for taking time Live Online today. You are right about The Washington Post site. It is a really robust site with many voices and very good content. The NYT site, in comparison, is stuffy and does not seem to have changed very much in several years. Now they want readers to pay for content!

As for an actual question: Bush's poll numbers continued to trend down this week. Indications that he will continue to circle round and round the figurative toilet this way? Ramifications for his 2nd terms and the GOP in general?


Dan Froomkin: Thanks for the nice words.

I try to avoid prognostication (like, for instance, about when the Times will go back to not charging for content) but what I've been trying to figure out is whether Bush's base is actually starting to abandon him. There are signs that that is happening. And that would be huge. That would change everything.


Bush Doctrine: Abstract: Dan--

Thank you for asking what the Bush Doctrine means to me. I've been awaiting the day when a prominent publication would contact me and ask me that question.

The Bush Doctrine remains one committed to telling everyone they're taking the high road to the church while throwing tacks behind them as they go to the country club, um, er I mean ranch.

In seriousness, the Bush Doctrine continues to be dogmatic, isolated, and elitist. There's been no evidence to the contrary.

Dan Froomkin: Well, not surprisingly, I guess, I'm getting a lot of rather angry answers.

But I was looking for something a little more ruminative. Like this wise New York Times op-ed by

Gideon Rose

last month. (Yes it's free.) Like this provocative piece by

Paul Kelly

in the Australian today.


Arlington, Va.: I really like your column and try to read it every day. I especially like the coverage you offer of the White House briefing room.

Recently at a White House Press conference Scott McClellan made an assertion about President Bush's policies for combating poverty as being better than the failed policies (read Clinton's) of the past.

I was wondering, did anyone question which policies he was referring to? When a Press secretary makes such an accretion do reporters feel a responsibility to pin the speaker down for more specifics?

I felt the answer was a bit of a dodge, and wondered if there was any follow up?

Dan Froomkin: I think I'm being set up. But yes, there was. Here is the transcript of yesterday's press briefing.

Helen Thomas let him have it.

"Q If he was so bold, why do we have 37 million people living below the poverty line?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Well, do you want me to go back and talk about the economy?

"Q I mean, if his policies are so great.

"MR. McCLELLAN: I'll be glad to go -- more Americans are working than ever before, Helen. We've --

"Q Thirty-seven million below the poverty -- "


Harrisburg, Pa.: There are warnings of a potential avian flu crisis. Have we learned our lesson from the Gulf Coast hurricane and will the White House be better prepared, or will we, like in deciding not to repair the levees and hope a disaster never strike, turn away and hope this potential flu disaster never hits? Should we have Federal legislation to require patent sharing and should the Federal government be prepared to respond to be able to rapidly produce enough the correct flu shot, if and when so required?

Dan Froomkin: Hey remember last year's flu season, when we couldn't even get enough vaccines for something entirely predictable?

The avian flu, should it strike, would be a total disaster -- and the end for all practical purposes of the Bush Administration -- unless some action is taken right quick.

Over on my Niemanwatchdog.org site, Harvard School of Public Health professor

Marc Lipsitch

raised this point six months ago.

Michael A. Babcock

, a professor who has written about pestilence in the late Roman Empire, writes today in the Houston Chronicle that Bush's mention of avian flu last week in his

speech to the United Nations

might possibly be a turning point. We'll see.


Leesburg, Va.: Dan, you answered one question about President Bush's repeated visits to the Gulf Coast with, "Putting Bush on the scene -- over and over again -- is meant to create the image of an involved, informed, and concerned president."

But he doesn't generate that image when he appears in an empty square with no citizens around him, or with just the Mayor and a few advisors around him in a truck driving through a deserted city. If anything, it makes his "bubble" look even more obvious - see the city, but avoid the people.

Do you know if there are any plans for him to meet or visit with the evacuees? Would it be a real open forum, or another invitation-only, no dissenters allowed-type photo op?

Dan Froomkin: You make some very interesting points.

Bush is scheduled to travel on Friday and Saturday to some states where they have accepted evacuees. I have a hard time imagining that he will stay entirely away from them. That would be too weird. But the circumstances under which he meets them -- and whether they are screened in any way, or coached in any way -- should be carefully monitored by the press.

Ironically, I think seeing him get yelled at would be therapeutic for everyone, including Bush supporters. Enough with the bubble!


Plano, Tex.: Perhaps this is a Kurtz question, but what is the modern-day reason for -- and target of -- the President's "weekly radio address?" Although I've read quotes taken from the address, I've never heard it on the radio. Wouldn't it make more sense to air it (and the views of the opposing party, of course) on, say, C-SPAN? What's the history of this thing?

Dan Froomkin: It can indeed be heard quite widely on the radio Saturday mornings. A main purpose however is to give the wire services and Sunday papers some fresh presidential quotes, without having to actually disturb the president's weekend. (It's generally taped on Friday.)


