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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

The Bush-Putin Mutual Admiration Society

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, February 25, 2005; 2:36 PM

When President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin came out to meet the press yesterday, it was not to engage in the sparring match some had anticipated. It was more of a celebration of mutual admiration.

Bush effusively declared Putin to be a man of his word. Putin spoke about shared values, joint efforts and "a unique cooperation."

In the first test of the lofty promises from Bush's inaugural address, in which he vowed to confront "every ruler and every nation" about internal repression with the goal of "ending tyranny in our world," Bush gently chided Putin by noting that "democracies have certain things in common: They have a rule of law and protection of minorities, a free press and a viable political opposition."

But when Putin responded by rejecting the notion that he is rolling back democratic institutions, Bush did not challenge him. In fact, Bush restated his faith in Putin and declared himself satisfied.

This in spite of the fact that Bush had earlier called on Putin to shape up; and despite that much of what Putin was saying in his defense was debatable if not outright deceptive.

Here is Putin yesterday: "We are going to remain committed to the fundamental principles of democracy that have been established in the world. But, of course, all the modern institutions of democracy -- the principles of democracy -- should be adequate to the current status of the development of Russia, to our history and our traditions. . . .

"[T]he implementation of the principles and norms of democracy should not be accompanied by the collapse of the state and the impoverishment of the people."

Bush did not push back.

When Bush himself was tweaked about the state of American democracy by a member of the Russian press, he responded with his own defense. And Putin didn't challenge that, either, even though some of that was debatable as well.

Some of today's coverage notes moments of tension in yesterday's event. Some commentators noted Putin's unsmiling demeanor. And, in fact, in contrast to Bush, he looked sour. But that's pretty much how he always looks.

The defining moment of yesterday's event may have come when Putin, asked whether his chat with Bush would result in any changes in his policies, replied: "Some of his ideas could be taken into account in my work. And I will pay due attention to them. . . . Some other ideas I will not comment on."

With that, he winked at Bush.

And Bush chuckled.

What a couple of pushovers.

The Coverage

Michael A. Fletcher and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post: "President Bush urged President Vladimir Putin to reinvigorate Russia's fragile democracy Thursday and then accepted Putin's word when the former KGB colonel insisted he was not turning his country back toward totalitarianism.

"Taking a gentle approach in the first application of his inaugural pledge to challenge foreign leaders to promote freedom, Bush said he raised his concerns about Putin's crackdown on political opposition 'in a constructive and friendly manner' and emphasized that overall the two agreed more than they disagreed. . . .

"Bush, capping a five-day European trip, pronounced himself pleased without securing any specific commitments or directly contradicting any of Putin's points. 'The most important statement that you heard, and I heard, was the president's statement when he declared his absolute support for democracy in Russia and they're not turning back,' Bush said. He went on to vouch for Putin's credibility. 'When he tells you something, he means it.' "

But even some former allies of Putin said yesterday that Putin was not speaking the truth. As Fletcher and Baker write: "While Bush accepted Putin's reassurance, the Russian leader's former prime minister broke with Putin, complaining that Russia had turned away from democratic values. 'Looking at the past year, I have come to the conclusion that Russia is not relying on any of these values,' Mikhail Kasyanov, who served as prime minister for four years, said at a Moscow news conference."

James Harding writes in the Financial Times: "President George W. Bush yesterday offered a courteous, carefully-worded statement of concern to Vladimir Putin about the state of Russian democracy, only to be met by a deft defence by the Russian president of his style of democratic leadership."

C.J. Chivers writes in the New York Times: "For all of the advance billing and anticipation, President Bush and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia emerged from their private meeting in Bratislava, Slovakia on Thursday and chose to stand together and emphasize the narrowing areas where their nations could agree. . . .

"[S]ome political analysts took the public comments as evidence that Mr. Bush had ceded an opportunity to challenge Mr. Putin forcefully on his increasingly autocratic stand."

Norah O'Donnell reports for NBC News: "From watching when the two of them appeared before cameras, it's clear that there is a common understanding between them, warmth between them, a sort of friendship -- if you will -- between them, that is significant. People who watch both leaders say they believe it is genuine."

Here is the transcript of the press conference.

Bush's Defense

It was an amazing moment: After the introductory comments, Andrey Kolesnikov, a correspondent for the Russian business newspaper Kommersant, got up and said -- albeit not so succinctly, and not in English -- Hey, no wonder you guys see eye to eye! You're both authoritarians.

This prompted Bush to launch into a possibly unprecedented defense of himself as a democratic leader. He did it by describing his view of the country.

And while Putin didn't challenge what Bush said, there have been some news reports of late that suggest that things may not be as black and white as Bush said.

"I live in a transparent country.

