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White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, September 27, 2006; 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 on Wednesday, Sept. 27, at 1 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org .


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House Talk.

So much to talk about. (It's never dull at the White House, is it?)

In today's column, I parse two of President Bush's non-answers at yesterday's press availability, highlighting his intense aversion to responding to his critics' actual arguments. (He'd rather make up inane arguments and then ridicule them.)

I was just listening with half an ear to Tony Snow's press briefing a little while ago, and heard him ask a reporter: "Is bin Laden better off today than he was six years ago?"

Is that going to be the White House slogan for the mid-term? I think that could backfire.

Also, after filing my column, I read today's Progress Report from the liberal Center for American Progress. Their first item, "Losing the War on Terrorism," made me think: Is it possible the media blew the story today about theNational Intelligence Estimate released (in part) yesterday?

Is the big story not that Iraq has made the U.S. less safe from terrorism -- but that the intelligence community has concluded that overall, we're losing?

And if we are losing, how can we turn that around?


Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Dan, in the op-ed section of Saturday's Chicago Sun-Times, former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman (D-NY), writes that detainee treatment bill that Bush wants is less about fighting terror than providing himself and other top administration officials with retroactive immunity from prosecution under the 1978 War Powers Act. Has anyone picked up on this? What are your thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: Here's that Holtzman piece you mention. And yes, that aspect of the legislation has not gone entirely unnoticed.

As I noted in myFriday column, the ACLU released astatement

that claimed that the bill "deliberately provides a 'get-out-of-jail-free card' to the administration's top torture officials, and backdates that card nine years. These are tactics expected of repressive regimes, not the American government."

And I'm quite sure that the prolific and sharp-eyed legal bloggerMarty Lederman has written about this.

The problem for the journalists writing about this bill is it's hard to know where to start.


Milwaukee, Wis.: What kind of October surprise does Karl Rove have planned? One possibility - Recent reports that bin Laden is dead are correct. The administration will make a formal announcement a week or two before the election.

Of course, this is just a wild guess. Any other theories that you're aware of circulating?

Dan Froomkin: What haven't I heard would be a better question!

But none of it rises to event the lowest level of reportability.

It's also not entirely clear that Ronald Kessler's story for Newsmax, in which he reported that Rove has been promising such a surprise to GOP insiders, is to be trusted.


Poinciana, Fla.: Hi Dan! Do you have an opinion as to why there has been so little media coverage of Pres. Bush's comment to Wolf Blitzer on CNN that the Iraq war will be viewed in historical terms as "just a comma"? I would think that the Dems would run with this and even use Pres. Bush's video as a TV commercial for the fall elections. Thanks!

Dan Froomkin: You know, I plead guilty to not having mentioned that either.

For the record, Bush was talking to Blitzer about all the carnage in Iraq and said: "I like to tell people when the final history is written on Iraq, it will look like just a comma because there is -- my point is, there's a strong will for democracy."

For my part, it probably had something to do with the fact that Bush actually said it last Wednesday, and no one seemed to notice for several days. ButGreg Sargent has an interesting post about it in the American Prospect, which links toGreg Mitchell's piece in Editor and Publisher.

CNN'sJack Cafferty got all riled up about it on CNN on Monday. AndAnn Telnaes even did a dramatic cartoon about it.

So maybe I should have weighed in.


Virginia Beach, Va.: Bush's response to the finding that the Iraq War has generated even more terrorists that 'we weren't in Iraq on 9/11 and still were attacked' blows my mind. A surprising number of people buy this, so where is the campaign to educate the public? Can't journalists, not op-ed columnists or bloggers, write over and over about the grievances pre-9/11 and contrast them with the increased grievances now? Allowing Bush to fertilize the seed planted in the public's mind that Saddam was behind 9/11 seems to me a glaring failure of the 4th estate.

Dan Froomkin: As it happens, my column today is about just such rhetoric.

I call Bush's argument that "we weren't in Iraq on 9/11 and still were attacked" perhaps the ultimate Bush straw-man argument. Because of course no one is suggesting that the invasion of Iraq was somehow responsible for terrorist act that predate that invasion! The actual argument -- that he refuses to address -- is that invading Iraq has made the threat of terrorism worse than it otherwise would have been, since then.

But your point -- that he's trying to somehow suggest that Iraq was behind 9/11 -- is also a good one.

As for educating the public, as I noted in my Live Online two weeks ago, Bush has a tremendous advantage: Unlike the press, he has no aversion to repeating the same thing over and over and over again.


Arlington, Va.: Hello Dan, on what I'm sure is a lighter note, have any translators for the president and his foreign counterparts ever discussed what it's like to translate Bushisms? Like to the PM of Malaysia the other day, "I want to thank you for strategizing our discussions."

