White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, May 4, 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 every other Wednesday.

Read his latest column:

On the Road Again.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org . You can e-mail him at froomkin@washingtonpost.com .

A transcript follows.

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Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone, and welcome. Today's column is about background briefings, and I'm happy to report there's already been some progress -- maybe. This morning, a note went out from the White House: "UPDATE: The On-camera, on-the-record Briefing by the National Security Advisor on the President's trip to Riga, Latvia, Maastricht, Netherlands, Moscow, Russia, and Tbilisi, Georgia in the Brady Press Briefing Room will now begin at 12:15 pm, May 4, 2005." I don't know if they originally were planning on this being off the record, but hey, it's good news.

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Lansing, Mich.: Dan,

I am hoping you can clarify something for me. Is it your job to report on events and stories, or to hold the party in power to a high level of scrutiny? I am a Republican, so you know which side my bread is buttered on; I just want to know if the organization you are an editor of would hold John Kerry to the same level that you hold with the Bush administration. Thanks.

Dan Froomkin: Let me take that one at a time. My role is both to report events and hold the powerful accountable. That's what good journalists do. I'm kind of unhappy to hear you suggest that as a Republican, you don't support scrutiny of the party in power. You should. And it should be able to withstand the scrutiny. I'm not the editor of washingtonpost.com anymore, I just write this column. But I can assure you that this column would have held John Kerry up to the utmost scrutiny as well. That's my job. And allow me to quote from the man who is the editor of The Washington Post newspaper, Len Downie, who, in a recent speech (scroll down to "WP executive editor Downie's Kentucky speech"), describe "accountability journalism" as "news reporting that holds those with power and influence in our society accountable to the rest of us. This is perhaps the highest responsibility of the press in our democratic society."

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Salem, Ore.: Today's page is especially good, Dan. Thanks for your continued efforts to urge the press to squeeze information from this government for the edification of its citizenry. Only the press stands between the people and tyranny.

My question: What's with the new page format? It seems to be a lot harder to read and absorb. I won't stop reading Froomkin, but I sure miss the old format.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. The washingtonpost.com Web site is in the process of ramping up a new production system, and there have been some glitches. My column, for some reason (karmic or otherwise) has been unusually afflicted. As I type, for instance, yesterday's column is still on my " main page " -- which is ideally bookmarkable. While today's column is over here , cut into five pages and lacking my lovely mug. Everyone at washingtonpost.com is working very hard to make things better, so please be patient. I will have an update in my column when things are stable.

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Reston, Va.: Hi Dan, thanks for taking our questions.

As you said today, the more Americans hear about Bush's Social Security privatization plan, the less they like it. This is even with carefully screened and scripted Republican-friendly only audiences. Many prominent GOP leaders are also starting to criticize the plan.

Is this dead in the water or do you think Bush can salvage it?

Dan Froomkin: Well, technically that was yesterday's column. ;-) That is the big question everyone is asking in Washington. I stay out of the prediction business. But most people who are in that business say that what ultimately emerges will either be nothing, or something not very much like what Bush is talking about right now.

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Salem, Ore.: I wonder if the Republican from Lansing, Mich. who implies that coverage of the Bush White House is too critical thinks The Post's scrutiny of Bill Clinton was too little, too much, or just about right?

Dan Froomkin: Hey Lansing, you still out there?

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San Bruno, Calif.: Dan-

You posted a partial transcript from Dana Milbank's appearance on Nightline. I think Milbank is one of the best, but when he speaks of a "tactical decision" to ask "essay questions" in hopes of nudging the President off of his talking points, it seems about 4 years out of date. Isn't it time to ask simple questions, wait for a straight answer, and either print the answer or note the evasion?

Dan Froomkin: Well, it's hard for me to disagree with such an elegant summation of my own argument . But I think Dana has a point, too.

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Columbus, Ohio: I'll go straight to, you know, the serious issues. Was the White House Correspondents Dinner considered a success this year in terms of celebrity wattage? And surely it had to be more lively than it looked on C-Span.

Dan Froomkin: It was crowded. Not sure I'd call it lively. The celebrity wattage was not so high. I was talking to Jay Carney and John Dickerson of Time Magazine at their magazines festivities about it, and we couldn't decide if it was B-List or C-List. Dickerson had a great line. "It's listing," he said.

