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White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, April 6, 2005; 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.

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Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone, and welcome. Lots to talk about today, including President Bush's comments on the Social Security trust fund (trust fund? anyone seen a trust fund?), the Valerie Plame case news, bubble watch and so much more.

Bring it on!

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Washington, D.C. : Regarding the trust fund vs bunch of IUO's -- I can see how well bush must have done at Harvard Business School. Isn't our whole concept of "money" and banking just a bunch of IOU's? We don't use gold bars or beads or gold earings for purchases. We don't send gold bars through cyberspace. Maybe we're not a bunch of "Einstiens" out here but we're not STUPID. Aren't people sick of his insulting our intelligence?

Dan Froomkin: Well, you may get it, but most people don't.

I think it's safe to say that the White House is taking advantage of this confusion to try to increase doubt about Social Security's future, and possibly get some changes made.

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Dryden, N.Y.: What's behind the gratuitous Bush insult to Jimmy Carter? I'm a Clinton fan and even I thought Carter was the better representative to the Pope's funeral.

Dan Froomkin: Tongues are indeed wagging in Washington about this one.

There is no love lost between Carter and Bush.

Remember Carter's speech at the Democratic convention?

Now, mind you, Clinton's speech was not exactly sweetness and light ("Strength and wisdom are not opposing values") but since then, Clinton and the Bushes have become very palsy-walsy. (Clinton and Bush the elder are of course tsunami travel buddies now.)

So the three presidentes are likely to enjoy each other's company on the way to Rome. It would not have been like that with the stern, moralistic Carter around.

That said, the official line is that Carter graciously made way for others when he heard there was only room for five.

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Morgantown, W.Va.: Hi Dan,
Just wanted to say that I loved your use of google search links to illustrate the non-responsiveness of press secretary Scott McClellan's answers.
Priceless.
We shouldn't be surprised one day when he is replaced with a robot that just gives canned talking points to whatever questions that are asked.

Dan Froomkin: Thank you. I got a lot of very positive feedback on that yesterday.

(In yesterday's column about the blogger who asked Scott McClellan a question, I hyperlinked Scott's answer to Google searches showing how many times he had used those same stock non-answers previously.)

I may just have to do that again.

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Alexandria, Va.: Dan --

What do you think of Pres. Bush's statement Tues. that the U.S. Treasury bonds in the Social Security trust fund are worthless? Considering that foreigners hold more than $4 trillion of U.S. debt, what would happen if the rest of the world took him seriously and decided to dump their U.S. bonds?

Could this possibly be Shrub's stupidest statement ever?

Dan Froomkin: Well, I have a pretty good idea of where you stand.

Today's column has a lot on this issue.

And while there is some evidence that Bush himself doesn't fully comprehend all the details here (remember, for instance, my March 7 column about how he confused everyone when he suddenly described his carve-out proposal as an add-on?) I can assure you that his aides know exactly what they're doing. Stupid like a fox.

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Portland, Maine: Dan, you just wrote:

I think it's safe to say that the White House is taking advantage of this confusion to try to increase doubt about Social Security's future, and possibly get some changes made.

Isn't that extremely unethical?

Dan Froomkin: It's politics.

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Chatham, N.J.: One of the things that frustrates me about White House Press Briefings is that, unlike reporters in the room, those of us who read transcripts have no way of knowing who is asking what question. At times I'd like to see how a person's questioning in a press conference is reflected in what he or she reports after the event, but with no idea which media outlet to check I can't -- and let's not even mention my reaction when I read a question like Jeff Gannon's with no idea who asked it.
I have no idea why reporters' names and/or employers don't appear on the White House website. Has this always been the policy with prior administrations? And is there any place (other than selected excerpts in your column of course!) where the average reader can get an idea of who is asking what?

Dan Froomkin: Fascinating point.

I think the Gannon affair, and all the ensuing discussion about the other characters still in the briefing room, sometimes asking pointed, bizarre and opinionated questions at times, suggests that the public should absolutely know who's asking.

Excellent idea.

I believe it has always been this way, but I will ask the press office if they would consider changing their policy. And I'll report back.

