It's About Nothing

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Dispatches from the twilight of a presidency:

7:13 a.m.: The South Lawn. President Bush, determined to dispel doubts about his relevance, grants an early-morning interview to Robin Roberts of ABC News's "Good Morning America." Joined by the first lady, he fields hard-hitting questions about . . . the White House grounds. "It's a beautiful place," the president discloses. "In the spring, the flowers are fantastic. In the fall, the -- it's just such a -- kind of a place that's so fresh. In the winter, of course, it's got a lot of snow. [Laughter.] Summer is real hot, but it's -- we love it out here. It's beautiful."

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7:58 a.m.: By e-mail, the White House Communications Office sends out its "Morning Update." It lists two events on Bush's schedule for the entire day: a "Social Dinner in Honor of Cinco de Mayo" and, an hour later, post-dinner entertainment. To react to the main news of the day -- thousands of deaths from the cyclone in Burma -- Bush sends his wife out to make a statement. She criticizes the Burmese government for its failure "to issue a timely warning to citizens in the storm's path" and "to meet its people's basic needs." Reporters, too tactful to draw parallels to New Orleans, quiz her instead about daughter Jenna's wedding, and the names of future grandchildren. "George and Georgia, Georgina, Georgette," the first lady says.

* * *

12:39 p.m.: The White House Briefing Room. On the podium, the understudy to the understudy to the substitute to the understudy to Bush's first White House press secretary is giving a sparsely attended briefing on what he knows about Burma blocking relief efforts ("I am not aware of that report"), about the awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal to a Burmese dissident ("no announcements at this point"), and about word that the Saudi crown prince is dying ("I have not seen those reports"). The news of the day thus dispensed with, the questioning turns to why West Point allows its graduates to play pro football immediately but the Naval Academy does not.

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Eight months before the end of his second term, President Bush is forgotten but not gone. Power has shifted to Congress, attention has moved to the campaign trail, and the White House seems at times to be just going through the motions. For many reporters who remain on the White House beat, it has become a time to phone it in -- literally.

Four minutes after the scheduled start time for yesterday's White House briefing, only 14 of the 49 seats were occupied -- and the 14 included flamboyant radio host Lester Kinsolving, who sat in the Bloomberg News seat; Raghubir Goyal of an obscure Indian American publication, who occupied the New York Times chair; and a foreign journalist in the back row, perusing the White House's Cinco de Mayo dinner menu. Though attendance eventually swelled to 28, many of the nation's leading news outlets left their chairs empty, among them National Public Radio, the Washington Times, the New York Daily News, the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, the Boston Globe, the Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune and the Politico.

The White House regarded the briefing with an equal level of ennui. The press secretary, Dana Perino, was away, having given the commencement address on Saturday at her alma mater, Colorado State University at Pueblo. White House aides left vacant three of the five seats designated for their use. Behind the lectern, Perino deputy Scott Stanzel took 20 minutes to exhaust all questions from the diminished field of questioners.

Stanzel began with the news that the United States had provided a whopping $250,000 to relief efforts in Burma -- a figure one reporter termed "a drop in the bucket." After just 12 minutes of questions about gas prices, Iraq and Iran, the reporters in the front rows had had their fill. Stanzel turned to Goyal, who wore a sparkling silver blazer and asked a question about India, then one about the governor of Louisiana.

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