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White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, September 22, 2004; 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.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org. You can e-mail him at froomkin@washingtonpost.com.


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The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome. I'm eager to read your questions and comments.

President Bush actually took three questions yesterday (!) and is expected to give a joint news conference tomorrow, with Iraqi interim prime minister Ayad Allawi at his side. I'm trying to think up some good questions the press should ask. Got any ideas?

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Chicago, Ill.: Dan,

Have we seen the end of political debates? With the organization of the presidential debates this year, I have to agree that they have turned into nothing more than stump speeches occurring simultaneously.

Dan Froomkin: Oh, that's a good question to start with. I wrote about the debates in yesterday's column, and I published this kind of funny, kind of sad memo of understanding hammered out by the two sides.

It doesn't sound like a "debate" to me so much as an opportunity to spew heavily prepped soundbites. But I could be pleasantly surprised. For instance, it does seem like each candidate will have a chance to "respond" to the other's answer. I hope that they actually react to each other, rather than just issue their canned speechlets.

What do you guys think?

There were two good debate stories I didn't have room to link to this morning, here and here.

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Houston, Tex.: Dan,

As much as I want things to go smoothly in Iraq, I can't help but feel like Bush is trapped in the LBJ "light at the end of the tunnel" mentality where the President's words and the reality of the situation on the ground don't match. Is there any chance that we'll see some candidness about Iraq from the President?

Dan Froomkin: What you've seen is what you'll get.

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Lons, France: Interim president Iyad Allawi will in effect campaign for Bush/Cheney in the coming days. Questioning one's character and scrutinizing old events seems to be a major part of US politics at this time. Do you think the NYT story "Ex-C.I.A. Aides Say Iraq Leader Helped Agency in 90's Attacks" (June 9, 2004, Wednesday) will come up.
It is somewhat ironic to have a man suspected of organizing a bombing campaign now touting democracy and the fight against terrorism.

Dan Froomkin: I think Allawi's ties to the CIA are going to be brought up as he emerges as the poster child for Iraq, yes. Does someone have a working link to that story?

(I will note, chauvanistically, that Washington Post story URLs work forever, for free; the New York Times people want money after a week. Dontcha hate that?)

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Austin, Tex.: I saw that Pres. Bush took questions yesterday. I noticed that he picked on specific people. Were the questions screen or what? My comment to the president would be... if all senior CIA officers do is "guessing" then I am very qualified to be one.

Dan Froomkin: Typically, when Bush does one of his photo-op specials, particularly with a foreign leader, he'll take two questions from the U.S. press and those, it is understood, will be from the AP and Reuters.

I think a lot of people found Bush's comment about CIA "guessing" inappropriate. But he couldn't have been surprised by the question, so I wonder why he said it.

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Portland, Maine: Dan, I agree with Chicago. I will not be watching the debates as I already know the candidates' stump positions. Since they can't interact with each other and have so little time for answers, what's the point?

Dan Froomkin: So you can get a better sense of who you'd rather have a beer with?

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Lancaster, Pa.: First, let me say how much I enjoy reading your insights, thank you. The President's speech to the UN yesterday was really challenging to listen to. I appreciate that he was speaking more to his base here at home, but don't you think that the other members of the UN had to leave there thinking that he clearly needs meds? The international press community has not been reporting on the fantasies that he spoke of relative to the situation in Iraq and Afganastan. Why would his advisors let him give that speach?

Dan Froomkin: I think it was an eloquent summary of his world view.

I am going to be interested to see more of how the international press covers it. Maybe my colleague Jefferson Morley will even oblige us in his wonderful World Opinion Roundup column.

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Clarendon, Va.: What has happened to the presidential "press conference" ? It seems like Pres. Bush has not held as many of these as past presidents.

Dan Froomkin: Yeah, not even close. Here is a Washington Post editorial on the topic.

Here is a Paul Farhi story from The Post last week.

I think it is probably not a coincidence that Kerry finally had one yesterday, and Bush is having one tomorrow. In fact, I think Kerry should have one every day, as a challenge to the president.

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Laurel, Md.: What's the deal with Scott McClellan? I know that the White House Press Secreatry is always speaks for the administration, but his constant lies and distortions are incredible. He never answers a question straight, praises Bush like he is God, and seems to be one of the sleaziest people in a sleazy administration.

Dan Froomkin: Scott has become even more repetitive and even more political over the last several months, I don't think there's any doubt about that.

I haven't checked, but I'm told by some folks that his politicization of the podium is way beyond previous precedents.

And I'm kind of surprised that no one has called him on this.

Well, wait. Someone did write something. Joe Klein writes in his Time magazine column this week that "Scott McClellan is beginning to sound like Baghdad Bob, the infamous spokesman for Saddam who announced hallucinatory Iraqi victories as the American troops closed in on Baghdad."

