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White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, April 20, 2005; 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.

When I was Live Online last, a reader from Chatham, N.J., asked why the White House's transcripts of press briefings don't include the names and affiliations of the people asking the questions. I thought that was a good question, and vowed to get an answer.

In today's column, Chatham, you get your answer. In short, it's because it would slow things down. And to the White House, spokesman David Almacy told me, "It's the answers that matter, not the questions."

Anyway, lots to talk about today, including of course Karl Rove's critique of the press.

So bring it on.

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Greenbelt, Md.: Bush has praised the new Pope as "a man of great wisdom." Putting aside the obvious questions about Bush's people-judging skills (Sharon a "man of peace", looking into Putin's heart, nominating Bolton for the UN, etc.), what does this mean for his international policy?

Seems to me that having this Pope in office might make Bush seem moderate abroad by default, and therefore somewhat more likely to be taken seriously. Or is it possible that having a Pope who starkly spells out the right-wing agenda might cast additional suspicion on Bush's actions? Just curious as to the political fallout here, which is the only relevant issue for the vast majority of the world who are not card-carrying Catholics.

Dan Froomkin: Those are excellent questions, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. The new pope is likely to have enormous political impact, both here and abroad.

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Albuquerque, N.M.: Re: Bush and the Pool

Bush's ad lib exchanges with the press
remind me of a frat boy's attempts to
dominate a social situation by using
humor that slightly demeans another
person.

When I was growing up in the south I
remember white people treating blacks
with the same "genial" disdain. It passes
social muster, but there's an edge to it.

What always shocks me is that reporters
laugh after Bush's put downs.

I wish members of the pool could grow a
spine.

Dan Froomkin: I'm not saying I disagree, but what you're asking for is harder and more complicated than you think.

When reporters are on the job, our goal is getting the story. If that entails some humiliating but harmless "source maintenance," so be it. And what good would come of reporters snapping at Bush when he bullies them?

That said, it may not be so harmless.

And I think Bush's behavior with the corps is, well, worth reporting, and not out of character.

So that's what I do -- I report it. That's how I do my job.

I'll have more on the whole towel-snapping motif in the next few days.

_______________________

Leesburg, Va.: Can you clarify the storyline about the recently imposed requirement for American citizens to show a passport when re-entering the country from Canada or Mexico? As I remember it, the requirement was issued and when questions were asked, the official answer was that the requirement had been reviewed and approved by the White House. Yet the President seemed surprised when questioned about it later and said the requirement would be reviewed. How can something be approved by the White House without the President having at least heard about it? While I appreciate that he can't personally approve or oversee everything the government does, doesn't this situation make him look more than a little out of the loop - a situation I thought his staff was at pains to prevent.

Dan Froomkin: Well, you're not wrong about any of that.

But is this really a good litmus test for his being in the loop? No CEO knows everything that's going on in his company. Was this a big enough deal that it casts doubts on his approach to the presidency?

When he said, talking to newspaper editors last week that he'd first read about it in the newspaper, I was more shocked that he read newspapers than that he hadn't heard about it before.

_______________________

Astoria, N.Y.: Congratulations on your tireless effort to report about the Presidential bubbles. Your work is paying off as now the right-winged network is forced to cover it - Fox News has finally picked up on your coverage. Of course, John Gibson (of Fox News) titles his report on the Presidential bubbles: "Protecting the President from Nuts" (April 18th, 2005). Of course, this is coming from the fair and balanced network - funny isn't it. Specifically, Mr. Gibson says:

"But more importantly, who are we kidding? The people who are being denied entry are there to create a scene and try to take the attention away from the president's proposed programs. Does he have to let people in to disrupt him? No, he doesn't."

I say to Mr. Gibson, even if there are people there to heckle the President, isn't heckling a protected right under our Constitution - it is free speech after all.

Mr. Gibson goes on to say, regarding the Denver three (which you have also superbly covered):

"OK, let's see: You run around with a bumper sticker that says the Iraq invasion was an oil grab at the expense of the lives of U.S. troops, you're wearing T-shirts saying Bush lies and you think you have a right to attend one of the president's events?" (he is speaking rhetorically)

Well, I would answer Mr. Gibson's question by saying, YES, you do have a right to attend one of these events.

Your thoughts on the fair and balanced coverage?

