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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

Read My Lips: No New Policy

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, January 27, 2005; 4:55 PM

Capping six days of world-wide confusion, speculation and debate, President Bush weighed in yesterday with his own interpretation of his lofty but enigmatic second inaugural address.

In a hastily called news conference in the White House's basement, Bush essentially said nothing is new.


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Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush yesterday characterized his Inauguration Day goal of 'ending tyranny in our world' as a long-term ideal rather than a new policy redefining U.S. relations with repressive governments, as he ratcheted back expectations of a more muscular approach to spreading freedom abroad.

"While saying he had 'firmly planted the flag of liberty' in Iraq, Bush offered no tangible plans for how he would plant it in other countries, suggesting instead that the stirring words of last week's inaugural address were meant as a statement of principles recapitulating his first-term practices."

Baker also notes: "Bush used the news conference, and a subsequent interview with the pan-Arab al-Arabiya television, to encourage turnout in Sunday's elections in Iraq."

Paul Richter writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush sought Wednesday to calm the tempest stirred by his inauguration speech, insisting that his quest to end tyranny abroad would not prevent him from working toward 'practical objectives' with governments that did not live up to American ideals.

"At a White House news conference, Bush said he would push foreign leaders to reform, but stopped short of declaring that such reforms would be the foremost goal of U.S. relations with other countries."

James Harding writes in the Financial Times: "It was not so much a press conference as a presidential clarification."

Ron Fournier writes for the Associated Press: "After setting lofty second-term goals, President Bush is suddenly lowering expectations. . . .

"Reality is catching up with his rhetoric, something that happens to virtually every president."

David E. Sanger and Richard W. Stevenson write in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush used much of his hastily called news conference in the White House press room to explain -- but not always to reinforce -- the arguments that he made last Thursday in his Inaugural Address, which appeared to put the United States on an aggressive course of promoting liberty around the world. . . .

" 'I don't think foreign policy is an either/or proposition,' Mr. Bush said in answer to a question about how a country's progress in advancing freedom might be balanced against other American interests, such as securing China's aid in disarming North Korea."

William Douglas writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "Coming from the president himself, Bush's remarks amplified efforts by lower administration officials that began the day after the inauguration to correct the widespread impression that he'd proclaimed a new manifesto that, if followed, could put America at odds with repressive governments that are also key U.S. allies in the war against terrorism and other global priorities, such as Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and even Russia and China."

Here's the text of the news conference. And here (scroll down) is the text of his interview with Al-Arabiya.

Read My Slug

Sometimes the slug says it all.

Elisabeth Bumiller's story in this morning's New York Times appeared to be slugged "spin" -- at least according to the URL on the nytimes.com Web site today.

A slug is the unique name a story is given for internal tracking purposes within a newspaper's workflow. Typically, nytimes.com uses the newsroom slugs in its URLs, so I assumed the slug was Bumiller's idea (and asserted as much in an earlier version of this column) but she tells me she slugged it "memo" and doesn't know where "spin" originated.

In either case, spin is what her story is about:

"President Bush's opening statement at his news conference on Wednesday was striking for what it left out: any mention of the 31 Americans who died overnight in the crash of a Marine helicopter in Iraq, the largest number of American deaths in a single incident since the war began.

"Mr. Bush instead focused on his long-term goal of 'ending tyranny in our world,' and then cast the Iraqi election coming Sunday as part of a march of freedom around the globe. . . .

"The president's words were part of an aggressive White House communications strategy this week and next to frame the risky Iraqi election -- a critical test of his assertion that the country is on the path to stability -- in the best possible light. The goal, a Bush adviser said, was not only to lower expectations but to avoid any definition of success."

As for the helicopter oversight: "Mr. Bush's decision not to mention the helicopter crash in his opening statement, the Bush adviser said, was part of a longstanding White House practice to avoid having the president mention some American deaths in Iraq but not others."

'Deadly Day' Coverage

In spite of Bush's reticence on the helicopter crash, television reporters couldn't help drawing attention to the sad irony of the day.

Here's NBC's David Gregory: "On this deadly day in Iraq, the president tried to steel the country, steel the U.S. public, while at the same time urge Iraqis to seize Sunday's election, which he called a grand moment in Iraqi history. . . .

"It was . . . clear the president felt the need to buck the country up today."

Here's CNN's Dana Bash: "Appearing with reporters on the deadliest single date for U.S. troops in Iraq, the president urged patience in what he repeatedly called a grand moment in history."

So What About That Timing?

Reporters were given about 45 minutes notice of the news conference yesterday morning. But Bumiller writes that "White House officials said that planning for the news conference began on Monday and that it was essentially Mr. Bush's idea. Although the president typically dislikes news conferences, White House officials also say he is closely involved in setting strategy in dealing with the news media and understands when it is in his interest to use his powerful podium to try to shape public perception of the news."

