White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, April 23, 2008; 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, April 23 at 1 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome. Today's column, Hands Across the Border, is online. But to be honest, it's one of my duller ones. We'll probably have better conversation today if we discuss yesterday's column, The Most Disappointing President, or any one from last week or so.


Washington: Now that Bush has set a new Gallup record for job disapproval, are be willing to guess how low his job approval rating will go? I'd say he'll fall short of record-holder Truman and runner-up Nixon, but drop from his current 28 to 25 -- or even 24, if gas prices are high enough this summer.

Dan Froomkin: I stay out of the prediction business. To me, one big question is whether we spend a lot of the next nine months looking back (in which case his numbers could indeed go down) or whether we are so eager to move on that we try to forget he's there (in which case they could go up).

I should point out that there is a group called The Bush Legacy Project dedicated, in a nutshell, to making sure those numbers don't go up.


Houston: Dan, I applaud your coverage of the administration's poor excuse for leadership. As a spouse of a United States Marine, it absolutely drives me crazy that the media doesn't hold this administration accountable for the currently folly in Iraq. The frivolity with which they risk our soldiers lives is absolutely inexcusable. Why do you think that no one bothers to cover this?

Dan Froomkin: Saying "no one" covers this is a bit harsh, but I agree with your central point. I think precisely because our soldiers' lives are on the line, the media has a greater than ever responsibility to hold those who sent them there accountable. Indeed, Bush's insistence that questioning him was tantamount to not supporting the troops was offensive on its face. And yet, somehow, my colleagues were -- and to some extent, continue to be -- intimidated. (So was the political opposition, of course.)

And while I don't mean to put you on the spot -- in fact I'm in awe of your sacrifice -- one problem is that members of the military and military families have not exactly been outspoken on the issue of accountability, standing silently by as Bush insists he's speaking for them.

I thought that maybe Vice President Cheney's shocking interview last month (see my column, Cheney's Unforgivable Egotism) might incite some families to respond. In that interview, Cheney actually asserted that when it comes to the war in Iraq, it is Bush -- not the soldiers and Marines who fight and die, or their families -- who is bearing the biggest burden. He breezily dismissed the sacrifices of the troops by pointing out that they volunteered for this.

There was some angry response to his scoffing at public opinion in that same interview. ("So?") But otherwise (as they say on the blogosphere): *crickets*.


Roseville, Calif.: Hello, Dan. The president admitted that he knew of the meeting of principals to decide the country's interrogation policies. Is there any further indication that Bush knew the details of their deliberations and/or approved their final decisions? Has anyone asked him whether he is now worried that they -- or he himself -- face criminal jeopardy for the apparent policy of torture that these meetings and John Yoo's memos conjured into existence? Has anyone ever confronted him with the fact that waterboarding -- as an act of simulated execution -- is defined as illegal torture by the Army Field Manual and U.S. law?

Dan Froomkin: There's not very much more in the public domain at this point. The only other thing I've found is that back in 2004, the ACLU obtained a May 2004 FBI e-mail indicating the existence of a presidential executive order directly authorizing interrogation techniques including sleep deprivation, stress positions, the use of military dogs and "sensory deprivation through the use of hoods, etc." But the White House never has confirmed that executive order; if it exists, it's secret.

As for what Bush has been asked, you might as well ask whether Bush been asked a single question about torture since acknowledging that he was aware that his top aides met in the White House basement to micromanage the application of waterboarding and other widely-condemned interrogation techniques. The answer is no -- nt hasn't even been raised at the press briefings.

The vast majority of the traditional media -- to its everlasting shame -- just doesn't seem interested in this story.


Silver Spring, Md.: A quote from the New York Post in yesterday's column: "Media watchers couldn't immediately recall another sitting president's appearing on a game show, though Richard Nixon was on the 'Laugh-In' variety show." But I remember seeing the appearance myself in the fall of 1968 (I was 12,) and it preceded the election; when Nixon famously said 'Sock it to me!?' he was a mere candidate.

washingtonpost.com: Deal or No Deal? W. Boosts Hero in Game-Show Cameo (New York Post, April 22)

Dan Froomkin: Thank you for clearing up that important point.


