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White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch columnist
Wednesday, September 5, 2007; 1:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Watch column for washingtonpost.com. He answered your questions, took your comments and links, and pointed you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, Sept. 5 at 1 p.m. ET.

Kabuki at Camp Cupcake (washingtonpost.com, Sept. 4)

Submit your questions and comments before or during today's discussion.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House Watch Live Online! As some of you may have noticed, I was off last week. Bad idea. What a week. And there's been no let-up since, what with all the news -- and the new books!

My column today, which should be up shortly, leads with more about David S. Addington, Vice President Cheney's chief of staff, and the man at the febrile center of the Bush administration's most extreme overreaches. (See Jeffrey Rosen's massive story for the New York Times Magazine and the Dan Eggen and Peter Baker story in The Post this morning, all about the revelations in the new book by Jack Goldsmith, the former head of the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department.

But that's just the top. There's lots more about Iraq and the Robert Draper bio, etc. etc. (I still haven't had the chance to catch up on much of last week, including Tony Snow's resignation and the Condoleezza Rice assessments ... so stay tuned.)

Okay, let's go.


Anonymous: I found this mornings Media Notes interesting. As I saw headline after headline about Bush saying there could be a reduction in troop levels if the security situation improved sufficiently, I wondered where the news was. For better or worse, Bush has never said the troops would be there forever, but that they would stay until the Iraqi government was secure and not seen as a threat to us (of course, when that day will come we do not know). I do not think the statements during his trip to Iraq were anything new, and not misleading either -- just a restatement of long-standing policy. The headlines could have read "Bush Vows to Stay the Course" or "No Change in Bush Plans for U.S. Troops in Iraq." Were editors looking for a catchy headline, and so implied there had been some change in policy?

washingtonpost.com: Falling for the Spin (Post, Sept. 5)

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for pointing that out -- and how embarrassing for me that I didn't see Howie's column before filing my own today, or I would have included it.

I think Howie was dead on. As for why? Daily newspapers -- even the very best daily newspapers -- are suckers for a news peg. What this White House has learned is that it's easy to game them that way. I would have much rather seen papers lead with an analysis piece, but editors are often loathe to do that. (Old habits, I guess.)

To their credit, several papers including The Post gave as much or more play to their analyses of the surge. See, for instance, Sudarsan Raghavan ongoing special report.


Can You Blame Him?: Anything the president says from now on will be dismissed or attacked by the angry left, so why shouldn't he try to game the system? Maybe if you media types listened to what he says instead of writing your sarcastic attack pieces as he's speaking, he would treat you differently.

Dan Froomkin: With Rove and Gonzales gone, it seems to me that Bush actually has a chance to be heard by everyone -- not just the remnants of his base -- but he'd have to start speaking differently, instead of repeating the same old talking points over and over again.


Rockville, Md.: Love your column Dan -- thanks for taking my question. I try to keep an open mind, and that includes whatever may be in the upcoming Petraeus report. But in the lead-up to the report, the President compared Iraq to Vietnam, then made a surprise visit to Iraq that felt like he had to sneak into the country. Am I missing something, because these comparisons and actions seem to run counter to what the president really wants to say. Reminding us about Vietnam and how dangerous Iraq still is does not give me a good feeling ahead of this report.

Dan Froomkin: The Vietnam analogy (see my August 22 and August 23 columns) was breathtaking. One report I saw said Rove contributed to that speech -- I almost wonder if it was his last, divisive finger in the eye to the American public.

My column's been so jam packed I haven't had a chance to link to Eugene Robinson's thoughtful Washington Post opinion column from yesterday all about the analogy:

"I'd feel better if I thought this was just some exquisitely subtle, deeply cynical gambit, yet I have the sinking feeling that Bush actually believes the nonsensical version of history he's peddling...

"To say the United States should not have withdrawn its forces from Vietnam is to say that there was something those forces could have done -- something beyond napalm, carpet-bombing, destroying villages in order to save them -- that would have led to some kind of 'victory.' Of course, Bush and the others don't say what that special something might have been, because they don't know. They're seeing nothing but a historical mirage...

"George W. Bush wants us to remember Vietnam? Fine, then let's remember those iconic images -- the Viet Cong prisoner being executed in cold blood with a pistol shot to the temple, the little girl running naked and screaming from a napalm attack. Let's remember how little we really understood about Vietnamese society. Let's remember how wrong the domino theory proved to be. Let's remember how much damage prolonging an unpopular war did to our armed forces and our nation, and how long it took us to recover."


Boston: Who is going to write the book about David Addington, and what would be a good working title? "Addington Rules"? What do you think the current members of the FISA Court think of his quote about being one bomb away from getting rid of that obnoxious court (especially while they consider whether to make public their previous rulings about the Terrorist Surveillance Program, which Boehner was happy to mention publicly)? Do you think Goldsmith's book will give the Dems any more backbone to change the crazy wiretapping law recently passed (and get a few more Republicans on their side)?

Dan Froomkin: Writing a book about Addington would be tough. Although there is a growing body of data about him (see my soon-to-be-published column for all sorts of great links) there's still a lot more that's utterly concealed. He and Cheney operate in unprecedented secrecy.


