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White House Talk

Dan Froomkin
White House Briefing Columnist
Wednesday, December 6, 2006 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, Dec. 6, at 1 p.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.

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Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House Talk. The word of the day is: Bipartisan. But will President Bush heed the bipartisan Iraq Study Group -- and, potentially, unite a terribly divided country behind a dramatically different approach to the war in Iraq? My column today suggests that as long as Vice President Cheney and political guru Karl Rove are still Bush's chief counselors -- and as far as I know, they still are -- then the answer is probably not. But we'll see. It's an exciting news day, that's for sure.

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New Hampshire: Hi Dan and thanks for the opportunity to chat with you. I love your work and am grateful for your insight.

The ISG presser seems to have shocked many in the media. Do you think they may finally change their tune now and start asking the tough questions and stop parroting the White House line?

Dan Froomkin: Thanks so much. Shocked? I'm not sure I'd agree. But there is now finally a counterweight to the White House, which until recently has had enormous influence in defining the debate. That was already starting to erode a bit. (Think "civil war".) But this unanimous, pretty august group stands as an impressive case in point that thinking the White House has got Iraq all wrong doesn't necessarily make you "shrill."

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Boulder, Colo.: We haven't seen much of Dick Cheney in recent weeks. Do you think he still has influence over the President and what kind of a reaction to you think he might have to the ISG.

Dan Froomkin: That's a great question. I'd like to see the White House press corps focus a bit on who Bush is listening to these days. Is it Cheney? Is it Rove? If not, who is it? Bush may or may not be the Decider, but nobody really thinks he's the Deviser. So who's Devising?

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Arlington, Va.: Hi Dan,

Do you agree that Bush most likely knew in advance that Gates would say we are not winning in Iraq? What do you think that means on whether a radical turnabout might be on the horizon? There's little risk: bush's poll numbers can't get much worse, and his legacy if Iraq continues at this pace will be as the man who did years of damage to the GOP.

Dan Froomkin: I don't know. Whether Gates reflects Bush's new thinking, or is just out there to create the appearance of realism, is one of the many great mysteries right now.

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Weymouth, Mass.: This may be a niggling matter, given the momentous news of the day, but the President continues to use the baiting term "Democrat Party", even this morning, while purporting to be striving for bipartisanship. Can someone tell him that campaign mode can and should be turned off now? For me, a member of the Democratic Party, it cuts the knees out from any bipartisan overtures.

Dan Froomkin: Yep, I noticed that myself -- and noted it in my column. I also noted that the White House press office transcript covered up that particular transgression. For those of you late to this particular issue, Ruth Marcus wrote about it at some length a few weeks ago in her Washington Post opinion column: "If he wanted to, President Bush could change the tone in Washington with a single syllable: He could just say 'ic.'" Yes, on the one hand, this is trivial linguistic bickering, but I would argue that word choice can sometimes be quite revelatory. Case in point: Civil war.

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Yonkers, N.Y.: Dan, sometimes you make me believe that there's light at the end of this tunnel. Then I come back to reality.

Isn't there an established pattern by the media in finding flexibility in Bush, time after time, which just isn't there? Remember how he was going to rule from the center after his 'victory' in 2000? Remember how he was going to appoint moderates to the Sup Ct, or announce troop withdrawals just before the '04 election? How sure can we really be that he's going to implement the ISG proposals, or something like them, and if he doesn't, is there a chance that his own party might mutiny?

Also, its a little thing, but its comically hypocritical that even when he's mouthing the words "bipartisanship" and "cooperation", Bush still uses the McCarthyite slur "Democrat party."

Dan Froomkin: Well, thanks -- although that description makes it sound like I'm responsible for your serial disappointment. Your central point is excellent. Pretty much every time in the past Bush has spoken about acting in a bipartisan manner, he hasn't. You can look at this current situation one of two ways. Either: 1) But circumstances are really different this time! or; 2) We will get fooled again. And finally... that "Democrat Party" thing really does seem to stick in a lot of craws...

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Silver Spring, Md.: Maybe if James Baker had stayed out of Florida during the 2000 election he wouldn't be writing the words "The situation in Iraq is grave and deteriorating. There is no path that can guarantee success . . . ."

Dan Froomkin: What goes around, comes around....

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Montreal, Canada: You've written a lot about the President's credibility issues, but it's no longer an issue. The Rumsfeld firing showed that the man is not credible and will tell untruths for political reasons. He said so himself. With things like the ISG report, what he says is now irrelevant, because he may well be lying.

This must be maddening for WH reporters. How do they deal with the simple fact that the President is not a credible source of information?

