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Jim VandeHei
Washington Post White House Reporter
Friday, January 20, 2006; 11:00 AM

Don't want to miss out on the latest buzz in politics? Start each day at wonk central: The Post Politics Hour. Join in each weekday morning at 11 a.m. as a member of The Washington Post's team of White House and Congressional reporters answers questions about the latest in buzz in Washington and The Post's coverage of political news.

Washington Post White House reporter Jim VandeHei was online Friday, Jan. 20, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest in political news.

The transcript follows.

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Jim VandeHei: good morning. lets chat

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Arlington, Va.: It's a shame that The Post had to shut down it's Abramoff blog due to the obscene comments. But this all got kicked off because of Deborah Howell's lie in her Sunday ombudsman column, accusing the Democrats of taking money from Jack Abramoff. And in the last election cycle, Democrats got less money from Indian tribes then in the past, so even Howell saying that Abramoff "directed" the tribes to give money to Democrats is false. When will The Post issue a retraction of the Sunday column by Howell?

Jim VandeHei: I anticipate a lot of traffic on this issue, so I will address it at the top. As a bit of background, Deborah Howell, our ombudsman, wrote that Democrats got Abramoff money, too. It was a somewhat inartful way of making the point that Abramoff's clients, at his direction, gave money to members of both parties, but more to Republicans than Democrats. Abramoff himself gave exclusively to Republicans. It is a fact Abramoff is a Republican who did more for Republicans than Democrats. It is also a fact he directed money to Democrats, sought help from Democrats and worked with some Democrats on behalf of his clients.

Could the web administrator please post links to Howell's first column and the response she posted yesterday?

Jim Brady, executive editor of post.com will be online at noon, to explain his decision to pull the plug, at least for now, on the post's unique wide-open reader forums because many of the responses were out of line and not part of a thoughtful dialogue. Please post a link to Brady's explanation of the change taking place on the web page.

Here are my two cents: people make mistakes and as reporters we are quick to fix them. Howell has been a terrific and very aggressive watchdog of the post. It is sad that a group of very mean-spirited readers can not engage in thoughtful, mature and provocative dialogue about stories and controversies. Instead, they revert to cowardly personal attacks on people without the courage to attach their names. As a reporter, I am a staunch supporter of free speech and welcome criticism. But readers should keep their comments to the issues and not make personal attacks that add nothing but empty anger to the debate.

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washingtonpost.com: Deborah Howell's original story: Getting the Story on Jack Abramoff , ( Post, Jan. 15, 2006 )

Deborah Howell Responds (post.blog)

Live Online, noon today  Ask Post.com (with Executive Editor Jim Brady)

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Seattle, Wash.: Jim:

I'm an independent voter who is appalled by the Abramoff scandal and its effect on our government.

I am so irritated by McClellan's non-responses about who Abramoff met with in the White House. Isn't there some freedom of information act that can be used to uncover the records?

The American people deserve to know who he met with.

Jim VandeHei: we are working aggressively to determine Abramoff's connection to the White House. He was a big fundraiser for Bush and close ally of several top White House officials. A top Bush administration official who worked with Abramoff has been indicted and at least one other former one is under serious investigation. White House aides say they are searching for any pictures. So are we. If they exist, we will find them -- or the White House will release them because they know we will find them.

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Denver, Colo.: Do you know if Patrick Fitzgerald continues to meet with the grand jury in Washington?

Jim VandeHei: Lots of interest in the Fitzgerald investigation. I am surprised we have not heard the prosecutor's final decision on rove. Remember, Rove is still under investigation in the CIA leak probe and could be indicted. I know the Rove camp throughout this would be cleared up by now, but Fitzgerald has been bust on the Libby pre-trial motions and other work. I still assume a decision will come soon. There is also the mysterious role of Bob Woodward's source in this saga and it is my understanding that Fitzgerald has not made a final decision on the still secret source.

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Dixon, Ill. 61021: My Congressman is Hastert. My question: If instead of treading around the corruption question, the pollsters asked something like, "If your congressman falls under the cloud of corruption, will you vote for him?", what would the results probably reveal? Aren't we all just waiting to see if the other shoe will drop on our own representative or senator?

Jim VandeHei: I co-wrote a story in today's paper about how the Abramoff scandal and House leadership races are not big issues back in the congressional districts, at least according to lawmakers. But this story has the real potential to explode into something much larger if members of Congress are indicted, and at least one and possibly more are expected to be before the end of the year. This investigation is far from over and you can safely expect indictments and plea deals to be announced throughout the year, making this a constant source of stress, both personal and political, for Republicans. Most voters don't tune into congressional elections until late in the election year. The big danger for the GOP is that when people tune in they will see GOP members and aides in handcuffs.

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Austin, Tex.: Jim,

You said in your article today that the Abramoff scandal is getting a big yawn. Just this week in Austin, we had a special election to replace a Republican state rep who, surprise, went to work as a lobbyist.