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Portland, Ore.: Hi Dan,

Love your column.

Here's an obvious question for Alawi and Bush:

Given that major population centers are in the hands of insurgents, how will it be possible to hold elections? Will elections be held if these areas remain out of government control, and if so, how can the elections be considered legitimate?

Dan Froomkin: That may be the question of the day tomorrow. Well put.

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Question For President Bush: Have you thought of any mistakes that you've made yet?

Dan Froomkin: I hear that one a lot.

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Bethesda, Md.: Mr. President,

What will happen to the war on terror if John Kerry is elected President?

Dan Froomkin: Is that a softball -- or a trick question?

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Woodley Park, Washington, D.C.: Dan: How about this set of questions: "Mr. President, why are attendees at your 'Ask President Bush' events screened to allow only Bush supporters to attend? Why are Kerry supporters who manage to attend your events arrested by the Secret Service? Are you afraid to answer questions from Americans from all sides of the political spectrum, not just those who support you?"

Dan Froomkin: Well, he did agree to take questions from "soft Kerry supporters" at the town-hall-style debate.

In the next few days, I think I'm going to pull together a bunch of links to articles etc. about what attending a Bush campaign event is like. Apparently, it's a lot like a revival meeting.

(Mark Leibovich had this take on it this morning in The Post's Style section.)

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Presidential Questions...: Mr. President, How come when you change your mind it's adjusting to changing situations, but when John Kerry changes his mind, it's "Flip-flopping"?

Dan Froomkin: A fascinating question.

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Washington, D.C.: Hiya Dan

Instead of the current debate on debates, how would it be if the candidates had to debate each other once a week during the entire campaign season (from convention to election day)? There may be more congeniality if the candidates had to share a stage once a week. There may be more substantive discussion and less sound bites if the candidates have to be accountable to each other and the questioners for comments they make each week. My view is that there need to be more debates and not fewer. Whaddya think?

Dan Froomkin: I am going to abandon my usual journalistic restraint here, and say I agree with you completely. How healthy for the country would that be!

Imagine. Instead of their minions taking nasty shots, exacerbating this country's divisions and distracting us from the critical questions of the day, imagine the two of them sitting down every week and talking about the issues!

Does anyone disagree with that?

Not that there's any hope that it could happen.

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Northern Virginia: Dear Dan:
I heard on the radio (in the background) when Bush greeted Kofi Annan as "Hey Kofi".
I don't know about other people but I felt disgusted that a US President seemed to have no respect for the office of the UN Secretary General. I don't tnink Bush would like to be greeted as "Hey George" especially in the public as he did Kofi Annan. I have not seen any reaction on this, what is your take?
Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: My sense is that the White House was very keen on Bush being perceived as convivial at the U.N., particularly with Annan, ergo the banter, the gracious toast, etc.

That way the growing clash between the two gentlemen and their institutions might not be so obvious?

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Brunswick, Maine: In all the recent news items about GWB's National Guard service, I haven't seen a single response from GWB himself. Why can't a reporter simply ask him why he didn't follow that direct order and take the physical? AND did you or didn't you show up for the May-August dates in which you were required? When the President is out on the campaign trail, isn't he available to answer questions?

Dan Froomkin: He did answer a question about the Guard in his interview with the Manchester Union Leader on Friday.

"I did everything they asked me to do and met my requirements and was honorably discharged. I'm proud of my service in the Guard."

To get specific answers the likes of what you're talkin about would require at the very least a series of questions and some pretty firm follow-ups, and no reporter, to my knowledge, has had both the opportunity or the will to do that. Plus, it still might not work.

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Kennesaw, Ga.: Hi, Dan. A question for you about the upcoming debates: have you picked up any concern from Republicans that President Bush may be underpreparing for them?

What I mean is that he has restricted his campaign appearances to stump speeches and Q&As before screened, friendly audiences. This looks good on TV and must be comfortable for him, but the debates will be a very different setting. Is this an issue for the people you talk to?

Dan Froomkin: My sense is that his aides think that perfecting his folksy answers to (admittedly softball) questions is excellent preparation for the debates. He is getting a real visceral sense of what "works" with his audience.

That may be a much better use of his time than making sure he has a specific answer to any conceivable pointed question.

Instead, he's got some winning answers that he'll apply to whatever questions he gets, and win over the audience that way. At least, that's my hunch.

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Partisanville, Okla.: Dear Mr. Froomkin,
By expressing a desire to see the candidates "sit down" and talk about the issues facing us all, you expose yourself as a Republican mole! Why not have them "stand up" and express their feelings?
Is it because Kerry towers over Bush?

Dan Froomkin: Very funny.

Indeed, as Jonathan Pitts writes in the Baltimore Sun today: "This year's rule banning 'risers' of any kind could actually matter, as the shorter candidate has only won twice in U.S. history, according to Carlin, including Jimmy Carter in 1976. That would seem to help the 6-foot-4 Kerry against Bush, a mere 6-footer."