Alexandria, Va.: Hi Dan, who do you think was kicking themselves more about being on vacation last week, you or Jon Stewart?

Dan Froomkin: Stewart was off, too? No wonder I got so much hate mail. But I'm quite sure he got more.


Hickory, N.C.: Hi Dan, so much to talk about -- what is your favorite story this week?

Dan Froomkin: Favorite isn't the adjective I would choose. There will be days when I lead with something else (i.e. Addington today, Iran, FISA, etc.) but undeniably the biggest story for the foreseeable future is Iraq. (Unless we attack Iran.)


Can You Blame Us?: Everything this President and his aides have said has been dead wrong with lethal consequences to our troops and Iraqis. Can you blame us for not believing the White House spin machine? By the way, thanks, Dan, for being one of the few fearless reporters among the feckless White House press corps.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. And thanks to both of you for illustrating the enormous disconnect afflicting modern political discourse. What's most astonishing is that people on either side of many debates these days can't even agree on basic facts.

But I still think Bush could regain the ear of many Americans if he acknowledged some of his objective mistakes and reached out to find common ground with his critics.


New York: What I found interesting is that the President -- knowing he is being interviewed for a book -- felt comfortable enough to discuss making money after leaving the presidency. This was not the usual presidential response. Is George W. Bush generally more casual, and does he often seem to forget that his answers are expected to be more of those as a president than a buddy answering a question?

Dan Froomkin: Draper somehow got inside Bush's public defenses -- and I sure don't know how. In interviews, Draper himself seems a bit shocked.
The making-money thing is on some level hugely ugly. (MSNBC's Chris Matthews last night asked Draper if he was surprised by the "crassness" of it, "at the very moment he's sending kids into battle and getting killed, talking how much loot he's going to get the minute he gets out of office?")
But it's also classic Bush. In some ways, I've gotten the distinct impression that he's been longing for a return to (for him) normalcy for a long time. See my May 2006 column Would Bush Rather Be Fishing?.


Woodbury, N.J.: Have you ever shared your reader mail -- especially the hate mail? I have found through the years that various columnists can provide more entertainment through releasing the bizarre and inane diatribes of their critics than any comic strip.

Dan Froomkin: The "hate mail" I mentioned above was mostly from people ticked off that I took some vacation time.
I actually get very little hate mail (except you, Allan). (And Allan's is actually very thoughtful most of the time.)


Washington: Hi Dan and thanks for the chats. Question about your process for your column: You have such wide links and varied sources ... what time do you generally start your research for your column each day? Do any of your regularly cited sources -- or any others for that matter -- e-mail you to have you link them, or is all on your own Google machine research?

Dan Froomkin: I start at 6 a.m. (but generally have done a fair amount of trolling the night before.) I have fabulous bookmarks and saved searches.
Surprisingly few journalists e-mail me with their stories, but I do get lots of good links from my readers. For instance, yesterday's Camp Cupcake link was from a reader.


Austin, Texas: Would U.S. public opinion tolerate an attack on Iran? Or would there be rioting in the streets?

Dan Froomkin: A fine question. I am quite sure that the polls would find such an attack hideously unpopular. Almost no one is for it. But rioting in the streets?

What's it take to get the public riled up these days? I have no idea.
I was reminded today of the column I wrote back in January: Where's the Outrage Over Escalation? It never materialized -- except in the form of historic low approval ratings for Bush and even lower ones for a quavering Congress.

I look at my August 24 column, The Lost Year and I ask myself: Where's the outrage? What's your answer?

(My heavily caveated, very glib and short answer, in part, is that the traditional media's obsession for balance even in unbalanced times has unwittingly squelched public expression.)


Austin, Texas: Dan, while I agree that Bush could get people to listen if he would admit that some things had not gone according to plan, what is the likelihood? Over and over and over, when he could have been a "uniter," he has chosen to poke us in the eye and be a "divider".

Dan Froomkin: True. But Rove is gone.


The Draper Book: Dan, the most jaw-dropping aspect of the excerpt was the President saying "ask Hadley, he's got notes on all that stuff" regarding the decision to disband the Iraqi army. Like they were talking about a fishing treaty with Canada...

Dan Froomkin: I believe your jaw was not the only one dropping over that one.


Granger, Ind.: In response to "Can You Blame Him?" maybe more people would pay attention to George W. Bush if he could learn to speak honestly about those who disagree with him. Today in Australia, as quoted on National Public Radio, he suggested that his critics are not interested in a peaceful future for Iraqi society. Of course that's nonsense -- Bush's critics take issue with his policies and his incompetent management of the war. Creating straw men and offering false choices are a bad habit this president ought to break. If he did, maybe people would start listening to him again.

Dan Froomkin: Good point. I note that in my column today:

But far from reaching out in an attempt to compromise, in his joint press availability with Prime Minister John Howard today, Bush ratcheted up the mischaracterization and derision of his critics.

"As I told John, we're in the midst of an ideological struggle against people who use murder as a weapon to achieve their vision. Some people see that, some people don't see it. Some people view these folks as just kind of isolated killers who may show up or may not show up."

