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White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, December 7, 2005; 1:00 PM


Dan Froomkin: So much to talk about today. Patrick Fitzgerald is back at the federal courthouse, whitehouse.gov is out with a new holiday video featuring those crazy Bush animals, and oh, yes, the White House is in full spin mode on Iraq. Not to mention the whole torture thing. So let's get to it.


Greenwich Village, N.Y.: Dan, it is clear that a propaganda war is being waged by the White House to shore up weak public support for the President's Iraq War. Since it is so clearly a huge public relations effort, why don't the press and media give it a much closer examination for truthfulness, fact checking, and consistency? In this morning's speech, for example, Bush again conflated the 9/11 attacks and the war on terror with Iraq. Given what we all know now about Iraq, WMD, his 2000 campaign nation building aversion, aluminum tubes, bio labs, innocent mistaken German Masri's kidnapping and torture by the U.S., etc., the public needs the scrutinized truth more than Bush needs more velvet gloves and benefits of the doubt by the media estate. And elections are coming so tougher scrutiny of accuracy and truth are really needed by all voters. Your personal rigor is much appreciated. What to do to encourage your industry's colleagues to do better?

Dan Froomkin: OK, first, here's the text of President Bush's speech this morning to the Council on Foreign Relations. The new part: "Today, I want to describe our actions in two cities where we have seen encouraging progress -- Najaf and Mosul.... This is quiet, steady progress. It doesn't always make the headlines in the evening news. But it's real, and it's important, and it is unmistakable to those who see it close up."

So to me, a good solid objective look at Najaf and Mosul is the obvious fact-checking follow up. And unlike the White House press corps, the reporters covering Iraq have not been known to shy away from calling it as they see it.

The conflation between 9/11 and Iraq was, as usual, indirect; but yes, I think it's worth noting every time he does it what the real (lack of) relationship was.

And as for fact-checking in general, I hope and expect there will be plenty of it in tomorrow's papers (that's one big advantage of the president giving a speech in the morning.) The immediate coverage on Web sites and TV is often lacking that sort of thing, of course.

What can I, personally, do to encourage more fact-checking? I can be a publicly appreciative audience! I did a

whole column

last week


about all the wonderful fact-checking of Bush's last speech.


Dan Froomkin: Incidentally, my column is once again stuck in some sort of technological hell today, but hopefully will be out soon.


Pleasanton, Calif.: Bush now claims he has a strategy for victory in Iraq, yet he still claims the war in Iraq is against terrorism. How will we tell when we have won against terrorism?

Dan Froomkin: What an interesting question. And it really touches on a lot of the themes underlying the Iraq debate these days. What would victory look like? Many liberal bloggers today are calling attention to Bush's one-time, quickly abandoned assertion that you can't win the war on terror.

The White House certainly injected the term "victory" into the picture in a big way last week, but even they didn't really define it. I guess what I'm getting at is that whoever successfully defines victory is going to have a big leg up in the coming debate.


Portland, Ore.: One of the polling questions you quoted yesterday was: FOX News/Opinion Dynamics (11/8-9): 'What do you want U.S. troops in Iraq to do? Do you want them to leave Iraq and come home now or do you want them to stay in Iraq and finish the job?' 36% leave now, 55% finish the job, 9% unsure."

I couldn't answer that question unless someone would spell out for me what "finish the job" means. Since it was never defined consistently before the war, how will we know when "the job" is "finished"?

Dan Froomkin: Well, exactly. As I wrote in that column yesterday , how you phrase these prospective questions seems incredibly significant -- and political.

Not surprisingly, Fox News's struck me as the most slanted and produced the most pro-administration sounding results. If you ask someone, for instance: "You want to lose this war or you want to win it?" I suspect the wins would win. But if you ask: "Do you want to get out now or remain in a quagmire," then the get-outs would win. The key is asking a very straightforward, realistic, fair question based on actual proposals.

I'm no pollster, but it seems to me that the one question that would really inform the public discourse right now would be something like: "Do you support Rep. Jack Murtha's proposal to begin withdrawing U.S. troops immediately, or do you support President Bush's plan to stay the course, or are you somewhere in between?"


