White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, May 14, 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'll answer your questions, take your comments and links, and point you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, May 14 at 1 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.

Click here to read past White House Watch discussions.


Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome. Today's column (out very shortly) is about President Bush's declaration that he has given up golf in an act of solidarity with the families of the dead and wounded in Iraq. It's an assertion so redolent with inappropriateness and insincerity and cluelessness -- so close to self-satire -- that I didn't really know where to start. I still don't.

One thing we possibly can do today: Help me come up with a list of other things Bush should give up.

Also: Am I being uncharitable? Is there some reason I'm missing to waste priceless one-on-one Bush interview time asking him who he thinks will win on "American Idol," or who does the best Bush impression?


Richmond, Va.: Looks like President Bush is taking on a kind of farewell victory lap around the Mideast, but is also there to "beg" the Saudis again to help out with the price of oil. Is anyone in that region really paying attention to him, or are they, like many people here, waiting for the new president?

Dan Froomkin: Well, in yesterday's column, I called it The Opposite of a Victory Lap. I think the timing is awful. And no, I don't think anyone's paying much attention to him, with a few notable exceptions. I think everyone's watching to see if there are any overt signs of military action against Iran, either by us or by Israel.

And his possible successors are watching. See, for instance, Massimo Calabresi, who writes for Time: "For Barack Obama, whose candidacy is built on change, it's a chance to remind some voters what they want change from. For John McCain it's test of his strategy of backing Bush in theory, while edging away from him in practice."

Calabresi also adds, somewhat ominously: "Bush's missteps in the region have tied his successors hands, committing the U.S. to a stabilizing presence in and around Iraq and strengthening Iran to the point that it does not need to deal. But in negotiating a long-term military relationship with Baghdad and backing Israel's redrawing of its borders, Bush has committed the U.S. to positions it will be difficult, if not impossible, for his successor to change. Privately, administration officials admit they are trying to lock in some of their policies. Which means by this time next year, Bush's successor will be the one struggling to address public discontent with the U.S. approach to the region."


Oakland, Calif.: Although Bush is considered a lame duck by many, he and his subordinates still wield incredible powers through the bureaucracy. A rule change here, a few lines deleted from a regulation over there, and things like torture or mountain-removal mining can be made legal. Are journalists increasing their oversight of what's happening in the Federal Register and other bureaucratic areas? Reading the Federal Register and working their sources would probably a better use of the White House correspondents' time than going to content-free briefings and gaggles.

Dan Froomkin: I couldn't agree more. But no, I see no sign of this, at least not yet. See my April 30 chat for further discussion of Bush's presumed attempts to lock things in for his successor. See the Calabresi quote above.

And stay tuned: I'm working on a bigger piece on this very subject.


Questioning Bush: In terms of asking Bush irrelevant questions, I guess if you know that he's not going to answer anything relevant, at least asking all the stupid superficial questions gives a stark demonstration of how completely irrelevant and shallow the man is.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks -- I knew I was forgetting something.


Albany, N.Y.: From your column on Tuesday, Bush cried at his daughter's wedding. I'm confused -- if he cries, then how will he be able to face down (insert antagonistic foreign leader here)? And still with the optimistic rug? Jeez, enough already.

Dan Froomkin: Bush actually cries a lot ... but am I sensing some Bush Exhaustion setting in?


Dan Froomkin: My column is up! Bush's Idea of Sacrifice. Go read it and come right back.


Arlington, Va.: For a rich man of leisure like Bush, perhaps giving up golf really is a big sacrifice.

Dan Froomkin: Well, I'm sure he'll take it up again as soon as he leaves office.

Incidentally, Mark Knoller, the CBS Radio White House correspondent who keeps the most amazingly meticulous records of such things, tells me that Bush played seven sessions of golf in 2001; eight in 2002; and nine in 2003, ending on October 13, 2003.

And according to New York Times reporter Don Van Natta, who wrote a book in 2003 called "First Off The Tee: White House Golf Tales," golf was a pretty big deal for Bush (and his dad, and most presidents.)


Falls Church, Va.: I admit this is a very selfish and impractical wish on my part, but I would like President George W. Bush to give up talking for the rest of this year. I would like to hear him say nothing at all until the American people replace him.

Dan Froomkin: Not very practical indeed.


Boynton Beach, Fla.: I'd like to see Bush give up his use of fear of emboldening the enemy. He's the one who can be accused of aiding and abetting al-Qaeda, by taking us into Iraq when the war needed to be fought in Afghanistan.

Dan Froomkin: Well, I'd like to see the press bring up your very salient point as often as he brings up his. And see my July 27 column, Al Qaeda's Best Publicist.


Olney, Md.: It looks like the Pentagon may have been behind "planting" retired officers as analysts for news outlets. Do you think this can be tied to the White House? Is their any evidence of White House involvement?

Dan Froomkin: There's no question at all that the Pentagon organized it. As for White House involvement, that's a very good question. There's no hard evidence thus far, but I'm not sure anyone's really digging for it -- and it's hard to imagine they weren't plugged in to some extent.

Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald lays out the case for journalists to aggressively enquire: "Was Karl Rove involved in the military analyst program?"


