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Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, August 24, 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 on Wednesday, Aug. 24, at 1 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

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

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Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone. Welcome back. It's been an amazingly newsy August on the White House beat. Let's go right to your questions and comments.

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Fairfax, Va.: The White House has struck back at antiwar critics with a totally shameless propaganda offensive likening the Iraq invasion to Normandy, showing visuals of World War II soldiers when Bush speaks, and again conflating Iraq with the war on terrorism, etc. Why haven't Post editorial writers held the President's transparently blatant attempts at manipulation and misdirection up to scrutiny? Are The Post's owners considering replacing the current editorial staff with people who will speak out, and if not, are they at least considering changing the editorial page masthead from "An Independent Newspaper" to "See No Evil, Speak No Evil, Hear No Evil."?

Dan Froomkin: The Post's editorial board, which I believe has the complete confidence of The Post's owner, has been largely supportive of Bush's war effort. Although I should note that today's lead editorial took a surprisingly jaundiced view of the current goings-on in Iraq. For instance: "In short, what some Shiite and Kurd leaders are calling federalism looks dangerously like a recipe for partition or civil war."

Writing about Bush's imagery, conflations and mischaracterizations, furthermore, could and should legitimately be the province of the reporters and editors, not editorial writers.

There were several things, for instance, that Bush said just yesterday that merited journalistic scrutiny and maybe even clarification or refutation. One of his statements -- a classic Bush "straw man" argument, suggesting that "those" who oppose the war are calling for an immediate pullout from the entire Middle East -- was in fact picked up by several reporters.

But consider this statement by Bush from yesterday: "We had a policy that just said, let the dictator stay there, don't worry about it. And as a result of dictatorship, and as a result of tyranny, resentment, hopelessness began to develop in that part of the world, which became the -- gave the terrorists capacity to recruit. We just cannot tolerate the status quo. We're at war. And so this is a hopeful moment."

Doesn't that sort of beg for a journalistic postmortem?

And then there was his dubious assertion that that the Iraqi constitution only talks about Islam as "a religion" not "the religion."

I think that every arguably false, confused or misleading statement made by the leader of the Free World should be addressed by the journalists whose job it is to cover him.

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Outside the bubble: Hi,

I enjoy reading your column, and missed it when you took a break!

How were the VFW tickets distributed? I'm assuming the same way that the Social Security "Conversation" tickets were?

Did the motorcade even drive by the opposing view? -- I'm beginning to wonder if the President's handlers don't want him to hear reasoned arguments from the other side of any issue, because it might change his delivery...

Dan Froomkin: According to Robbie Johnson of Idaho's NewsChannel 7, ticket distribution was, as usual, very careful.

"Even though 9,000 seats were available for President Bush's public address in Nampa Wednesday, there are still hundreds of people who tried and couldn't get tickets....

" Two-thirds of the tickets were distributed to Idaho's military. The rest went to Idaho's congressional delegation and the governor's office."

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Washington, D.C.: Dan,

One thing I don't understand is why the White House and its surrogates seem to be so provocative with the antiwar movement. While hinting that they are unpatriotic and the like might discredit them in the short run, I would think it would only serve to inflame them and make them even more vocal in the long run.

Dan Froomkin: The White House is not worried about inflaming the current members of the antiwar movement nearly so much as it is worried about that movement growing larger. This is a very aggressive, very conscious, very ferocious attempt to make good patriotic Americans think twice before calling for the troops to come home.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: How carefully does this White House monitor/consider various polls on this president's "approval ratings"? That is, discounting the typical politico-speak of "we don't watch polls ..."

Dan Froomkin: As closely as any White House. Which is to say, more closely than you would think humanly possible.

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Vienna, Va.: The President and his spokesmen have made a big deal that he's still fully in touch and nothing really changes when he goes on his long vacations in Texas. Yet, in Bob Woodward's book, Plan of Action, he reports the exact opposite: that war planning and other activity went on hold while the President was away. Can you give us any indication that the same thing isn't true this time? It makes this vacation an appalling decision at this time.

Dan Froomkin: The internal workings of the White House are really still by and large a mystery to everyone in the press corps -- except Bob Woodward, of course. That said, Bush is obviously spending much more time engaged in leisure this August than he normally does. And perhaps even more importantly, many top aides are on vacation.

But I don't think it's just the fact that he's on vacation that is stopping Bush from engaging in some sort of bold new plan in Iraq.