Dan Froomkin: Funny. I don't know. Maybe I should look into that.


I really hate to say this: Isn't bin Laden more famous and more influential than he was six years ago ?

Dan Froomkin: That was sort of my point. He may not be living it up at the Ritz, but everyone knows his name. His movement is apparently booming. And he's alive.


Carrboro, N.C.: Hello Dan. I look forward to these chats every week.

Was I imagining it, or did someone from the administration actually say something to the effect of 'we make our own reality here'? Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: You are referring to Ron Suskind 's New York Times magazine story from October, 2004. But as one of the seminal Bush White House quotes, it bears repeating:

Here's Suskind: "In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

"The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'"

Many bloggers have embraced the term reality-based community.


Atlanta, Ga.: I notice that all of the questions you take are from partisan liberals. Why no questions from folks who don't share your narrow and partisan viewpoints?

Dan Froomkin: There is undeniably an anti-Bush tenor to many of the questions I get, and I wish that weren't so. The only thing I can do about that is make a special point of trying to welcome the pro-Bush folks into the conversation (welcome!), and answer as many of their questions as possible. There just aren't a lot of them.

Why? I wholeheartedly reject the notion that my viewpoint is narrow or partisan. I write from what I consider a journalistic perspective. I approach whatever the White House says with appropriate skepticism, and hold it up to the appropriate scrutiny.

These days, that's quite a job.

And with Bush's credibility being such an important political issue, that makes me not quite as popular with the pro-Bush crowd as with the anti-Bush crowd.

Also, judging from other Live Onlines, I get the sense that the washingtonpost.com audience as a whole skews against Bush. I think that has something to do with the fact that the Post is still seen by many people around the country and the world as the place to go to watch the president of the United States, whoever he is, being held to account.


Hubris watch:


I think Sec. Rice miscalculated badly by firing back at Pres. Clinton. Her assertions are unsupported by the 9-11 Commission report, and she has drawn attention back to what is/was a shamefully underreported failing of this admin in their early days in office. Do you see this issue fading once again?

Dan Froomkin: Yeah, I do see it fading again. The Washington press corps just doesn't seem to have any appetite for revisiting this sort of stuff. So unless the opposition keeps the story alive, it will die. And if the Clintons or someone else in the opposition try to keep the story alive, the story will become about how the Clintons/opposition are trying to keep the story alive. If you follow me.


San Francisco, Calif.: All Presidents spin the news to benefit their agenda. George Bush isn't unique in doing that. However, it would be interesting to document just how flagrant he is compared to other Presidents in terms of distorting, exaggerating and mis-stating the facts in order to make his case.

Vietnam is probably the best example. Is Bush in line with how Johnson and Nixon presented their case or does he even out to them in the "spin" department. Please note that I didn't use the "lie" word.

For example, I'm not sure in those years the public got access to so many differing opinions within the military and state department that present such a different picture than what the President says. This really gives the sense of his having no clothes. Did that happen during the Vietnam war as well?

Dan Froomkin: I think you are absolutely right that a historical comparison would be valuable.

I am quite sure that you could find plenty of equally egregious or even worse examples of spinning and distortion in the past.

But when it comes to misleading the public (think the war in Iraq) or refusing to candidly address widely shared concerns, I suspect Bush would have everyone beat.

That said, I am not a presidential historian.


Jacksonville, Fla.: Why hasn't the press given more coverage to Dick Armey's story on how he was deceived by the WH and Cheney into supporting the war legislation?


Dan Froomkin: That story -- related in Michael Isikoff and David Corn's new book, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War -- was excerpted in Newsweek a few weeks ago.

But I can't say why it wasn't picked up elsewhere. It was an interesting case study.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Hey, Atlanta: I notice that only a few of the questions Dan gets are from partisan conservatives. But why are their questions only about what they consider his (and his readers') narrow and partisan viewpoints, and not substantive ones about what the administration is doing and saying?

Dan Froomkin: I'm staying out of this one.


Minneapolis: I think it is obvious that being on the offensive in a Muslim nation makes terrorists from other nations more determined than ever to kill Americans. But that does not mean we should surrender. It also enflames their hatred and desire for our death by drawing cartoons and quoting historic philosophers. But that does not mean we should curtail free speech. It further angers terrorists that we are infidels. But that does not mean we should convert.

Dan Froomkin: Well, that's a bit of straw man, too. Americans who want the troops out of Iraq are not advocating that because the terrorists want it; they're advocating it because they think it's the right think to do. And because they think it's actually strengthening the terrorists' hands.


Chicago, Ill.: Dan,

You wrote: "And if the Clintons or someone else in the opposition try to keep the story alive, the story will become about how the Clintons/opposition are trying to keep the story alive. If you follow me."