Ocala, Fla.: Good to have you back. I know that there was a lot to catch up with after even a brief hiatus, but this story seemed to scream for a mention.

washingtonpost.com: Ex-officials: Bush administration ignored Iraq corruption (AP, March 13)

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Yeah, even taking three days off creates a ferocious backlog.


Northvile, N.Y.: Dan, I must admit that Bush has totally baffled me this time on this Middle East jaunt -- a peace plan by the end of his term? Why not a cure for cancer by the middle of November? If he wanted a distraction from his disastrous record, I thought that's what Iran was for. There must be more economists who are enthusiastic about suspending the gas tax than there are diplomats who think that this initiative has a chance of accomplishing anything, aside from scoring public relations points with people who have limited attention spans.

It just makes no sense, unless there's something secretly going on in the background -- perhaps the Egyptians brokering a deal that can be announced soon, with us leaping in to take credit? Perhaps Bush just wants to get out of town? Maybe he's just dumb enough to believe his own PR? I don't understand it. Do you?

Dan Froomkin: I think he believes there is a outside chance that he can press Olmert and Abbas to come to some agreement about at least the outline of a plan, which would be a very nice addition to an otherwise sorry Middle East legacy. But I'd say the chances are nearly nil.

Even more cynically, however, one has to wonder if he's not laying the ground for military action against Iran. That seems like the more likely Bush finale.


France: Bonjour, dear Dan. After seven years of false promises, Bush is off to the Middle East for a peace plan, we are told. He'll be meeting the discredited and crook Olmert, and a Mahmoud Abbas who isn't even the shadow of himself. Isn't the Bush trip rather the preparation of a joint Israeli/American attack on Iran before leaving? Your column yesterday stressed this point. By doing so, he shatters all hopes for change (Obama), create tension and fear, and allows McCain an easy access to the White House. Is it a possible scenario? Merci.

Dan Froomkin: I think attacking Iran, like almost everything else Bush has done in the Middle East, likely would backfire spectacularly -- but Bush probably doesn't think so, which is worrisome to say the least.

(Incidentally, Alistair Lyon of Reuters raises the possibility today that the new, troubling crisis in Lebanon was the result of White House intervention gone awry.)

That said, fear is definitely a fertile climate for Bush and his fellow travelers. Sure beats contempt, which is where they're at right now.


Farmington Hills, Mich.: Dan, you aren't being uncharitable at all. If something is inane it should be called out as such. One question I really would like to see asked to Bush/Cheney is, considering the precedent they have set for presidential power and secrecy, how have they handicapped their party's ability to challenge what looks almost certain to be a Democratic President who will be teamed with a Democratic Congress?

Dan Froomkin: That would be a good one. Thanks.


New York: We have seen many presidents appear dark and gloomy in the worst of times -- especially when the press turns on them. Do you think President Bush is so ebullient because the press (and TV opinions shows, and political Web sites) are so harsh and vicious that they have lost their potency? E.g. -- a backlash from Walter Cronkite is a whole lot more painful then a backlash from Olbermann or O'Reilly.

Dan Froomkin: No, I don't think that's it. I think it's a variety of factors, among them:

There's more of course.


Richmond, Va.: What's next for top Bush aides? It seems likely that the president will ride off into the sunset, secure in his own mind that he did what he thought best for the country, never to play a meaningful role in our national politics again. But which of his top advisors are we likely to see playing prominent roles in national politics? Condi Rice? Karl Rove -- nah, he's retired into commentary. Will any of them escape unscathed by the debacle of Bush's presidency? Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: Washington is a town full of second acts; I wouldn't write off any of them. Consider, for instance, who was briefing reporters on Air Force One yesterday on its way to Tel Aviv: Elliot Abrams!


St. Paul, Minn.: I know this president has no shame, but do you suppose he gave up golf because he saw how obnoxious he was in the clip of him on the golf course in the move "Fahrenheit 9/11"?

Dan Froomkin: I wondered about that myself, but the timing is a bit off. The movie came out in June 2004; Bush quit golfing in October 2003 (and says he quit in August 2003).

One of the most memorable scenes in that movie, as you point out -- it's at the very end of the trailer -- shows Bush saying: "We must stop the terror. I call upon all nations to do everything they can stop these terrorist killers. Thank you. Now watch this drive."

Incidentally, Sheigh Crabtree writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Michael Moore is plotting a follow-up to his 2004 documentary 'Fahrenheit 9/11.'

"Although the film is being kept under wraps, it is said that Moore plans to pick up where he left off four years ago, to examine the fallout from eight years of the Bush administration's policies."


Winnipeg, Canada: I'd like to see Dick Cheney sacrifice hunting trips -- and I'm betting his friends would, too.

Dan Froomkin: Funny. He did give them up for a while, after shooting his buddy. But then he started up again.


Springfield, Va.: The golf comment is bad enough, but from the way the question was asked, it sure seems like Mike Allen already knew the answer. Did the White House think this was something they needed to get out there?

Dan Froomkin: Funny you should mention that. It did seem awfully convenient -- like Allen already knew the answer. That doesn't mean it was intentionally leaked, though -- it might have been something Allen just picked up along the way. But it would be nice for Allen to address that directly.