Buffalo, N.Y.: Dan, you have reported extensively on the practice of torture on terror suspects, including the technique of waterboarding. Wonder what your comments might be on the recent Amnesty International video showing the cruelty of this type of torture.

Dan Froomkin: I can't bring myself to watch it.


Savannah, Ga.: Well, I may be in a significant minority (maybe all by myself?), but I think it's actually a good sign that Iraq is fighting back on some of our "requests" (demands? veiled threats?). Why would any sovereign nation allow another (and its citizens) to act with impunity on their soil? It shows that they are developing some independence and looking further down the road to a time when the U.S. won't be so heavily involved. Good on 'em!

Dan Froomkin: You're referring to this Karen DeYoung article in yesterday's Post. She wrote: "Iraq is resisting U.S. proposals for a pair of new bilateral security agreements, saying it expects Washington to compromise on 'sensitive issues,' including the right to imprison Iraqi citizens unilaterally, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Monday."

Wouldn't it be ironic if the Iraqi parliament was able to do what the U.S. Congress hasn't been able to do, and impose some limits on U.S. involvement? Or strip American contractors of their absolute immunity?


Alexandria, Va.: I have a question about President Bush's low popularity ratings. Is there any indication whether the low ratings are because of the public's views of his policies, or his competence in carrying them out? This is a hugely important question for the general election. My theory is that the people who elected Bush in 2004 haven't given up on his policies, just on him. If this is true, and if McCain runs as "just like Bush, but competent," he has an excellent chance of winning in the fall.

Dan Froomkin: That's an excellent question. I'm sure it's some of both -- but exactly how much, I don't know. That said, on Iraq, there's little doubt that the American public wants out by a pretty sizeable majority.


Helena, Mont.: So, the Pope comes and is greeted by the torturer-in-chief and is seen off by the prince of darkness, but doesn't say a word. The media use "enhanced" or "harsh" interrogation without really explaining that torture is what we're talking about. Those who claim to be our moral lodestone are very, very quiet as well. At some point we need to have an "accountability moment" in which this is laid out in the open -- otherwise it is going to go on and on and we never ever will be that shining city on the hill we always thought we should (and could) be.

Dan Froomkin: And don't forget: Bush actually used the pope's presence to take a swipe at "moral relativism." See my Thursday column, Who's the Moral Relativist?.


Alexandria, Va.: Given the this President's term is soon to be over and the most liberals do not like him, don't you think you are simply "preaching to the choir"? Why not focus on the future instead of beating a dead horse?

Dan Froomkin: In my defense, I will quote none other than presidential hagiographer Fred Barnes, who just recently wrote in the Weekly Standard that people who call Bush a lame duck are wrong: "He's not that lame. ... Bush lacks popularity, but he has plenty of power. And he's committed to using it.

"Bush's power -- indeed, any president's -- comes from the Constitution, not from opinion polls or the number of months left in his White House tenure. He is commander in chief and architect of America's foreign policy. He can use his veto to shape or kill legislation. He can exploit the presidential megaphone to express his views and raise alarms, and his power to issue administrative decrees is significant as well."

So: The man is a hugely important newsmaker until his last hour in office; and I happen to think Bush's decline and fall may be the dominant political story of our time.


Washington: Froomie, can you define the word "permanent" for me? I'll use it in a sentence: "The U.S. will not have 'permanent' bases in Iraq."

Dan Froomkin: Ha ha. No. See this "clip and save" excerpt from a congressional hearing earlier this month. See also AFP's Olivier Knox back in February.

The White House should never have been allowed to get away with the ambiguous use of that term, but it did for years.