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Astoria, N.Y.: Turning Tide...Finally?!?! Dana Milbank started his story today with: "You knew it was a bad day for the White House when even Fox News was piling on President Bush's counselor, Dan Bartlett." ( Piling on the Defenders of U.S. Policy in Iraq ). On Bill O'Reilly's talking points today ( The Bush Presidency At A Crossroads ), Mr. O'Reilly says: "If the Bush administration cannot break the back of terrorism in Iraq, all the other good things will be forgotten. And the situation must improve soon, as the president is losing domestic support." Mr. O'Reilly also attacks the President on conservation regarding higher fuel prices: "Now Mr. Bush has not been an outspoken conservation guy, has not been creative about rewarding those who develop and use alternative fuels. He must find a way to get OPEC under control." I must still be drunk from last night, because I thought I would never see Fox News being this critical of President Bush. I am stopping short of praising Fox News, as they still managed to criticize the President yet remain bias in favor of him, but this has got to be making the White House nervous. Wasn't it V.P. Cheney who said he only watches Fox News? The Bush administration has been very good at getting out of bad positions using their strict message discipline and other methods, yet I feel that this time there is a different feeling in the air - there has to be when Fox News is critical of Bush - and I am not sure if the White House can get out of this one. I think reality is finally catching up with the White House (or is it the other way around). Your thoughts? Thanks and I love these chats.

Dan Froomkin: Thanks for your well-documented question. I love those.

And don't forget that it was a Fox News reporter who pressed Bush on women's rights in Iraq yesterday, as well.

I think you raise a very good point. Opposition from places where Bush has not historically received opposition is probably a lot more significant than opposition from the usual suspects.

But is this just a blip -- or the beginning of a trend? I need a few more facts, I'm afraid.

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Fairlington, Va.: Dan,

Has any president ever taken a vacation from a vacation? Things were really so stressful in Crawford that he had to go to a resort in Idaho?

I voted for Bush (twice) but this is ridiculous. Yes, when I go on vacation I take my cell and BB and laptop. But I'm still on vacation. Just because the President has much fancier equipment doesn't mean he's on vacation any less.

Mr. President, get back to the Situation Room and stand your post like 140,000 soldiers in Iraq!

Dan Froomkin: That vacation-from-a-vacation line just might have staying power. ( Maureen Dowd used it this morning in her New York Times column, too.)

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Atlanta, Ga.: Dan: What can the White House do to reverse the polling trends against their Iraq adventure? Anything? Monday's speech/rationale that we "owe to the soldiers who have died" to "stay the course" doesn't seem to resonate positively. What do you see the White House doing?

Dan Froomkin: Well, let me quote from Linda Feldmann in the Christian Science Monitor, who writes that "many Democratic strategists don't expect the US to be in the same position a year from now. There's an assumption that some form of "declare victory and get out" will be in operation - even if the troop presence is drawn down incrementally."

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Centreville, Va.: You wrote: "Writing about Bush's imagery, conflations and mischaracterizations, furthermore, could and should legitimately be the province of the reporters and editors, not editorial writers." Why in the world shouldn't editorial writers address the President's conflations and mischaracterizations? What should they do instead?

Dan Froomkin: I'm not saying they shouldn't. But I think that some of these things are more than what you might call "a matter of opinion," and ought to be addressed by the beat reporters who cover the president, on a daily basis.

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Hadley, Mass.: Yeah, I got a question, it's 12:54 pm Eastern, where's today's column? You've been doing so well with punctuality since you got back from your illness. When you don't get your column out during my lunch break my whole afternoon suffers!

Dan Froomkin: The loyalty -- and sense of entitlement -- among my readers tickles me to death. I'm sorry. Sometimes the column just sort of gets away from me, for no good reason. Sometimes there are production issues. A bit of both today. Hang in there.

Dan Froomkin: Definitely production problems. But now it's live. Go check it out.

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Charleston, S.C.: As a newcomer to your discussion, perhaps you could fill me in in on your current role and background with The Post. Are you a regular beat writer covering the White House or do you write an op-ed piece that specifically covers the President? I ask this question because your answers seem extremely contentious to the White House and it is very apparent, based on your own words, that you look at the issues from a left wing position.

Dan Froomkin: Welcome. I am not a beat reporter covering the White House. The Post newspaper has three of those. I barely ever go there, myself. I work for the Web site and I write a column that has my picture and name emblazoned at its top, and in which I am admittedly considerably more opinionated than I would or could be if I were a beat reporter. That said, my writing is fact-based. I do not beat a partisan drum. What I like to say is that I am "pro-accountability" -- which does sometimes put me somewhat at loggerheads with the White House.

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Seattle, Wash.: Hi Dan - thanks for the chat! As Maureen Dowd points out in her column today, the president seems to have switched the rationale for the war again - this time, to justify the deaths of the soldiers who have already fallen we must continue to fight. Do you think the press corps will press--as it were--the President on the "twisted logic" (as Down puts it) of this new tack?