Plainwell, Mich.: Dan,

Thanks for all the straight forward information you share with us on a regular basis. My question: What more can be done to raise up the cabal that exists in the writings of the New American Century Project? Is the media afraid of revenge or being set up again?

Dan Froomkin: Well, I often send people to the Project for the New American Century Web site when they ask me: Why did we really invade Iraq? It offers a great primer in the new American imperialist philosophy shared by Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the leaders of the ostensible "cabal."

I think you're right that there hasn't been much aggressive follow-up on Larry Wilkerson's charge (see my

October 20 column

that said cabal hijacked U.S. foreign policy, inveigled the president, condoned torture and crippled the ability of the government to respond to emergencies.

Which is odd.

But then again, Nexis shows 41 hits for "cabal and Cheney" in the past two weeks, so it has entered the lexicon.


Minneapolis, Minn.: Dear Dan:

This isn't a question. I just wanted to say that as a political science professor for over thirty years, I find your blog the most interesting and stimulating of any that I read. When you take a vacation, I am crestfallen! Keep up the wonderful work. My day isn't complete without your column!

(Am I correct that readers of The Post don't get to see your column? A friend who lives in D.C. and takes The Post said he hasn't seen you. If so, that is a LOSS to Post readers!!)

Dan Froomkin: Wow, thanks. That's very kind of you to say.

And you are correct that readers of the print Post don't see my column -- in fact, sadly, they don't even see any sign of my column at all.

I suspect there are a lot of potential readers out there who don't know I exist. But what can you do? I've often thought about trying to get the paper to print some sort of weekly summary of my columns, but I'm not sure where they'd put it!

Finally, and I've been wrestling with how to break this to my regular readers, but ... my wife and I are expecting our first child within the next several weeks, and I will be taking a few weeks off when that happens. So brace yourself.


Columbus, Ohio: Is Scott McClellan out of the press corp's doghouse? In briefings a few weeks ago reporters seemed to be all but asking him to resign, but I haven't read much about him in your column lately.

Dan Froomkin: He's still getting tough questions. Yesterday, for instance, there was quite the back and forth about his refusal to answer a question about whether or not the administration is looking into any new ways of making sure that prisoners we seize and turn over to third parties are not tortured.

I think everybody's winding down a bit for the holidays, though.


washingtonpost.com: White House Briefing: A Holiday Video With a Bite , ( Post, Dec. 7 )


Please Help an Old Guy Remember...: Speaking of fact-checking, wasn't there an incident last week that Bush mentioned and a CNN reporter who was embedded with the troops actually called Bush out on it, proving him totally wrong? Do you remember the incident? I just remember being stunned that a reporter actually called Bush out on a fib...

Dan Froomkin: You're referring to something Time Magazine's Michael Ware said on CNN. (See this post from Think Progress.

Interestingly, as I noted in my

Thursday column

, The Washington Post's Jonathan Finer, who covered the battle for Tal Afar for The Post, similarly told MSNBC that Bush didn't tell the whole story. "The president didn't mention that the Iraqi units at the very small unit level . . . were led every step of the way by U.S. special forces soldiers. . . . All those units were also supplied very much by U.S. logistics operations. . . . So I think that to say that progress was made is probably a fair statement, but to say that they are capable of conducting an operation like that on their own, I don't think anyone's ready to make that case just yet."


Columbus, Ohio: In your response to my question about McClellan, you mentioned the press corp loosening up for the holidays... the holidays are always a good time for a presidential pardon, no? I am VERY surprised there has been so little buzz about pardons for Libby, et. al. Your thoughts?

Also, I agree with Minneapolis: your column is a must-read, and the Post's robust blogs have made it my first stop for news over the last several months, ahead of the New York Times.

Congratulations on the new arrival, too. You'll be missed in the blogosphere.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. The holidays are indeed an excellent time for a pardon, but I've heard nothing that isn't pure uninformed speculation the effect that anything's coming.


Lake Forest, Calif.: Congratulations! A new baby is wonderful, but couldn't you write your column from home between diaper changes? Also, Bob Woodward, Bob Woodward. Where is Carl Bernstein? Does he write for a newspaper that can be found online?

Dan Froomkin: Ha, thanks.