Fort Bragg, N.C.: By moving Gen. Petraeus to U.S. Central Command and Gen. Odierno to Petraeus's current position, aren't President Bush and Defense Secretary Gates tying the hands of the next president, the next administration and the next Congress, regardless of who comes in in November (January), be they Democrat or Republican?

washingtonpost.com: Petraeus Picked to Lead Mideast Command (Post, April 23)

Dan Froomkin: Yes. Technically, he will serve at the pleasure of the president. But removing him might become a political issue.

And there are signs that Petraeus could be really obstinate. As Spencer Ackerman blogged at the Washington Independent, Petraeus dodged like crazy when he was asked at a congressional hearing earlier this month what he would say to a new president who asked for a withdrawal plan within 60 days of taking office. Petraeus, Ackerman noted, "didn't say he would do what his commander-in-chief asked: submit a plan for withdrawal if ordered, or resign if he was unable to."


Minneapolis: I admit to being alternately surprised and not so surprised by the lack of follow-up coverage on the New York Times's story about the not-so-independent military analysts used on all the TV networks. To me, this seems like the sort of story that demands follow-up, but I'm not surprised anymore that it's not happening, because this is just one of literally dozens of stories that have gone that route in recent years. I still can't figure out why, though. What is it about these sorts of stories that cause them to fade away? What is the institutional bias in the media that causes them not to go after these sorts of stories?

Dan Froomkin: I address this a bit in my column today. Here's what I wrote:

There's been remarkably little response to David Barstow's report in the New York Times over the weekend that the Pentagon used military analysts who commented regularly on radio and TV "in a campaign to generate favorable news coverage of the administration's wartime performance."

Salon's Glenn Greenwald says the lack of follow-up is all about the media's own culpability: "Media organizations simply ignore -- collectively blackout -- any stories that expose major corruption in their news reporting, as evidenced by the fact that no major network or cable news programs have ever meaningfully examined the fundamental failures of the media in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq."

Los Angeles Times entertainment writer Scott Collins blames the television networks, bad timing, and the fact that "Many Americans confronted with stories of media manipulation by government officials aren't, at this point, shocked and awed."

Phil Carter blogs for washingtonpost.com that the article is "a reminder of the Bush administration's modus operandi, which goes something like this: 'We know what's best for you; we'll tell you what you need to know; trust us.' Once the administration decided on its strategy for Iraq, it adopted that position with all possible certainty, leaving zero room for doubt, dissent or discussion. Every organ of the administration focused on marshaling support for this policy. In the public affairs arena, that meant delivering a message that supported the policy -- regardless of the ground truth. ...

"Our democracy has broken down as the result of this logic, with the result that the people no longer support this war, yet the war grinds on anyway."

End excerpt.

As for me, since you asked: I'm constantly appalled at the media's "not invented here" pathology, where they refuse to cover someone else's big story unless they absolutely have to.


Woodbridge, Va.: I think an interesting way to view the president's decline in popularity is to look at his ability to command our attention. A few years ago the White House could demand prime time on all the broadcast networks for a minor speech. Now in order to get attention, Bush has to associate himself with more popular people. His greeting the pope at the airport and appearing on "Deal or No Deal" are good examples.

Dan Froomkin: That's not necessarily a function of his popularity, but of his relevance. No matter how popular the president, the media attention declines as he approaches his end times.


New York: Dan, Excellent column. Maybe I've gone off the deep edge with cynicism, but at this point why should we believe that there will be any documentation of any potential wrongdoing by the current administration for the next administration to investigate? Are there any lawyers here to tell me what is going to stop them from shredding all documents and "losing" all e-mails, etc.?

Dan Froomkin: I think it depends less on whether there's shredding and deletion (which would be illegal) and more on the next president's attitude. See, for instance, this piece by Steven Aftergood on NiemanWatchdog.org, where he explains how the next president will have a unique opportunity to reveal what has been kept hidden for the last seven years.