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Honoring the Pope: OK, so the POTUS ordered U.S. flags to be flown at half staff, which I can understand from the justification that the Pope was a head of state. But it still seems disproportionate.

For comparison, do you happen to know when else Bush has ordered flags to half staff? And were any of those other times in honor of heads of state, religious leaders, or other non-Americans? Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: For a whole week? Only Ronald Reagan, any time recently.

This was clearly far and above foreign-head-of-state treatment.

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Washington, D.C.: I have met and read a variety of accounts of Democrats and those who disagree with the President's Social Security plan being excluded from the "60 stops in 60 days" tour. These "town hall meetings" are being funded with taxpayer money.
Why aren't more news outlets questioning the White House and the Treasury Department about excluding those who disagree with their Social Security plan from the "town hall meetings." If a person can be excluded not for a security reason, but for their beliefs, isn't this a violation of a citizen's First Amendment rights? Since the tour is using taxpayer money, couldn't the inclusion of only supportive people in the meetings be a misappropriation of money for a partisan event?

Dan Froomkin: It is a mystery to me. You can read what coverage it does get daily (or nearly daily) in my column, under the rubric: "Bubble Watch."

Today's installment includes a letter from two Democratic representatives calling for a congressional investigation.

Now, two Republican representatives from Colorado have expressed concern, too, but I don't think that at this point it's too likely that the Republican leadership will let such an investigation start up.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Do you think the President realizes that a Dollar Bill is not even an IOU? It is a valueless piece of paper that we use to represent the abstract concept of a 'dollar.' Imagine the ensuing mayhem if John Q Public realizes he's been had!

Dan Froomkin: I hope I don't get blamed for that.

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New York, N.Y.: Isn't Judge Silberman's enabling of the endless, and empty, Clinton investigations an important angle to report regarding his recent WMD report and position on this committee?

When will the Senate Intelligence Committee get around to releasing it's report on White House decision making regarding WMDS? This was delayed in the fall because it would "affect the election."

Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: I found Silberman's background (Michelle Goldberg in Salon described him as being "near the febrile center of the largest political scandals of the past two decades") worth mentioning. In fact, I think the background of all the members was important, ergo the profiles I put together.

Because the commission operated in such secrecy, and because the initial news stories about the report inevitably concentrated on what it said, we are entirely in the dark about the commission's internal dynamics. (Except for McCain's assertion that everything was hunky-dory.)

I for one would like to know, was it Silberman's show? Or did he actually let Robb run things too? Knowing what I know about their personalities, the former is a distinct possibility. And I counted words in their joint press conference. Silberman said three words for every one of Robb's -- plus he jumped in to answer questions specifically posed to Robb, etc.

I'd like someone to do a reconstruction of how the commission operated.

Such a reconstruction would also address how they came to that most startling of conclusions: That the intelligence process wasn't political.

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Arlington, Va.: Did President Carter send Gerald Ford to the funerals of Pope Paul or Pope John Paul I in 1978?

Dan Froomkin: I don't think so, but I'm not sure. Readers?

For John Paul I, the U.S. delegation was headed by Lillian Carter, the mother of President Carter. It also included Sen. Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo), Mayor Edward Koch of New York and Connecticut Gov. Ella Grasso.

For Paul VI, just a few weeks before that, Vice President Mondale led the delegation, which included Rosalynn Carter.

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Washington, D.C.: Re yesterday's column. Mr. Brewer, of BTC, wanted to go to the White House briefing because "I became aware of the need for an amateur media to do what the professionals were either too deluded or too afraid to do." He asked a question about the WMD report. And he got a typical non-responsive McClellan response. Mr. Brewer printed the question and answer in his blog, as did you. So what's the point? Are we to believe that this is what "the professionals" were "too deluded or too afraid to do?" Sorry, but I don't get the point. Lots of reporters ask McClellan lots of good questions every day and almost all get answers like the one Mr. Brewer got. The good ones among them then do some reporting--what Mr. Brewer, despite his career shift from science to journalism, apparently isn't interested in. Asking "tough" questions in a public forum, especially when you know you won't get an answer, isn't reporting.

