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White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, March 29, 2006; 12:00 PM

Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone, and welcome to White House Talk. My column today is about how President Bush's replacement of his chief of staff with another consummate White House insider is looking more and more like small change -- unless of course it turns out to be the start of something big.

Which it just might be.

(I also wrote about the move in yesterday's column.)

We can talk about that -- or whatever else, White House-related, is on your mind.


Grand Rapids, Mich.: Under Josh Bolton, the federal deficit jumped from $6.5T to $8.5 trillion. It's hard to find any mention of this in the MSM, which seems consumed with the idea that Bush MAY make a change in his cabinet. Why is it that the MSM is so consumed with the inside game, but completely fails to report or remind readers who don't follow this as a profession who made the mess and why we're in it? (Hint, tax policies, Iraq, pork). Isn't it symbolic that Bolton takes over the reins the day before taxes are due?

Dan Froomkin: Well, you make a very interesting point. So much of modern political coverage is about spin and horse race and predictions and personality, we don't spend nearly enough time telling readers what these people we're writing about actually, objectively accomplished -- or failed to accomplish.

I would love to see someone track the budget proposals Bolton authored, examining how much of them were acted upon, and what their effect actually was.


Richmond, Va.: I have a problem with Jim VandeHei's piece in today's Post, "Card's Departure Signals Bush Is Heeding Critics". There are two ways to see this move. The "critics" were saying that the White House needed new blood because top advisers were burnt out. So Bush replaces Card with his former deputy chief of staff who has also been serving Bush for the same period. This move represents no change. My headline would be "Card's Departure: Change or Window Dressing".

Dan Froomkin: As I write in my column today, Jim is definitely out there on his own with his story today. But it's possible he's just ahead of the curve.


Fort Myers, Fla.: I read in the New York Times that George Bush is trying to woo the press corps by inviting them to the White House residence for "off the record" discussions. Like trips to the "ranch," the only condition placed on this is an agreement to be silent.

Editor and Publisher says that reporters from the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, the AP, Cox Newspapers and the Washington Times have attended the meetings. There may be others.

To their credit, The New York Times said "No." But what about The Washington Post? And isn't there something very unseemly, even unethical, about journalists agreeing to be schmoozed by a president who has, over the last few weeks, blamed the media for his poor standing in the polls?

Dan Froomkin: Yeah, I wrote about this in yesterday's column.

Said I: "It's a wonderful way for him to distract journalists from the central question of his presidency -- his loss of credibility. He has the reporters over to his residence, schmoozes them, asks them about their family.

"Bush knows that demanding answers from the president without appearing to be disrespectful to the office is a challenge for White House reporters. Add the fact that he seems like such a nice guy and he knows your kid's name, that just makes it even harder."

And it does remind me of the equally unseemly -- and equally popular -- secret poolside dinner at Bush's home in Crawford last summer. (See my Aug. 26 column.)

But there are two reasonable sides to this issue.

On the one hand, it's hard for a White House reporter to turn down an opportunity to talk to the president no matter what the circumstances. By and large, members of the press corps are caged like rats in their dank little bit of White House basement, only occasionally sent hither and thither to act as presidential props. So when offered some cheese, can you blame them if they bite? You could even make the argument that even an off-the-record chat with the president could provide insights into the workings of the most powerful man in the world that would eventually benefit the readers.

On the other hand, if you're a reporter, you really have to ask yourself: What's the point of talking to the president if you can't report on it? What if he says something newsworthy? Then you're stuck. What if he doesn't? Then you've just been played. What's the value of schmoozing with someone in secret, when that's essentially the only personal contact you ever have with the man?

If it were me, I would demand that these meetings be on the record. Alternately, I would agree to go to such an event only on the condition that part of it -- or a subsequent meeting -- be on the record.

But it's easy for me to be all high and mighty. I'm not actually a White House correspondent. I don't play, want to play, or have to play the access games that are an inevitable part of life for the people who are dependent on White House sources.

And finally, yes, according to Charles Babington's story in The Post yesterday, at least one Post White House correspondent participated in last week's sessions.


Washington, D.C.: Good afternoon Dan-

I read Howard Kurtz's take on the OTR meetings between the press corps and the President. He says he can see how important and useful it can be to "get to know" the president in a "relaxed" environment. My reaction to that is, why didn't this happen in 2000, then? Why was it not important to Bush, et al to have these "let's get to know each other" sessions back then, rather than just now?

Would you go, if invited?

Dan Froomkin: Here is Howie's blog this morning.

My understanding is that Bush actually did this quite a bit during the 2000 campaign, though not so much since, including during the 2004 campaign.

Back then, he was trying to woo the press. Since then, it has not been a priority. I'm not really sure what to make of his current motives.


Alameda, Calif.: I am boggled by the off-the-record chats the President has begun having with certain members of the press - not boggled at his having them, but at the reporters for attending. After watching the president belittle the media for years with condescending nicknames, publicly trash them for focusing only on the bad news from Iraq, and more, how can any reporter in his or her right mind agree to a cozy get-together in the residence?

What, if anything, does the reporter get out of it?

