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White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, August 11, 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 to another fine edition of White House Talk. I hope you've already read my column this morning, not to mention during the pas week's. Plenty of grist there.

But here's a question for you.

Media blogger Jim Romenesko called my attention to the transcript of Monday's Larry King Live, where former Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein talked about, among other things, media coverage of today's White House.

Larry asked: "Carl Bernstein, is it different today? You've got 24-hour news networks. How would Watergate have been covered today? Once you started on the story, we'd have been running with it, right?"

Bernstein replied: "I think it would have been covered with a lot of talking heads screaming at each other on 24-hour news channels, about what it means and what happened, and, in fact, they wouldn't have many facts.

"I think one of the terrible things that has happened in the years since Watergate is that the agenda of too much of the press has changed, that it's taken on a role of manufactured controversy, of gossips, sensationalism. And that there are not many news institutions left that are willing to expend the effort and money on the kind of hard, slogging reporting that we need."

Agree, or disagree?

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Washington, D.C.: Dan, any chance we can see a Laura Bush vs. Teresa Heinz Kerry debate? I think that would be fantastic!

Dan Froomkin: I wonder which side fears that more!

Um, no. But thanks for your question.

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Rosslyn, Va.: Dan,
The post had an interesting article about how Mrs. Bush (Laura), frequently gets questions asking her opinion on Teresa Heinz Kerry. Is this sort of thing annoying the Bush camp with attention turned to the woman who isn't afraid to back down from a fight?

washingtonpost.com: The Ladies' Circle (Post, Aug. 11)

Dan Froomkin: So far at least it seems to me that they are anywhere from resigned to delighted by the comparisons -- not annoyed.

Mrs. Bush, particularly by comparison to Mrs. Heinz Kerry, comes off as very husband-focused. That is very attractive to some voting blocs.

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Chicago, Ill.: I got an email from a political outfit that urged people to write letters to newspaper editors to promote a presidential candidate. It included talking points that should be followed. What's your feeling about talking points? Overused? I feel like they are for people who can't think for themselves.

Dan Froomkin: Talking points are a fact of life. Reporters hate them. I'm pretty sure the people who go through letters to the editor hate them.

I want to know what people really feel, not what they're told to feel.

But they work. Or at least, all the people who read them, in order to write to their newspapers, are now on message!

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Edmond, Okla.: Dan,

Wasn't Porter Goss one of the Clinton impreachment managers in the House? If so, how will that play out in confirmation hearings?

Dan Froomkin: No, he was not. Here's the list of managers.

Scary that I could find that so quickly.

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Chicago, Ill.: Hi Dan --

Love your column! I have two questions: First, what's really going on with the Valerie Plame investigation? It looks as though the special prosecutor may be dragging things out long enough to avoid any negative impact on the White House until after the election. Any insight on that? And second, how is the Bush campaign planning to spin the new, less than favorable economic reports? Will they continue to claim that four more years of the same economic policies is what the country needs?

Dan Froomkin: I don't know anything more about the Plame investigation than I wrote in yesterday's column. My hunch is that we're getting close, but I could be so wrong.

As for your second question, so far, yes, there is no public, for-attribution White House acknowledgment that I know of that the corner is not a corner.

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Huntington, N.Y.: This question never gets answered by anybody, so I will try again. If it was a crime to reveal the name of a CIA agent, why is Robert Novak not charged? And why are his fellow cohorts in the media allowing him to maintain his credibility. Is it just one big clubhouse?

Dan Froomkin: I'm no lawyer, but I dont' think it should ever be criminal for a journalist to print what he's told by a White House official. (I think it's criminal when we don't!)

That said, Susan Schmidt and Carol Leonnig wrote in The Post yesterday that: "Lawyers involved in the case said it appears that Fitzgerald is now armed with a strong and unambiguous court ruling to demand the testimony of two journalists -- syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak, who first disclosed the CIA officer's name, and Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus, who has written that a Post reporter received information about [Plame] from a Bush administration official."

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Damascus, Md.: Tom Tomorrow and Kos had a picture from GWB's college yearbook, taken from yesterday's LA Times print edition, which shows W seemingly trying to punch someone in the face during a rugby game. There seems to be some controversy as to what's going on in the photo.

Do you think it's an actual punch in the face, or an illegal high tackle, or perhaps a failed tackle that his opponent is ducking out of?

Dan Froomkin: Here is the picture the reader is writing about.