Lexington, K.Y.: What can you tell us about how the White House is preparing for the aftermath of Hurricane Rita? I could imagine they could think this is their "do over" opportunity to show the President's leadership in a crisis.

Dan Froomkin: I would be willing to bet that a) The president will be on TV a lot, expressing his concern; b) The military will be on the scene in a flash; c) Craggy military types will be on TV a lot. And oh yes, people who need help will get it a lot more quickly.


Huh???: "Well, you can probably close the books on Cindy Sheehan, thanks to Katrina."

What planet did you skip off too? The organizers of this weekend's march are expecting thousands of military families, as more and more are getting fed up with the gags in their mouths:

Battle Lines Behind the Battle Lines.

Dan Froomkin: I'm saying that I think Cindy Sheehan's moment of media celebrity -- personally -- is largely over. That doesn't mean that others won't step into her place. In fact, I suspect they will.


Leesburg, Va.: Selfishly, I must ask: Is there a way to be notified via email that your daily column has been posted and is available? I love love love your work and end up checking the site periodically from 11 a.m. on until it's finally there, ready for me to dive in.

Dan Froomkin: You are too kind.

Sorry, there is no such e-mail. And by now, I would think you would have noticed that I'm rarely up before noon ET. But I've been more punctual lately.

Do you use an RSS reader?


is my RSS feed. I don't know precisely how quickly that would alert you, however.


San Francisco, Calif.: Hi Dan,

Absolutely love your column. Thanks so much for doing what you do, and keep up the good work!

Do you think the Bush administration's strategy of aggressively politicizing every level of government has rubbed off on the media? For example, lot's of discussion about John Kerry, John Edwards, and Bill Clinton criticizing the administration in political terms (ie, they are positioning for 2008), but no real talk about whether or not those speeches were valid substantively. Basically, it seems to me that Rove and the Bush administration have successfully trained the media to view everything through a political lens, thus it lets the administration off the hook for incompetent governing. Thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: That's a very interesting observation.

It is a bit of a Catch 22.

I do think we could do both -- note that, say, Kerry is running again and assess his claims as well.


Dale City, Va.: Why haven't the news programs pounced on the official who was arrested? This seems like a big story to me but I've only seen it in The Post. Shouldn't the press be pointing out this lack of "ethics" in the administration that sniffed at the Clinton White House?

Dan Froomkin: Beats me. Obviously, it's not a visual story. (Partly because DOJ didn't tip the press until after his arraignment, thanks very much.) Maybe it's just overload.


Arlington, Va.: I asked the question about the follow up to Scott McClellan's answer on Bush Policy on Poverty, but want to assure you the question was not a set up.

I had heard the first part on NPR and was riled by his answer but had not heard any follow up.

I really like the coverage you give and appreciate your willingness to do these online live chats.

Thank you.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.


Washington, DC: The new Bush Doctrine is the same as the old Bush Doctrine: America will do what it wants, when it wants to. But the difference is, with so much of the country's resources tied up in Iraq and now the Gulf Coast, the first term's "You're either with us or against us," has become the second term's, "Come on, guys, can't you just do what we want? Please?" The difference between how Bush is speaking of Iran, North Korea and the UN now, compared to four years ago, is truly striking.

Dan Froomkin: OK, that's interesting. Thanks.


San Jose, Calif.: Mr. Froomkin,

Why is President Bush not keen on having an independent counsel investigate the failure across all government entities: Federal, state, and local? If he wants to have any chance of improving his rating, this is probably one of the steps he needs to consider. Your thought


Dan Froomkin: You mean you think he's got something to hide?


New York, N.Y.: In terms of the Bush doctrine overseas, there seems to be some adjusting going on. Instead of total contempt for our European allies and apocalyptic rhetoric for our perceived enemies, the evidence from the U.N. and North Korea happenings seems to be that there is a softened tone and lowered rhetoric. Is Condi running the show now instead of Cheney?

Dan Froomkin: Maybe. Certainly a fertile area for reporting.


London, U.K.: Hi Dan - Your columns are awesome.

I've gotten sort of jaded after the past couple of years. It seems like every few months we hear about some sort of event/argument that's going to cause the Republican majority to be really splintered, or actually hurt Bush politically so that he can't get things done, etc etc. And yet he always seems to bounce back. Do you think the current Katrina/Iraq triangle, not to mention the deficit, makes the current situation any different than other difficult times for the White House over the past few years?

Dan Froomkin: You make a good point. What was it last time, stem cells?

But Katrina and Iraq, between the two of them, are extremely powerful and visceral stories that aren't going away any time soon. And they tend to work against each other. And Bush's poll numbers are really bad. So I would take this wave a little more seriously.


Dan Froomkin: I've gotta run. Thanks everyone for another wonderful hour-plus. I wish I could have gotten to more of your excellent questions. See you again here in two weeks and every afternoon on the home page.


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