Cadre grows to rein in message; Ranks of federal public affairs officials have swelled under Bush to help tighten control on communiques to media, access to information, Newsday, Feb. 24, 2005; Administration Paid Commentator; Education Dept. Used Williams to Promote 'No Child' Law, Washington Post, Jan. 8, 2005; Groups raise concerns about increased classification of documents, GOVEXEC.com, Oct. 27, 2004.

"I live in a country where decisions made by government are wide open and people are able to call people to -- me to account, which many out here do on a regular basis.

High Court Backs Vice President; Energy Documents Shielded for Now, Washington Post, June 25, 2004; Mr. President, will you answer the question?, NiemanWathchdog.org, Dec. 3, 2004; Bush Says Election Ratified Iraq Policy, Washington Post, Jan. 16, 2005 (in which Bush says: "We had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2004 elections.")

"Our laws and the reasons why we have laws on the books are perfectly explained to people. Every decision we have made is within the Constitution of the United States. We have a constitution that we uphold.

How U.S. rewrote terror law in secrecy; White House group devised new system in aftermath of 9/11, New York Times, Oct. 24, 2004; In Cheney's Shadow, Counsel Pushes the Conservative Cause, Washington Post, Oct. 11, 2004; Slim Legal Grounds for Torture Memos; Most Scholars Reject Broad View of Executive's Power, Washington Post, July 4, 2004.

"And if there's a question as to whether or not a law meets that constitution, we have an independent court system through which that law is reviewed.

• Recount 2000: Decision Sharpens the Justices' Divisions; Dissenters See Harm to Voting Rights and the Court's Own Legitimacy, Washington Post, Dec. 13, 2000; Scalia Won't Sit Out Case On Cheney; Justice's Memo Details Hunting Trip With VP, Washington Post, March 19, 2004.

"So I'm perfectly comfortable in telling you our country is one that safeguards human rights and human dignity, and we resolve our disputes in a peaceful way."

Torture at Abu Ghraib, the New Yorker, May 10, 2004; Ground War Starts, Airstrikes Continue As U.S. Keeps Focus on Iraq's Leaders, Washington Post, March 21, 2003.

Kolesnikov's View

Here, by the way, is the article Andrey Kolesnikov wrote about the Bush-Putin summit for Kommersant.

He explains: "In conclusion, I suggested that the presidents agree with all this, shake hands and continue their friendship.

"This was rather immodest. But to justify myself, I'd say that nobody present at the press conference was distinguished with modesty."

First Name Watch

Bush referred to Putin as "Vladimir" eight times during the public session; Putin referred to Bush five time as "the president of the United States."

But once -- and he was the first leader to do so in public this entire trip -- Putin did actually refer to Bush as "George."

And even more significantly, for the first time in any of the joint press conferences that I can recall, it was not Bush who had the last word in this one. It was Putin who wrapped things up: "I would like to thank the President of the United States for his constructive dialogue that we've had today. Thank you very much."

He Says What He Means?

Peter Baker, recently back from covering Moscow, writes in a news analysis for The Washington Post about Putin's defense yesterday of "his decision last fall to abolish elections of regional governors. 'The leaders of the regions of the Russian Federation will not be appointed by the president,' he said. They will be approved by 'regional parliaments, which are directly chosen by secret ballot.' Putin compared this to the Electoral College, which selects U.S. presidents. 'It is not considered undemocratic, is it?'

"In fact, under the new system, Putin will appoint governors. His selections have to be ratified by regional legislatures, but if such a legislature rejects his choice twice, it will be dissolved."

Baker also puts the Russian press's questions in context:

"While Putin travels around with a contingent of reporters just as Bush does, the Kremlin press pool is a handpicked group of reporters, most of whom work for the state and the rest selected for their fidelity to the Kremlin's rules of the game. Helpful questions are often planted. Unwelcome questions are not allowed. And anyone who gets out of line can get out of the pool.

"The Kremlin press pool is like so many institutions in Russia that have the trappings of a Western-style pluralistic society but operate under a different set of understandings, part of what analyst Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Moscow Center calls 'the illusion of democracy.' Television channels air newscasts with fancy graphics but follow scripts approved by the Kremlin. Elections are held, but candidates out of favor with the Kremlin are often knocked off the ballot. Courts conduct trials, but the state almost never loses. Parliament meets but only to rubber-stamp Kremlin legislation."

Meanwhile, Speaking of Press Corps

The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times sort of backed into the Gannon story this morning.

Christopher Cooper and John D. McKinnon write in the Wall Street Journal that "a steady evolution that has occurred in the White House briefing room in recent years. Once the clubby preserve of big-name newspapers and networks, it has lately become a political stage where a growing assortment of reporters, activists and bloggers function not only as journalists but as participants in a unique form of reality TV.