Many thanks,

ps. Here is the link to the Fox News story: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,153842,00.html

Dan Froomkin: I hadn't seen that one! (Here's a clickable link to that piece.)

But I should note that the Gibson piece was commentary -- while the Fox News article I referenced above I thought actually moved the ball forward fairly admirably.

I do find that White House officials, when they are talking to the likes of Fox News or the Washington Times or right-wing radio hosts, sometimes actually let their guard down a bit than when talking to the likes of us. And that is sometimes quite valuable.

P.S. I love it when you guys send me links!

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Alexandria, Va.: Hi Dan. After all the hard work that you do pointing out Bush's bubble on the road, I am surprised that you didn't mention last night's "Daily Show" story where Samantha Bee interviews Frank Luntz about how to get a favorable event, and then works with a casting agent to find people for her panel.

Dan Froomkin: I missed it!

One of the many enormous sacrifices that I make to bring you this fine column is that I go to bed before the Daily Show comes on. (And they don't Web-post their video fast enough or consistently enough for me to link to it, typically.)

Now mind you, one of the few terrific perks of this job is that I get the text of Stewart's monologue e-mailed to me hours before you mere mortals get to hear it. But that doesn't include the rest of the show.

I'll make a point of tracking that down, though. Thanks.

_______________________

Kansas City, Mo.: I thought Dana Milbank did a good job of reviewing Karl Rove's media review speech in that he reported what Rove said then pointed out that it didn't square with White House actions.

This was the way my J-School teachers taught me how to cover these situations (report but then check the claims) but (and maybe I'm wrong) Bush seems to be treated differently, without the qualifiers. Instead its more just reporting what he said. Am I off base on this?

Dan Froomkin: You're referring to this story by Milbank.

It's worth noting that, for doing precisely what you note, Milbank was considered a bit of a thorn in the White House's side when he was The Post's White House correspondent.

And look, there no doubt that the president -- any president -- dominates the political discourse in this country. When he says something, it's news, and it gets reported.

Sometimes, and I would say more often since the election, reporters also go to the trouble of checking his claims, and pointing out discrepancies. Which is indeed what we should be doing pretty much all the time.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: What have you been hearing about coordination between the White House and the likes of COMPASS?

Dan Froomkin: It's no secret. It is extensive.

_______________________

Louisville, K.Y.: Now that the Bush administration has gotten real and made its Social Security demonstrations invite-only, are they being funded with Bush/GOP/other private money? Am I still paying for something I have no access to? Is it state of Republican Congressional majorities that is hindering an investigation/admonishment/whatever?

Dan Froomkin: Just because they are now "private" to some extent, i.e. not even theoretically "open to the public" anymore, does not mean that they are not considered official White House events. So you're paying.

_______________________

Essex, Conn.: Hi,
I really enjoy your column - it has become a regular staple in my lunchtime internet diet. I particularly like the bubble watch. What do you see ever coming from it? Buzzflash.com is calling for the prosecution of the White House for "...violating First Amendment rights and wrongful use of taxpayer funds." I don't really understand how you would prosecute the White House - but otherwise what are the chances of someone being held accountable?

Dan Froomkin: Thank you! And, slowly but surely, this is becoming more and more of a story.

I was struck by how the White House responded to the whole thing: By baldly making what had been ostensibly public events now officially invitation-only. But of course it's still your tax dollars picking up the tab.

Now that some members of Congress are demanding answers, at least when it comes to who was behind the removal of the three people from the Denver rally, we may actually get some more fact -- which to me, is essential.

In Monday's column I referenced a Fox News story (!) in which White House spokesman Trent Duffy sort of implied that maybe the White House advance team -- not some errant volunteer -- could have been responsible. I'm kind of amazed no one's tried to bring up the subject with Scott McClellan again -- for what that's worth.

Dan Froomkin: Oops. I thought this post had gone out already! This is the Fox News story I referred to above as having already referenced. Silly me.

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Has anyone looked into how Exxon--and presumably other oil companies--is turning such a huge profit right now? Shouldn't they be paying more for their oil, thus off-setting any additional revenue brought in from high gasoline prices? And if not, why on earth am I paying $2.50 a gallon? Is this just blatant opportunism?

Dan Froomkin: Well, funny you should mention this.

For one, Bush is talking about energy policy even as I type. We'll see what he has to say.