Dan Froomkin: I continue to think that the credibility issue is central to this presidency, and to covering this presidency. I simply cannot get over the fact that day in and day out, reporters seem to "forget" that a) Bush often says things that simply aren't so and b) a majority of Americans no longer find him honest or trustworthy. Day in day out (with some notable exceptions) they report what he says on face value. I used to say that if I could ask Bush one question, it would be: "How do you define torture?" But I think now maybe it would be: "Why should we believe you?" See, for background, my Feb. 3 column: It's the Credibility, Stupid.

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West Coast: Any idea why Gates skated so easily?

Dan Froomkin: Yeah: He wasn't Rumsfeld. (See Dana Milbank in today's Post.) That said, I'm stunned. One day of hearings? There are an awful lot more questions that the next defense secretary should be addressing publicly. ( Winslow Wheeler had a slew of them over on NiemanWatchdog.org.) What about torture? What about Guantanamo? This does not bode well for the "new era" of oversight.

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Austin, Tex.: Dan, thanks for taking questions today. I think this is the money quote in your column today.

Bill Plante reports for CBS News that "this president may not be in much of a hurry to accept Baker's ideas about that -- or much else. Asked if Baker would help implement the report, a spokesman for Mr. Bush said, 'Jim Baker can go back to his day job.'"

I am as pessimistic as you are that anything will change, but the publicity blitz around this report is remarkable. Have you ever seen anything like this? How can Bush ignore it?

Dan Froomkin: That was pretty telling, wasn't it. The publicity blitz is amazing, indeed. But that's the culture these days. We get all worked up about all sorts of things. I don't think Bush can ignore it. I think he's hoping that in a few days or weeks, the buzz has calmed, and he can regain control over the discourse. I'm just not sure he's right. The buzz over this particular report may calm, but the level of outrage and grief and frustration with our current Iraqi policy is going nowhere but up, until he does some serious course correction.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: How ready do you think the White House really is for the inevitable investigations and subpoenas the administration will face when the new do-something Congress is seated? As the wife of an Army officer who has just been recalled to active duty, I expect to be glued to C-Span. Who do you think will be the most effective committee chairmen when it comes to oversight? Thanks as always for taking questions?

Dan Froomkin: I was deeply intrigued by this paragraph in a Newsmax.com story by Ronald Kessler, a former Post reporter turned Bush acolyte: "While the White House knows Democrats will be launching investigations, a mechanism has been set up to deal with them without allowing staff to become consumed by these events." Whatever sort of mechanism could that be? (Other than a very large brick wall?) As for oversight, generally speaking, I'm betting on Henry Waxman.

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Alexandria, Va.: Are you watching the current WH press briefing? Do you get the sense that David Gregory goes in not to ask a question but to get into a debate with Tony Snow? It seems very showy and pointless.

Dan Froomkin: I have the typical print-reporter's bias against (preening, overpaid) television types, generally speaking. That said, even though I recognize the self-serving nature, I often admire Gregory's persistence. He alone these days tells Snow things like "You're not answering my question" when, indeed, Snow rarely answers anyone's question. My beef with Gregory is that his alleged skepticism rarely if ever makes its way into the reports he files for his network's evening news show. What's up with that?

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San Francisco, Calif.: Will reporters get an opportunity to ask President Bush and Prime Minister Blair any questions when Blair visits tomorrow? Seems like there's lotsa things needing to be asked: spy poisoning, leaked memos, troop drawdowns, the Queen's visit in the Spring.

Dan Froomkin: It would be a huge violation of protocol, shattering of precedent, and sign of enormous weakness if there were not a joint press conference after their meeting tomorrow. None is on the official schedule as of now, but I'm quite sure that will change. Bush and Blair may, however, find common ground in wanting to make it a short one.

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RE: Kinsley's column on the Bush twins: I'm hesitant to "defend" the Bush twins, because I don't know that I necessarily approve of what they're doing, but it seems patently unfair to hold them "responsible" for the "sins" of their father. To me, that is one of the most undemocratic things one could say. This country does _not_ have an aristocracy. The entire point of this country is that one is not beholden to one's last name. I know that is not always the case (see Presidents G.H.W. Bush and G.W. Bush), but it can happen (see President Clinton) and is important to how this country developed and continues to develop.

I don't know that I have a question, so much as I just thought that Kinsley's column was in particular poor taste and _very_ undemocratic. You included it in Tuesday's Briefing without comment. Your reaction?

Dan Froomkin: Here's that Michael Kinsley column you're referring to. I also linked last week to a blog post by former White House correspondent Saul Friedman in which he encouraged reporters to ask Bush why the twins aren't doing anything to help the war effort. I agree with you that they aren't responsible for the "sins" of their father. And yet I do think that, for better or worse, a president's family reflects upon the president. And I think it's legitimate to wonder what their what-me-worry attitude says about how they were brought up. Finally, ask yourself: Wouldn't it be touching, graceful, and widely appreciated if the twins showed some humility about their place in life, and did something to help those who, rightly or wrongly, have been so terribly harmed by their father's actions? I just don't see the downside.