"The power of the presidency has always attracted offbeat characters to the White House briefing room. But the trend accelerated in the late 1990s, when cable outlets like C-SPAN began broadcasting the White House briefing in its entirety. That has drawn more fringe journalists seeking a forum to voice their points of view. The trend has been further fueled in recent years by the rise of alternative media, Internet news sites and Web logs that have given just about everyone who wants it a platform for punditry."

Johanna Neuman writes in the Los Angeles Times that "the White House press corps is not the thoroughly screened and scrubbed journalistic elite Americans might presume. Along with stars of the country's major media organizations, it has long included eccentrics, fringe players and characters of uncertain lineage."

Erstwhile reporter Jim Guckert, better known as Jeff Gannon, won entree into the White House by routinely getting day passes -- rather than the "hard passes," for which he did not qualify.

Neuman writes: "Marlin Fitzwater, former press secretary to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said in an interview that he created day passes in response to a federal court decision in the late 1970s requiring the White House to admit all journalists unless the Secret Service deemed them threats to the president or his immediate family.

"The lawsuit involved Robert Sherrill of the Nation, who was denied a press pass on the Secret Service's recommendation because, it turned out, he had punched out the press secretary to the governor of Florida.

Meanwhile, Eric Boehlert writes in Salon: "Ordinarily, revelations that a former male prostitute, using an alias (Jeff Gannon) and working for a phony news organization, was ushered into the White House -- without undergoing a full-blown security background check -- in order to pose softball questions to administration officials would qualify as news by any recent Beltway standard. . . .

"Yet most mainstream reporters have opted not to cover the story. Two of the television networks, as well as scores of major metropolitan newspapers around the country, have completely ignored it."

He draws an interesting comparison with the firestorm of coverage after Chattanooga Free Times Press reporter Edward Lee Pitts helped a National Guardsman craft a tough question posed to Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Editor & Publisher writes that Talon News, the site for which Guckert worked, is going dark.

But: Jeffgannon.com, Guckert's personal site, is back up. He writes: "I'm baaaaaaack! If you thought I was going to slink away -- then you don't know much about me. Someone still has to battle the Left and now that I've emerged from the crucible, I'm stronger than before."

Looking Back on the Big Trip

Judy Keen writes in USA Today that plenty of unfinished business remains after the European trip.

And, she writes: "The protests that accompanied every stop on Bush's five-day trip and interviews with people on the street in Belgium, Germany and Slovakia suggested that many Europeans have not been won over."

Dan Bilefsky and Christopher Cooper write in the Wall Street Journal: "As President Bush moved on from his European tour, European leaders were giddy from the diplomatic goodwill. But there was little clarity in how the U.S. and the European Union can better combine forces in areas of trans-Atlantic relations over which they still disagree."

Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey write for Newsweek.com: "Bush's biggest concession to Europe this week was to show up -- a point he repeated without fail at every stop."

And Steve Gutterman writes for the Associated Press: "Both Vladimir Putin and President Bush can come away from their meeting in Slovakia claiming they accomplished their mission, at least in the short term, but the patches they placed on the bruised Russian-American relationship will be no antidote against further disagreement and drift."

Hand in Glove

William J. Kole writes for the Associated Press: "It was a firm presidential handshake. But technically speaking, since he didn't take off his gloves, President Bush didn't press the flesh when he greeted top Slovak officials. . . . And that was an apparent violation of protocol."

White House Flu

A pool report last night from the flight home on Air Force One notes that press secretary Scott McClellan "stopped back in steerage a couple of times, but did not gaggle or brief. He complained of a flu-like bug that also struck some others in the press office."

The Wead Tapes

Jefferson Morley writes in his washingtonpost.com column: "President Bush all but admits to illicit drug use for the first time.

"Overseas it's the stuff of headlines. At home, the U.S. press has generally downplayed the story.

"The divergent coverage of Bush's apparent drug use is a textbook study in the difference between the international online media and their American counterparts. On the issue of youthful illicit drug use, most U.S. news editors -- liberal, conservative or other -- defer to Bush in a way that their foreign counterparts do not."

Jonathan Chait writes in a column in the Los Angeles Times: "Most presidents have to face betrayal sooner or later. . . . What's uncanny about the Bush administration is that its dissidents invariably recant, usually in zombie-like fashion."

Blame the Media

Bill Sammon writes in the Washington Times: "The prime minister of Slovakia yesterday blamed the media for unfairly turning the European public against President Bush by negatively slanting coverage on Iraq.

"After meeting with Mr. Bush twice in less than a week, Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda told reporters that the president also blamed the press for portraying him as eager to invade Iran to eradicate its nuclear program.

"'President Bush told me in Brussels: "I am so unhappy that media creates the picture that Bush wants war in Iran. This is crazy,"' Mr. Dzurinda told a small group of reporters over lunch."

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