Dan Froomkin: That was an interesting point she made.

Don't underestimate the potency of what Bush said, though. Who wants to believe that all these people died in vain? That's a painful pill for Americans to swallow.

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Lost without you!: Thank goodness you have returned....how I missed your candid responses and blunt humor!

So this whole ground swell of anti-war protesters is nice and all, but isn't somewhat pointless if Congress is going to tow the line of the importance of not "cutting and running"-without actually putting any facts behind that trite argument. I mean, you have the powerful democrats saying we have to stick it out (Reid, Clinton). Don't these protestors need to win over Congress first?

Dan Froomkin: You make a good point. And Gary Hart writes very provocatively on today's Washington Post op-ed page about how Democratic leaders need to come around to the antiwar position, no matter how hard it is to admit they were wrong.

But keep in mind that even if the Democrats fully turn antiwar, the White House can still push on as long as the Republican congressional majorities remain behind it.

Unless of course there's a popular uprising.

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Arlington, Va.: Hi, Dan:

I thank you for your candid reporting on the Bush White House. How soon will The Washington Post silence you for it, as they seem to have silenced Jefferson Morley for his coverage of the Downing Street Memo?

Dan Froomkin: The management of The Washington Post, both at the newspaper and the Web site, have been incredibly supportive of this column, for which I am deeply grateful. I couldn't ask for better editors.

As for Jeff Morley, the reports of his silencing are greatly exaggerated. He was on vacation. In fact, he's back

today

, with a column about pessimism in Iraq about the draft of the proposed constitution.

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Phoenix, Ariz.: Hi, Dan. Love your column!

Do you think that Bush's "I have to live my life" comment was his Marie Antoinette moment? I'm no fan of this president, but even so I was astounded at the thoughtlessness of this remark. It ranks right up there with his mother's "beautiful mind" comment in what it reveals about this family's narcissism. Do you think the country is at last recognizing how disengaged Bush is?

Dan Froomkin: I found it somewhat jaw-dropping. But it didn't seem to have a lot of legs. For instance, I didn't hear as much as I would have expected about how, for instance, the soldiers in Iraq are not exactly having a balanced life.

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Laurel, Md.: Mr. Bush acknowledges the number of dead and wounded in Iraq. THIS IS BIG NEWS? Really big. Should be put on the front pages of newspapers around the country in big bold letters. I am gagging on my own sarcasm. He should be shown on television mouthing the words. Everyone should be proud. Like parents watching their baby take their first step.

Dan Froomkin: You are referring of course to what I called the White House version of Kabuki theater in yesterday's column .

The thing is: The fact that he acknowledged the number was big news. That is what we have come to.

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Birmingham, Ala.: Did the President ride his $3000 mountain bike in Idaho? We know it was deplaned from Airforce One. But did he ride it? And if he did, which trail did he take? The easy one or the one you initially bet on?

Dan Froomkin: I believe he did ride that bike, and although I'm not sure, it looks like he was taking pretty easy trails (albeit aggressively.) I don't believe he took the chairlift at all.

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Wilton, Conn.: Dan -- I take exception with the view of the newbie from Charleston, S.C. that your opinions reflect a left wing bias. Guess that person has drunk a lot of GOP Kool Aid. Having been an avid reader of yours for many years, I'd like to note that for my money you are as independent as they come. Perhaps if Charleston had read your columns during the Clinton years, s/he would have a better perspective...instead of mindlessly categorizing you as "against us". Keep up the good work, Dan!

Dan Froomkin: Thanks very much.

Although for the record, I didn't write the column during the Clinton years. I only just started it in January 2004. As it happens, however, during several of the Clinton years I was masterminding washingtonpost.com's coverage of the Lewinsky affair. (See the hoary, archived,

Clinton Accused

special report.)

And I was prepared to take an equally "accountabilist" approach had Sen. Kerry prevailed.

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Philadephia, Pa.: I'm surprised the President is letting Ms. Sheehan and the still-nascent antiwar movement control the agenda. Doesn't emphasizing casualties sound like the President is giving in to her arguments? Are you surprised he's responding, rather than trying to set the agenda?

Dan Froomkin: I am confident that the White House will return to aggressive agenda-setting after Labor Day. That said, it is indeed an unprecedented lapse that may have caused Bush great and long-lasting damage.

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"I have to live my life"??: What is that "jaw-dropping" Bush comment you just referenced? I can't find it anywhere online. I guess that goes to your comment about how the story doesn't really have legs.

Dan Froomkin: Ah. Interesting.

See my

August 15

column.

On Saturday, Aug. 13, Bush took a bunch of journalists mountain-biking around his 1,600-acre property and, in response to a question, said that the Sheehan siege was not preoccupying him.

