Post Politics Hour

Tom Edsall
Washington Post National Political Reporter
Friday, April 28, 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 national political reporter Tom Edsall was online Friday, April 28, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest in political news.

The transcript follows.


New York, N.Y.: Jim, you're the man. First, you do the best reporting on the Abramoff scandal, then you call the WH out on its 24/7 use of Fox "News." This, of course, only a few days after they appoint their spokesman...from Fox News.

Were the TVs on AFO ever changed? We all know that Fox News and this WH go hand in hand, and it's hardly surprising that they only watch Fox in their echo chamber. What finally "set you off" about this issue?

Tom Edsall: Jim unfortunately has to cover a Bush event, which may turn into a press conference. He has agreed to reply to my e-mails for further questions. For those of you who do not know what all this is about, the following story is very interesting. I might add that Jim is not one accept spin lightly. He once walked out of an interview with the White House political director after just a couple of minutes saying, something like "this is just baloney (he used a different word). What you are saying is totally useless." This has become mark of fame in the press corps:

The Story:


Airwaves Battle on Air Force One

By Ken Herman | Thursday, April 27, 2006, 03:21 PM

The controversy du jour aboard Air Force One today was one near and dear to the hearts of many otherwise happy couples: Command and control of the TV tuner.

"It's come to my attention that there's been requests - this is a serious question - to turn these TVs on to a station other than Fox, and that those have been denied," Washington Post reporter Jim VandeHei told Press Secretary Scott McClellan. "My question would be, is there a White House policy that all government TVs have to be tuned to Fox?"

"Never heard of any such thing," said McClellan, soon to be replaced by Tony Snow of Fox News, long viewed as an operation that enjoys most favored network status in the Bush White House.

"My TVs are on all four different channels at all times," McClellan said of the four-screen array across from his West Wing desk.

He also noted that every White House television has split-screen capability.

"Well," said VandeHei, "they always seem to be tuned to Fox."

He went on.

"And these are paid for by taxpayer dollars. And my understanding is that you guys have to watch Fox on Air Force One. Is that true?"

No way, said McClellan.

"First time I've ever heard of it," he said. "First time you've brought it to my attention, meaning the first time the press corps has brought it to my attention. In fact, I've watched other channels on here."

Despite McClellan's TV options, the record will show that - other than when the movie of reporters' choice is showing (and that frequently invites a gender-based battle over what to watch), Fox is showing on the screens in the press cabin of Air Force One.

As McClellan and VandeHei talked TV channels, Agence France Presse photographer Tim Sloan volunteered that he was the one who raised the issue.

"I was the Fox victim," he said, "and I was told, the quote was, 'No,' when I asked for CNN. I was told, 'We don't watch CNN here. You can only watch Fox.'"

Asked who told him that, Sloan said "the magic people at the other end of the phone" in the press cabin.

McClellan said he found the issue "quite amusing, to tell you the truth."

"I mean there are a lot of people on this plane that do watch that channel," he said of CNN. "First time you brought it to my attention. I'll go see what we can do on it."

Moments later, after a quick trip up front, McClellan came back with the update.

"We just called up. They're going to be changing it, at your all's request, to the channel that you requested, which is CNN," he said.


Los Angeles, Calif.: About "leaks":

Distorted and false information provided unofficially by the White House to the press has sabotaged the credibility of the WH and the press in the eyes of the public.

More and more people are turning to analytical blogs for credible information.

If the WH is aware of the damage this practice has caused to their credibility and that of the mainstream media, what are they doing about it?

Tom Edsall: I don't think the White House stays awake nights worrying about the credibility of the mainstream media. Just the opposite: during campaigns, considerable energy has been invested there in undermining the mainstream media's credibility. Poll data suggests that the White House is now having serious problems retaining credibility with the public. They will lose sleep over this. The media, left right and center, views this development with absolute neutrality, of course.


Charles Town, W.Va.: RE: Gas Prices. I don't feel to bad for Bush and the Congressional Republican leadership taking heat for something they have little control over. The fact is, come election time the price of gas will have dropped right along with the demand for it and I'm sure they'll take credit for this fundamental economic principle.

My question is this - how responsible is the Republican leadership, after having a lock on the government for the past five years, for the current situation?

