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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

It's Lonely at the White House

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, September 15, 2004; 11:36 AM

The White House can be a lonely place these days, particularly if you're a reporter trying to ask the president a question.

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press: "If you're looking for President Bush, don't bother searching the White House. Bush has not spent a full day in Washington since Aug. 2 -- roaming the country rather than staying in the Oval Office as he seeks a second term."


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Bush today breaks his "44-day, outside-the-Beltway streak to host a concert and reception at the White House in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month. But not for long." He's back on the road tomorrow.

Loven notes that Bush has spent only a handful of days entirely in Washington all summer long: Just 10 since Memorial Day. She, however, points out: "Though the recent flurry has been particularly intense, it is typical of a tough schedule that is hardly new for presidents seeking re-election."

And don't bother trying to ask the president a question -- unless of course you're part of a pre-screened audience at a campaign event.

As far as I can tell, Bush hasn't actually answered a single question from a reporter since the several interviews he did in late August, just before the Republican National Convention. That's more than two weeks ago.

At least twice in the past week, reporters have resorted to shouting questions, and he's ignored them.

And of course Bush hasn't held anything remotely like a news conference since Aug. 23, when he took some questions on his Texas ranch.

(Maybe he's just trying to keep pace with his Democratic opponent, who Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News notes hasn't had a news conference of his own since Aug. 9.)

The press corps is used to news conferences being few and far between in this administration, but Bush has generally won praise for making himself available for a couple quick questions -- for instance, at Oval Office photo ops -- even when the going got tough.

Today offers him a chance to do that. He has a photo opportunity scheduled this afternoon with his new (mystery) nominee to be the director of the National Science Foundation.

Press secretary Scott McClellan today also holds his first full-fledged press briefing today since Aug. 9. Those also have been a casualty of the road trips.

White House Reporters Left Behind

Air Force One flew out of Las Vegas without any problems last night after Bush's speech to the National Guard Association. But the press charter was left behind.

Several dozen members of the White House press corps unexpectedly spent the night in Vegas after their plane could not take off because an air traffic control outage in Los Angeles grounded hundreds of flights throughout the West.

Only a handful of "pool" reporters ride with the president. The rest travel on the White House press charter, which generally flies out ahead of the president and comes home after him.

The charter initially stayed behind last night so network correspondents could file live shots for the evening news broadcasts. After that, members of the press corps boarded the plane -- and found themselves stuck on the tarmac with little more than hot appetizers to keep them amused.

Once the outage showed no signs of clearing up, the White House arranged a block of rooms at the Bellagio. (Here's what a sample room looks like. And the news organizations foot the bill, by the way, not the White House.)

So what happens when dozens of driven Washington reporters get stuck spending the night in Sin City? This story doesn't stay in Vegas, baby.

I'm told that many of them instantly hit the tables. And NBC's Norah O'Donnell presided over a gala dinner at Le Cirque with ABC's Jon D. Garcia, CBS's John Roberts, the New York Times's David E. Sanger, the Boston Globe's Anne E. Kornblut among others.

The whole bunch is due at Andrews Air Force Base at 4 this afternoon.

Speaking to the National Guard

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush ignored a fresh round of questions about his service in the Texas Air National Guard and, instead, repeatedly questioned the character of Democratic challenger John F. Kerry during an appearance Tuesday before a National Guard convention here. . . .

"The Democratic National Committee on Tuesday announced 'Operation Fortunate Son,' an effort to impugn Bush's credibility by drawing attention to questions about his Guard service, with 30 events planned in 21 states this week. A video that the committee is distributing widely uses clips of various statements Bush has made about his service, paired with apparently contradictory testimony from others. Republicans said all legitimate questions have been answered."

Here's the text of Bush's speech to the National Guard Association.

Anne E. Kornblut writes in the Boston Globe: "Bush made a quick reference to his time as a pilot in the Texas Air National Guard and avoided any mention of questions that have been raised about how he got into the Guard and his performance during his final months of service. . . .