Later, he added: "By the way, people who don't believe we should be in Iraq in the first place, there's no political reconciliation that can take place to justify your opinion. If you don't think Iraq is important, if you don't think it matters what the society looks like there, then there's not enough amount of reconciliation that will cause people to say, great, it's working."


Seattle: Longer-term question here than just the past two weeks: It seems to me that the Bush White House has taken an "act now, rationalize later" approach to many issues; how should the American people and our Constitutional system react, and how can we prevent it from happening again?

Dan Froomkin: Blogger Daniel Drezner has a relevant "Mad Libs" based on the Goldsmith article today.

One answer to your question is: Every presidential candidate should be drilled on what they would have done differently than Bush -- starting with everything Addington touched.


Harrisburg, Pa: Where's the outrage, you ask? Bring back the draft -- like Charlie Rangel has suggested -- and believe me, you'll see the outrage and rioting on the streets. That will bring the people out of their suburban slumber and marching on Washington.

Dan Froomkin: Which is why it will never happen. And are you saying that nothing short of a direct attack on our well-being will lead to outrage?


Seattle: Didn't the original draft GAO report say we were failing on 15 of 18 measures? Why was it changed to say we were failing on only 11 of 18 measures?

Dan Froomkin: The second link there (to Karen DeYoung and Ann Scott Tyson's story in The Post today) answers your question: Pushback from the Pentagon.

And speaking of pressure, Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball write for Newsweek: "At a closed-door congressional hearing scheduled for Thursday, Senate intelligence overseers are expected to question senior officials in the National Intelligence Director's office about whether politics influenced a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iraq...

"Some in Washington question whether Petraeus or his staff had too much influence over the new NIE's conclusions. A reference in the report to the apparent success of Petraeus's surge strategy 'seems to stick out as out of character with the rest of the document,' said a former intelligence official."


Charlotte, N.C.: Just curious if you or other columnists ever read the comments entered online? I would think that it would be fairly dispiriting for writers to read the feedback.

Dan Froomkin: I look over mine quite regularly -- and don't find them dispiriting at all.


Seattle: As someone who considers himself a conservative (and yes we do exist in Seattle) I would just like to say that I am, frankly, really tired of my brethren blaming everything on the "angry left" and posting comments on these chats that aren't to advance dialogue but to make a (false) point. I think we -- as a Party and a movement -- have become as fundamentally dishonest as the Democrats. Of course I can blame Bush and realize he's said and done virtually nothing new in six years that hasn't been destructive to what our Constitution and our realization of what America should mean. I can put my country before my Party, and while I may not often agree with Dan, I can appreciate his efforts. So yeah, I can blame GWB.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Bush's departures from reality are not conservative, and being outraged by them does not make one a liberal.


Chicago: "Traditional media's obsession for balance even in unbalanced times has unwittingly squelched public expression." I think you hit the nail on the head. In the interest of "balance" the MSM I think goes out of its way to find extreme opinions (e.g. the Discovery Institute when covering evolution, or one of the four scientists that don't believe in global warming). By doing so they give these ridiculous points of view credence. How much of this phenomenon do you think is exacerbated by Americans self-selecting their news media, especially on the Internet, and finding "credibility" for their points of view? I read both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, but I wonder about others.

Dan Froomkin: I think fragmentation through self-selection of media is potentially a problem -- but not as big a problem as the self-censorship of the traditionally non-partisan media. I still think daily papers and the networks have a huge footprint.


Baltimore: Dan: On a completely unserious note, when you were gone the week of the Gonzales resignation, the Larry Craig scandal, et al., I pictured you acting like Lloyd Bridges in the movie "Airplane!" As things got progressively crazier, Bridges's character went from exclaiming "looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking" to "looks like I picked the wrong week to quit amphetamines." Were you a little beside yourself being away from the blog?

Dan Froomkin: I wasn't quite that bad. But thanks for asking. And what's a good week these days?


Crestwood, N.Y.: Dan, is war with Iran inevitable before Cheney leaves office, and if so, why is the media so damned oblivious about it? I sometimes feel like everyone else, including our elected representatives, are in on this sick joke and they won't tell us.

Dan Froomkin: A very excellent question. I don't know how to explain the lack of agitation amongst my brethren about this. It reminds me way too much of the run-up to war in Iraq. I'll be writing more about this soon.


Washington: At this stage, how do you see the odds that Congress will buy into the proposition that it would be premature to cut off the surge just when it is starting to "work"? Isn't the easy way out for Democrats and Republicans to just roll over and give it give it another Friedman unit?

Dan Froomkin: That is certainly the White House's hope. And especially without constant reminders (say, in the media) that the public overwhelmingly wants out now, that could well happen.


Denver: If the White House spent as much time and effort planning and executing the war in Iraq as they do on the PR campaigns supporting it, we already would have won by now. I feel like I'm trapped at a used car dealership with a greasy salesman hard-selling me a lemon for the past five years. Just a thought...

Dan Froomkin: You'll like Rex Babin's cartoon today, then.



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