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Columbus, Ohio: I would ask President Bush if he thinks we will be in Iraq as long or longer than we have been in the Balkan states. As a follow-up I would ask him, why were voices that said it would take that much time in the administration played down before the invasion.

Dan Froomkin: Good ones.

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Tough guy talk:

On the other hand: "White House communications director Dan Bartlett said that when the public compares Bush and Kerry on Iraq, they consistently put their faith in the president. As such, Bartlett said, the White House welcomes any attacks Kerry plans to launch. 'We believe each day that we're debating the war and debating Iraq, it's an advantage to us,' he said."

In other words, bring it on?

Dan Froomkin: Yup. But will it come back to haunt him?

This Kerry-is-weak thing has really worked for them.

Here's how John King of CNN put it last night, with Paula Zahn.

"The more dicey the situation in Iraq has gotten in the last month, the president's ratings on Iraq have gone up. To many, that makes absolutely no sense. But it is proof to the Bush people that so far, their argument has worked that Senator Kerry is weaker.....

"That the American people, even though Iraq is a mess, they somehow trust President Bush more to deal with it. That is counterintuitive, since he is the incumbent president and this was his plan and his war.

"But the Bush people have succeeded so far in convincing the American people that, whatever you think of this president's handling of Iraq, Senator Kerry is weaker. Senator Kerry has to change that dynamic to win the election."

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New York City, N.Y.: "no reporter, to my knowledge, has had both the opportunity or the will to do that"

That is so true . . . it is very sad that the members of the press who do have access lack the courage to do the job that is required of them

Dan Froomkin: Look, I sure would like to have the answers to those questions, but if I had a limited time with the President, would that be at the top of my list?

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Boston, Mass.: I would really appreciate it if a member of the press corps asked the President for details on the "Ownership Society" that he has touched upon during his campaign. (hint hint)

Dan Froomkin: That would be nice. But I don't think he has them.

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Portland, Maine: Re: Joe Klein

I'm concerned about Scott's credibility. If the press corps no longer takes what he says seriously, then the daily briefings lose all meaning. This is one of the few access points to the President. If McLellan can't be trusted, how will we communicate with the White House?

Dan Froomkin: The press briefing are certainly losing their value. I don't think anyone in the corps would disagree with me on that.

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Delmar, N.Y.: Dan Bartlett, White House Director of Communications was on-line yesterday at the official White House site and responded to a series of hardball questions about Iraq and President Bush's National Guard Serivce. The type of questions Mr. Bartlett posted and responded to were in sharp contrast to the kinds of questions that Bush Administration officials tpically post at this site. What gives? Doesn't the host of an on line chat such as the one you are now conducting have editorial control over the questions they post and respond to? Why would Mr. Bartlett give the impression that the White House is under attack and then abruptly cut short the on-line session (he took only 12 questions)?

washingtonpost.com: Ask The White House (Sept. 21)

Dan Froomkin: I give Bartlett props for taking the hard ones. I'm quite sure it was his decision to do so. This stands in stark contrast to Andy Card, by the way, who only cracks jokes when he's online.

I think this is a good place to answer serious questions, you will no doubt be shocked to hear.

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Douglas, Alaska: I would ask the president does he still have any faith in the CIA as when questioned about their predictions about the situation in Iraq. He is quoted as saying they are "guessing". Doesn't he believe they are making accurate guesses?

Dan Froomkin: Seems fair.

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If I had a limited time with the President, would that be at the top of my list?: Thus proving the poster's point. Instead of nailing down the truth, you trade off for career enhancing access to fill bylined articles.

Thanks from the bottom of our hearts,

The American Voter

Dan Froomkin: Well, see, people are dying in Iraq, children are going hungry right here, old people can't afford drugs, young people can't get healthcare, there aren't enough jobs, and you really think those are the most important questions I should ask?

I don't entirely disagree with you. As a journalist, I am deeply annoyed when a newsmaker can go this long without answering questions that are in the public's interest to have the answers to. But you get my point.

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Norfolk, Va.: What if the press corps decided as a whole to just not show up for a couple of days to the briefing until they started getting some straight answers?

Dan Froomkin: What, you see this as punishment? No reporters in the basement? In three days, it'd be a bowling alley!

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Washington, D.C.: Was the White House press secretary always essentially a publicly paid part of the President's campaign team, or has the Bush White House perfected this usurpation of public funds? Why should taxpayers pay his salary?

Dan Froomkin: This is an excellent question, and I don't have the answer. Let me look into it. If any of you can help me with my research, e-mail me at froomkin@washingtonpost.com.

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Dan Froomkin: OK everyone, I have to run. Thanks as always for the fantastic questions, and sorry I couldn't get to more of them.

See you in two weeks here, and every day at mid-day on the home page.

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