New York: There were no pronouncements or press releases, but the president quietly decided to give up golf, and you verbally crucify him. It was a gentlemanly gesture for very valid reasons, so why do you make this story something that it is not (that President Bush is looking for accolades for his self-defined huge sacrifice)? It was a quiet, gentle thing to do, and admirable. But you whip on the shrill high school newspaper column, and for what reason? Blind, abject hatred?

Dan Froomkin: Well, you're right that Bush didn't call attention to it, at least not until now.

But giving him credit for this would require assuming that he's telling the truth; that there's a huge difference between golfing and, say, biking or fishing; and that it came amid other gentlemanly gestures appropriate to someone leading a country at war; etc.


Washington: Dan, your's is the chat I look forward to most on The Post! When it comes to media critique, you outshine The Post's supposed expert, Howard Kurtz. That all said, here's what I want to know: Did Deadeye Dick Cheney's trip earlier this week to Mississippi help or hurt the candidate there? The Republican candidate, that is. You know, the one who lost (yet another heavily Republican-leaning district). My guess is that it couldn't have helped, but did it really hurt?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. And that's an excellent question. Adam Nossiter kind of implies in today's New York Times that it didn't help: "Mr. Davis had been hoping for a large turnout in his home of DeSoto County, where roughly 15 percent of the district's voters live, and which is solidly Republican and mostly white. But a last-minute appearance for him by Mr. Cheney on Monday apparently failed to rally his base sufficiently; indeed a modest room at a local convention center was hardly packed."

But did it hurt? Did it inspire anti-Cheney voters more than pro-Cheney voters? Hard to say. Signs certainly aren't good for the GOP right now, though, and if I were McCain and the GOP leadership, I might well decide it's time for Bush and Cheney to lay low.


Omaha, Neb.: The smirk -- wipe that off Bush's face and replace it with something more sincere. I cringe every time I look at the man.

Dan Froomkin: It's the ingratiating smile I see with greater frequency these days, for what it's worth.


Menomonie, Wis.: Good morning, sir. You colleague, Dana Priest, has an excellent story about how the U.S. is drugging up deportees. Not even suspected terrorists, just deportees. Why is The Washington Post the only news outlet reporting this? This is a big story, and it violates international law. Why don't stories like this get as much play as trivial issues such as Pastor Wright or Bush's golf score or Barack's bowling score? I'm so old I remember when big-issue stories were covered for days. Thank you.

Dan Froomkin: The Post's series on medical care in immigrant prisons, Careless Detention, indeed is essential reading.

In other news outlets' defense, it's impossible to match a story of this caliber and breadth quickly. (CBS's 60 Minutes did a segment -- in collaboration with The Post.) But let's hope that others try to advance the story, rather than just give up on it.


Washington: I am disgusted by this golf thing. It's not just another example of our president making a mockery of his time in office, it is an insult to Americans that he would equate sacrificing golf to the sacrifices our armed forces and their loved ones and friends must make. If the president wants to send a message about his support for the troops, end stop-loss, provide better mental health benefits for returned servicemen and women, increase leave times as Webb's legislation proposed, etc. I don't see how you are speechless ... I have a lot of words for the president on this one...

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I'm also reminded of Bush's response when asked by a German tabloid in May 2006 to name the most wonderful moment of his presidency. He said it came while he was on vacation, fishing on his private lake. I asked at the time: "Is it possible that President Bush doesn't really enjoy his job?"


San Francisco: Seems like Bush is being steered willingly into the role of National Court Jester. Maybe he feels like the only thing he has left to offer a deeply disgruntled nation is the hollow ability to mock himself on occasion.

Dan Froomkin: Yeah, no. While it reads almost like satire, I don't think Bush was in any way being self-mocking. I saw no self-awareness on display at all.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: Bush's pledge to give up golf is the most unbelievably offensive, asinine thing I've heard. He shows solidarity with the troops by giving up golf? Wouldn't giving up war be a more worthy move of solidarity?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks.


Sun Prairie, Wis.: Dan, I'll grant your point about President Bush's rather limited concept of sacrifice during wartime. Can you name another major national politician with a different idea? I'll give you John McCain, who paid his dues in this respect a long time ago, and at least is donating royalties from the books he's been involved with to charity. Anyone else?

Dan Froomkin: That's a good question. Obviously, the next president's first obligation is to be the president -- and take whatever action he or she thinks is best for the nation and the troops. But it would be good to ask the candidates what sorts of sacrifices they think are appropriate in wartime for the public -- and for themselves.


Alexandria, Va.: How easy will it be for a Democratic president (because if McCain wins I don't see him doing this) to negate any executive order that Bush issues in his last months in office?

Dan Froomkin: Technically, it's easy. No executive order, signing statement or any other presidential directive is binding on the next president, unless he or she chooses to keep it in place. That said, the next president isn't likely to overturn things willy-nilly. It's a careful and possibly time-consuming process.


Dan Froomkin: Okay, thanks everyone. Gotta run. See you again here soon, and every weekday afternoon on the home page (and at washingtonpost.com/whitehousewatch).


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