"Referring to the new advertisement from the DNC, McClellan said it showed Democrats 'are determined to throw the kitchen sink at us because they can't win when the discussion is focused on the issues and the future.' "

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times that "polls suggest that [Bush's] attacks on Mr. Kerry's reliability as a future commander in chief are beginning to have a measurable effect. But Tuesday was the first time one of those attacks received a prolonged standing ovation, and Mr. Bush, showing a tight smile at the response, argued that it was essential that 'the president of the United States speak clearly and consistently at this time of great threat in our world, and not change positions because of expediency or pressure.' "

Sanger notes that Kerry yesterday said that the Iraq war was "the most catastrophic choice that George Bush made."

Sanger writes: "But both Mr. Bush's speech and Mr. Kerry's retort were notable for what they both omitted: any discussion of a strategy for either defeating the insurgency or disengaging from it."

Terry Moran on ABC News had this to say: "Mr. Bush ignored all the questions swirling around his own time in the guard three decades ago, and instead simply wrapped himself in the guard's tradition of service."

John Roberts on the CBS News reported: "To hear President Bush tell it today, there was nothing to suggest even the hint of controversy surrounding his stint with the National Guard. In fact, he barely even mentioned his service."

Brian Faler writes in The Washington Post: "Got proof that President Bush fulfilled his National Guard duties? It could be worth $50,000.

"Texans for Truth, a Democratic '527' organization that has attacked the president's service record, is offering a reward to anyone who can prove that Bush performed his duties in the Air National Guard between May 1972 and May 1973. . . .

"Earlier this year, Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau offered to donate $10,000 to the USO in the name of anyone who could provide similar evidence of Bush's service."

Here are the details of the Texans for Truth reward.

Another Investigation

Russ Baker writes in the liberal Nation magazine: "Growing evidence suggests that George W. Bush abruptly left his Texas Air National Guard unit in 1972 for substantive reasons pertaining to his inability to continue piloting a fighter jet.

"A months-long investigation, which includes examination of hundreds of government-released documents, interviews with former Guard members and officials, military experts and Bush associates, points toward the conclusion that Bush's personal behavior was causing alarm among his superior officers and would ultimately lead to his fleeing the state to avoid a physical exam he might have had difficulty passing. His failure to complete a physical exam became the official reason for his subsequent suspension from flying status."

Docu-Drama

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "Two document experts retained by CBS News for the disputed '60 Minutes' story on President Bush's National Guard record said yesterday they had warned the program that the memos involved had significant problems but that their concerns were not heeded."

Pete Slover writes in the Dallas Morning News: "The former secretary for the Texas Air National Guard officer who supposedly wrote memos critical of President Bush's Guard service said Tuesday that the documents are fake but that they reflect documents that once existed."

Putting it slightly differently, James Rainey writes in the Los Angeles Times: "George W. Bush's commanding officer in the Texas Air National Guard wrote memos more than 30 years ago objecting to efforts to gloss over the young lieutenant's shortcomings and failure to take a flight physical, the officer's former secretary said Tuesday night.

"But Marian Carr Knox of Houston said she thought four memos unveiled by CBS News last week were forgeries -- not copies of the ones she typed at the time."

Rainey also writes: "White House officials could not be reached for comment, but earlier in the day the Bush administration made its strongest statements yet rebutting the memos. Aides said Bush had recently reviewed the documents and told them that the memos did not reflect the nature of his relationship with Killian."

Meanwhile, amateur Internet researcher Paul Lukasiak is Web-publishing yet another document that has not previously been released by the White House.

This one appears to be the document that Walter V. Robinson referred to in a Boston Globe story last week, when he wrote that Bush in May 1968 signed a document "pledging to meet training commitments or face a punitive call-up to active duty."

Debate Watch

Marc Sandalow writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "President Bush holds a key advantage heading into the presidential debates: Only he and his strategists know if the pivotal events will actually take place and how many there will be.

"Three months ago, the Commission on Presidential Debates proposed three 90-minute debates between Bush and Democratic Sen. John Kerry and a fourth debate between Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John Edwards. The commission named specific locations, formats and moderators. Kerry quickly agreed to the entire schedule.

"Two weeks before the first scheduled debate, Bush has yet to say whether he will participate, even though the commission says it must know by Monday to arrange security and other details."

Conflation Watch

Jackie Calmes and Carla Anne Robbins write in the Wall Street Journal: "Though the outbreak of deadly insurgent attacks in Iraq poses an obvious problem for President Bush, an improved standing at home and better news internationally mean he may be able to weather such a storm better than he did earlier in the year."

