President Bush may try to manipulate, work around and undermine the American press -- but he certainly doesn't have as much control over the media as Russian President Vladimir Putin apparently thinks he does.
In an odd exchange during the private meeting that preceded their joint news conference on Thursday, a defensive Putin reportedly expressed his belief that Bush fired CBS News anchor Dan Rather.
Richard Wolffe writes in Newsweek: "It was meant to be a heart-to-heart: just the two presidents and their translators, sitting alone inside the historic castle that overlooks the Slovak capital of Bratislava. Four years earlier, in another castle in Central Europe, George W. Bush looked Vladimir Putin in the eye and saw his trustworthy soul. But what he saw inside Putin last week was far less comforting. When Bush confronted his Russian counterpart about the freedom of the press in Russia, Putin shot back with an attack of his own: 'We didn't criticize you when you fired those reporters at CBS.'
"It's not clear how well Putin understands the controversy that led to the dismissal of four CBS journalists over the discredited report on Bush's National Guard service. Yet it's all too clear how Putin sees the relationship between Bush and the American media -- just like his own. Bush's aides have long feared that former KGB officers in Putin's inner circle are painting a twisted picture of U.S. policy. So Bush explained how he had no power to fire American journalists. It made little difference. When the two presidents emerged for their joint press conference, one Russian reporter repeated Putin's language about journalists getting fired. Bush (already hot after an earlier question about his spying on U.S. citizens) asked the reporter if he felt free. 'They obviously planted the question,' said one of Bush's senior aides."
John F. Dickerson writes in Time: "George Bush knew Vladimir Putin would be defensive when Bush brought up the pace of democratic reform in Russia in their private meeting at the end of Bush's four-day, three-city tour of Europe. But when Bush talked about the Kremlin's crackdown on the media and explained that democracies require a free press, the Russian leader gave a rebuttal that left the President nonplussed. If the press was so free in the U.S., Putin asked, then why had those reporters at CBS lost their jobs? Bush was openmouthed. 'Putin thought we'd fired Dan Rather,' says a senior Administration official. 'It was like something out of 1984.' "
Speaking of the Media
Dick Polman writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer that "the Jeff Gannon/James Guckert saga is far from over. It remains unclear how a graduate of a conservative training program, someone with no previous journalism experience, someone whose writings were often lifted directly from White House press releases, still managed to gain access to the White House press room, where he spent two years lobbing gentle questions at the press secretary and the President.
"And some political analysts who monitor President Bush's relations with the media insist that Gannon (who, referring to Democrats, recently asked Bush, 'How are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?') should not be viewed as an isolated case. Rather, they contend that Gannon is symptomatic of a broader White House strategy to undermine the traditional media by disseminating the Bush message in creative new ways."
Polman quotes Larry Gross, who runs the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California: "Richard Nixon hated the press, Bill Clinton hated the press -- but they accepted the basic rules of the game. Bush has a strategy of discrediting, end-running, and even faking the news. Those prepackaged videos sent to local TV stations 'looked' like news, much the way Gannon 'looked' like a reporter. We're seeing something new: Potemkin-village journalism."
That "Potemkin village" metaphor is really on fire among liberals, by the way. (Here's the definition, for the historically challenged.)
For instance, here's New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd yesterday: "Mr. Bush pledges to spread democracy while his officials strive to create a Potemkin press village at home. This White House seems to prefer softball questions from a self-advertised male escort with a fake name to hardball questions from journalists with real names. . . .
"Mr. Bush and Condi Rice strut in their speeches -- the secretary of state also strutted in Wiesbaden in her foxy 'Matrix'-dominatrix black leather stiletto boots -- but they shy away from taking questions from the public unless they get to vet the questions and audiences in advance."
Bush continues to talk about Social Security only where no one can talk back.
Here's his Saturday radio address: "Now that I'm back home, I'm eager to move ahead with one of my top domestic priorities: strengthening and saving Social Security. I have already met with tens of thousands of you in nine states to discuss this important issue. During the recent congressional recess, many senators and congressmen have held their own town hall meetings to discuss Social Security reform with their constituents. For example, Senator Rick Santorum hosted forums all across Pennsylvania this week. And Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan held nearly three dozen listening sessions in his district. I am pleased with the progress of the national discussion on this issue, and I look forward to hearing everyone's ideas when the Congress returns."
Santorum and Ryan have come face to face with skeptics and hecklers on their travels; not so Bush who has been speaking to carefully screened audiences.
Bush also announced: "Meanwhile, I'll be visiting New Jersey and Indiana next week, and I plan to keep traveling across the country to talk about Social Security."
Bush is scheduled to hold two more of his "conversations on strengthening Social Security" on Friday, first at the Westfield Armory in Westfield, N.J., and then at the Joyce Center in Notre Dame, Ind.
It's not clear yet how or if the audiences will be screened.
Bush is coming to New Jersey on the invitation of one of the state's Republican congressmen, Rep. Mike Ferguson. Robert Cohen writes in the Newark Star-Ledger: "Ferguson said he did not know the details of who will be invited to the Westfield event, but he added he expected a large crowd. . . .