Dan Froomkin: Your point, that neither the question nor the answer were precedent shattering, is correct.

But the fact that a blogger asked it was. And it turned out to be a nice case study for the charade that is the modern press briefing.

I wouldn't mind seeing some more bloggers in there, asking questions -- hopefully some from the right as well as the left.

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Las Vegas, Nev.: What ever happened to the idea of reporting the non answers provided to the press by the press secretary. The question, followed by the response. It could be a weekly item in the Post with some really germain questions and the not so germain responses. It's time the readers got a first hand view of serious questions not being responded to.

Dan Froomkin: Look, every industry has its weaknesses. One of the newspaper industry's is its jealous guarding of column inches and resistance to using that space to say "we don't know" or "nothing happened."

And it's an easily exploited weakness by figures in the news.

I try to do what you said fairly often, but even I, with my theoretically endless news hole, find myself challenged by the fact that many of these nonanswers go on forever. Quoting them ad infinitum would not be a great service to anyone.

That said, YES. I agree. I think every newspaper (and certainly every newspaper Web site) should start a "Frequently Unanswered Questions" feature (although perhaps with a different acronym) in which questions that the public wants -- and has a right -- to know the answers to are listed, until they are in fact answered.

For starters, I kind of like a variation on the question that lefty blogger blurted out on Friday (see yesterday's column), i.e.: "Is the doctrine of preemption still in effect, and if so how would it work?"

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Washington, D.C.: Hey Dan -- Maybe Cheney isn't going to the pope's funeral because he'll dress inappropriately... again. Can't you just see him in a gondolier's outfit? Or maybe a soccer uniform. The mind boggles.

Dan Froomkin: I must admit I did think of Cheney and his parka (see Robin Givhan's famous story in The Post) when I was reading the dress-code instructions for the press corps.

Those instructions, by the way, are as follows:

"WOMEN MUST WEAR A SKIRT (NO PANTS); MEN AND WOMEN MUST WEAR DARK SHOES ONLY - NO TENNIS SHOES WILL BE ALLOWED

"Men must wear a dark business suit and a dark tie; women should wear a dark suit with skirt at knee or below the knee level and may choose to wear the traditional black mantilla, although this is not obligatory."

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Re: Carter: So, if Carter only sent Democrats to the papal funerals in 1978, the newsworthy event as to John Paul II's funeral is not the exclusion of Carter but the inclusion of Clinton, right? In other words, President Bush broke with Cater's practice in order to be more bipartisan and inclusive? I assume that's what the tongues are wagging about.

Dan Froomkin: What an interesting observation. If that is the case, that would absolutely be worth noting. Thank you.

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Washington, D.C. : What is going on with the whole Carter sitution, I have read many conflicting reports regarding this...

Dan Froomkin: Well, this just in from the gaggle on Air Force One:

"Q What about President Carter? I know you dealt with this yesterday a little bit, but is there -- do you have any further word on whether he was actually invited, and declined?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I expressed to your news organization, as well as some others who called, he was invited. We did reach out to him to invite him to participate in the delegation, and you all saw the statement from his office, as well. It was his decision to make. We would have been more than happy to have him be a part of the delegation to Rome."

As for Clinton and the Bushes?

"Q What are they doing? Are they reading or sleeping?

"MR. McCLELLAN: They dispersed and went different ways and are doing their own thing right now.

"Q Are they swapping lies? (Laughter.)

"MR. McCLELLAN: They've been having a good visit."

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Edmonds, Wash.: What rights, before being evicted, do ticket-holding citizens have, if any, to question the reason, and by what authority, "officials" at President Bush's Social Security events force folks to leave the event?

Dan Froomkin: Well, if you're ever in that situation, I would advise you to demand to see some identifcation.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Dan-
In your column yesterday you mentioned supplying questions to the "Ask the White House" chat regarding Social Security. Bush certainly made it sound like there is no trust fund. I didn't see any questions, however, regarding how we are still overpaying Social Security taxes to go into the trust fund (which you brought up months ago). Is this being discussed at all, or is it expected that the public is overlooking that when Bush proclaims there is no trust fund?