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write in Newsweek: "It's not even a week since his bold and sweeping Inaugural Address. And it's only a week before another grand set-piece event: the State of the Union Message. Yet between these two great moments on the bully pulpit, President Bush felt an urgent need to do something he dislikes intensely: stage a full-blown press conference. For a president who loathes admitting mistakes, his press conference was as close as Bush is going to get to a concession that the first few weeks of the new year have not gone wholly according to plan."

The Kumar View

I spoke yesterday afternoon to Martha Joynt Kumar, a Towson University professor who studies White House communications and was at the press conference, to get some of her observations.

She pointed out that Bush has now held one press conference a month since being re-elected. She said that could be a sign of things to come in the second term.

Kumar also noted that this was the first press conference since July 2002 that Bush has held in the cramped basement briefing room, where the press secretary normally holds court. Intervening press conferences have been held in the East Room, the Rose Garden, and in other locations.

There are assigned seats in the briefing room, and Bush started, like press secretary Scott McClellan normally does, by working his way through the first few rows, Kumar said. With one exception: "He called on everyone in the front two rows except for Helen," Kumar said, referring to firebrand Helen Thomas, doyenne of the White House press corps, now a columnist for Hearst, and a scourge to the Bush administration.

Questions I Would Have Asked

Sir, there were two big developments yesterday about torture in Iraq. Newly released Army documents show that there have been many more alleged acts of brutality and abuse of Iraqis at the hands of military personnel than we knew of. And a new report from Human Rights Watch says some of Saddam's torturers are back in business under new management and that torture is again routine in Iraq. Are you outraged?

Sir, in one of the new incidents made public yesterday, a 73-year-old Iraqi woman was captured by members of the Delta Force special unit and allegedly robbed and sexually abused. One of your special assistants, whose name was redacted, apparently took an interest in the case. But like all of these newly released cases, it was closed without a conclusion. Did you know about this -- or any other of the incidents made public yesterday?

Sir, let me read you a question Sen. Ted Kennedy asked Alberto Gonzales: "The FBI e-mails produced in the ACLU lawsuit include reports that detainees in Iraq and Guantanamo have suffered from the following abuses: Detainees were bound hand and foot and left in urine and feces for 18-24 hours; cigarette burns were inflicted; detainees were exposed to extreme temperatures for prolonged periods; enemas were forced on detainees. Do you believe any of these practices were or are lawful interrogation techniques or lawful detainee management?" In his written reply, Mr. Gonzales refused to rule any of those out. Will you?

Sir, you spoke in your inaugural address about bringing liberty to every corner of the globe. Do you mean like in Iraq? Are you aware that some people who don't share your world view don't consider that a good example?

Sir, why do you continue to say that Social Security will go bankrupt in 2042 when in fact even in the worst-case scenario it could still pay out 73 percent of wage-adjusted benefits? That's not bankrupt. In fact, your staffers are talking up a plan that would cut benefits even further than that. So why use the term bankrupt?

Sir, Social Security isn't really a retirement plan, it's more like an insurance plan, making sure that the elderly, the disabled, their dependents and survivors don't go destitute. Some people get a lot more out than they put in; others get a lot less; it's like insurance that way. Private accounts would be a huge change to the structure as established by FDR. What in your view is wrong with the way Social Security works now, other than the alleged financial shortfall, which private accounts don't address anyway?

Sir, when you go out into the country to make your case on Social Security "directly to the American people" will you only be meeting with and speaking to pre-screened groups of people who already agree with you? Or will you be willing to hear dissenting voices?

I'll take more questions for Bush -- and for me -- on my Live Online, now scheduled for tomorrow, Friday, at 1 p.m. ET.

What Were Those Softballs?

It's not like the rest of the questions were particularly confrontational, but there were two outrageous softballs pitched at yesterday's news conference. One came from Jeff Gannon, who works for Talon News, an obscure news outfit tied to a group called GOP USA. The other came from the Washington Times.

I've written about Gannon before. (See my Feb. 19 column and my March 10 column.

To give you an idea of where Gannon's coming from, visit his Web site, Jeffgannon.com, which features the following "NOTE TO MY LIBERAL COLLEAGUES: Bush is here for another 4 years. Get over it!"

Interestingly enough, it's not hard to figure out where Gannon got the idea for his question.

Here's conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh yesterday: "[S]omebody in the White House press corps listens to this program. It is Jeff Gannon from Talon News. Here is his question, which is a repeat, a rehash, of a precise point I made on this program yesterday and is highlighted on RushLimbaugh.com.

