White House Insider

Jim VandeHei
Washington Post staff writer
Wednesday, August 17, 2005; 1:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer Jim VandeHei was online Wednesday, August 17, at 1 p.m. ET to take your questions on all the latest happenings in the Bush White House.

The transcript follows.


Wichita, Kan.: There was a recent Time magazine piece that seemed to humanize President Bush. It reflected how tearful and visibly moved he can be when meeting with families who have lost loved ones in Iraq. This article, in mind, did a great deal to restore Bush's reputation at a time when he needs this kind of coverage. I was wondering why he and his handlers don't try to make these kinds of portrayals of him. Meeting with Ms. Sheehan might do a lot more for him than seeming uncaring about her problems/views. Do you have any comments on this? Thanks for holding this discussion.

Jim VandeHei: Sorry I am late.

This is a great question and one I know the White House has wrestled with in recent months as the president's poll numbers have headed south. The story, I think, was in Newsweek and it showed a very emotional and often tearful Bush talking to families who lost kids in the war. I know the president has met with a lot of families, especially during the campaign and did not want to publicize it because it would have looked contrived. Now they are pulling the curtain back a bit to show what they consider the more human side of Bush. The presidency is often about perception, and I know some officials are concerned Bush looks out of touch when he is at the ranch for five weeks, refuses to meet the mother of a fallen soldier down the street and does not open up about how much time he does spend with families.


Milford, N.H.: Jim: What is the latest with the Valerie Wilson affair?

Jim VandeHei: Lots of questions about the Plame affair. I am one of several reporters covering the investigation for the post and all I can tell you is the investigation is ongoing and focused very much on getting the NYT's Judith Miller to talk about conversations with White House officials. The grand jury experience on Oct. 28, I believe, and most lawyers in the case expect some of kind of decision by the special prosecutor right around then. It would seem unlikely he would blink in the standoff with Miller, who is in jail for refusing to testify, because the purpose of putting her there is to apply extreme pressure on her to talk. She says she won't and there is no reason to think she will. remember when you are reading about the case: this special prosecutor is very tight lipped so much of what we are writing about is coming from lawyers involved in the case who are familiar with the line of questioning but not which direction the probe is headed.


Bridgewater, N.J.: Jim, I've recently saw news stories suggesting Dick Cheney as the leading candidate for the Republican Presidential candidacy in '08. Is this real or simply the daydreams of the lunatic fringe on the "right"?

Jim VandeHei: Bob Woodward, of Post and Watergate fame, has floated Cheney's name. He's the best in the business, so it's worth noting. Cheney says he will never do it, but he is such a creature of Washington and power that it's hard to imagine if the stars did align he would not seriously consider it. It probably depends on the public's verdict on the Bush presidency and especially its foreign policy. The beauty of this upcoming race is it is wide open for the first time in decades on both sides and the stakes are huge. The world is different place than it was in 2000, when the Gore v. Bush races sometimes seemed more focused on sighs than substance. so I am sure McCain, Frist, Allen, Gingrich and every other Republican with big ambitions will seriously flirt with a run.


San Francisco, Calif.: Why doesn't the press refuse to take briefings from Scott McClellan, who either lied to them about the Plame incident, or was lied to by the administration? Isn't his credibility shot?

Jim VandeHei: Scott took a good beating when it was learned that the White House knew much more about the Plame leak than he and others let on last year. It's not entirely clear how much he knew about the involvement of other officials. But Scott has a lot of credibility with reporters. He is seen as someone who might not tell you a lot, but is not going to tell you a lie. more broadly, we go to the briefings if for no other reason to hear the White House spin on world events. they rarely figure into our daily reports because we will talk to Scott and others one on one and not in front of a crowd.


Bethesda, Md.: Why are journalists covering the White House so out of touch with what a majority of Americans now understand? 52% of us realize that this President deliberately lied to the country in dragging us into this war. Yet members of the press still report what Mr. Bush says on Iraq as if he were some sort of "honest broker". It severely diminishes their credibility when they write so credulously, as most of you do.

Jim VandeHei: Speaking of beatings. I take him from the left and right every day, and so do most reporters in the era of the blogs. we report what bush says because he is the president and it is important to document his view of hugely important events around the world. I think our paper more than any other in the United States spends tons of time and money fact-checking what he says. I suggest you go to Washingtonpost.com and search Peter Baker for the past two stories he wrote about Bush and Iraq. Perfect examples of what the Post does best.


Washington, D.C.: Has any reporter actually asked the President when he learned that Valerie Plame was a CIA agent? It seems that's a basic question that he should answer. Along those lines, how concerned do you think the White House is about Fitzgerald's investigation?

Jim VandeHei: Not a bad idea. the problem is Bush and all White House officials are under strict orders to say nothing other than they can say nothing about the ongoing probe. That wasn't there approach earlier on.


Austin, Tex.: It seems to me that Bush has two big problems: gas prices and Iraq. Everything else runs a distant third.

Can we expect to see some major policy changes in these areas, or is the administration still committed to "staying the course"?

Also, how is morale in the White House? They've got to be concerned, but are they moving toward scared?

