Post Politics Hour

John F. Harris
Washington Post National Political Editor
Thursday, April 27, 2006; 11:00 AM

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Washington Post national political editor John F. Harris was online Thursday, April 27, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest in political news.

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The transcript follows.


Winthrop, Mass.: The one thing that Tony Snow has never been is a reporter or anything truly on the news side of an organization that properly divides commentary and news. Is it normal to appoint a person that has never been a reporter, or at least never had reporting as a primary job, to be press secretary? I would think the average political hack would have more understanding of the pressures and desires of White reporters.

John F. Harris: Good morning, and welcome to the chat.

Lots of questions about both the Tony Snow appointment, and the Karl Rove grand jury appearance.

I do not know Snow personally, so I'm guessing a bit on this answer. He has spent quite a lot of time working for newspapers-the Detroit News and the Washington Times--as an editorialist. Even though he has not been a news reporter, I'm guessing he has a pretty good feel for the culture of news organizations. I have little doubt that he understands the "pressures and desires" of White House reporters, but whether he in turn has the desire and ability to accommodate the press's desires remains to be seen.


Baltimore, Md.: For those of us unfamiliar with the workings of grand juries, what the heck is going on in there the second, third, fourth, and fifth times you testify before one?

John F. Harris: As Jim VandeHei reported in this morning's paper, Karl Rove yesterday made his fifth appearance before the grand jury.

All of us are unfamiliar with the workings of this particular grand jury...Fitzgerald has wrong a very opaque investigation. But it seems self-evident that any person who comes back five times has every reason for anxiety.

We'll have to see what happens with this investigation in the Plame case. At the time Scooter Libby was indicted, we all expected that Rove's fate would be decided fairly quickly. But that has been six months ago.


Washington, D.C.: Do think the Democrats can actually take back a chamber of Congress in November, or am I just getting me hopes up?

John F. Harris: I do not know any Republicans even who would not say that there is at least some chance that Democrats take back one or both chambers of Congress.

There are two basic facts that point in somewhat different directions: All the larger trends in public opinion, suggest deep political problems for Republicans. But in order to make a serious run for control Democrats would have to put "in play" many districts that have not previously been regarded as competitive.

When you have a seismic year--like 1994 was for Republicans--all kinds of races that had previously been out of reach end up being shaken up.

So the big question is whether 2006 is another seismic year. It seems quite plausible to me that it may be, given the degree of public unease with the Iraq war.


Washington, D.C.: The new face of journalism: must all journalists be close-up-worthy in the cable news era?

John F. Harris: Based on our sample size here at the Post, myself included, the answer to your question is obviously no.


Columbia, Md.: Did you mean to say run instead of wrong the investigation?

John F. Harris: I sure did mean that. Sorry, somewhat sleep-deprived today, apparently. Thanks.


Winnipeg, Canada: Does Dennis Kucinich plan to run in 2008? Would his chances be better than in 2004?

John F. Harris: I would guess that his chances in 2008 would be roughly equal to his chances in 2004.


Olympia, Wash.: For the life of me, I cannot understand why President Bush keeps Karl Rove on staff. I know the President is a very loyal man and he is dependent on Mr. Rove's political acumen, but to have a top aide (or THE top aide) to the President be called before a grand jury FIVE TIMES. Something is wrong. Even is Mr. Rove is not guilty of anything (he is innocent until proven guilty), it must be a monumental distraction. Can you explain this to an Outside-the-Beltway-er?


John F. Harris: President Bush plainly regards Rove as an exceptional strategist--"the architect," as he said after the 2004 election--and they have a very close, very loyal relationship.

So I'm guessing the usual Washington calculation--that once staff hands become a public distraction, they hit the road--does not apply in this case.

I'd add that, for all the obvious interest Fitzgerald has in Rove, I do not think we have a real sense yet of his legal exposure.


Wilmington, N.C.: Re: Snow, you wrote,"whether he in turn has the desire and ability to accommodate the press's desires remains to be seen." Are you implying accommodating the press's desires is an option exercised at the discretion of the Press Secretary? Are you also saying McClellan chose not to do so? I find it hard to imagine such leeway afforded to this position.

John F. Harris: I am saying that McClellan's superiors did not give him a lot of latitude to be forthcoming with information.

I take Snow and the people speaking on his behalf lately at their word that he would like to have a somewhat more open relationship. What's not clear is whether President Bush, who seems to have preferred a very tight operation, is ready to give the press secretary more access to decision making and a little more freedom to share what he knows.

I also take it as a given that no press secretaries ever do more than represent their boss's wishes, which often means being unforthcoming about uncomfortable subjects.