I have no idea! Any rugby players out there? To be fair, this should be judged by rugby standards, which I gather are exceedingly low when it comes to roughhousing.

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Arlington, Va.: Your chat with Mr. Kessler last week was quite something! It might be considered a useful corrective to some anti-Bush stuff but he seemed so defensive, even attacking Kerry once to indicate that he believed Bush was better than that. Although I didn't agree with Kessler on a lot of things, I was amused.

Dan Froomkin: Amused, livid, vindicated, horrified, bored, triumphant -- I heard it all about last week's Live Online. If you haven't read it, judge for yourself.

Kessler's status as darling of the White House was cemented over the weekend by a wet kiss of an e-mail from the Bush-Cheney campaign, by the way.

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Chicago, Ill.: I totally agree with Carl Bernstein's assessment of today's media. One thing I wonder: did AP and Reuters play as prominent a role back then as they do now? It seems like a lot of news outlets have scaled back their reporting staffs and rely more on the press organizations as news sources.

Dan Froomkin: Good question. A little before my time.

But Barry Sussman, who was the Watergate editor for the Washington Post, tells me the AP did not play a prominent role during Watergate.

The ball was carried mostly by The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Time and the now-defunct Washington Star. Four of those five are still around, of course -- and, in fact, The Post and the Timeses have very effective news services of their own now, which send their stories onto front pages of newspapers around the country.

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Boca Raton, Fla.: Dan,

On the Rugby picture...... it looks like GW is trying to tackle the player with the ball.

But GW is not going about it the right way and in all likelihood, the player was able to get away.

Pretty much looks like he is a novice to me.

Dan Froomkin: Thank you. So it was a fair (but bad) hit?

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Philadeplphia, Pa.: re: rugby...

"High tackles" are illegal in rugby.

"Leaving your feet while tackling" is illegal in rugby.

As you note, rugby has lots of physical violence...and given that Bush was clearly violating two prohibitions, there is really no reason to suspect that he wasn't attempting to punch the other guy in the face.

What I want to know is why the picture is in the 1969 Yale yearbook---Bush graduated in 1968.

Dan Froomkin: Thank you. And thank you for giving birth to a brand new conspiracy theory.

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Perception vs. Reality: President Bush has always acted on the belief that if you say something repeatedly, people will accept it as truth. But his assertions that the economy is improving are starting to look ridiculous to a broadening group of Americans.

What's your sense of things -- does the President really believe recovery is coming? Or is he campaigning to convince people that the recovery is coming? I mean, does he realize his statement's don't jibe with the facts?

Dan Froomkin: I don't know what's going on inside his head. For some reason, he doesn't confide in me.

I think that what you are seeing all over the White House is a combination of faith, hope and facts.

As for the repetition, it really is mind-boggling how much you hear the same phrases over and over and over again. I am tempted to start playing the drinking game I mentioned in my column this morning.

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Rockville, Md.: Mr. Froomkin,
As the situation in Darfur, Sudan, worsens, I recall President Bush's statement that genocide like that in Rwanda would not take place "on my watch." Alas, it is taking place. Has the President called the events in Darfur a "genocide" or is he reluctant to use the word (as was Pres. Clinton with respect to Bosnia and Rwanda)? Will the Administration do something to stop the slaughter and rape and displacement in Sudan?

Dan Froomkin: No president uses the word genocide without being ready to do whatever it takes to stop it. Clearly, Bush is biding his time on the situation in Sudan. He made a forceful statement in late June, when he sent Colin Powell over to suss things out, but I believ has been mum since.

And the press isn't exactly holding his feet to the fire on this one.

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Alameda, Calif.: If Bush, Rove, and Andrew Card think that naming Goss to head the CIA is the best step they can take right now, they must really be worried about John Kerry.

It strikes me that this was a very bad gamble by Bush. Goss will face a confirmation hearing where (1) Bush, Goss, and the GOP will be hammered repeatedly for not wanting to give the proposed National Intelligence Director any budget authority or real power; and (2) Goss will face all kinds of question on how his 9/11 committee investigation caved to White House demands to limit the scope of its investigation. Thus, Bush will have his commitment to real reform of the intelligence services questioned in the lead up to the election, as well as have all of his efforts to deflect and minimize the intelligence side of the 9/11 investigations brought out as well.

Dan Froomkin: That is one way of looking at it. Another is that it demonstrates leadership on intelligence as it becomes a defining factor of the campaign.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: With the election only a few months away, and the status of the Director of Intelligence undecided, why would the administration name Goss? It seems to be that it would be better to let the interim head of the CIA serve until at least after the election. Naming Goss now just seems to add to the confusion.