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Toronto, Ontario: Hello Dan, I know this topic isn't too big of a deal to U.S. citizens, but here in Canada there has been much written about the newly-nominated U.S. Ambassador to Canada, David Wilkins. Mr. Wilkins has no knowledge of the county, has visited Canada only once in his life (a brief visit to Niagara Falls) and is from a state that opposed us in softwood lumber issues. Surely there are more qualified persons for this position. Or, is this just another snub to Canada by the Bush administration?

Dan Froomkin: He is indeed the most qualified person for that post, you just have the qualifications all wrong. His appointment is pure political payback to a Bush friend and fundraiser. Has nothing to do with Canada, good or bad. Don't take it personally.

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Leesburg, Va.: Just wondering, when Laura Bush travels (for example, to Afghanistan)does she use Air Force One? If so, what if, while she was gone, an emergency situation arose?

Dan Froomkin: No she doesn't. And Air Force One, by the way, isn't so much a plane, as the designation for whatever plane the president is on. The first lady's plane, as I just found out yesterday, listening to a report on CNN from Dana Bash , is called Brightstar.

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Chicago, Ill.: Gannon/Guckert made 200 visits to the white house, 39 times when there was no press conference and

12 (twelve) of them overnight.

Who could he possibly have been visiting overnight?

Who else lives in the White House?

Wouldn't an overnight visit need to be cleared at the highest levels?

Is Gannon/Guckert this administration's Monica?

Dan Froomkin: Look, I love Gannon conspiracy theories as much as the next guy, but I am quite sure Gannon never stayed overnight. Much more likely the sensor that you wave your daypass in front of on the way out the White House gate -- before dropping it in a slot -- didn't register. For instance, if he was leaving with a bunch of other people. Gannon was a poseur, not a plant. Now the White House tolerated him, indulged him and used him, which is and was worth discussing. But no, he's no Monica.

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Anonymous: "News reporting that holds those with power and influence in our society accountable to the rest of us. This is perhaps the highest responsibility of the press in our democratic society."

Too bad this hasn't happened.

Dan Froomkin: Now that's a harder accusation to dispute.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Dan,

I have the answer! I have the answer! The question being what the White House press corps can do to get the President to answer questions, that you have discussed numerous times in your column and this chat.

After watching Bush's news conference last week, here is what I finally noticed: each reporter is trying to be his/her own superstar. Each one has prepared a question, hoping to be the one to hit the ball out of the park. They also feel it necessary to cover every single issue, so we end up getting a lot of shallow information over a wide variety of topics instead of deep detailed info on just one or 2.

So, my suggestion is for the press corps to put away egos and work as a team instead of individuals. Rather than team up to walk out (which will never happen), team up to ask questions! For example, the first reporter asks a question on Social Security that doesn't get answered. The next reporter's question should be, "In a follow up to what Joe just asked...." If the question still isn't answered, the 3 reporter follows up again. I think there is a much better chance of a question getting answered if the reporters play off each other. Even if you didn't get every reporter to cooperate, you could get enough to keep asking follow ups to other others questions.

Also, I think the press corps needs to learn to improvise instead of going with their own prepared questions. For example, in his prepared remarks, Bush said something like, "I know some people are nervous about investments and that's why one of the options for personal accounts would be U.S. Treasury Bonds, which are backed by the full credit of the Federal Government." My question would have been, "Mr. President, 3 weeks ago in Parkersburg, WV in a town hall meeting, you stated that U.S. Treasury Bonds, which back Social Security, were merely I.O.U's. What is the difference between the Treasury Bonds backing Social Security and the Treasury Bonds you would offer for personal accounts?"

Now, if the press corps can put their egos aside.......a big IF, I imagine, this might actually work, don't you think?

Dan Froomkin: Big if. VERY VERY BIG IF.

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Austin, Tex.: I am mystified that anyone believes the White House correspondents hold this president to "too high" a level of scrutiny.

Last Thursday night's press conference was yet another example of the press' reluctance to confront this president and get genuine answers to relevant questions.

The fact that none of the reporters asked the president about his (surprise) unveiling of "indexing" is further evidence that no one in that room is listening to the man and following up on what he says.

What's wrong with these reporters? Why aren't they staying on top of this guy?

Dan Froomkin: Well, I think there were actually some positive signs Thursday night. As I wrote in Friday's column , people were actually surprisingly diligent about following each other up. But I thought Martin Schram made a good point in his column for Scripps Howard News Service today about the lack of follow-ups on indexing.

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Albany, N.Y.: I couldn't believe that at the press conference last week that nobody asked Bush why he didn't allow opponents of his Social Security plan into his public events. His only options would have been to deny it and be exposed or admit it and come up with some ridiculous explanation.