One big change, they write: Bush "has succeeded in making more Americans see the war in Iraq as part of the broader war on terrorism."

Truth-Squadding

William M. Welch in USA Today takes on Bush's recent assertion that John Kerry's plan to improve health care coverage amounts to a federal takeover of the nation's health care system.

Welch concludes: "Kerry is proposing no government takeover of health care, as Bush alleges. But he is proposing that the government spend money to provide health care to tens of millions of uninsured Americans. Bush, by contrast, proposes modest steps that produce modest results."

The Putin Problem

Glenn Kessler and Robin Wright write in The Washington Post that the Bush administration's gentle handling of Russian President Vladimir Putin clashes with the president's repeated pledges to promote democracy and freedom around the world.

"Rhetorically, Bush has made the promotion of democracy, especially in the Middle East, a central theme of his administration. . . .

"But, with only tentative and belated exceptions, mostly involving [Secretary of State Colin L.] Powell, the Bush administration has remained largely silent as Putin has slowly dismantled democratic institutions, including taking over or closing all independent national television channels, establishing dominance of both houses of parliament, reasserting control over the country's huge energy industry and jailing or driving into exile business tycoons who have defied him."

Poll Watch

Liz Marlantes writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "More than a week after the Republican National Convention -- and in the wake of new questions about President Bush's National Guard service -- the race for the White House is once again tightening, just as pollsters and strategists for both campaigns had predicted it would.

"A new Monitor/TIPP poll finds Mr. Bush and Sen. John Kerry currently tied among likely voters nationwide, with each receiving 47 percent of the vote in a two-man race, and each receiving 46 percent when independent candidate Ralph Nader is added to the ballot."

Here's some poll data.

Kitty Kelley Watch

AFP writes: "Allegations that US President George W. Bush snorted cocaine at Camp David while his father was in office have fuelled sales of a new, gossip-filled book about the Bush family by controversial celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley."

Kelley was on CNN with Aaron Brown last night. She said the White House "play a very good game of offense, harm the messenger so you confuse and diffuse the message."

Brown said of her book: "If controversy equals publicity equals sales, it's going to do terrifically well."

And in today's final round on NBC's Today show, host Matt Lauer and Kelley skirmished about whether Lauer had actually played golf with the former President Bush, as Kelley had said yesterday, and which Lauer then denied.

Lauer showed video that showed him carrying a golf club alongside the former president. But Lauer said he was serving more as a golfing prop for Bush than as a golfing partner -- and complained that Kelley's innuendo suggested otherwise.

Protester Watch

Jennifer Bundy writes for the Associated Press that the "couple arrested for wearing anti-Bush T-shirts to a July 4 presidential appearance filed a federal lawsuit on Tuesday alleging their First Amendment rights were violated.

"Nicole and Jeff Rank were removed from the event at the West Virginia Capitol in handcuffs after revealing T-shirts with President Bush's name crossed out on the front."

Here's the complaint; here's a picture of the couple in their T-shirts.

Twins Watch

Meg Jones writes in the Milwaukee Journal and Sentinel: "President Bush's twin daughters are scheduled to visit Wisconsin today, stopping at colleges to talk to students and campaign volunteers.

James D. Barber Remembered

Margalit Fox writes James D. Barber's obituary in the New York Times today.

"Dr. Barber's best-known book, 'The Presidential Character,' published in 1972, argued that a president's psychological makeup, established early in life, could predict his performance in office.

" 'The lives of presidents past and of the one still with us show, I think, how a start from character makes possible a realistic estimate of what will endure into a man's White House years,' Dr. Barber wrote. . . .

"Analyzing presidential character, Dr. Barber focused on two criteria: whether a president was active or passive, and whether he viewed his job in positive or negative terms.

"In combination, the criteria formed four distinct personality types. Active-positive presidents, who brought energy and enjoyment to their work, included Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, Dr. Barber wrote. Passive-positives, like William Howard Taft, were compliant and superficially cheerful. Passive-negatives, like Calvin Coolidge and Dwight D. Eisenhower, were sullen and withdrawn, viewing the office as a burden.

"The most dangerous type, Dr. Barber wrote, was the active-negative. Though energetic, such men were also joyless, inflexible, compulsive and domineering, with 'a strong bent for digging their own graves.' In this category he listed Lyndon B. Johnson and [Richard] Nixon."


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