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New York, N.Y.: I think it is absurd that this "blue-ribbon" Iraq Study Group does not have a single scholar, historian, politician, who has focused his or her time on Iraqi affairs, or even Arab affairs. There is not even a single Arab person on the panel. For example, what does Sandra Day O'Connor, a constitutional scholar and judge, really know about war strategy or Iraqi society? The same is true of Vernon Jordan, who is basically a roaming corporate executive with extensive ties to D.C. Are we really going to get anywhere in Iraq if we don't ask people who have even some connection to that country, its peoples, culture and psyche?

Dan Froomkin: The membership of the group is a legitimate issue. In a lot of ways, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. And your point about the lack of cultural awareness is an excellent one. You'll find a bit more diversity in this list of the commission's working groups. For instance, I was surprised and delighted to find Chas Freeman on that list. He's president of the Middle East Policy Council. Here's a piece he wrote and a piece I wrote about him, both from NiemanWatchdog.org.

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Ellicott City, Md.: Dan-

Robert Gates. That seems to be his name except when President Bush continuously calls him "Bob". Does he go by Bob or Robert. I don't want the DoD head to have some friendly name like "Bob", just removes from the importance of the job.

Dan Froomkin: Indeed, it is Robert M. Gates. But in some ways, I find the informality sort of comforting. Just yesterday, press secretary Tony Snow referred to him as "Bob." And I don't mean "Bob Gates" -- although there was plenty of that, too. Said "Tony": "If you listen to what Bob said, what did he say?" I can't imagine him talking about "Don" or even "Donald" that way.

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Albany, N.Y.: Hi Dan. I enjoy reading your column.

There has been a lot of speculation that the administration's actions over the past couple of weeks (the leaks, Rumsfeld's resignation, the President's somewhat contradictory remarks) are all part of some grand strategy. Is it possible that there is no strategy? Is it possible that the President and his administration simply do not have the temperament to form a good defensive plan?

Dan Froomkin: That's a great question. The last time everyone thought the White House (read: Karl Rove) had some secret brilliant unifying strategy where one wasn't entirely evident was, of course, in the run-up to the mid-term elections. Turned out there was no such thing. Maybe they've just run out of steam.

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Washington, D.C.: Do people even realize how badly our reputation has been hurt internationally? We seem to have lost so much leverage all over the globe because of the current administration's lack of foresight, planning, and respect for other people's opinions. The long term costs here are enormous.

Dan Froomkin: Funny you should mention that. The Chas Freeman piece I just linked to is largely about that very topic. His argument is that we have lost a lot of international support -- and not because foreigners hate our core values but because they believe we are repudiating them. But no, I think it's safe to say that the vast majority of Americans have no idea how badly our reputation has been hurt abroad.

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Re: Re: Kinsley's column: Dan

Bush has argued the case that Iraq is the most important battle of the 21st century and that it is the central war on terror. He's said that failure is not an option.

As far as I know, not only him, but no top level staff in his administration have children fighting in Iraq.

Isn't it a fair question to ask why their children do not agree with their policy?

Dan Froomkin: Nothing wrong with asking.

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Fort Worth, Tex.: Dan: I really enjoy your column and online discussion. Regarding your observation as to Gates skating so easily through his committee hearing yesterday that "this does not bode well for the 'new era' of oversight."

The Republicans are still in charge of Congress during this lame duck session, including any committee hearings. The "new era" begins with the Dems taking control in January. I would expect that they would be loathe to start a fight now that they know they can't win.

Dan Froomkin: I understand that. Nevertheless, some Democrats could have asked more probing questions, even now, even in the limited time available. Some Republicans, too.

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Re: the Bush Twins: The downside is that they would be exposed to a national media (which I wouldn't wish on any of us), decried for "hypocrisy," criticized for being public relations "pawns" of their father, politicizing the situation, etc., etc.

When I was 25, I wanted none of that. And by all accounts, they have said from the beginning they did not want any of this. I sympathize with them that the best years of their lives were lived under the watchful eye of the Secret Service (except for the purse-snatching instance) and a "gotcha" paparazzi-mentality newsmedia.

And no, I do not know them or have any connection to the family.

Dan Froomkin: You may be right. But I think it's hard even for us cynical, nasty creatures in the press to mock genuine compassion. It'd be nice if they had some.