Dan Froomkin: Not acting could have been perceived as a sign of weakness.

Acting could be perceived as a sign of strength.

And while the White House wouldn't say yea or nay on this yesterday, it's always possible that they are hoping that Goss gains enought stature as CIA director that he can then become the NID. After all, the job of CIA Director already carries the additonal title of Director of Central Intelligence.

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Albany, N.Y.: I take your point this morning that appointing Goss to CIA may be a decent political move, but does it make any other kind of sense? Stansfield Turner just made a scathing, but sensible, argument on-line that the bureaucracy will stall Goss until after the election and very little will get done.

Dan Froomkin: Thank you for calling my, and my readers' attention to that Live Online. Ironically, Turner, a public supporter of John Kerry, is now speaking at least in part as a partisan himself. But I noticed he insists that he didn't get political until after he left the government.

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Washigton, D.C.: Did you see the stupid answer that Bush said about Sovereignty? People were laughing at him and it made Bush sound stupid. He defined sovreignty by saying something is sovreign! Why can't the national media pick up on how dumb he is.

Dan Froomkin: First of all, you spelled Washington and sovereign wrong. See? Everyone makes mistakes sometimes.

But the bloggers are giving that one a lot of life, and Carl Hulse did an item on it for nytimes.com, although I don't think it made it into the paper.

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Duluth, Minn.: I'm a recently-started regular reader of your column, and enjoy it immensely.

I was wondering if you had heard anything about the month of September 2004 being coined, "National Preparedness Month", but not officially announced until September 9th, the Thursday before September 11th...

Dan Froomkin: Thank you for your kind words.

I can't confirm what you say, but it wouldn't be so unusual, or necessarily fraught with meaning.

For instance, Bush didn't actually sign the proclamation of June as Black Music Month until June 22.

The White House Web site has a nifty proclamations page.

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Lansdowne, Pa.: How about question(s) on the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth? E.g., does it bother either Bush or his administration that Sen. McCain has been so firm in his criticism of the ads? I.e., do they think McCain has a conflict of interest between his denunciation of the ads (intending to harm Kerry) and his campaiging with Bush. Isn't McCain trying to have it both ways? Isn't he flip-flopping?

Dan Froomkin: What is it they say about politics and bedfellows? This is a classic case. Obviously, both men see value in having a closer relationship -- in spite of all their differences.

And you I am sure saw how Scott McClellan handled this question -- he said the White House was opposed to all special-interest ads, more of which are -- at least for now -- bashing Bush than Kerry.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I've tried to find the answer before, but with no success. The attacks, true or not, on Kerry's war record revived some questions about Bush's National Guard Duty. However, nearly all of the press coverage I've seen focused on how many days Bush did or did not show up for duty. I know there were some questions as to just why he pushed to hard to get into the Guard once his student deferment expired, upon graduation, at a time when it was well known that many people were joining the Guard to lessen their chances of going to Vietnam (vs. being exposed to the draft), but has Bush ever said why he chose to join the National Guard? I had a student deferment at the same time Bush did, but kept mine until the lottery came into effect. I recall one friend trying hard to get into the National Guard in California because he was afraid of getting drafted. Perhaps I'm being unfair assuming Bush had the same motive.

Dan Froomkin: Bush has said that, at the time, he did not have any desire to go to Vietnam, and he has acknowledged that joining the Texas Air National Guard was a good way of making sure he didn't have to.

Not wanting to go to Vietnam was not exactly an unusual desire at that time.

What he has denied was that favoritism played in role in his getting this sought-after posting.

And he has insisted that he fulfilled his obligations.

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Charlotte, N.C.: What goals/expectations have Bush people set for the upcoming convention? Any hints as to what type of bounce they think they need to catch Kerry before Nov. 2? With Kerry up by an average of 5 points in most polls I would think they would have to come out at least even with him. What are your thoughts?

Dan Froomkin: I think their expectations are exceedingly low, and I think that's very smart of them. For one, they have the same problem the DNC had, which is that there seem to be relatively few undecided people out there, so how do you get a big bounce? They have another problem, though, which is that the DNC was Kerry's chance to introduce himself to the voters. Bush, to put it bluntly, needs no introduction. But the adulation and the cheering and the balloons should psyche up his supporters -- and maybe, even a few undecideds.