Dan Froomkin: You will no doubt be shocked to hear that some question to that effect would have been my first choice.

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Lansing, Mich.: Dan,

I think there is a misunderstanding. I meant editor of the watchdog group (the .org) rather than The Post (.com). As for identifying myself as a Republican, it is so that there is no mistake in the intent of my question (which unfortunately, didn't come out right, or was lost in translation): I have my biases, as does everybody else; yet I ID'd myself so that I did not come off as a Gannon/Guckert/whathaveyou, infiltrating the chat, as it were. My question was, would you hold John Kerry's feet to the fire the way your watchdog group does to Bush? You answered it. I appreciate your honesty.

Dan Froomkin: Thank you, Lansing. You're referring to my other site, NiemanWatchdog.org where I am actually deputy editor.

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Falls Church, Va.: Dan, thanks for your column. I read it secularly (like religiously, but, I'm big on separation of Church and State)!

The Social Security issue is such a loaded one for all participants, I don't really see any trust anywhere to allow for a decent solution happening.

But that isn't my question, which is: When will the President be asked on camera this question: Why is the U.S. taxpayer paying for you to fly around and have a scripted event for partisan audiences? Not only would this seem improper, but spending all your time in front of people who already worship you doesn't seem like a great plan if you are trying to convince those who think your idea is worse that the alternative of doing nothing at all. Wouldn't it make more sense to go in front of those who you actually need to sell on this?

Thanks - Yes, I know you don't know when he will be asked that, but I'd love some insight into why no one has, and why he thinks what he is doing is worth my tax money.

Dan Froomkin: Obviously, my colleagues consider the question partisan and/or relatively unimportant.

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Baltimore, Md.: Dan, I want to know why the press continues to refuse to ask questions about the REAL crisis we have in this country, heath care costs? Social Security is going to have problems in 30 to 40 years, but heath care is in complete crisis RIGHT NOW! We have millions and millions without any heath care and many other who can barely afford it. We aren't just talking about a people working low wage jobs either, there are many middle income wage earners that cannot afford health care of their family. I know from personal experience. Why isn't this TOPIC #1 in EACH and EVERY press conference?

Keep up the GREAT work!

Dan Froomkin: The president of the United States is uniquely able to affect the political discourse in this country. If he talks incessantly about Social Security, so does everyone else. Even the press goes along for the ride.

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New York, N.Y.: Dan, a secret memo published on Sunday in the Times of London is threatening to hobble Blair if not do him in when Parliamentary elections are held shortly. The memo states explicitly that the head of MI6 "reported on his recent talks in Washington. There was a perceptible shift in attitude. Military action was now seen as inevitable. Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy."

The full text of the memo is here:

The secret Downing Street Memo.

Why isn't this news, which is rattling U.K. politics, having similarly earth-shattering effects in D.C., do you think? Do you think it might reverberate, or do people inside the Beltway see this as strictly a British phenomenon?

To follow up, if you don't mind: does this represent any legal problems for the Bush administration, insofar as it suggests they were planning to "fix the facts" to have a war? Or is the only potential threat a political one?

Dan Froomkin: Well, in some ways it's old news, isn't it? A lot of people have said Bush and Cheney were intent on attacking Iraq from Day One. The question is whether they cooked the intelligence -- and of course the White House's own commission recently said they did not, and no one, apparently, has proven that they did.

That said, there are a lot of people e-mailing me about this, so I'm putting it out there.

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Springfield, Va.: Any comment from the White House on the Italian version of the "what really happened" report? Any comment on CBS News' report that the U.S. has video of the Italian rescue car showing that it was speeding? See this link:

U.S. Satellite Recorded Checkpoint Shooting, Shows Speed of Italian Car: CBS.

Dan Froomkin: This just in: "President Bush and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had a 'long and friendly' telephone conversation on Wednesday as both countries moved to end a row over the killing of an Italian agent in Iraq." Thus reports

Reuters . I think it's safe to assume that Bush will never admit U.S. troops did anything wrong.

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A disgusted Democrat in Arlington: Cheney invokes a bipartisan appeal, stating, that 'We need to come back together as a nation and solve this problem,' Of course he says this to a Republican only, Democrats excluded, invitation-only audience. What is wrong with this picture?? Perhaps the other half of the country would begin to accept these people as our leaders when they start to recognize us as their constituents.