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Cambridge, Mass.: If Bush does not heed the advice and recommendations of the ISG, as well as many others, and continues down the current path, is there anything that either the Republicans or Democrats in Congress - whether working separately or together - can do to stop him and force a course change. What tools does the Congress have at its disposal to insure that Bush is not allowed to steer the country towards further disaster and shame? It seems by now that the need for change is obvious and the only one denying it is Bush.

Also, if Bush does in fact change his tune in the near future, do you think that the press will call him on his previous steadfastness in regards to the war. Does anyone remember the word "flip-flop"?

Dan Froomkin: Congress can't overrule the commander in chief on matters of war. But as Edward Epstein wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle today, the Democrats can, and appear prepared to, attach conditions to their budget bills that may or may not tie his hands. As for Bush changing his tune, my guess is that he will couch whatever he does in such a way as to allow him to argue that it wasn't a flip-flop.

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Richmond, Va.: I could be missing something but doesn't it seem the ISG believes there's a functioning Iraqi government? I just don't see it. Seems to me there's a bunch of harpies arguing inside the Green Zone and tribes and gangs running wild outside of it.

Given one very likely outcome of a U.S. failure in Iraq is a regional war, as the ISG acknowledged, how much can we really count on any Iraqi government to be unified and effective enough to stave this outcome off?

Would it be totally crazy to suggest we just pour money into building an all-new, pan-Iraqi, army that has serious firepower and giving the nod to a new strongman to run the place? Given he's dependant on us for arms and supplies. We can't just expect a group like this to have the elan it needs if it's armed with old Soviet slingshots.

What alternative do we really have? I'm a liberal and it's upsetting to me that I feel this is a remotely acceptable solution but what's the alternative?

Dan Froomkin: Too many questions there for me to answer, but I think you put your finger on one big problem with the ISG report. My sense is the authors, who knew full well that all is lost, had to toss Bush a bone by continuing to pretend that there is a government and that it will succeed. But the government is a joke. It barely even controls things inside the Green Zone. Interestingly, this remains a split between the Washington-based press corps and the Iraq-based press corps. The former acts like there is a government; the latter knows there isn't.

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Clayton, Calif.: Hi Dan,

So, if the Democrats do attach conditions, I would think we'd see more signing statements. Do you think that might finally force that legally questionable practice into the light and maybe kill it?

Dan Froomkin: Yes, I almost said something about how signing statements would inevitably follow. And yes, that would assuredly call more attention to the practice that, hitherto, has remained largely unexplored.

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St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada: I notice you used the word "ostensibly" with reference to the elder Bush's breakdown the other day, ostensibly referencing Jeb. I also had the inescapable feeling that the man is truly heartbroken about the elder son and the pass he has brought the world to. I sense this in some other media comments. Did your use of the word "ostensibly" also imply that hunch?

Dan Froomkin: Sorta. I don't know what it was about, but it seemed it might have been about Bush 41 himself, or Bush 43. Or it could have been a function of his regret that Jeb's loss that year dashed his presidential hopes, leaving the way open for his less accomplished brother. There are those who say the elder Bush always thought Jeb was the one deservingly bound for greatness.

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Re: The Bush Twins:"It'd be nice if they had some (compassion). "

And how do you know they don't? I have been a critic of Bush for 7 years ( I was a McCain-ite), but this is going beyond the pale. Leave the man's children alone.

Dan Froomkin: Emotions do run high on this issue.

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Washington, D.C.: Re: the Bush twins

I think it's completely fascinating how the political climate has shifted. Al Gore felt he had to go to war in Vietnam, lest he hurt his father's Senate career. And he was right - it would have been unthinkable for any son in his position not to consider that his actions reflected on his father.

Now, the daughters of the President are primarily known for clubbing, drinking, and not working. They appear in Vanity Fair photo spreads wearing expensive designer dresses - so they're definitely not afraid of all media exposure. They're also well past the age of presumptive adulthood, so it's not as if they're preteens who need privacy to grow up.

And at the same time, their father asks the same-aged children of other Americans to routinely risk their lives in Iraq for...well, why are we in Iraq now? Freedom?

It's actually pretty appalling. The Bush twins certainly aren't required to join the volunteer military, but to argue that their actions don't reflect on him is plain silly.

His children apparently either don't think the war he started is important or worth supporting, or they don't think it's important to publicly support it.

Dan Froomkin: Another party heard from on what is apparently the hottest issue of the day.

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Dan Froomkin: OK, I have to run. Thanks for all the wonderful questions and comments. Sorry I couldn't get to more of them. I leave you with this analysis by The Post's Dan Balz. I haven't had a chance to read the whole thing yet, but is starts promisingly: "The Iraq Study Group's report promises to reshape the national debate about a war that even President Bush's nominee for defense secretary says the United States is not winning, but its implementation would require the president to abandon many of the goals that have been the foundation of his second-term national security policy."

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