Meanwhile, Back in the Capital . . .

Mark Knoller of CBS News was the only radio reporter on duty in Crawford, Tex.
Mark Knoller of CBS News was the only radio reporter on duty in Crawford, Tex. (By Rick Bowmer For The Washington Post Via Associated Press)
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By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 29, 2008

Normally you can't swing an intern in Washington without hitting a politician, a lobbyist, a journalist, a muckety-muck or, at the very least, a deputy assistant undermuckety-muck. But everyone's gone from Official Washington. It's apocalyptically empty. The place appears to have been selectively depopulated of the swaggering suits and the overachievers, as if BlackBerrys have turned evil and vaporized their owners.

We're in an emptiness trifecta: It's August, Congress is in recess, and there's a convention going on out there, in Denver, reportedly. Important personages practically apologize for being in town at all. Some may be wearing disguises lest they free-fall down the social list.

Mark Knoller, the CBS News radio reporter, is an anomaly: He's on the job. He's one of the few slogging away through the final stretch of the dog days. He just spent a couple of lonely weeks in Crawford, Tex., the only radio reporter on duty at the president's ranch. Yesterday, he was back in his cubicle at the White House, buried in a windowless space near the back of the pressroom. He is amazed -- aghast, really -- that 15,000 people have media credentials to cover the four-day Denver infomercial.

"Here they are, covering the process of selecting the president -- and nobody is covering the actual president!" Knoller said.

Not nobody, actually. Maybe a dozen reporters were on hand for the morning briefing yesterday, and seven or eight asked questions (Russia, Hurricane Gustav, Republican convention speech). You'd have thought the president was out of the country, but the spit-shined Marine guarding the entrance to the West Wing signaled that POTUS was, indeed, in the building.

President Bush flew in from the ranch on Wednesday and had dinner with the secretary of state. His public schedule yesterday consisted of -- well, nothing. Not even a photo op.

Of course, there's the Russia matter to work on. Georgia. The new Cold War and all that. "We are in the process of reevaluating our relationship with Russia," said press secretary Dana Perino. Prodding from the few reporters failed to jar loose any morsel of hard news.

One gets the sense that there's just not enough oxygen in the city in August to let the Russia-Georgia crisis fully ignite. (Revise the famous '60s poster: "What if they gave a Cold War and nobody came?") No one's holding hearings; no grim senators or diplomats are converging on the West Wing while helicopters roar enigmatically up the Potomac. This is an international crisis that is hoping to phone it in until everyone's back from vacation. It's an August-standards crisis: If Russia doesn't stop being bad, we'll hit it with so many displeased e-mails it'll wish it had never been born.

The president's not technically a lame duck, but he's . . . you know, waddling a bit. His trip earlier this month to Asia had such a small media entourage that for a while it appeared there wouldn't be a press plane at all, Knoller says. He says a dozen reporters were on hand for the daily briefings in Crawford. "He went to New Orleans and Gulfport [Miss.] -- barely got covered," Knoller says.

At the Capitol, things are even slower. Congress failed to pass much in the way of legislation this summer, and then just about everyone left town. A few Republican congresspersons have still been yakking on the House floor about drilling, but otherwise the Capitol has been populated primarily by people made of stone.

This afternoon, Sen. Robert Byrd, the ancient Democrat who has served since the time of Cicero, will gavel the Senate to order for just a few seconds. It is a pro forma session, designed to keep the president from making one of those sneaky "recess" appointments of someone who otherwise would be hooted out of town.

The State Department has a pulse, thanks to the aforesaid new Cold War. The world declines to go on hiatus simply because American politicos have to frolic at conventions. The daily briefing at State yesterday touched on matters from South Ossetia to Pakistan to Burma.

"My first day on the job, Georgia broke," said Robert Wood, the new deputy spokesman, who conducted the briefing. "Absolutely, it's a major international crisis."

But again, the room wasn't exactly packed. In fact, it couldn't have been packed: The normal briefing room is under renovation, so State has temporarily switched venues to a sprawling conference room that, according to a wall sign, has a capacity of 574 people. There were, by this observer's count, 14 reporters on hand (including four from Japanese news organizations), plus two cameramen and some technical folks in glass booths at the back of the room.

Among those on hand was Lambros Papantoniou, known to everyone as "Mr. Lambros," a journalist for a Greek newspaper. He has been here a while.

"Every day for 38 years! From Nixon to Barack Obama!" he said in introducing himself. With little competition, he managed to fire off three questions to Wood, on Afghanistan, Russia and Cyprus. But it's the nature of the State Department to be circumspect. "You have to know what you can say and what you can't say," Wood says. Papantoniou gets frustrated: "You don't get enough information to write something. It's never enough."

Washington is not actually closed for business. It's just temporarily a U-Pick-Em operation.

Back at the White House, look for things to get relatively more active today. The president, positively squirrelly by yesterday's standards, will sign something called the Hubbard Act, meet with the president of Tanzania, then participate in an evening parade in Washington. The schedule doesn't indicate if he's in the parade itself or merely clapping.


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