All we can do is ask the questions, and point out if the answers are evasive.


Washington, D.C.: Mr. Harris, as National Political Editor, could you offer us some insight as to how you cover national political stories and distribute reporters? When does a story warrant a reporter on location? Do your reporters have regional beats? Is everyone based in Washington? Thank you.

John F. Harris: We always have more races and more story ideas than we have reporters to execute them.

Most national political stories are written out of Washington by a lean but talented staff--led by chief political correspondent Dan Balz--but Dan and others also travel a lot. Also, some of our domestic bureau reporters, like Peter Slevin in Chicago and Blaine Harden in Seattle, really like political stories so they often pitch in to follow races around the country.


Austin, Tex.: What happens if Karl Rove is indicted? Does he resign his job and continue to pull strings from the wings? How much lower would Bush's poll numbers go with Rove, as The Architect, under federal indictment?

John F. Harris: The White House has made it clear previously that he would not stay if he were indicted.

White House's are very fast-moving places. He or any aide would find it hard to exert influence from afar.

Bush is suffering from low job approval ratings at the moment, but I think concern about Iraq is a bigger factor than Rove's problems.


Kansas City, Mo.: I think I read that Mike McCurry said he wished he had not allowed the gaggle to be televised but there was no going back. Would the gaggle work any better if it wasn't or does televising it force a White House to be more open or appear to be less than forthcoming

John F. Harris: Just a note on terms: The "gaggle" is an informal press briefing held each morning in the press secretary's office. There are no cameras.

What McCurry did is allow the daily briefings, held each afternoon in the press room, to be on camera. I saw the quote from him you mentioned.

I know what he means about the hazards of grandstanding, but I think he did the right thing when he became Clinton's press secretary in 1995. As a practical matter, it is simply not defensible not to have press briefings be televised, in my view. (Of course I think that about Supreme Court arguments as well, so my view is obviously not the deciding factor.)


Silver Spring, Md.: As an editor how closely do you monitor your reporter's relationship with administration officials? Many of your reporters seem very friendly with Tony Snow. I am concerned that perhaps their positive feelings for Snow on a personal level may impact their objectivity in covering the administration.

John F. Harris: I do not know that any reporters who work with me on the White House or politics staffs have been close to Tony Snow.

Editors do not "monitor" that as a routine thing. We know our staff well enough to have full confidence in their professional judgment.


Arlington, Va.: "All we can do is ask the questions, and point out if the answers are evasive." Don't forget showboating for the TV cameras - NBC's David Gregory was my favorite - and repeatedly asking the same "navel gazing" questions, while missing out on asking about many foreign policy and economic issues. Both the White House and the press can do better.

John F. Harris: Here's a different view. I do not know Gregory well, but admire the work he has seen. I do not think he's a showboater. Sometimes pinning down a press secretary can be a hard job and you have to keep coming back to the same question. So Gregory and the others on the White House beat have my sympathies.


Kansas City, Mo.: Just a followup. The daily briefings seemed testy a lot of times. What was/is the atmosphere at the gaggles like?

John F. Harris: I have never been to gaggles during the Bush years, though I understand that, as during the Clinton administration (when I covered the White House), they tend to be a little looser and probably less confrontational than the afternoon briefings. But that does not mean they do not get testy. I have read and heard enough from Post reporters and others to know that they sometimes do.


Atlanta, Ga.: Based on your interaction with Senator Clinton, does she tend to be pretty measured in her interaction with reporters and the media?

John F. Harris: Yes, she does--probably a little more so than the average politician, but she also has a lot more public attention focused on her than the average politician, so that makes sense.

In my experience, she is more accessible and more interesting to talk to than she was during her first lady years, when she tended to be very suspicious of reporters and very scripted.

As a senator, she is measured but also can be very informative and very incisive. She has gotten a lot more effective in my view, in handling her press relationships.


Rochester, N.Y.: I heard you say once that the evaluation of George Bush's presidency hinges almost exclusively on the outcome in Iraq. Do you think there is any chance that this war, along with his legacy, can be salvaged?

John F. Harris: I did say that in a recent chat, and got some e-mails afterward pointing out reasonably that there are other issues that might loom just as large historically, especially given that there are still almost three years left in this presidency. Fair enough.

I do say that this is the biggest issue on which his near-term fortunes hinge, and it is hard to imagine things turning around quickly enough to alleviate what polls show is deep concern about the U.S. mission there. So the big question is how much does this cut during the mid-term elections.

Thanks for checking in. Please join us again tomorrow.


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