I do follow you Dan and that is a sad commentary on our press. I think one of the biggest problems in reporting today - news, sports, entertainment - is that it is all personality driven. It like the media is following one big soap opera, as if they don't understand the gravity of the situation. What do you think of your colleagues (at The Post and elsewhere) decision to highlight Clinton's tone as opposed to the substance of his arguments? And how does that help Bush?

Dan Froomkin: For reasons that are banal, rather than evil, I think the press corps is way too susceptible to personality-driven stories.

And when stories of substance are reduced to personality-driven stories, that is good for scoundrels everywhere.


Madison, Wis.: Hi Dan,

It strikes me that you are sitting in the cat bird's seat as a keen observer of the interaction between the press and this White House. I suspect that historians will be looking closely at this topic for years to come. Is there any chance that there's a book deal in your future?

Dan Froomkin: Well, thanks for the kind words. I sometimes think about writing a book. I think the question I'd want to address is: When did the press corps stop expecting answers to its questions?

But I don't know that I'd have the patience. I think it was Carrie Fisher who once said: "The only problem with instant gratification is that it isn't fast enough."

The frenetic pace of this column kinda suits me.


Beafort, S.C.: Mr. Froomkin --

Thanks for your chats. Love your column.

The "compromise" on detainee rights/suspected terrorist treatment sure looks to me like POTUS got what he wanted, while the McCain/Warner/Graham trio pretty much caved.

Assuming this take on the situation is correct -- how does Bush still weld so much power when he is so wildly unpopular?

Dan Froomkin: That is a great question. It deserves attention.

Off the top of my head, I think it has a lot to do with intimidation by Karl Rove and Dick Cheney. One scares them about losing; the other scares them about dying.


Toronto, Canada: Hi Dan! I find it frustrating when journalists question Tony Snow (and the President himself) and don't receive straight answers to fairly straightforward questions. They seem to let the "non responses" slip by and don't challenge these people on their non-responses. Why is it not possible for any of them to speak up and say, "wait a minute, you haven't answered the question"? Why don't journalists do this more often?

Dan Froomkin: You know what? I'm not going to make excuses for my colleagues. They should. No matter how difficult or awkward or risky it may seem, they should. And then they should follow up in their articles, saying "Snow/Bush refused to answer the question."

(I'll just add, it would also be easier if the questions were less complicated. See my December 2004 piece on questions for NiemanWatchdog.org and Salon.)


Blaming the press corps, Washington: So if the press corps isn't doing its job, how is it that President Bush's approval rating is so low? Seems to me the American people ARE getting the information they need to make up their mind. Maybe it's just the ideologues and the partisans who don't hear the answers from the President they want to hear, such as "I resign because I'm awful."

Dan Froomkin: Interesting point. I don't think that wanting a straight answer to a simple question is the same as wanting the president to resign. But I hear ya.


Cincinnati, Ohio: Dear Dan,

Am I on to something, or am I imagining things? I don't think I've heard or read much of anything about the "insurgents" in Iraq for the past six or so weeks. But I certainly hear lots about "death squads." Where did the latter term come from? Is it an invention of the White House, or am I indulging in yet another conspiracy theory? Thanks!

Dan Froomkin: Is there nothing that cannot be turned into a conspiracy theory?

Sorry, but really!

As it happens, I think talk of "death squads" in Iraq, which is most definitely not made up, is really bad news for the White House. Fighting insurgents is one thing. "Death squads" make you think: "What the hell are we doing there?"


Boston, Mass.: Hi Dan:

I am sure this has been asked before but it continues to puzzle me. Why is so little attention paid to Cheney and his activities?

Dan Froomkin: Sadly, the answer is: Because he makes it very hard.


Bush Bad, Bush Bad, Bush Bad!: Now that I've established my legitimacy to post to this forum, can I play, too?

The reason that washingtonpost.com audiences skew left is that normally, those of us on the right side (not to mention the side of right) are busy working during the day. Same reason phone polling results usually favor the left.

Dan Froomkin: Funny. I hadn't heard that theory before.

Now get back to work!


New York, N.Y.: Hi Dan:

Maybe you can explain something to me that I just can't seem to figure out. Why is it that when Clinton defends his policies prior to 9/11 firmly, his demeanor is described as 'over the top' or, to use Miles O'Brien's favorite description that he's used for two days now, "gasket blowing", however when Bush starts yelling and firmly defending his Iraq policy, his demeanor is described as 'full-throated' or 'spirited'?

Dan Froomkin: Sorry. Can't explain that one either.

When I saw Clinton leaning over Chris Wallace, the first thing I thought of was Bush getting into Matt Lauer's face.