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Chicago, Ill.: Here's a question no one ever asks the media pundits: How can Kerry be the most reliable liberal and also be a flip-flopper?

Dan Froomkin: OK, that's pretty funny.

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Arlington, Va.: You liberal reporters sure are spinning this economy story out of control! The economy improved shockingly well over the summer while the media slept. Now, based on one month's worth of data, you are ready to conclude that we're heading downhill again? Did you miss the fact that Alan Greenspan just raised interest rates in anticipation of stronger economic growth?

Dan Froomkin: Are we spinning or resisting being spun? There seems to be no question that many sectors of the economy are headed in the right direction, but in some cases very slowly. And here is a paragraph from today's news analysis by Mike Allen and Jonathan Weisman:

"The economy has 1.1 million fewer jobs than the day Bush took office, making it more than likely he will join Herbert Hoover as the second president to see the nation suffer a net job loss on his watch. The economy is 7 million jobs short of the level the White House had predicted when trying to sell the tax cuts. And a 10-year budget outlook that in 2001 projected $5.6 trillion in surpluses now foresees $2.7 trillion in deficits, an unprecedented fiscal swing."

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Ringwood, N.J.: What if Goss assumes the post and Kerry wins? Do incoming Presidents usually replace the CIA director?

Dan Froomkin: Not usually, no. But usually, presidents don't inherit CIA directors who have personally maligned them. Unless Goss gained a whole lot of stature in the interim, I doubt he'd be long for his job in that circumstance.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: "Dan Froomkin: First of all, you spelled Washington and sovereign wrong. See? Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. "

C'mon Dan, there is a difference between spelling errors made on the fly by people used to having spell check do their work for them, and a President not understanding the concept of sovereignty as it applies to Native American peoples.

You have control here. If you can't provide a good answer, don't use the question. But don't waste bandwidth on being snarky just for the sake of being snarky.

Dan Froomkin: I like it when my readers stick up for each other.

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Boston, Mass.: Why is the US intelligence agency's leaking of the Noor Kahn's name not getting any traction here? The Pakistani and British intelligence agencies have said this leaking thwarted attempts to capture far more of the active Al Qaeda network. It seems that there was nothing to be gained by leaking his name, other than political advantage, or putting some meat on the bones of a skeletal Orange alert that was getting trashed for it's dated informatin. This should be a heck of a story, no?

Dan Froomkin: I actually don't know enough yet. Which means there should definitely be some more reporting, no matter what, so we can then decide how big a story it is. Potentially, it's huge.

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Denver, Colo.: As a former rugby player (and current Kerry supporter), punching is commonplace. Even biting occurs, occasionally, in the scrum

Dan Froomkin: Thank you. And thank you for reminding us of where the "scrum" metaphor actually comes from.

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Yakima, Wash.: Does the Bush campaign team really believe that "Strong, and getting stronger" is going to serve the G.W. well in race with Kerry. All the numbers are going against him (i.e. Deficits, Job creation, wages, stock market), and he keeps telling his hand picked crowds that this is the best we have done in TWENTY years. Do you think that this will play well in a debate, or in front of a non Bush worshipping crowd?

Dan Froomkin: That's a very interesting question. The Bush folks can't help but feel pretty psyched when they see the wildly enthusiastic response the presidnet is getting on the road -- but as you point out, those are carefully selected (if huge) audiences.

The first audience that wasn't all Bush supporters that Bush has addressed in a long time was the Unity minority journalism conference, and say what you will about whether they should have or not, the audience most definitely did not respond warmly. (Case in point, that "sovereign" audio.)

Pretty much everything Bush said seemed to fall flat, and he clearly got pretty stressed out.

That said, my sense is that "strength" is an absolutely key part of the image that Bush maintains among his supporters. And it best captures the glory days of high approval after Sept. 11, as well.

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Re: sovereignty: Did you catch Jesse Jackson being asked about Tribal Sovereignty (sp?). It was hysterical! He gave this answer and then cracked up! It was extremely funny.

JESSE JACKSON: The President explained. You just didn't understand. Sovereignty is sovereignty. You understand? It's like in sovereignity. If you are on a reservation, you have been soverized. Your Ph.D. is in soverbication. You understand? I don't think you understand.

Dan Froomkin: No, but I'll listen to it as soon as I sign off here.

Which I will do right now.

Thank you for all your wonderful questions, as always. Don't forget to read my column daily -- and feel free to e-mail me your questions and comments -- and your links!

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