After watching Lara Logan's reaction to the President's complaints about the Iraq coverage, I can't see her going to one of these "y'all come up for a beer" meetings.

Follow-up yell: did ABC get an invite, and if so, did they attend - especially since one of their co-anchors is still on the mend from his sojourn in beautiful downtown Baghdad?

Dan Froomkin: Yup, according to Babington, ABC was in attendance.

You can look at this as battered press syndrome if you want.

But at the same time, you can't be blind to the attraction that an opportunity to talk to the president holds.


Why doesn't anyone use the word "groupthink"?: The Bush White House seems to fit all the characteristics, but I don't think I ever see the term in the press. Any ideas why?

Dan Froomkin: Hmm. Good point. I led a column last April with some thoughts on groupthink, but it was in the context of the Silberman-Robb report exposing groupthink in the intelligence community.

By any other name, Paul R. Pillar, the former CIA official who coordinated U.S. intelligence on the Middle East until last year, placed the groupthink a lot closer to the White House in his article in Foreign Affairs a few weeks back.

And I think you're seeing the symptoms in the Bolton decision. I'm not sure why it hasn't been addressed more explicitly.


Washington, D.C.: Has anyone asked Bush if he believes there are any limits to the presidential war powers he's been asserting? For example, he's claimed that the press has aided the enemy by revealing top secret info. In his view, could he, hypothetically, suspend the First Amendment in the name of national security? In short, I'd really like to see someone pin Bush down on this authority is claiming.

Dan Froomkin: Well, you know what? The Post's Peter Baker tried to do just that, at Bush's December 19 press conference.

"Q Thank you, Mr. President. I wonder if you can tell us today, sir, what, if any, limits you believe there are or should be on the powers of a President during a war, at wartime? And if the global war on terror is going to last for decades, as has been forecast, does that mean that we're going to see, therefore, a more or less permanent expansion of the unchecked power of the executive in American society?"

Bush started off with this: "First of all, I disagree with your assertion of 'unchecked power.'"

The rest of his answer was, shall we say, inconclusive. He cut off Baker's attempts to follow up. And then no other reporter picked up the ball.

The only chance to pin him down on really tough questions like this comes in one-one interviews -- but they are rare, and the interviewers are loathe to devote too much time to any one subject, so it doesn't happen there either.


Rockville, Md.: "Said I: "It's a wonderful way for him to distract journalists from the central question of his presidency -- his loss of credibility. "

You mean you don't trust him.

Dan Froomkin: I mean that I have come to the conclusion, as I've written many times, including in this February 3 column, that Bush's fundamental challenge as he tries to regain his political footing is that most Americans don't trust him anymore.


Omaha, Neb.: Did I miss something? The NYTimes publishes an article discussing Bush's interest in "provoking" war with Iraq, a few days after Bush wagged his finger, admonishing Helen Thomas for suggesting he wanted to go to war, and I saw virtually no coverage on this on the major networks. Or in other media? Has anyone confronted him with this memo? Or is the press back to playing shrinking violet again?

Dan Froomkin: You're seeing two contemporary journalistic influences at work. First, it was a Times exclusive of sorts (although actually a month after the British press had much of the story.) People traditionally hate chasing other people's stories in this business.

Second, in your typical Washington newsroom, pretty much anything to do with the path to war is considered "old news" at this point. Bringing it up again and again is considered shrill.

I couldn't disagree more. I still think that the question of how Bush went to war has not been fully explored, and I can't think of anything more important. But there you go.

In fact, this reminds me of one of the questions I intend to ask you readers one of these days:

* Do Americans widely believe that Bush intended to go to war in Iraq long before he acknowledged as much in public? Do they care?


Richmond, Va,: Your thoughts on the role of the progressive blogosphere and its impact on the mainstream media? In recent months, they have actually mobilized their readers to campaign against the mainstream media with some notable successes, mainly with the Washington Post (Domenech and Howell's misstatements on Abramoff).

Dan Froomkin: I think that a lot of reporters and editors within the traditional media have internalized a nearly-physical aversion to doing anything that they think might somehow make them vulnerable to the accusation that they are liberal. That may have something to do with a concerted campaign by conservatives dating back several decades.

It's possible that, over time, an assertive progressive blogosphere will prompt an analogous aversion in the other direction, but I'm not sure.

The best case scenario, and I actually see this as more likely, is that reporters and editors will increasingly realize that no matter what they say, someone will attack them, so they might as well just flat-out call it like they see it and take the lumps.


Lansdale, Pa.: I'm a big fan of your blog, Dan. When an off-the-record meeting occurs, particularly one with multiple members of the press, what teeth does the OTR agreement have? If a reporter then goes out and reports what occurred at the meeting, is he liable to prosecution? What about the newspaper or magazine or network that carries the report? It's hard for me to imagine a "reporter" who attends such a meeting since no "reporting" is allowed.

Dan Froomkin: There's certainly no case for prosecution. But reporters take their promises seriously. So if they actually agree to an off the record meeting, their professional obligation is to stay mum. That said, sometimes there are leaks. Or one reporters tells another, who doesn't feel under quite the same obligation, etc.