"Ferguson said it is important for New Jersey residents to have a dialogue with the president. The Republican congressman said he is 'open' to setting up private accounts, but he wants to see how such a proposal will fit into an overall package."
In Indiana, James Wensits writes in the South Bend Tribune: "Whether Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., will be asked to take part in the president's visit could not be confirmed Thursday, although Bayh spokeswoman Meg Keck said that no such invitation has been received.
"U.S. Rep. Chris Chocola, R-Bristol, is viewed as a likely participant, however."
And Bush's advance team will have some help from an unusual lobbyist.
Glen Justice writes in the New York Times that 9-year-old Noah McCullough "will travel to a handful of states ahead of visits by the president and will go on radio programs, answer trivia questions and say a few words about Social Security. Though he is obviously not an expert (and not really a lobbyist, either), officials say the effort is a lighthearted way to underline Mr. Bush's message."
McCullough "made a splash with his encyclopedic command of presidential history, earning five appearances on the 'Tonight' show and some unusual experiences in the presidential campaign last year."
Chris Rock on Bush at the Oscars
Here's the full text of comedian Chris Rock's riff on Bush while hosting the Oscars last night:
"A lot of people like to bash Bush. I'm not going to bash Bush here tonight. I saw 'Fahrenheit 9/11.' I think Bush is a genius. I think Bush did some things this year nobody in this room could do -- nobody in this room could pull off.
"Bush basically reapplied for his job this year. Now, can you imagine applying for a job, and while you're applying for that job, there's a movie in every theater in the country that shows how much you suck at that job? It'd be hard to get hired, wouldn't it? Now I watched 'Fahrenheit' and I learned some stuff, man. And Bush did some things you could never get away with at your job, man. Never, ever ever. You know, when Bush got into office, they had a surplus of money. Now, there's like a $70 trillion deficit.
"Now just imagine you worked at the Gap. You closing out your register and it's $70 trillion short. The average person would get in trouble for something like that, right? Not Bush. No. then -- then, he started a war. That's cool. Support the troops. He started a war.
"Now, just imagine you worked at the Gap. You're $70 trillion behind on your register. And then you start a war with Banana Republic, 'cause you say they got toxic tank tops over there. You had the war. People are dying. A thousand Gap employees are dead, that's right, bleeding all over the khakis. You finally take over Banana Republic. And you find out they never made tank tops in the first place."
Social Security Exit Strategy
John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post: "President Bush is still in the opening phase of a campaign to sell the public and Congress on his ambitious plans for Social Security, but some Republicans on Capitol Hill have decided it is not too early to begin pondering an exit strategy.
"With polls showing widespread skepticism of Bush's proposed individual investment accounts and Democratic lawmakers expressing nearly uniform opposition, some allies of the president are focused on possible split-the-difference deals."
What's an 'Ownership Society'?
Jackie Calmes writes in the Wall Street Journal: "President Bush's campaign to revamp Social Security is just the boldest stroke in a much broader effort: To rewrite the government's social contract with citizens that was born of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and expanded by Lyndon Johnson's Great Society.
"In what Mr. Bush calls an 'ownership society,' Americans would assume more of the responsibilities -- and risks -- now shouldered by government. In exchange, the theory goes, they would get the real and intangible benefits of owning their own homes, controlling their retirement savings, and using tax credits or vouchers to shop for education, job training and health insurance. . . .
"Critics say Mr. Bush's vision is blind to economic risks facing Americans, especially lower-income workers. William Gale, a Brookings Institution economist, dismisses the president's agenda as 'the Dismantling-the-Safety-Net Society.' Some applaud his rhetoric, but say the president's policies -- heavy on tax breaks -- don't broaden ownership, but favor the well-off."
Washington Post columnist Al Kamen publishes an insider's account of a White House meeting last week.
"This afternoon, a number of us were a part of a WH [White House] meeting to hear about their plans to move the Social Security reform debate forward. Deputy chief of staff Karl Rove and NEC [National Economic Council] head Al [Allan B.] Hubbard spoke to the group about the President's strong belief and commitment to taking on this battle."
Rove deputy "Barry Jackson also addressed the group and addressed the importance to the WH effort of the CoMPASS. CoMPASS is tasked with raising between 15 and 20 million [dollars, presumably] for the grass roots and grasstops [local community leaders] part of the reform effort."
Compass is the acronym for the Coalition for Modernization and Protection of America's Social Security, group of major trade associations.
Bush's History on Social Security Richard W. Stevenson
writes in the New York Times: "Mr. Bush had long been intrigued by the idea of allowing workers to put part of their Social Security taxes into stocks and bonds. One Tuesday in the summer of 1978, in the heat of his unsuccessful race for a House seat from West Texas, Mr. Bush went to Midland Country Club to give a campaign speech to local real estate agents and discussed the issue in terms not much different from those he uses now.