For another, over on my other Web site, NiemanWatchdog.org, we just posted a piece by Tyson Slocum, the research director of Public Citizen's Energy Program, who says the media and the Bush administration are overlooking the role of oil companies and speculators in the run-up of gas prices.

Oil industry profits are indeed at an all-time high.

Bush and McClellan have both mentioned in recent days that the government should be keeping an eye out for price-gouging. Said Bush to CNBC's Insana: "We can make sure that people aren't getting cheated, you know. In other words, that there's fair pricing, market pricing."

I'd like to see some follow up on that.

_______________________

Portland, Maine: If Mr. Rove doesn't want the press to be so confrontational, he may want to consider advising the administration to stop lying to them. That may sound snarky, but unfortunately, it's true. Reporters are humans too, and after spending a year listening to Scott McClellan refuse to answer any of your questions, and watching Bush deliberately omit and exaggerate on the campaign/Social Security trail, it's not surprising the press is ornery.

Dan Froomkin: Ornery? Us?

_______________________

Washington, D.C.: Is it true that the President and Mrs. Bush use a Chicago address as their residence for income tax purposes? (Saw a blurb about this on Hotline's Wake-Up Call this morning, but the article it linked to required registration). If so, this is pretty remarkable, don't you think?

Dan Froomkin: Yup. I linked to Ken Herman's story about that this morning.

Apparently, it's not as bad as it sounds!

(And let me get this straight, you'll pay money for Hotline, but not spend a few seconds registering for a fine newspaper Web site like the Austin American-Statesman?)

_______________________

Austin, Tex.: What is COMPASS?

Dan Froomkin: Oops. Sorry. Compass -- strictly, CoMPASS -- is the acronym for the Coalition for Modernization and Protection of America's Social Security, a group of major trade associations that is spearheading -- with White House guidance -- the push for Bush's Social Security proposals.

See this piece by Judy Sarasohn in The Post.

_______________________

San Antonio, Tex.: Is there much historical precedent for Karl Rove criticizing the national press?

Dan Froomkin: You mean publicly? Ho ho ho.

Listen, I may take issue with some of his conclusions, but I'm actually quite pleased that people are talking about what I consider a very important topic.

I remember after the election, there was much mumbling about lessons learned -- but it passed quickly.

I think that the topic upon which Rove was invited to speak -- "Polarized Press: Media and Politics in the Age of Bush" -- is a hugely important and still largely unexplored one. (Certainly compared to, say, is blogging journalism?)

The "mainstream press" has got some challenges to face, and some work to do. That won't happen in silence.

I linked to veteran journalist Sydney Schanberg's opinion piece in the Village Voice this morning, about how the White House press corps should get a spine. I didn't include this part -- maybe I should have -- in which he writes that the press hasn't made its case with the public.

"We haven't gotten across why people need us or why what we do is important to the functioning of a free nation. We haven't effectively gotten our readers to understand that if they get lied to by their government or other power centers, and we—or some other watchdogs—don't quickly show them the lie, bad things can happen. People can lose their health insurance or have their homes seized by the bank. And wars can happen and people can die. So we have to find better ways to show them why this is true and therefore why aggressive journalism is a necessity."

_______________________

Atlanta, Ga.: Has anyone asked the president why we should continue to pay extra Social Security taxes if he believes the government won't be paying it back?

Dan Froomkin: No! Boy do I wish someone would, though.

As I wrote in my Feb. 11 column on "The Amazing Disappearing Trust Fund": "Let's assume that the president really believes that the Social Security trust fund doesn't exist. And let's just forget about the past two decades, during which workers overpaid more than a trillion dollars in payroll taxes. We'll write that off to an unfortunate misunderstanding.

"But now take this one more step. Shouldn't Bush therefore call for an immediate cut in payroll taxes, effective immediately?

"If Social Security is really pay-as-you-go, and any excess payroll tax revenue just goes into the general fund, why are American workers paying more than it costs to run the program? Why should they overpay Social Security payroll taxes for one more minute -- if in fact it doesn't do the Social Security system any good at all?"

I'm still waiting for an answer -- or, more properly, as you just put it, for the question.



_______________________

Dan Froomkin: OK thanks everyone. I'm out of time. Thanks for all your good questions, I wish I could have taken more. See you again here in two weeks and every afternoon on the home page.

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