Bernstein is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, but does not appear anywhere, including there, with any regularity. I did mention in yesterday's column a talk he gave (with Woodward) in which (unlike Woodward) he drew parallels between Bush and Nixon, Plame and Watergate: Bernstein "said the Bush administration's penchant for secrecy resembles the presidency that the two reporters helped topple more than three decades ago. He suggested that the Bush administration's scrutiny in the CIA leak case also was similar to the problems faced by Nixon as the Watergate scandal unraveled.

"'I think it is, in a little different way, happening again,' Bernstein said."


Washington, D.C.: Anything new on the rumors that Bush and his dad no longer speak? Was it ever established what exactly caused this alleged rift?

Dan Froomkin: It's my understanding that both elder Bushes were in Crawford for Thanksgiving, and that 43 has had 41 for dinner at the White House at least once since then. So unless they're just glaring at each other in silence, I'm going to assume they're talking. Now what about, I can only imagine. I doubt about the war.


Naperville, Ill.: It's been a while since Bush held a "regular" press conference. In your view, who is more afraid of Bush answering questions: Bush's handlers, or Bush himself?

Dan Froomkin: Good question. Although I heard David Gergen on CNN just a little while ago recommending to Bush that he hold a prime-time press conference to address all these outstanding questions about torture, death squads, etc.

That, Gergen said, would go a long way toward the public seeing him as responsive and authentic -- more so than these staged speeches.

Gergen also raised the question of whether Bush will visit the troops over Christmas....

For the record, Bush has only had one press conference in six months, and he hasn't had a prime-time press conference since April, 2004. (Is that right? Wow.)


Fairfax, Va.: Dan: Regarding Cheney's speech yesterday at Fort Drum (The picture posted by the Washington Post shows Cheney in front of a platformed group of servicemen). The shot looks eerily like the backdrop for Bush's speech at Annapolis (the "Strategy for Victory" text repeated as a pattern), except that this is a "live" pattern made up of human beings. Is there one person, or a particular group, who is in charge of visual design for these staged events?

Dan Froomkin: There sure is. As David Jackson wrote in USA Today the other day: "White House communications officials develop these themes with stagecraft in mind - the settings for the speech, the colors of the backdrops, the size of the stage and the proper sight lines and lightings for the cameras.

"Scott Sforza, a former television news producer and now the White House's deputy communications director, is credited by colleagues for the successful staging of Bush speeches. A former news cameraman, Bob DeServi, handles the lighting."

I described Sforza and DeServi at work in my

September 16

column, in New Orleans, where they "heated up" the cathedral over Bush's shoulder so that it would "print loud."


Boston, Mass.: Dan, Congratulations!

As a shameless news junkie, I find myself growing weary of the the same old vague, obtuse informationless answers that the White House provides to tough questions. You journalists must be beyond sick of this tactic.

Since nobody in the administration is willing to square with the American public via the press, can the press make this known by just not showing up? I'm envisioning a "What if they had a press briefing and nobody came?" type scenario. Your column is wonderful.

Dan Froomkin: Gosh thanks.

Organized activity is not a strong spot for most journalists, so no. It's not going to happen.

That said, the reason you're hearing more crackpot questions at the briefings these days is that the reserved seats up front are increasingly not being filled by their owners. i.e. people from major news organizations are, independently, giving up.

And I'm seeing a tiny bit more coverage of the questions NOT answered at press briefings, which is typically the only newsworthy element coming out of these things these days.

For instance,

Eric Schmitt and David E. Sanger

wrote in the New York Times today that McClellan "refused Tuesday to discuss how Mr. Bush defines torture, or to say how the United States ensures that prisoners it turns over to foreign nations are not tortured."


Washington, D.C.: Hi Dan. Longtime reader, first time questioner.

Is the White House saying anything about the allegations of Iraqi Security forces committing "death squad" type atrocities against Sunnis? If this is how the security force we're supporting operate, won't increasing Iraqization of the war lead to Civil War and Yugoslav style ethnic cleansing?

Dan Froomkin: Nope. And it's a huge issue. Of course, I haven't heard a lot of questions about it from the corps, either.

Several reporters have noted that Bush hasn't addressed the issue, however.


Seattle, Wash.: Hi Dan.