Tom Edsall: What is interesting is the change in Republican policy, if not ideology. In the past the emphasis has been on opening new areas to drilling (Alaska, etc.), energy tax subsidies and deregulation of the energy industry. Now, the Congress and administration are talking about fuel efficiency standards and opening tough investigations into oil and gas pricing. Disregarding the question of which approach is more effective, or whether there in another approach altogether that should be taken, the administration has begun to sound more and more like the administration that took office 30 years ago: Jimmy Carter.


Pittsburgh, Pa.: Hi Tom Edsall, thanks for taking questions. Speaking of spin and baloney, the AP article posted in your paper today on the growth of GDP says that the recent spate of good economic news has not helped Mr. Bush's poll numbers. When the new press secretary begins to spin the GDP numbers to the White House press corps, I hope someone will point out the following: In the five years between March 2001 and February 2006, the Bush economic policies have produced 1.3 million new private-sector jobs. In the five years between March 1993 and February 1998 (the equivalent period in the last administration), the economy produced 14.0 million new private-sector jobs. My question for the administration would be, why should Americans feel good about the economy when job growth is so weak? Granted the stock market and corporate profits are strong (especially in certain sectors), but very little of the benefit seems to be feeding down to the average wage earner. P.S.-- regarding the lack of interest in the lobbying scandal, do you think the citizenry will start paying more attention when hookers are involved?

Tom Edsall: I'm no expert in economics, but from what I have read, I think your points are very well taken. The economic gains have not trickled down, both in terms of new jobs and in terms of higher average wages. This is probably a major reason why the public remains so pessimistic in its outlook: for many, the real world remains a hard scrabble.

On your second point. I think the hookers angle (this involves some reports that Duke Cunningham may have been involved with poker and hooker nights in a downtown hotel suite that included other appointed and elected officials) has the potential to make the scandal issue nuclear, and easily understood by voters.


Boston, Mass.: Uh oh! It looks like the Post is getting scooped on the latest developments in the sordid Cunningham scandal. This is starting to resemble British politics! The San Diego Union-Tribune and the Wall Street Journal are reporting that the hospitality suites hired by Brent Wilkes for Cunningham's play involved prostitutes. The blogosphere is going crazy with rumors that Porter Goss may be involved (in part because of the Wilkes-Foggo-Goss connection). One thing that jumped out at me was that the limo service Wilkes used, Shirlington Limousine, got a $21 million contract from Homeland Security. Are Charles Babcock or others on this? How explosive could this be?

Tom Edsall: I agree with you that we are now behind the curve. Hopefully, we will catch up and advance the story.


Albany, N.Y.: What do you think of these silly photos of Rep. Sweeney (R-NY) at a college frat party? Will it affect his race? I heard that he hasn't even decided if he's running.

Tom Edsall: He does look pretty foolish in the pics, although initial speculation and one of the young men in the background was smoking a joint have been pretty well disputed by enlargements showing that it was a filter cigarette held in the cupped manner some folks use when smoking dope.


Margate, N.J.: Dear Tom,

"The media, left right and center, views this development with absolute neutrality, of course."

I'm going to be really cranky here and single you out unfairly using the term "media" as if it's a singular noun. Technically, you media people should know, you should have written "the media . . . view . . . ." OK, now I'm going to back off and ask, are we at the point where we should just accept "media" as singular instead of plural?

Tom Edsall: You are right, I am wrong. But we may have come to a time when common usage outweighs proper usage.


Chantilly, Va.: So the Fox/CNN on Air Force One flap exposed everyone's biases- the administration is right of center, and watches a right of center cable channel; Jim VandeHei is left of center, and watches a left of center cable channel. Am I supposed to muster surprise? Shock? Outrage? 'Cause I'm just not feeling it.

Tom Edsall: Jim was not asking to watch CNN. I think that was McClellan's interjection to make it look like the media wanted to watch the 'liberal' channel. In fact, some of the folks on the plane wanted to watch ESPN.

Jim's e-mailed response:

"My issue, again, was with being forced to watch one network especially one most white house aides I talk to consider the most favorable in terms of its coverage of bush. I would raise the same issue if it appeared there was policy mandating CNN viewing."

Jim VandeHei


Bedford, Mass.: Every day we hear more and more about the possibility that Bush's war plan includes Iran. If Bush was to do this, after what has happened in Iraq, how would he possibly hope to gain any support?