The election results showed a 12 point lead by a Democrat in a solidly Republican district in the race, which leads to a runoff election soon. I am too hopeful that this scandal will turn the tides into at least a hint more blue come November?

Jim VandeHei: my article was specific to the dynamics among Republicans and how they factor into the leadership race. You make a very valid point that there is a lot of polling and anecdotal evidence that the political climate is not a good one for Republicans in light of the scandals and the war and the deficits. We are always looking for trends in races that might not be on our radar, so thanks for pointing me to the state race.

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New York, N.Y.: "Howell has been a terrific and very aggressive watchdog of the post"

Her columns include taking siding with The Post's reporters against its readers in the Froomkin flap and writing glowing praise about The Post's coverage of the Abramoff scandal. In the Woodward flap, her only criticism was the Woodward needed an editor (which already had).

Can you give any examples where she has actually be critical of The Post?

Jim VandeHei: a lot of what the ombudsman does is provide critiques internally, through a office-only blog and by sending us your emails criticizing our work. I get a lot of the later via Howell.

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Rockville, Md.: Good Morning:

Thank you for taking your time for a chat. We ALL appreciate it.

I also appreciate you comments about Deborah Howell. I think her columns are good, thought provoking and have other versions of what is going on.

As for the First Amendment issue. I agree with you and I wish there was a way that the reports who attend the Daily Press Briefings with McClellan could get that Amendment working so that we could get some good information.

Do you have any suggestions other than pointing out the obvious and telling McClellan that his past record (Libby and Rove are NOT involved with Plame) leaves his credibility in the tank?

Jim VandeHei: If you are looking for unvarnished information that might be useful in making thoughtful decisions, I would not recommend that daily White House briefings. These forums are designed for the White House to pt the best possible spin on its policies,and as my colleague Mark Leibovich highlighted in a recent profile of Scott, Bush loves the fact that the spokesman says little.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Is there any follow-up or new info on the Duke Cunningham "wearing a wire" story?

Jim VandeHei: last I saw, his lawyer denied it.

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Wilmington, N.C.: You wrote,"...The big danger for the GOP is that when people tune in they will see GOP members and aides in handcuffs..." Since this is a bipartisan scandal and Abramoff directed contributions to and worked with both parties, shouldn't we also expect to see Dems in handcuffs?

Jim VandeHei: based on my understanding of the investigation, which is more of a spectator, the prosecutors are focusing on Republicans at this point. that could change, obviously

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Vienna, Va.: What do you think about the candidates to replace DeLay as House majority leader?

I think it's important for the Republicans to pick someone very different from the previous leadership. I fear Rep. Blunt will be little more than DeLay Part II, so it worries me that he seems to be the front-runner.

I've been liking what I read about Rep. Shadegg, though. I guess we'll have to wait and see what happens, but I think the Republicans have a chance here to re-appeal to the "small-government conservative" base that has been feeling a bit left out over the past few years.

Jim VandeHei: Not my job to opine on the candidates. What I would say is that Republicans seem to have a clear choice between seasoned leaders with close ties to lobbyists who don't represent a big change from the past (blunt and Boehner) and a candidate who has less experience and is calling for big changes in the way Republicans operate (Shadegg). Shadegg is running a distant third, but these are secret ballot elections and very unpredictable.

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Hickory, N.C.: Jim,

Have the reporters ever considered walking out of the room en masse and leaving McClellan standing at the podium ?

Jim VandeHei: there is always talk about staging protests to things like the White House insistence on speaking on background on non-sensitive issues. But I have not heard of any organized effort to walk out in protest.

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Wilmington, N.C.: Why are "the prosecutors are focusing on Republicans at this point"?

Jim VandeHei: They are clearly tightening the noose in hopes of getting to GOP lawmakers. They started by indicting Abramoff and Scanlon, both republicans, and are now focusing on staff (if you read the Abramoff indictment) and one lawmaker, Bob Ney. This is how prosecutors work.

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Atlanta, Ga.: "shouldn't we also expect to see Dems in handcuffs?" Comments like that and many, many others make me very appreciative of this forum provided by The Post. It must be tiring to have to constantly engage with people who believe "their side" is not being treated fairly. My local paper has nothing like it.

Jim VandeHei: We are on the cutting edge of transparency. If readers can restrain the hate speech, it will continue to the benefit of all.

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Madison, Wis.: Whether his initial press release citing Republicans for ethical lapses was wrong or not, why in the world would Reid apologize for the press release now? He's a politically savvy guy, so is there some calculation there that is not obvious? It seems like a judgment lapse to me. The horses are already out of the barn--let them run.

Jim VandeHei: The Senate is a club with unspoken rules of behavior. It is very unusual for a top leader to offer such a sharp and personal attack and Reid clearly felt his staff crossed the line.

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Rockville, Md.: Lies?

Please forgive me. Not everything that one may not agree with is a lie. I wish people would get off this kick of calling everyone they don't like or do not agree with a liar. Not true. What do you think?