We're all aware of this president's particular aversion to press conferences but since we are at war--as the administration regularly reminds us--I'm wondering if more pressure might be brought to bear on the President to hold more press conferences in order to report and account to the nation in this time of emergency. (The administration often likens the current situation to World War II. I think FDR held something like two press conferences a week; perhaps it might be suggested this White House should follow suite?) Also, I'm wondering what the longest gap between press conferences has been in the modern era?

Keep up the good work and congratulations on the upcoming addition to your family!

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. And while the press corps is not organized (see above) I do think it would be eminently reasonable for someone, at least once per briefing, to ask whether the president will be holding a press conference soon, and if not why not?

I wrote an article a

year ago

about Bush's aversion to press conferences (and his conduct during them.) For a while, from November 2004 to May of this year, he actually held one a month. But then he stopped. Bush's only press conference since then was a hastily called morning event on October 4. I don't know what the record for longest gap is. I'll see if I can find out. I know

just the person

who might know.


Anonymous: Is the White House attempting to kill the daily press briefing by making it irrelevant? Then they wouldn't have to answer questions.

Dan Froomkin: No, not at all. I think they find the briefing quite useful the way it is. It lets them get their message out without much giving away much else.


Seattle, Wash.: Congratulations on the new arrival. It will turn your world upside down but be worth every minute. Speaking as a relatively new father myself and an addict of your column: Take as much time off from work as you can you'll be missed, but we'll all get over it.

I'm getting a little tired of the administration attempting to twist the words of their detractors into something they are not. The press has been somewhat complacent about allowing them to do this. Sort of sticking with the He said, ha said he said type of reporting. For Example when Murtha spoke of a redeployment of US troops in the Middle East it was twisted into "bring them all home now", and the press seemed to go along. In you column today you quote Cheney ""Some have suggested by liberating Iraq from Saddam Hussein we simply stirred up a hornet's nest. They overlook a fundamental fact: We were not in Iraq in September 2001 and the terrorists hit us anyway." The press then attempts to beat the he's attempting to associate Iraq with 9/11 claim when the point really is. If the administration hadn't gotten us bogged down in Iraq we'd be focused on the people who actually attacked us.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks very much. You got a little garbled at the end there, but I think your point is a good one. The White House is engaging in straw-man arguments like I have never seen before, and if you ask me, the press should call them on it -- every single time. It's not a legitimate tool in public discourse. Argue against your opponents; don't misrepresent them.


Kansas City, Mo.: Why is Bush afraid of a press conference? Not to be cynical, but the questions tend to ramble enough for hum to just answer part. Is it concern over how he would answer or concern that someone might ask a tough question?

Dan Froomkin: That's a very good question. As I argued in the article I mentioned above, when Bush does hold press conferences, he is a master of non-responsiveness -- aided and abetted by rambling questions.

That said, I have my suspicion. As I wrote

November 29

, when the next press conference comes around I think it will be a top priority for reporters to get him to explain what he means by torture. I think they might be relentless about that. I don't think he has an answer that will satisfy the public, and I don't think he will be able to get away without some sort of answer.


Arlington, Va.: Dan, have you seen any analysis of how a President could win re-election and then fall out of favor so quickly? Based on the last several months of poll data, it is reasonably to conclude that Bush would never have gotten re-elected had the election occurred in 2005 instead of 2004.

Dan Froomkin: Part of it was how the news broke. Part of it was Kerry. Part of it was that this White House is better at campaigning than at governing.


Alexandria, Va.: So, would Patrick Fitzgerald bother to meet with the grand jury if he wasn't trying to bring the hammer down on someone?

Dan Froomkin: Not likely. Certainly not with a new one.


Batesville, Ark.: Dan,

I must admit. You have become the rock star of journalism. There are so many people who don't want to take all the time to research what is going on in politics.

Your blog actually gives us a heads-up on what are the current political currents. It is unfortunate that The Post does not have your work in print.

Please keep us informed during a few diaper changes.

Dan Froomkin: I certainly don't think of myself as a rock star. More like a minor folk singer who's an acquired taste. But I am tremendously grateful for the support that I do get from my readers. Thank you very, very much.

Sorry I couldn't get to more questions. I'll see you again here in two weeks -- or a bit longer, depending -- and every weekday afternoon on the home page... until the blessed event.


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