"REPORTER: Senate Democratic leaders have painted a very bleak picture of the U.S. economy: Harry Reid, who's talking about soup lines, and Hillary Clinton was talking about the economy being on the verge of collapse. Yet in the same breath, they say that Social Security is rock solid and there's no crisis there. You've said you're going to reach out to these people. How are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?"

Limbaugh continues: "[W]hat makes me think that the reporter was listening to the program is that Harry Reid never actually said 'soup lines.' That is my characterization of their portrayal of America. He never actually said it. He just describes circumstances reminiscent of soup lines."

The Sad Lot of the Press Corps

Lori Robertson has a big piece in the American Journalism Review on the White House and its tight control over the press corps.

She has lots of wonderful anecdotes, including one about the time Knight-Ridder correspondent Ron Hutcheson, president of the White House Correspondents' Association, walked out of an off-the-record briefing in protest -- and nobody followed.

Robertson acknowledges: "The press has been butting up against this brick wall of White House communication policy, and complaining about it, for long enough that stories about on-message, no leaks, no dissent, et cetera, et cetera are becoming a bit clichéd. . . .

She interviews Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry, who "struggles to explain what incentive there would be for future White Houses to be more open with the media. 'You're hard-pressed to make the case that transparency, regular press conferences, more access by the press to the president and senior staff, you're hard-pressed to make the case that that benefits your boss,' he says."

But McCurry "suggests that the press could make some changes as well. When there's such a premium on discipline and message control, he says, it 'cries out for some new reporting techniques to break the barrier.' . . .

"The lack of solidarity in the press corps is another thing that amazes McCurry. If a reporter is thrown off the vice president's plane, he asks, why doesn't the entire press corps say, fine, then none of us travels with you. 'You don't ever see any kind of collective action like that.' "

Stumped

Glenn Kessler and Scott Wilson write in The Washington Post: "President Bush was stumped yesterday when he was asked at his news conference about the plight of a Jordanian man who faces a two-year prison term for slander after giving a lecture last month calling for a boycott of American goods and companies. 'I'm unaware of the case,' he said.

"The circumstances are somewhat murky, but in many ways the case signifies the difficult choices and trade-offs inherent in Bush's call in his inaugural address for the right to dissent and protest around the world."

The question, by the way, came from ABC News's Terry Moran.

Pay for Play

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush said yesterday that federal agencies should stop awarding contracts to outside commentators as a Democratic lawmaker assailed the administration over the latest example and an advocacy group called for an investigation.

"Separately, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and nine colleagues released a report showing that the Bush administration spent more than $88 million last year on contracts with public relations firms, an increase of 128 percent over the last year of the Clinton administration. Medicare and Medicaid officials have spent the most on outside publicity firms over the past four years, the report said."

Here's that report.

Anne E. Kornblut notes in the New York Times: "At the news conference, Mr. Bush cast his most direct blame yet about Mr. Williams on the recently departed education secretary, Rod Paige, who left office without admitting wrongdoing just after the controversy had begun to mount earlier this month."

Said Bush: "We didn't know about this in the White House."

Social Security Watch

David E. Rosenbaum writes in the New York Times about the "dozens of questions" about Bush's Social Security proposal posed in a report issued on Wednesday by the nonpartisan National Academy of Social Insurance.

The report, outrageously not available on line, poses these questions among others:

• "How much access could retirees have to their account funds? Would they be allowed to take lump sums when they retire, or would they be required to buy annuities, insurance contracts that guarantee monthly payments for life?

• "What institutions -- government or private -- would be responsible for making payments from the accounts?"

And, as Rosenbaum writes: "The issues involving disability are especially thorny."

Most of today's news accounts simply regurgitated, without context, Bush's frequent refrain yesterday about how Social Security is going "bankrupt." Not USA Today:

"President Bush said Wednesday that Social Security 'will be bankrupt' by the time a worker who is 25 today reaches retirement. It's a claim others have used in backing Bush's position that the 70-year-old retirement and insurance program will be insolvent when tomorrow's retirees need it.

"But will it run out of money? No.

"The program now runs a surplus, raising more in taxes than it pays in benefits. By the middle of the century -- 2042 says the Social Security Administration, 2052 says the Congressional Budget Office -- benefits would deplete reserves. Even so, the system wouldn't be out of funds. . . .

"Douglas Holtz-Eakin, director of the Congressional Budget Office, estimates that with annual revenue, Social Security would be able to pay about 80% of scheduled benefits.