"Social Security 'will be bust in 10 years unless there are some changes,' he said, according to an account published the next day in The Midland Reporter-Telegram. 'The ideal solution would be for Social Security to be made sound and people given the chance to invest the money the way they feel.' "
Blacks and Social Security
Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger write in the Los Angeles Times: "The White House and its allies who back overhauling Social Security are launching a highly targeted campaign to convince blacks that President Bush's plan to create private investment accounts would have special benefits for them."
Numbers Watch Alison Fitzgerald and Michael Forsythe
write for Bloomberg News Service: "During a Feb. 4 speech in Tampa, Florida, President George W. Bush pointed to a chart showing the Social Security system running out of money by 2042.
" 'What are you going to do about that chart?' he urged the crowd to ask their senators and representatives.
"What Bush didn't tell his audience was that if the forecast is correct, the U.S. will have its worst economic performance since the Great Depression. He also didn't say that his own White House economists disagree with some of the basic assumptions of the chart, which was drawn up by the Social Security Administration."
Tom Petruno writes about one little-discussed but very important number in the Los Angeles Times: "The administration's long-term assumption is that money paid into the Social Security trust fund will earn an average of 3% a year, after inflation, on the Treasury bonds the fund owns.
"That return also is the 'neutral' or 'hurdle' rate -- the return investors would have to beat in their private accounts to end up better off than if they simply stuck with regular Social Security benefits, according to the administration's proposal.
"The problem is that the current after-inflation, or real, annualized return on Treasury bonds is well below 3%."
Moynihan vs. Bush
Maura Moynihan writes in the New York Daily News to "set the record straight" regarding Bush's repeated invocation of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan "as a purported champion of the White House plan to privatize Social Security.
"There is a fundamental difference between Sen. Moynihan's view of Social Security and that of the White House. My father was committed to honoring the contract the government made with its citizens."
Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "The Bush administration is close to a decision to join Europe in offering incentives to Iran -- possibly including eventual membership in the World Trade Organization -- in exchange for Tehran's formal agreement to surrender any plans to develop a nuclear weapon, according to senior U.S. officials.
"The day after returning from Europe, President Bush met Friday afternoon with the principal members of his foreign policy team to discuss requests made by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac in particular."
Wright writes that the White House meeting "reflects an interest in demonstrating to the Europeans that the U.S. effort to heal the transatlantic rift extends beyond tone to substance -- over the issue that most urgently and widely divides the allies."
Jim Armstrong writes for the Associated Press: "Former President Clinton said Saturday he expects diplomacy to play a larger role in President Bush's second term in office because of 'the drain on our military.' "
The Governors and Medicaid
Robert Tanner writes for the Associated Press: "In the nation's capital, the crisis dominating discussions is Social Security. In the 50 state capitals, the crisis is Medicaid, the state-federal health care program for the poor that has seen its caseload and costs soar.
"Governors brought a mixed message to a meeting with President Bush and his Cabinet on Monday: Republicans and Democrats alike are bucking the president's budget cuts to Medicaid, while embracing some of his reforms and pushing for federal willingness that would allow states to experiment more."
Ceci Connolly and Dan Balz write in The Washington Post: "In interviews, several governors balked at what they view as a threat by the White House to slash $60 billion from the program over the next decade. But others see a bipartisan deal emerging around securing lower prescription-drug prices, charging modest copayments and tightening loopholes that allow elderly people to transfer assets to children in order to qualify for Medicaid nursing-home care."
The Wine List
In honor of "Sideways" winning best adapted screenplay last night, a look at the wines served at last night's White House dinner for the nation's governors.
Accompanying the wild rice soup with pheasant, the White House served the Patz & Hall Chardonnay "Alder Springs" 2003 (about $55 a bottle), which the winery describes as "just a little less fruity than it is big and bombastic. . . . It trades first on toast and minerality, and it shows a fair bit of heat in the finish."
Accompanying the tenderloin of beef in a Texas marinade, the White House served the Caymus Cabernet "Napa" 2002 (about $80 a bottle), which one reviewer described as "solidly fruity at its heart . . . quite ripe, fairly full in the mouth and surprisingly supple."
Then, with the wild raspberry apple pie and cinnamon ice cream came a dessert wine, the Bonny Doon Muscat "Vin de Glaciere" 2003 (about $18 a half-bottle). The vineyard says it has "racy and exaggerated notes of apricot, elderflower and rampant pineapple-ocity" that "sent shivers down our spines."
Here is a Reuters photo of Bush lifting a glass -- of water -- to toast the governors. Here's the text of the toast, in which he says: "My six years as governor of Texas have been invaluable to me as I carry out my duties as the presidency [sic]."
Mike Cidoni writes for the Associated Press from the Golden Raspberry awards in Los Angeles: "President Bush won the worst-actor award for his appearance in news and archival footage of Michael Moore's satiric documentary 'Fahrenheit 9/11.' "
U.S. News's Washington Whispers column reports that "insiders" have "revived an old rumor that Vice President Cheney would retire for 'health reasons' " -- and be replaced by Condoleezza Rice.