"I think it's important for me to be thoughtful and sensitive to those who have got something to say," he said. "But I think it's also important for me to go on with my life, to keep a balanced life."

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Augusta, Ga.: Dan - I love your column and these discussions BECAUSE you are fair and PRO-accountability. Which brings me to my question. The price of gasoline here in Georgia is skyrocketing up. What is the President (who indicates prior oil industry work on his resume) going to do to help the citizens with these out of control fuel costs?

Dan Froomkin: The conventional wisdom inside the Beltway is that there is really nothing the president can do about gas prices. But I'm not sure that extends outside the Beltway.

Nor am I sure it's true. For instance, it's been argued that the massive price increases might be contained by re-regulating the speculative oil trading markets. And there's the fact that oil companies are making record profits.

None other than Bill O'Reilly of Fox News just last night said: "American oil companies are making near-record profits. So the pipeline is fat and happy, while working Americans getting hosed. That is very bad news for any sitting president."

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Evergreen, Colo.: Can you provide an update on Patrick Fitzgerald's grand jury investigation? To whom is he reporting now?

Dan Froomkin: In my Aug. 16 column, I quoted an AP report: "David Margolis, a lawyer at the Justice Department for 40 years, was named Friday to oversee a special prosecutor's investigation of who in the Bush administration disclosed the name of an undercover CIA officer.

"Margolis, whose title is associate deputy attorney general, is taking the place of Deputy Attorney General James Comey, whose last day of work was Friday."

Beyond that, I have no idea. Reporters are still working the story, but other than free-lancer Murray Waas, nobody's writing much these days.

Obviously, the best way to keep up on this story... is to read my column religiously.

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Bethesda, Md.: As someone who thinks they understand how Karl Rove works what do you think of my hypothesis: Bush is making speeches about Cindy Sheehan and how she is in the minority of America's opinion on his Iraq policy because any good politician picks their fights and fighting Cindy Sheehan is much easier than fighting the real majority who feel Bush has lead America astray in Iraq. In other words, is Cindy being talked about in order to not talk about what others are saying, especially other Republicans?

Also, based on the way Bush's popularity is sinking when do you think we will first hear about a Republican distancing him/herself from Bush as the 2006 elections draw closer?

Dan Froomkin: I think you're almost exactly right. But in fact, Bush isn't talking about Sheehan! He's talking about some sort of anonymous, demonized straw-man version of Sheehan.

And your second question is the question of the moment in political Washington.

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Washington, D.C.: When will we get to the bottom of the "Denver Three" story? Surely this trend continues.

Dan Froomkin: The mainstream press seems to have lost interest in the story of the three Denverites ushered out of a Bush event on account of a "No Blood for Oil" bumpersticker.

And in fact the trend doesn't continue, largely because the White House has stopped letting people like that in, in the first place. It's all "invitation only" these days.

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Boynton Beach, Fla.: With all the "support" the President claims to be making towards the soldiers in Iraq, why hasn't the media properly examined the "support" the soldiers have received -- from training to combat pay to medical care to proper equipment?

Those are fair areas for which the President and Congress are accountable, but some strong indepth investigation might reveal he's doing more than we thought or not much.

Dan Froomkin: Well, here's the thing. Newspapers -- and even television networks -- have covered those stories, here and there. But they don't repeat them every day. By contrast, Bush talks almost every day. And there you see the fundamental weakness of daily journalism. It's easily manipulated by the people in power.

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"Live my Life" Comment: Just my two pennies worth. I'm very critical of President Bush in most regards, but not this one. Yes, his phrasing was insensitive. But it will not serve any purpose for him to become obsessed with the war like LBJ became with Vietnam. An emotionally and physically exhausted President is not what is needed here.

Dan Froomkin: And indeed Jimmy Carter's "Rose Garden Strategy" of staying inside the White House during the hostage crisis is not a model any modern president is likely to follow.

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Richmond, Va.: I've been very upset with the way the media is manipulated by this administration. I read something in Vanity Fair last night that intrigued me. Media outlets should put reporters on the White House beat who have never covered it because those that are covering it have become complicit.

I suspect you will defend the media but I don't see how you can b/c I read your column to get a truer picture since so much is missed by the mainstream media.

Dan Froomkin: Well, another way to deal with this is to back up your White House correspondents with aggressive investigative reporters who are not beholden to anyone.

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Dan Froomkin: Thank you, thank you, thank you for your many wonderful, intelligent and interesting questions -- as usual. I'm so sorry I couldn't get to more of them.

Please do check out my column every day (OK, every afternoon) on the home page of washingtonpost.com or at

washingtonpost.com/whbriefing

. And feel free to

e-mail me

, too.

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