"David Walker, comptroller general of the United States, puts it this way: 'Does Social Security have a financing problem? Yes. Will Social Security ever go bust? No.' "

The Senate Democratic Rebellion

Charles Babington writes in The Washington Post: "The Senate confirmed President Bush's choice for secretary of state and advanced his nominee for attorney general yesterday, but in the process, Democrats registered discontent with Bush's Iraq war policies to a degree that surprised even some of their party's leaders. . . .

"Yesterday marked the second straight day that Democratic senators used high-profile nominations not to defeat Bush's appointees -- which they lack the votes to do -- but to attack the administration's policies on the torture of terrorism suspects and the execution of the Iraq war and transition. As in Tuesday's day-long debate on Rice's nomination, yesterday's criticisms came not only from liberal Democrats but also from more centrist or independent members who have backed the Bush administration on key issues."

Babington notes: "Not since 1825 -- when 14 of the Senate's 48 members voted against Henry Clay -- have so many senators opposed a secretary of state nominee. Even at the height of the Vietnam War in 1973, Henry A. Kissinger's nomination drew only seven negative votes."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "Ms. Rice, who is the second woman, and the first black woman, to become secretary of state, took the oath of office in a private ceremony at the White House. She was sworn in soon after 7 p.m. by the White House chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr.; her former deputy, Stephen J. Hadley, was sworn in soon after as national security adviser. Mr. Bush did not attend the event."

Gonzales Watch

Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "Democrats continued to press for White House notes or documents that might shed light on Mr. Gonzales's role in developing a Justice Department opinion in 2002 -- since disavowed -- that gave a narrow definition of torture. A search by the White House last week produced no such records, officials said on Wednesday."

Charlie Savage writes in the Boston Globe: "When White House counsel Alberto Gonzales was a Texas Supreme Court justice running to stay in office in 2000, he took thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from companies that had business before him and he did not recuse himself from voting on their cases."

President Book-Pusher

Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg writes in the Wall Street Journal: "In one of those serendipitous developments that can give a serious book an unexpected sales boost, President Bush and his advisers have been praising Natan Sharansky's 'The Case for Democracy' in several interviews with the national media. . . .

"For the book's publisher, PublicAffairs, a division of Perseus Books LLC, which is owned by private-equity firm Perseus LLC, the presidential spotlight has translated into a surge in sales."

Chris Suellentrop writes in Slate: "For a book that the president claims summarizes his thinking, there's a surprising -- if still small -- amount of criticism of the Bush administration and its policies."

Where'd That Budget Go?

Michael M. Phillips writes in the Wall Street Journal: "Even as he pledges significant aid for the victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami, President Bush is falling further and further behind on promises to boost funding to combat poverty in the developing world.

"The president quietly notified the Millennium Challenge Corp., a newly created foreign-aid agency, that his proposed fiscal 2006 budget likely will include billions of dollars less than he promised during his first term. Mr. Bush's budget plan, scheduled for release early next month, also includes an increase in global anti-AIDS funding that is much smaller than the pledge he made when announcing an ambitious health initiative two years ago. . . .

"The Millennium Challenge Corp. altered its Web site over the weekend to erase a reference to the president's initial funding promise, made in 2002. . . .

"Last Friday, the corporation Web site said that 'President Bush has pledged to increase funding . . . to $5 billion a year starting in FY06, roughly a 50% increase over then current U.S. core development assistance.' Instead, the White House has now told the corporation to expect about $3 billion in the fiscal 2006 budget, and on Monday, the corporation's site read, 'The president has pledged to increase funding for the MCA to $5 billion in the future.'"

The Disavowed Delegate

Warren P. Strobel writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "A Ukrainian-American activist who the White House said shouldn't have been on a presidential delegation to Ukraine said he was 'shocked and dismayed' at the Bush administration's disavowal of him.

"Myron B. Kuropas, who's written that some Jews manipulate the Holocaust for political and financial gain, said in a telephone interview that he worked with Jewish leaders toward reconciliation for 12 years and received an award in 1979 from the American Jewish Committee."

Today's Calendar

Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush is using the first trip of his new term to highlight what he hopes will be the wave of the future in medicine -- computerized records to reduce cost and errors. . . .

"On Thursday, Bush was visiting the Cleveland Clinic, a hospital that is helping the government develop standards for computerization. It uses the Internet to give patients second opinions online for cancer, heart disease and other conditions and also provides health information aimed at eliminating the time and expense of hospital visits."

Jenna's Beau

Richard Leiby writes in his Washington Post gossip column that "the tall young man who has been spotted with Jenna Bush on his arm in recent weeks" has been identified as Henry Hager, whose father is Bush's assistant secretary of education.

"We hear the young Hager got his start two years ago as an intern in the White House for Karl Rove and later moved to the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign."

Blogger Wonkette has another, slightly more incriminating, photo.


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