Jim VandeHei: The White House always puts on a happy face but I sense aides are more worried than usual about the president's poll numbers, the war and the uncertain outcome of the Plame affair. Bush and those closest to him take a long view of the presidency, which seems to provide them comfort in troubled times, because they believe it will be many years before we know how successful (or unsuccessful) the Iraq war and antiterror efforts were.


"Focused on sighs than substance": To be more honest, isn't that "The vapid U.S. media was more focused on sighs than substance". Do you actually think that has changed? Did we suddenly import foreign reporters, such as the Brits who have actual backbone and focus?

Please...the first "folksy' guy who adopts Bush's "nickname and good food" strategy will get a walk, as usual.

Jim VandeHei: I do think it has changed. Look at how much of our coverage is related to Iraq and terrorism. these are serious issues and we have dispatched many serious reporters to stay on the cutting edge of both fronts. I don't consider myself or my colleagues vapid. but u r free to opine.


Ashland, Mo.: Could you explain the different positions on meeting with Ms. Sheehan? What would be the plus side; what would be the minus side?

Jim VandeHei: Here is what I know. First, Michael Fletcher of the Post has done some brilliant stories on Ms. Sheehan. You should read them. I know the White House debated meeting with her (for a second time) but decided it would be unwise because Bush had already met with her and it would set a precedent for every angry family member to camp outside the ranch. Some people think if Bush had done a short meeting with her right off the bat, the controversy would have subsided and not consumed the media in the dog days of August. I don't think the White House anticipated this much coverage, especially because she is on record after the first meeting saying flattering things about bush.


Arlington, Va.: Regarding Bush's five week vacation, do you think this will have an impact on public sentiment about the president. No normal American worker could every expect to be able to take five weeks off especially, during a crisis at work akin to the current situation in Iraq. Is it that Bush just doesn't care anymore?

Jim VandeHei: The White House is very sensitive about calling it a five week vacation. They were furious with our story noting it is the longest stay away from Washington in at least three decades. The president has done events most days that take up part of the day and he plans more. modern technology does allow him to do everything from the ranch that he could do from the White House. With that said, I have heard from Republicans who worry that it just does not look great for the President to be seen at the ranch for such a long time during a war - especially with antiwar activists camped out front. The White House thinks this whole story is a silly obsession of bored reporters with nothing better to do during the slow August. It is impossible for me to determine that effect the ranch time has with Americans.


Bethesda, Md.: My oh my it feels a lot like 1973, except the media is not leading the path to the truth. I think you are missing the point people are trying to make about media credibility and the White House. Scott McClellan was either lying or was lied to about Rove's involvement in the Plame affair. If Scott is a good guy he should resign instead of working for liars. If he lied, the media should shun him. But instead the media plays the game. "Scott's a great guy". Once again, a lie is made and no one is held accountable. If the media does not begin to look for truthful sources, the people of this country will shun the media.

Jim VandeHei: Often in Washington, it takes time for accountability. Presumably, we will know when the investigation concludes if any one lied, and if so who and to whom. Of course, we look for honest sources and make calls every day about the credibility of the people we rely on for information.


Washington, D.C.: Last week, I watched a press briefing/conference from Crawford, Tex. on the state of the economy. I was embarrassed that the folks doing the briefing were in casual clothes. To me, that seems a bit insulting. Can't these folks even put on a dress shirt for the briefing? As a citizen it seems to convey a lackadaisical approach to politics on behalf of this administration. It also reminds me that while I am working hard, Bush is on his umpteenth vacation. Does that put off reporters similarly?

Jim VandeHei: I must admit I was probably the one in jeans and a junky shirt. we spend most of our days camped out waiting for Scott or Trent Duffy to tell us they are not going to brief. It is a casual affair. If we know the president is having an event or will be talking to us, most reporters put on their finest (which, if you know any reporters, usually ain't all that pretty).


Rockville, Md.: There's a belief that White House reporters are entirely too friendly with the people they cover - they hang out together, go to ball games together, send their children to the same schools, etc. To what extent is that true, and do you think it significantly affects the substance of new coverage?

Jim VandeHei: Washington is a small town. So I think a lot of reporters have friends in politics. You might think this would help get information, but it often does not. It usually leads to tension because no one seems to like what we write - at least some of the time. I have friends in politics, on both sides, and I don't think it factors into my reportering at all.


Wilmington, N.C.: I think a lot of the criticism you are getting results from a willful conflation of professional, responsible reporting with the blather that passes for cable news and punditry. Nobody's perfect (credulous pre-Iraq War reporting, for example), but I appreciate your efforts.

Jim VandeHei: Thanks.


Michigan: Does President Bush always wear a helmet when he's bicycling?


Jim VandeHei: He should. He rides fast - and sometimes falls. I think he does.


Allentown, Pa.: How much grief is fellow W.H. Insider Dana Milbank getting around the office for illustrating the Roberts confirmation with stuffed animals last night on MSNBC?

Jim VandeHei: Best question of the day. for those of you who missed (I am one) Milbank appeared on MSNBC last night and did a puppet show to visualize the supreme court fight. No flack yet. Dana has one of the sharpest wits and pens in the business, but who knew he did puppets, too.


Jim VandeHei: That's it folks. Thanks for writing and reading.


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