Dan Froomkin: Well, I find it a bit maddening, having brought it up a few times, but no, there's not a lot of talk about overpayment. There is some acknowledgement of the surplus, to some extent.

In fact, historically, at times, both Democrats and Republicans have come out against spending Social Security's surplus on other things (remember the "lock box"?) I believe Clinton even talked about maybe investing it (en masse) in private stocks and bonds.

I thought Chuck Blahous's comment, that I wrote about in today's column, was interesting. He seemed to be suggesting that that the surplus money should be used to start funding private accounts.

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Denver, Colo.: Greetings, Dan, from a red-blue household in a red-blue state.

We had a fracas here last week at the old Lowry Air Base where the White House hosted one of its townhall meetings on Social Security. Before it began, burly types succeeded in muscling three activists off the premises. I understand the burly type were later shown to be a GOP operative, not Secret Service?

My husband defended the White House action on the grounds that the event was private. I understand these events to be public, and taxpayer financed.

What's going on?

Dan Froomkin: It is my understanding that they are public. 100 percent public. Entirely funded with your tax dollars.

Staffed by large Republicans, apparently.

But public.

Campaign events paid for with campaign funds were private.

Not these.

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Southside Virginia: "Stern, moralistic Carter" = thoughtful, serious man.
Bush I, Bush II and (I hate to admit it) Clinton = Partisan, cynical career political hacks. Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: I was just being descriptive, not judgemental.

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El Segundo, Calif.: I've been wondering for some time if Scott McClellan can truly give an honest, straightforward answer to any question. I suggest that before asking him one in which you all know that he will obfuscate or avoid a direct answer, you ask him about anything in which he CAN give a direct answer. For example: 1. What color is the president's mother's hair? 2.How tall is President Bush? What is the name of the oldest dog in the White House?
Apparently, Scott needs a little warmup so he can get used to answering questions in a direct manner. If the simple ones can't get answered, then the WH press corps should quit giving the WH a forum and start digging for news in another manner.
There's got to be alternative ways to get information.

Dan Froomkin: He is astonishingly resistant to answering even fairly straightforward questions. He'll say: "I think we've answered that already." Or: "The president has been very clear."

Your suggestion, while amusing, would not be highly effective.

That said, there is an alternative way of digging for news -- it's called "digging for news."

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Hi Dan:

Your column on Monday included a quote from Jim Nicholson, former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, who told Fox News' Chris Wallace about a conversation that Pope John Paul II had with him about President Bush: "And the discussion he (the Pope) wanted to have that morning with me was about President Bush, who he admired greatly for his value system..."

I'm a Catholic, and I see huge differences between the ethics and morals of John Paul II and George Bush. With the Pope not being able to defend himself against inaccuracies by Jim Nicholson, are we now at the beginning of a new White House PR campaign to portray John Paul II and Bush as practically equivalent personalities, and will the media question this?

Dan Froomkin: I've not heard anyone question Nicholson's powerful quote.

It is clear from what I've read that the pope and Bush shared some beliefs. They also had their differences. Someone captured it nicely when they said the two men agreed about the "culture of life" but not so much about the "culture of death."

I thought Bush was surprisingly direct when he acknowledged at his news conference Monday that the pope "didn't like war. And I fully understood that, and I appreciated the conversations I had with the Holy Father on the subject."

I am quite sure the White House will be going to great pains to point out the shared beliefs.

Dan Froomkin: Oh, and Nicholson's quote can be found in Monday's column.

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Monterey, Calif.: Hi Dan,

I have some friends who think that the extreme Christian right wing Republican political circus which occurred around the Terri Schiavo case will be the beginning of their undoing or somehow that it backfired big time.

I didn't follow it closely enough to have an opinion one way or the other. What is your sense of what the political fallout is around that case?

Thank you.

Dan Froomkin: The Republican response to the Schiavo case certainly rubbed most Americans the wrong way, and I think that was a pretty signal event. I think the GOP leadership now knows, viscerally, that they can actually go too far.