Boston, Mass.: I know you may be loathe to get yourself involved in the Domenech discussion, but the big elephant in the room that is the pretty obvious inference that he was hired because Brady and others think that you're a partisan attack dog. To assert that there's some other reason for his hiring insults the intelligence of the post.com readers.

So my question is: what would be your suggestion for the type of people to hire to represent "a broad spectrum of ideas and ideologies", as Mr. Brady has said is his goal?

Dan Froomkin: Thank you. A lot of questions about this today, not surprisingly. But I am in fact, as you suggest, loathe to weigh in.

As with the last kerfuffle, I've been blown away by all the supportive words from readers and bloggers. I thank you. And I think you've been more eloquent than I could possibly be.

I can direct you to my response back in December to the ombudsman's suggestion that my column is "highly opinionated and liberal." In short, I wrote: "There is undeniably a certain irreverence to the column. But I do not advocate policy, liberal or otherwise. My agenda, such as it is, is accountability and transparency. I believe that the president of the United States, no matter what his party, should be subject to the most intense journalistic scrutiny imaginable. And he should be able to easily withstand that scrutiny."

I admire what the Web site has done and continues to try to do with blogs and opinion columns. I think voice thrives on the Internet, and I am all for many voices.

But beyond that, I will not give the Web site any advice. At least not publicly.


Chapel Hill, N.C.: President Bush sends a personal message to the Iraqi Shi'ite delegation that Prime Minister Jafari's renomination would be unacceptable. Keeping aside the merits of that particular opinion, how does the White House see such a message as a constructive step toward building an Iraqi democracy?

Dan Froomkin: This is a fascinating story. Edward Wong's piece in the New York Times today outlines all sorts of reasons why Bush would want Jaafari out of the picture.

For instance: "The Americans have harshly criticized the Jaafari government in recent months for supporting Shiite militias that have been fomenting sectarian violence and pushing Iraq closer to full-scale civil war."

But what does it say about the state of Iraqi democracy when the head of the occupying power is putting his finger on the scale -- for whatever reason


Silver Spring, Md.: Babington says that there is not an implicit agreement between the administration and the press not to talk about permanent bases in Iraq or a three-state solution. Your thoughts? If anyone asked why we have built four HUGE bases in Iraq, do you think they would ever get another question?

Dan Froomkin: Of course there is no such implicit agreement. We don't do implicit agreements.

But that doesn't mean I can explain it. I'm particularly peeved about why the press doesn't get some straight answers about permanent military bases in Iraq.

Bush's announcement that a total withdrawal of US troops from Iraq would definitely not happen before 2009 was -- I thought -- a perfect entree into the question of whether he had any intentions for a permanent withdrawal ever.

But not a peep in the papers. I've been harping on this since I first wrote about it for NiemanWatchdog.org last August. Here's Dick Polman and Tom Engelhardt on the same topic, more recently.

So yes, you might think there was an implicit agreement, because that would explain the press's silence on this issue better than any excuse I can come up with. But it just ain't so.


Re: Off the record discussions: Since openness and transparency are supposed to be part of the mission of the Fourth Estate, I call on The Washington Post to publish exactly which reporters met with the president for one of these "off the record" chats.

Dan Froomkin: I would have no problem with that.


Chicago, Ill.: can you bring us up to date on the progress or lack thereof in the Valerie Plame leak investigation? it seemed as if the latest grand jury was meeting weekly for awhile, and now ... nothing. What's that about?

Dan Froomkin: No, I can't. I don't know. There are some rumors flying around the blogosphere, but I have no reason to think they are anything but fantasy.

I do wish that investigative reporters within the traditional media were digging around this story more aggressively, rather than simply waiting for something to be announced, but I see no sign of it.


Sacramento, Calif.: Bush is always saying, "I don't pay attention to polls," which seems like a lot of guff. After Katrina, the recent surge in public feeling about our being in Iraq, etc..., Bush upped his PR. This seems to imply that he had to be reading the public and someone had to be reading some polls. Moreover, doesn't a well-crafted poll actually provide some real insight about how the public thinks? So, what is so scary about saying, "Yes, you know, I saw the poll. I think it made a good point. Here's what I think about it..." Can't your make a point about a poll without implying you're using the results to govern?

Dan Froomkin: It is a lot of guff. Of course they look at the polls. Maybe more than anyone.

Bush often makes a point of saying he doesn't govern based on the polls -- and I think that's a very good point indeed.

But that doesn't mean he shouldn't have to respond to public opinion at all. For instance, I thought Jim VandeHei's question at the March 21 press conference was spot on:

"Q You've said during your presidency that you don't pay that much attention to the polls, but --


"Q -- there is a handful that have come back, and they all say the exact same thing: A growing number of Americans are questioning the trustworthiness of you and this White House. Does that concern you?"

Bush's answer was, shall we say, nonresponsive.


Dan Froomkin: OK, thanks for all the great questions. Sorry I couldn't get to more of them. I'll be back here again in two weeks, but at a special date and time: Monday, April 10 at 2.

And don't forget to look for my column every weekday afternoon on the homepage, or bookmark me at washingtonpost.com/whbriefing.


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