Jim VandeHei: Good point

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Vienna, Va.: Most of your online chatters here are liberal. Taking that into account, which group is proportionately more likely to have their questions rejected as unprintable or too hostile--liberal or conservative chatters?

Thank you.

Jim VandeHei: It is my experience that a lot of the hate email directed at the post of late is coming from liberal bloggers and their followers. But make no mistake -- this kind of garbage is coming from both sides, though.

It should be noted that most readers ask very thoughtful questions and often point out mistakes and inartful language that is very helpful for reporters and editors to be aware of.

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Comments: "It is sad that a group of very mean-spirited readers can not engage in thoughtful, mature and provocative dialogue about stories and controversies. Instead, they revert to cowardly personal attacks on people without the courage to attach their names"

I spent the morning reading through the comments that the Post took down from the Howell furor (they were archived some kind of way by a blogger). Unless I am missing something I saw nothing to the extent that you comment above implies. Did you read the comments?

Jim VandeHei: I have read the comments (many of which are pulled down instantly) and have been hit by them.

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Washington, D.C.: Jim,

Is it really that big of news that the Justice Department is backing the Pres. interpretation of his power? While I can see the news if there was some sort of new legal reasoning for the warrantless wiretaps offered by the administration, but it just seems to be a more detailed description of reasons they already have given.

Jim VandeHei: Regardless of your position on the NSA spying program, this seems like a great time to have one of the most important debates of our times. With the Patriot Act and NSA debate expected to dominate February, voters can sift through fundamental decisions about presidential power in wartime and how such power should be carried out against the new threat of technologically savvy terrorists. Bush holds a view of expansive presidential power and will engage this debate will full force, according to his aides.

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Viroqua, Wis.: Jim, I'm feeling like White House reporters like David Gregory ought to be identified in the official White House transcript so people can know who it is that's berating McClellan, insisting he shouldn't have to bring any stinking proof of a Rove-Abramoff connection to the briefing room with him. Aren't there some days where the WH room looks a lot like an SNL skit full of dumb and/or pushy characters?

Jim VandeHei: that is a nice description - SNL skit. It is often an exercise in the silly. You have reporters playing to the camera asking questions they know will never be answered to a spokesman who takes pleasure in ducking the question or offering a robotic response. That's why I find these briefings of little use to the type of journalism we practice at the post.

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New York, N.Y.: If the offending comments were removed immediately, why take down -all- of them. After reading all the comments that were allowed to post (but subsequently taken down), it appears to me that the well-reasoned, factual responses made Ms. Howell appear to be lackadaisical and bad at her job... but that ain't "hate speech."

Jim VandeHei: Jim Brady will answer all of these questions at noon. Tune in.

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Baton Rouge, La.: Jim - as a reporter, where do you go to get your news? You're obviously well-informed about the topics that you cover and you gather a lot of information yourself, but do you utilize other newspapers and blogs to get information as well?

Jim VandeHei: we get our information from taking to sources, reading other publications and sifting through records or documents. I do not find blogs a useful source of information.

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Detroit, Mich.: I think a lot of what you are seeing regarding comments is frustration with the coordinated, right-wing spin machine which has taken over radio and cable news. The RNC puts out talking points and a few hours later is repeated on cable and appears in news articles.

That being said, when The Post makes a mistake. Correct it. Period.

Jim VandeHei: There is no doubt the GOP strategy in the scandal debate is too muddy the water to make it appear both parties are equally at fault for corruption. This is a strategy that has worked well for the GOP in the past (remember the we all voted for this war you don't like campaign of last year?). There is some truth to it, however. Look at the Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) case. What makes this a hard sell politically is that Republicans control all of Washington and might suffer most if voters become fed up Congress and demand change.

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College Park, Md.: I have not read the specific blogs about Howell, but am a regular follower of the politics chats. I have never seen anything that I would describe as hateful or out of line. Is that because you choose the questions that get posted or is this kind of hateful speech commonplace?

Jim VandeHei: we chose which questions to answer. right now, there are 140 in my basket and none of them are offensive and in fact all of them seem like honest attempts to learn more about Washington. That's why the political staff loves doing these. we really do. In fact, if we can figure out a way to filter out the cowardly hate speech you will get a lot more opportunities to engage reporters about topics and individual stories in the future.

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Rochester, N.Y.: "I do not find blogs a useful source of information" Boy are you out of touch.

Jim VandeHei: I hope I am not out of touch. Blogs, or at least those I have read, seem to react more to what we write. There are a few exception where bloggers are acting as serious reporters and digging up information. Steve Clemons, who writes the Washington Note, comes to mind as one source of information on national security matters I might not find elsewhere. Unfortunately, I also find a lot of misinformation on other blogs.

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Jim VandeHei: that's all folks. thanks for reading and writing and not calling me a partisan hack with no talent, no spine and no future.

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Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


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