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Social Security: On With the Show

President's 'Conversations' on Issue Are Carefully Orchestrated, Rehearsed

By Jim VandeHei and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 12, 2005; Page A03

MEMPHIS, March 11 -- It sounded as if all of Graceland were clamoring for President Bush's plan to restructure Social Security.

The mostly white audience in this mostly black southern city clapped wildly as Bush took what he called the "presidential roadshow" to its 14th state Friday. He was greeted like Elvis -- adoring fans hooting and hollering, and hanging on his every word.

President Bush listens to retiree Helen Lyons, left, during a presentation on Social Security in Shreveport, La. (J. Scott Applewhite -- AP)

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Social Security

The few dissenting voices in the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts were quickly silenced or escorted out by security. One woman with a soft voice but firm opposition to Bush was asked to leave, even though her protests were barely audible beyond her section in the back corner of the auditorium. The carefully screened panelists spoke admiringly about Bush, his ideas, his "bold" leadership on Social Security.

If the presentations sound well rehearsed, it's because they often are. The guests at these "Oprah"-style conversations trumpet the very points Bush wants to make. Seniors on stage express confidence that Bush's plan to create private investment accounts would not eat into promised benefits, and the granddaughter of one spoke hopefully on Friday of a richer retirement if the president prevails.

These meticulously staged "conversations on Social Security," as they are called, replicate a strategy that Bush used to great effect on the campaign trail. But instead of appealing to his political base in hopes of driving up turnout, Bush this time is targeting a far narrower audience of swing voters in the Senate -- centrists who so far appear unswayed by the president's public salesmanship. And Democrats, led by their new party chairman, Howard Dean, have begun firing back, belittling the forums as rigged spectacles rather than true town hall meetings.

The White House follows a practiced formula for each of the meetings. First it picks a state in which generally it can pressure a lawmaker or two, and then it lines up panelists who will sing the praises of the president's plan. Finally, it loads the audience with Republicans and other supporters.

To help make its case, the White House recruits people such as Mark Darr, 31, an insurance agent from Benton, Ark., who joined the president on stage at a forum in Little Rock last month. In a subsequent interview, Darr said he believes he was chosen because he went to college with one son of Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee and provided insurance for another.

After the governor's office called, Darr said, he began receiving one call after another from the White House, quizzing him on his thoughts on Social Security and his family history, just as they did all the other candidates. "I'm sure they wanted to . . . make sure they weren't going to embarrass the president," Darr said.

Not so his mother. At first when he mentioned that she receives Social Security, he said, White House aides seemed eager to add her to the panel. Then they called her. "She wasn't really for the private accounts, so they didn't decide to use her," Darr said.

The night before the event, the chosen participants gathered for a rehearsal in the hall in which the president would appear the next day. An official dispatched by the White House played the president and asked questions. "We ran through it five times before the president got there," Darr said.

Erma Fingers Hendrix, 74, a retired nurse who also participated in the Little Rock event, said she believes she was picked because she has been active for years in Republican women's clubs in Arkansas and campaigned for Bush in 2000 and 2004 -- once even introducing him at a campaign rally just before he was elected president. "The ones who contacted me in 2000 probably said, 'Erma's easy to work with,' " she said.

Hendrix said the administration official who helped them practice educated the panelists on the plan without scripting them.

"It was just a matter of learning," she said. "We just really talked about what was going on, what the president was proposing and what did we think about it. . . . They didn't prompt me what to say or how to say it."

Don Farnsworth, 74, a retired pilot and Air Force major, described a similar session before Thursday's event in Montgomery, Ala.

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