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The Press Secretary, Up Close and Personal on 'The Daily Show'

By Peter Baker
Monday, March 17, 2008

So it's the question every press secretary must dread. Your boss has just been accused of transporting hookers across state lines. What do you tell the jackals of the media now baying at your door?

Dana Perino has the answer: "It's a matter under litigation and I couldn't comment on it."

Fortunately for Perino, that question has never come up in her day job as White House press secretary. But it came up the other night on "The Daily Show," when host Jon Stewart asked how she would have handled the Eliot Spitzer scandal. "I have had to deal with a lot of things, a lot of crisis communication, but never that," Perino said with relief.

Still, a segment with Stewart can't be that much easier for an adviser to President Bush. But Perino was a good sport as he grilled her about Bush's relationship with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Iraq war, Helen Thomas, the CIA leak case and so on. At one point, he pressed her on whether she had ever been put in a position where she was not telling the truth. She smiled and said no.

"Now is that because that's true," Stewart asked as the audience laughed, "or because they get you to the point where they break your spirit to the point where you truly believe?"

Perino must have gotten the unofficial "Daily Show" talking points -- guests should let Stewart do the jokes and gamely go along as his straight man. Perino laughed as Stewart skewered her predecessors, particularly Ari Fleischer, who was, he said, "tough to look at." Perino stood up for Fleischer and said he had female groupies, to which Stewart asked, "Is that like the women who visit murderers in prison?"

As they started to wrap up, Stewart noted that Bush often says he is going to "sprint to the finish," then asked, "Can you get him to run faster?"

"You're going to miss him," Perino retorted. "What in the world will you talk about when he's gone?"

"I'll think of something."

Mum in Manhattan

Speaking of comedians, guess whose home Bush visited while in New York on Friday? Jerry Seinfeld's?

Okay, actually, we're assuming the $1.4 million Republican National Committee fundraiser was probably hosted by one of Seinfeld's neighbors in the Beresford, the celebrity-packed, high-end co-op building overlooking Central Park. Especially since Jessica Seinfeld, his wife, has already donated $2,300 to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

So, what other names are on the mailboxes at the three-towered Beresford? Glenn Close, the actress? No, hard to imagine that. Diplomat Richard Holbrooke? He's counting on another president soon to get back into the Cabinet. What about tennis great John McEnroe? Or Cosmopolitan's Helen Gurley Brown? A better guess might be Vikram Pandit, the Citigroup CEO and occasional political donor (mostly to Republicans), who bought the late actor Tony Randall's 10-room flat for a cool $17.9 million last year.

The White House and the RNC won't say who hosted the lunchtime reception, in which 70 rich folks shelled out $20,000 apiece for private time with the president. Any guesses out there? E-mail bakerp@washpost.com. If someone can confirm the host, maybe we can get Al Kamen to part with one of those cool Loop T-shirts.

Afghanistan: A Fine Romance

More evidence that Bush's idea of fun and yours may be a tad different. Addressing the National Religious Broadcasters' convention in Nashville last week, he said that "being the president has been a joyous experience," a description that has raised eyebrows in the past, too. Then, in a videoconference a couple of days later, he told military and civilian folks working in Afghanistan that their work sounded "romantic."

"I must say, I'm a little envious," Bush said, according to a report by Reuters reporter Tabassum Zakaria, who was allowed to watch the videoconference. "If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed."

He went on: "It must be exciting for you . . . in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger. You're really making history, and thanks."

That quickly drew a rebuke from VoteVets.org, a group of veterans that has been critical of Bush's policies. "I seriously doubt any of us infantrymen in Operation Anaconda found it exciting or romantic when the Taliban and al-Qaeda were firing mortar rounds at us and our fellow soldiers," the group said, quoting one of its Army veterans, Will King, in a statement.

To be fair, Bush was not talking with combat soldiers about fighting; he was talking with folks working with Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which help Afghans rebuild schools, expand health care and fight corruption. But we're still trying to figure out the "joyous" part.

FOIA Control?

An order Bush signed in 2005 to "achieve tangible, measurable improvements" in processing requests for public records has not made much difference, according to a report to be issued today. The report by the National Security Archive, a watchdog group at George Washington University, found a backlog of more than 200,000 pending requests under the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, some as musty as 20 years old.

Yet the report did find one area of improvement: Customer service ratings are up "across the board," in large part because citizens are now likely to at least reach someone at a FOIA office to take their request. Thomas Blanton, the archive's director, recalls that a previous audit found one FOIA phone located in the maternity ward of an Air Force base hospital. "Now," he told our colleague Dan Eggen, "you can reach a real person on the phone . . . and the agency can at least tell you where your request is hanging."

Bush, often criticized for running one of the most secretive administrations in modern times, lately has taken some steps applauded by open-government advocates. In December he signed a law aimed at speeding the release of FOIA documents; he had earlier opposed it. White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said Bush is "committed to providing the American people as much information as possible about his decisions on a wide range of issues, including national security."

Or at least a return phone call.

Quote of the Week

"This is an opportunity de practicar mi Espa┬┐ol. Of course, a lot of people say I ought to be spending more time practicing my English."

-- Bush, to the

U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce

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