Post Politics Hour

John F. Harris
Washington Post National Political Editor
Thursday, December 15, 2005; 11:00 AM

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Washington Post national political editor John F. Harris was online Thursday, Dec. 15, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest in political news.

Editor's Note:'s Congressional Votes Database is now online. See how lawmakers voted on every bill since 1991 here.

The transcript follows.


Des Moines, Iowa: Is there a reason that your concerns about Dan Froomkin's column surfaced now after it has been running for (I believe) over two years?

John F. Harris: Good morning, folks. There are TONS of questions on this topic, as I knew there would be. It's been boiling on blogs in recent days, and some comments I made there have been a big part of the conversation.

To be honest, I'm only going to answer a couple on this, for two reasons:

--I've addressed it in other forums, and the whole matter has been diverting me from other work.

--More important, the uproar on blogs has made what is by agreement of everyone at the paper and Web site a pretty narrow issue seem like a huge deal. It's not, and I'm eager to cool it down.

The narrow issue is how labels Dan Froomkin's popular White House Briefing column, and whether enough is done to make clear that he is a commentator but not a Washington Post news reporter. The Post's ombudsman, Deborah Howell, wrote a column saying more should be done to clarify that, and I was quoted agreeing with her. An uproar ensued in some places, getting the issue all tangled up in controversies about the war and journalism generally. As if we needed a reminder, these are emotional times.

For those who are actually interested in the details, Jay Rosen's site "pressthink" did a full and responsible airing of this relatively minor issue, and I said everything I need to say (and a little more)on that.


For all its interesting and useful features, some things I don't like about the on-line crankosphere are its frequent humorlessness and tendency to blow issues way out of proportion.

After I popped off on some of these issues, some colleagues gently suggested I might be flirting with these traits myself. (They are liars and no longer my friends.)

I did get irked by one thing Dan had said on-line, which I took to be suggesting that Post reporters don't work hard to hold the White House accountable. He later quite graciously made clear this was not at all what he intended, and I felt bad about responding hotly. I like Dan and his column.

It just goes to show what my mother always said about counting to ten before speaking in anger. Unfortunately, we've fallen out, since she apparently loves Osama and Saddam more than America.


Northampton, Mass.: With the revelations about Miller, Woodward, and Viveca Novack the public is naturally concerned about the too-cozy relationship between the Washington press corps and their official sources. How, in your view, can we combat this problem and build a stronger and more independent fourth estate?

John F. Harris: I don't ever wish to be complacent about these issues. I can only tell you from my vantage point, as the person who edits the White House coverage, that coziness between the Bush White House and the Post reporters who cover that place aggressively and fairly has not been a problem.

In addition, as we have seen in recent years, there are more voices holding not just public officials but the media accountable than ever before. All for the good. I


John F. Harris: Knowing how literal-minded some people are, maybe I should hasten to add I was just kidding about my mom.


Miami, Fla.: What is the breakdown of questions you are receiving this morning in terms of from the left or the right? Is your aim to choose questions to answer based on the popularity of theme or on your interest in the subject?

John F. Harris: These things really vary depending on the news. Today, there's many more coming from what I'm supposing is probably the left, but that's because of the matter I mentioned in my first question.

Some days, conservatives are worked up on something and we can expect a lot of questions.

In general, I'd say the balance of these chats is pretty even. Many and probably most of the questions or comments are not identifiably tilting in any direction.


Miami, Fla.: With the advent of the Internet age, what are some of the ways The Post can maintain its identity as an objective source of news. Is there anything you like about the Internet?

John F. Harris: The Internet is an overwhelming net positive, of course.

The ease of finding information, the diversity of voices are all great things.

From the Post perspective, since our paper version is a local newspaper and not nationally distributed, it's great knowing we are reaching readers all over the country and the world. That's by far the most satisfying change for me professionally over the past decade.

I also like doing these chats, as do all the reporters on the political staff.


Dudley, Tex.: Reading The Post one gets the impression that being against the Iraq war and thinking Bush lied to get us in there is an outside the mainstream point of view. But a majority of Americans answer yes to both (and a majority of Americans before the war thought we should go in only with U.N. support). When will your coverage treat that like a legitimate viewpoint, not a crank viewpoint?

John F. Harris: By no means do I think that is a crank viewpoint.

The Washington Post poll, like most national polls, shows that a very strong majority of Americans think the Iraq war was a mistake. The numbers are high, though not as high, on the question of whether Bush deliberately distorted information in making the case for war.

I would doubt that anyone at the Bush White House would honestly say this is a crank view. The fact that they know these attitudes are pervasive is among the biggest political challenges the president faces right now. That's why he's been making a series of speeches trying to bolster his support.

Peter Baker wrote a very good and clear-eyed analysis on this in today's paper.

_______________________ In Four Speeches, Two Answers on War's End , ( Post, Dec. 15, 2005 )


Arlington, Va.: How do you see the immigration issue affecting next year's congressional races? Do you see it as an issue that can fracture the GOP's control of Congress?

John F. Harris: Many Republicans expect this to be a large and growing issue, in 2006 and 2008. There are divisions in both parties, but I think they are especially consequential on the Republican side. We've written quite a lot about that, including a story by Jeff Birnbaum on how the GOP's business supporters are estranged from the Hill leadership on this issue.