While White House documents will be off-limits indefinitely; other executive branch documents (unless they are destroyed) will be accessible to whoever runs the executive branch in January.


Denver: Dan, what do you mean when you say your column today is "duller"? Your mention of North Korea helping Syria out with nukes really got my blood pumping ... but I quickly calmed down after realizing it probably is some White House propaganda.

washingtonpost.com: U.S. thinks North Korea aided Syria on plutonium program (Reuters, April 23)

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Yeah, it's never really dull, is it?


Clayton, Calif.: Hi Dan. I think part of the reason for crickets on torture and spying, and why we're unlikely to see anything beyond speeches by Congress, is that the congressional leadership was in on it in briefings. How do they call Bush on it when it will be revealed that they knew and said nothing? That requires a level of moral character and willingness to face consequences that is hard to find inside the Beltway. What a fine example our "leadership" is setting for your youth and the world.

Dan Froomkin: I'm sure that is indeed a factor. But there are others. I can, for instance, imagine a scenario in which the country wants a national cleansing of sorts, in which case even the enablers in Congress would have to go along.


Washington: Hi Dan, love your work! This is probably more for Kurtz, but frankly you seem to do more to call out the media than he does. ... To follow up on the lack of follow-up on so many stories, I for one have become so disgusted with the media in general that I now oppose any new shield laws or anything else that gives them special rights. Those rights are predicated on their doing the business of the people, holding government accountable by getting at the facts. Now they just pass along whatever drive-by slander one side or the other wants to dish ... pathetic. ... Sadly, I know this hurts those really good journalists out there as well, but I am at wits' end.

Dan Froomkin: I would like to think that you could come up with some more constructive way to encourage accountability journalism than opposing the shield laws.

Maybe you could picket the White House Correspondents Association dinner? (Just kidding.)

And come visit my other Web site, NiemanWatchdog.org.


New Boston, N.H.: In precise, unambiguous language, why exactly is impeachment off the table?

Dan Froomkin: Because the Democratic Party leaders are afraid it would backfire, and right now they are quite content with the status quo, which they think will lead to victory in November.


Arlington, Va.: How many editorial cartoons do you check a day? You always find such good ones.

Dan Froomkin: I check lots -- and a few wonderful sites that aggregate them, such as the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists and Slate's Today's Cartoons.

My time is never wasted looking through political cartoons. I think cartoonists have done a good deal of the best, most incisive (and certainly pithiest) journalism in the past several years.


Sullivan, Ill.: Dan, thanks for all the great columns over the years -- they are informative and exasperating all at once. You do great job of highlighting the double talk/rhetorical games played by this administration on a near-constant basis. So after one more day of exposure after one more day of this administration -- one more day closer to the end of it -- I have a wider-ranging question rather than a specific topical one.

Now that we have had seven years of this gang in office, how do you view the administration? Do you see them as being genuinely concerned with the United States, and that is their top priority? Has their top priority been to push ideology regardless of the consequence? To consolidate power on the right? To reward benefactors and supporters? To further the Republican Party? What do you see as having been their number one priority in these past seven years?

Me, I see their priorities as being a combination of all of the above. They think that their conservative ideology is best for America (regardless of the actual consequences) and that the best way to advance that ideology is to reward the faithful with jobs, power and money -- and to protect what they have done, they desired to have that elusive "lasting majority." What I just said could be spun positively, but I do not in any way intend my statements to be a positive reflection of this administration. But you are much closer to what is happening -- what do you think?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for the kind words (about me).

Of course they are doing what they think is best for the country.

I may be hopelessly biased (as a journalist who's been trying to look in for so long) but if I had to sum things up, I would say their fatal flaw was a lack of transparency -- in other words, the Bush Bubble. It's not just that the public couldn't see in, it's that they couldn't see out. You combine that with an unearned sense of infallibility, and it's not pretty.


Dan Froomkin: I've gotta go. Thanks for all the great questions and comments. See you again soon.


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