Houston, Tex.: Hi Dan. I was just wondering if there is any evidence that the Bush administration took any steps towards containing or eliminating the threat posed by al Qaeda prior to 9/11?

Dan Froomkin: My understanding is that while there were some lower-level meeting about terrorism in general, the answer is no. They were mostly focused on missile defense. That, at least, from my recollection of the 9/11 commission report and Richard Clarke's book. I could be wrong. in fact, I'd be happy for someone to prove me wrong.


Springfield, Va.: In the Chris Wallace interview, Bill Clinton stated that he 'left a comprehensive anti-terror strategy' for incoming officials when he left office.

In her response, Condoleezza Rice said "'We were not left a comprehensive strategy to fight al-Qaeda.'

She did not answer Clinton's charge. She created a new one and refuted a claim he didn't make. Another classic straw man that everyone, including you, seems to have missed.

Dan Froomkin: I do sometimes wonder if they choose their words that carefully, and we just gloss right over it.

But as it happens,Peter Baker questioned Rice's claim this morning in his story in The Post.


San Jose, Calif.: I noticed that when you referenced Ron Suskind and Richard Clarke's books, you quoted the reviews of the books as opposed to the actual text of the book. I am curious, is this a result of the recent lawsuit against the descendents of James Joyce that takes up the grayness of quoting a book without copy rights? Or was it just a simple way to reference relevant subject matter?

Thanks and keep up the great work. You seem to be one the few checks on this administration.

Dan Froomkin: It's because the books themselves are not available online!

And thanks.


Austin, Tex.: Dan,

Thanks for taking questions today. I consider your column to be a must-read and think you do a great job of keeping it balanced. That said, along the lines of San Francisco and comparing Bush to presidents of the past, is there anyone besides Bush who has lived in such a bubble filled with yes-men? I realize that all presidents fill their staffs with fawning admirers, but wouldn't a devil's advocate be a good idea - just in case?

Dan Froomkin: I am quite sure that all presidents in the recent past have lived in a bubble, to a lesser or greater extent. But I'm not sure any previous bubble compares to this one.

I think Bush and the country would both be well-served if he came face-to-face with people who disagreed with him, and addressed their concerns head on.


East Peoria, Ill.: Dan:

I notice that Fox News, Rush Limbaugh et al are taking Clinton to task for his anger, his body language, in the Wallace interview. Why aren't we hearing about Bush's bullying body language with Brian Williams and Matt Lauer?

Dan Froomkin: Maybe because you didn't hear Williams or Lauer whining about it?


Vienna, Va.: So how would withdrawing from Iraq weaken the terrorists hands? And more importantly, what else would weaken the terrorists?

Dan Froomkin: Good questions. And those are precisely the kinds of questions we as a nation should be addressing.


Arlington, Va.: David Ignatius writes today that "the damage of Iraq can be mitigated only if it again becomes the nation's war -- with the whole country invested in finding a way out of the morass that doesn't leave us permanently in greater peril." Unfortunately, President Bush rarely has governed as a uniter, not a divider. (I voted for him in 2000 but not in 2004.) Aren't the tactical moves geared towards stirring up the Republican base in 2004 coming back to haunt the President now, when he needs a united nation behind him? When he was riding high, he never laid the groundwork for bad times ahead, never reached out to critics, some of whom Ignatius flays in his column today. Why didn't Bush and Karl Rove and Dick Cheney consider the dangers of governing as partisans, before they did so much damage to the nation with their divisive rhetoric (to say nothing of their decision to go in to Iraq in the first place?) You reap what you sow and in this former Republican's view, they are much more responsible for our national divisions and the "sour mood" of many voters than are the Democrats.

Dan Froomkin: Interesting argument.

In some ways, all you need to know about the Bush White House is that Karl Rove has enormous clout. Rove is a brilliant political strategist. He's all about winning elections. When someone had the bright idea of putting Rove in charge of governing, which is a very different matter altogether, and one for which he does not appear to have the same talent, the die was cast.


Bradley Beach, N.J.: Hi Dan, I don't know if you can answer this for me, but I find it disheartening that the press has not pressed Sec. Rice (or anyone else in the current admin) into 1. citing precisely what was done by Bush and Co. to thwart terrorism in the eight months leading up the attacks on 9/11 and 2. explaining that if "they" did so much, why we were still attacked?

Thanks for your great columns !

Dan Froomkin: Thanks, and I agree. But don't hold your breath.


Dan Froomkin: Thanks very much for all the great questions, as always. Sorry I couldn't get to more of them. I'll see you again here in two weeks, and every weekday afternoon on the home page or at washingtonpost.com/whbriefing .


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