Dan Froomkin: Here's the transcript of Cheney's talk Monday, which went up yesterday. I'll be keeping an ear out to see if Cheney continues to call Democrats "members of the other faith."

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Athens, Greece: Dear Dan, Do you think the Bush is actually considering defaulting on the trust fund Treasury Bonds? If not, what other explanation can you give for Scott McClellan's no-answer you mentioned in Tuesday's column?

Dan Froomkin: No of course not. I think the president, in coming up with his line about the "pile of IOUs" and repeating it -- over and over again -- has made it hard for anyone in the administration to address this issue straightforwardly. Because if they did that, it could expose the president to ridicule. The Social Security Trust Fund is made up of Treasury Bonds which are backed by the good faith and credit of the USA, just like the ones you and (especially) the Chinese, buy.

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Alexandria, Va.: Why doesn't the White House press corps ask fundamental questions about our security on a regular basis, at each White House briefing, even if they know the question may not be answered? A question such as "What can the White House tell the American people about the hunt for bin Laden, still at large 3 and a half years after 9/11?" At a minimum, journalists can publicize that the White House is unwilling to give an answer to such critical questions; and publicize it daily, steadily, the Karl Rove and Karen Hughes way. Rove and his team are masters at ignoring issues they do not want to address, why isn't the free media pressing them, then informing the public until someone starts a much needed debate?

Dan Froomkin: A fine suggestion.

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Flagstaff, Ariz.: Hello... Has the White House issued a protocol document pertaining to reporters? A specific document that controls the ability of the press to inquire?

Dan Froomkin: Absolutely not. And it would never fly.

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Alameda, Calif.: At the dinner on Saturday, while Laura Bush had some great zingers at the expense of her husband, I was struck by some of the jokes by Cedric the Entertainer that were aimed at the media. When he joked that he'd never seen so many white folks in D.C. before, the C-SPAN cameras showed an audience that was indeed pretty pale. Similarly, he noted that President Bush has a hard job and listed a bunch of recent things that he has to deal with - Social Security, Iraq, a North Korea missile test - and then humorously but very pointedly noted that the recent wall-to-wall media focus has not been on any of these things, but on a runaway bride. (Sorry, but I can't find a transcript of his remarks!)

While the whole crowd laughed at these jokes, I was wondering if the conversation afterwards noted that Cedric might have hit pretty close to home for some of the media folks in attendance. I'd expect that the White House reporters present loved it, but it might have made the editors and higher-ups a bit uncomfortable, given that they are the ones who have been giving the airtime/column inches/bandwidth to reluctant brides over other issues.

Dan Froomkin: It would really be inappropriate for us to be that thin-skinned, don't you think? That said, the only thing people will remember about Cedric is how badly he was upstaged.

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Arlington, Va.: On background briefings, I feel you journalists are missing the point. When a person speaks with anonymity in this context, it means that the organization as a whole takes responsibility for the statement (that is, the statement is more "official," not less). Organizations of all types routinely issue statements that are attributed to the organization itself, not to any particular person. Background briefings are great, and when journalists report on them, they should be preceded with a lead-in such as "The White House announced today ..." That is, it is the message which is important, not the particular person who delivers it. Any official who thinks the government is somehow less responsible for statements "on background" is completely off base.

Dan Froomkin: That's a very interesting point. Perhaps one solution, short of eliminating them, would be better explaining them to our readers. So: "Blah blah," said a senior administration official who, while anonymous, was designated by the White House to speak on President Bush's behalf." Whaddaya think?

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Portland, Ore.: Hi Dan --

I've always liked the idea of the unexpected essay question. I'd like to see what Bush would do with, "Mr. President, what is the importance of transparency to democracy?".

Your faithful reader...

Dan Froomkin: Thanks. I suggested several more in Thursday's column . Among them: * Your elevation of Karl Rove to deputy chief of staff has led some people to suggest that politics and policy have become one and the same in your White House. What do you consider the most important differences between campaigning and governing? and With an ownership society comes risk. How much risk do you think is too much risk?

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New York, N.Y.: What's up with Cheney calling the Democrats "the other faith" in his Georgia Social Security talk? Is this a new way of using religion as a wedge?

Dan Froomkin: I think he's just trying to be funny. But I'm not sure.

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San Antonio, Tex.: So, why do you think that Laura Bush decided to play the humor card at the White House Correspondents shindig?

Dan Froomkin: I can't think of anything (realistic) that would have gone over any better than that, frankly.