_______________________ Immigration Pushes Apart GOP, Chamber , ( Post, Dec. 14, 2005 )


Washington, D.C.: Now that President Bush has broken with his usual practice of avoiding direct comment on pending criminal investigations to express his faith in Mr. DeLay (in a Fox News interview), will your White House reporters press him or his Press Secretary to comment on the Plame investigation?

John F. Harris: I agree: that apparent contradiction seems like a reasonable thing for the White House to be pressed on.


Portland, Maine: I read today that Bob Novak believes Bush knows the source of the leak, and suggests the press start asking Bush to reveal the source. Can Bush do that without dragging himself into the Fitzgerald probe?

John F. Harris: I'm sure he won't take Novak up on his invitation to say what he knows.

To be honest, I've always regarded the "can't comment, under investigation" as a transparent dodge. But every politician uses it. As journalists, we should (and pretty often do) keep pressing even when we know the answer is likely to be no comment.


Birmingham, Ala.: How effective will the Republican latest tactic to try to show that Abramoff was/is as shady with the Dems as the Repubs?

John F. Harris: I can't predict. The lobbyist culture and the ethical questions raised by it is bipartisan. But the Abramoff-Scanlon matter is overwhelmingly focused on Republicans, and that's a problem of still-unknown size for the congressional GOP.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: What are your least favorite catchphrases used by journalists/broadcasters these days. Mine are "on the ground" (as opposed to "in the trees?"),if you will (what if I won't, buddy?), and "at the end of the day" (as opposed to mid-afternoon?). Just curious. Thanks for your work and these chats. I like both you and Froomkin.

John F. Harris: These do seem like cliches, and I'll try to remember to take them out of reporters copy when I'm editing it.

My favorite new word is "truthstigious" invented by respected journalist Stephen Colbert, who says his show is the most trustworthy and prestigious on television.


Silver Spring, Md.: I was wondering, to the best of your knowledge, can you tell me when was the last time The Washington Post endorsed a Republican candidate for President, or either local elections for Senate or Governor?

Thank you very much.

John F. Harris: I don't know, but it's been a while.

This is a good time to remind people that as the Post's political editor, I work for the news side of the paper, not the editorial side.

I do recall that the Democratic-leaning (but pretty hawkish) editorial page made no endorsement at all in 1988, because they did not think Michael Dukakis was sufficiently strong on foreign policy and national security issues.


New York, N.Y.: How does The Post determine which stories the chief political editor edits? Do you just edit all stories by particular reporters or is there some editorial process which assigns particular stories to you to edit? For instance do you edit Dana Milbank's column? Or is his column outside your purview? Any insight into how the political editorial process operates at the post would be welcome.


John F. Harris: Glad to do it. The Post's White House reporters and our purely political reporters--people like Dan Balz and Tom Edsall--work directly with me.

Dana Milbank, as it happens, is edited by my colleague Maralee Schwartz, one of the Post's most graceful and skilled editors. (She used to improve my work often when I was a White House reporter.)

But these are not strict lines. Sometimes I'll edit congressional stories, even though usually that's done by congressional editor Eric Pianin. We often end up kind of winging it, especially on busy days.


Curious: Is Bush on the rebound? Fox News recently ran a comparison of other second term President's approval ratings at around this time, and Bush's were comparatively HIGH. Other Presidents were in the twenties or low thirties. Is there misreporting, or is Fox playing games with stats?

John F. Harris: I'm quite eager to see the next Washington Post poll on this subject (and am not sure exactly when polling director Rich Morin is in the field next, but I imagine its soon.)

Bush's numbers--both overall approval and specific issues, including Iraq and general trustworthiness--were really bad in our most recent poll. It's going to be interesting to see what the trendlines are.


Sterling, Va.: When will you fess up to what exactly you know/knew about Patrick Ruffini and when exactly you knew it?

Your unwillingness to comment makes the WP look -really bad- in light of the Woodward mess.

Or won't the White House permit you to comment?

John F. Harris: I said I was not going to return much to the Froomkin matter today, but I'm going to take this one because it bothers me. Also because many other questions I'm not posting are on a similar theme.

I did refuse to answer questions posed by a blogger named Brad Delong asking whether I knew that one of the people on record complaining about the confusion over White House Briefing was affiliated with Republicans.

As a journalist, I hate not answering questions, even from (in this case) someone who clearly was coming from a point of view quite hostile to me. But I had jointly decided with colleagues that I had responded enough to the blogosphere, so I took a pass.

I'll address the matter here. I did know that some people raising questions about Froomkin are Republicans, but there was a particular instance two months back that made me wonder whether we ought to be paying more attention. An old friend, quite liberal, who has been around politics all his life said to me, "I love that column your White House reporter writes." I said, "Um, Dwight, I'm delighted that you enjoy the column, but you know, right, he's not our White House reporter, and he does not report to me?" He said, "Well, why is it called White House Briefing?"

That suggested to me that maybe this is an issue causing confusion. But here's the thing: It's a very NARROW issue, not a question of trying to suppress one of the Web site's most popular voices.

As a Post editor, I have a great relationship with editor Jim Brady and his deputy, Russ Walker, and the newsroom and the Web site will discuss and work through this one calmly--as we do similar issues all the time.

For all the shouting, that is all this issue is about, and at the end of it all it's pretty pedestrian.

These chats themselves are an example of the great things the Web site and newspaper are doing together.

That's it for today, my last chat of the year. Thanks to everyone, including probably a record number of questions I could not get to.

I've figured out a way to get around the Bill O'Reilly issue. I'll say Merry Christmas AND Happy Holidays!

I'll chat again in the new year.


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