Tom Edsall: One theory, not necessarily true, is that military action always results in a boost in public support for an administration. Clearly it does not work when it fails, as in Jimmy Carter's attempt to take back the Iranian hostages. Politically, if bombing is designed to boost poll numbers, look for it to happen in mid-October, leaving very little time before the November election for the operation to be perceived as a failure (It could, of course, be a success).


Louisville, Ky.: Jim Vandehei no-showed? Shoot. I wanted to ask him what it's like to be the focus of a news story.

Tom Edsall: Jim claims he wants to stay out of the limelight, but I think, in fact I would bet the mortgage, that he takes great pleasure in it.


Atlanta, Ga.: How can we determine whether elections are successfully localized or nationalized?

Tom Edsall: when national poll data begins to make real distinctions between the parties on key, salient issues. This has already begun to happen on the lobbying question, for example.


Washington, D.C.: Should it really surprise us that the White House Press Corps prefers CNN over Fox - even though Fox trounces CNN in the ratings?

Isn't this just more evidence that the White House Press Corps is out of touch with America?

Tom Edsall: To repeat: there was no request for CNN by the press. The question was whether the White House had a policy requiring TV's to be tuned to FOX. Maybe some reporters wanted to watch Desperate Housewives or the Playboy channel. The CNN angle is a canard injected by Scott McClellan to put down the press.


Austin, Tex.: Tom,

While I understand your theory about bombing Iran in mid-October to boost poll ratings before November elections is just a theory, but it makes me literally sick to my stomach. Would Congress actually give Bush the authority to do something so foolish?

Thanks for taking questions - I'm addicted!

Tom Edsall: The White House has made clear its belief in the President's authority to act when he believes the security of the country is threatened. I am not sure how Bush would deal with Congress in the event he decided to try to take out Iran's nuclear facilities.


Boston, Mass.: It's considered proper English to use the singular with collective nouns when the nouns are used as a single unit or the members are acting in unison. "The flock of herons was rising gracefully into the sky as Brent turned to Maria..."

or "The media blindly follows the most salacious story of the minute."

When the members are acting as individuals, use the plural. "The media sometimes make terrible mistakes, but more often shine the light of truth on the back alleys of power."

Tom Edsall: Thank you very much for clarifying this matter. I ain't no grammarian and welcome correction, especially from a Bostonian.


Washington, D.C.: Jon Stewart had a great bit last night on the now completed "merger of Fox news and the White House." Tom, do you think Roger Ailes will now have a satellite office in the West Wing (if he doesn't already)?

Tom Edsall: Once my colleague Dana Milbank was taken to task for describing FOX as a "conservative" network. FOX wanted a correction. Dana replied, as I recall, that he would do the correction if FOX would run corrections for every time the network referred to the "liberal" Washington Post. Dana ran a Lexis-Nexis check to see how often FOX had done so. The dispute came to an abrupt end.


New York, N.Y.: If Jim wants to watch CNN, why doesn't he get his own TV - then he can watch left-wing channels to his heart's content. How selfish of him to demand that some else's TVs be tuned to the channel he wants.

Tom Edsall: Jim is, I hate to say this, one of the best reporters in Washington. No one who knows him would call him a liberal or left winger. The implication of your question is dead wrong.


Washington, D.C.: Hi Jim,

Thanks for doing these chats.

On the new $100 rebate that the Republicans are offering in exchange for drilling in ANWR, Won't the cost of printing mailing and shipping the millions of checks out to the public cost almost as much as the rebate itself? And in a time when people are already complaining about Budget busting isn't this just nationwide pork?

Tom Edsall: You do pose a very interesting question: what would the cost of each $100 check be to the government?


Charlottesville, Va.: "I welcome corrections"

You'll never make WH press secretary with that attitude.

Tom Edsall: You have crushed my life-long ambition. Perhaps Dana Milbank, or Jim VandeHei, would be better for the job.


Kingston, Ontario: Does Gonzales have the power to end Fitzgerald's investigation? If so, why hasn't the President told him to do it?


Tom Edsall: When and if that happens, look for a repeat of what happened when President Nixon ordered the firing of the Watergate special prosecutor. Such a move would be a political disaster.

With this, I have to go. The questions were very good. I hope you hammer Dana and Jim viciously. And I look forward to returning soon.


Editor's Note: 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. is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company