That said, I'm still not sure that the lasting effects of Schiavo won't be positive for the GOP. The half-life for news stories among most people is negligible. People who care zealously about an issue, however, remember it longer.

And yet again, there was a sign of a potential backlash just this morning. Susan Page, writing in USA Today about their latest poll, reports that by "more than 2-to-1, 39%-18%, Americans say the 'religious right' has too much influence in the Bush administration."

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Granger, Ind.: Hi Dan,

What's your take on why Bush is so doggedly pushing his social security overhaul? It seems clear that most peple either don't want it or don't care, and even fellow Republicans are shying away.

So why the massive campaign?

Thanks, and keep us the great work.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I think that Bush, and even more so Rove, see the overhaul of Social Security as being a key step in creating a permanent Republican majority.

Right now, Democrats benefit from their association with this very popular program. That could end.

And imagine a nation full of stockholders! Wouldn't they be more likely to vote Republican, if they felt more invested in the success of corporate America?

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St. Catharines, Canada: A couple of days ago I think you mentioned David Wilkins as the front-runner for the Canadian Ammbassadorship. Besides his campaign involvement, what is David Wilkins' background? Connections? What are his positions on Iraq, missile defense, social issues?

Dan Froomkin: I don't recall mentioning that, but today's Globe and Mail in your own Toronto has a story by Barrie McKenna suggesting that his appointment is pure political payback to a Bush friend and fundraiser. I suspect he'll have someone helping him out on the issues.

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Munich, Germany: I think that writing about unanswered questions can be quite effective in portraying the stance of the administration. For example, here's an excerpt from an article by Dana Priest and Walter Pincus from March 18th, entitled, "CIA, White House Defend Transfers of Terror Suspects".

"White House spokesman Scott McClellan would not answer repeated questions about whether President Bush was aware of -- or believed or discounted -- assertions made recently by freed detainees that they were tortured by other governments after they were transferred abroad by the CIA."

Dan Froomkin: Excellent example. (Here's the story.)

OK, reporters out there: If it's good enough for Priest and Pincus, how 'bout you?

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Bush's "town hall" meetings: I wonder if anyone has thought about holding REAL town hall meetings in the same cities at the same time as Bush's "conversations." It would give reporters something to cover that would nicely contrast with the non-event.

Dan Froomkin: There has been some of that -- but they just don't get the same kind of press attention as the president.

I see that Democrats are inviting Bush "to participate in a National Town Hall on Social Security, to hear all sides of the debate."

Right.

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Washington, D.C.: Regarding the Frequently Unanswered Questions (FUQs) McClelland's press briefings are broadcast on CSPAN radio in the DC area usually when they occur and rebroadcast in the evening commuting time 6-6:30 ish (exact time varies) and are archived on the CSPAN web site where you can stream the video any time. This is a great service for the truly addicted who have to watch the bob and weave on a big news day. You can see and hear for yourselves how Pinata Boy avoids answering questions.... relentlessly repeating the stock non-answer phrases like "The world is a better place with Saddam gone..." Sometimes its painful to watch.

Dan Froomkin: Sometimes?

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Re: Pope: The current trip is apples/oranges. In the past, Presidents distanced themselves from affiliation with the Pope. It was bad politics to attend the Pope's funeral. Things have changed in the last 30 years. So Carter wasn't snubbing Ford/Nixon, etc. They wouldn't have gone anyway!;

Dan Froomkin: Linda Feldmann gets into some of that in the Christian Science Monitor today.

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San Francisco, Calif.: I've said it once, and I'll say it again... I love me the Froomkin! Keep up the great work Dan! You're the best and one of the last voices of sanity in the MSM!

Dan Froomkin: Well, thanks! I love me the Live Online.

On that delightfully sycophantic note, I will wrap up. Sorry I couldn't get to more of your wonderful questions.

And a fond farewell to producer Meredith Bragg, who has been very patient with me over the months, and is off to travel the world. Bon voyage!

See the rest of you in two weeks.

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