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El Segundo, Calif.: Dear Dan,

Glad to read of the discussion regarding "background briefings" and anonymous sources, but what I don't understand is the following: 1. Why don't the bureau chiefs just try to agree to and stick with a boycott of events that show a pattern of non-information and just let the wire services handle these events - it can be determined later whether it's worth including in a report or not, and 2. If the the White House spokesman isn't being forthcoming with some straight answers, why not "doubleteam" him or her and if it still doesn't work, report as "no new information was provided."

I guess I just don't understand how you all can work in an environment like that.

Dan Froomkin: Well, I probably should have made something more clear in my column this morning. Organizing *some* of the bureau chiefs is a great accomplishment. Organizing *all* of them is going to be flatly impossible. As for "no new information was provided" -- I love the idea. But most news people have it hard wired into them that their job is to report what happened, not what didn't happen.

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Chicago, Ill. : What is up with the Plame investigation?

Dan Froomkin: I don't know. At the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner, there was wild applause in support of Matt Cooper of Time Magazine and Judith Miller of the New York Times, the two reporters who face a possible jail sentence for refusing to testify about their conversations with confidential sources regarding Plame. But no one thought to suggest that Bush -- who was sitting right there -- could possibly shed some light on things by demanding to know who leaked Plame's identity (if he doesn't know already) and letting everyone know. After all, according to Murray Was , writing in the American Prospect, a Bush administration official has admitted to prosecutors that he leaked Plame's identity as part of an aggressive administration campaign to discredit her husband, Joe Wilson. According to Waas, the official just insists that he didn't know Plame was a clandestine operative, which is key to making a criminal case out of it.

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Escanaba, Mich.:

Good afternoon.

Actually, your first writer hit upon a key point. Republicans don't want to hold scrutiny on their own party; but this is true for Democrats as well.

It is much easier to hold members of an opposing group to higher standards.

But, it hasn't always been this way.

When LBJ lied about the Gulf of Tonkin mess, it was Democrats who urged him not to run again.

When it became clear how Nixon was involved in Watergate, it was Republicans who urged him to resign.

What do you think has changed that political parties no longer want to hold their leaders accountable as in those examples?

Thank you.

Dan Froomkin: That's a fine question. It may even be one of the great questions of our time.

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Arlington, Va.: More a comment than a question: as someone on the left, I sometimes see people wearing T-shirts or sporting bumper stickers saying "He's not my president." I don't agree with that--not unless one is prepared to opt out of the situation altogether--but I must say the President is making it rather hard to argue against such sentiments when he himself appears to be interested in being president only of those who agree with him, occasional press-conference rhetoric to the contrary.

So thanks for the Bubble Watch. This is not a trivial matter, and I wish more of your colleagues would recognize that and focus coverage accordingly.

Dan Froomkin: That's the flip side of people respecting the office (regardless of the man) isn't it? That the man in the office should respect his role as the president of all the people.

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Cody, Wyo.: Dan, what's the latest on the Twins? The Bush Twins, that is...

Dan Froomkin: Nada!

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Arlington, Va.: Dan,

I hope you guys covering the White House gave the administration a fair dose of positive reinforcement for at least holding a presidential press conference. Otherwise, we may have to wait a while for another. I really miss the days when presidents would regularly and directly address questions. By the way, I thought both the questions and the presidents performance was a B-, but it is so hard to judge given the rarity of these types of events with our current president.

Dan Froomkin: Well, it's true: Bush has been giving one press conference a month since re-election. Just what Kerry pledged to do, and just what the press asked for. So he definitely deserves credit for that.

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Laurel, Md.: You have referred multiple times in your reporting about Bush's outlook on Treasury securities as being two-faced, or something like that. But he makes perfect sense. You hear him degrade the Trust Fund and the bonds in it as nothing but IOUs - because they don't represent any wealth owned by the government, merely a plan to acquire wealth in the future. That doesn't mean he thinks that the government won't pay, or plans some insidious default, it's that he realizes that tomorrow's citizens won't collectively become wealthier by RECEIVING the benefits of the Trust Fund, because tomorrow's citizens will also have to PAY them. For other bonds he mentions the "full faith and credit" pledge which gives people warm fuzzies about the world's gold standard of low credit risk - which he believes applies to all Treasuries. Does that make sense?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for the best explanation I've heard yet.

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Dan Froomkin: OK, thanks everyone for another great hour. Sorry I couldn't get to more of your wonderful questions. See you again here in two weeks, and every weekday afternoon on the home page.

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