Post Politics Hour

Peter Baker
Washington Post White House Reporter
Tuesday, March 27, 2007; 11:00 AM

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Washington Post White House reporter Peter Baker was online Tuesday, March 27, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest news in politics.

Political analysis from Post reporters and interviews with top newsmakers. Listen live on Washington Post Radio or subscribe to a podcast of the show.

The transcript follows.


Peter Baker: Good morning, everyone. Sorry to be late. Technical difficulties, I'm afraid. And bad news this morning from the White House, where press secretary Tony Snow has cancer again. His deputy, Dana Perino, announced this morning that it has returned and spread to his liver. We have a story you can click on. Everyone in the briefing room is praying for his full recovery. On that sad note, there's lots of other political news today as well, so let's get started.

_______________________ Tests Show Snow's Cancer Has Returned (Post, March 27)


Ann Arbor, Mich.: I am just sick about the news about Tony Snow. Best wishes and prayers to him and his family. Tests Show Snow's Cancer Has Returned (AP, March 27)

Peter Baker: Tony Snow has become a popular figure among a lot of people who watch his daily briefings and a real rock star for the Bush White House at a time when they're not doing so well on the popularity scale. Republicans were clamoring for him on the fundraising circuit during the election season last year and he's regularly stopped by admirers seeking his autograph and so on. He's the first press secretary I've seen who has that kind of public persona.


Alexandria, Va.: Now that we have cancer on both sides of the aisle and we all acknowledge our humanity and mortality, is there any chance that we can all try and get along a little better?

Peter Baker: A lovely sentiment. Sadly, this is Washington, so don't hold your breath.


Tough question: Peter: How will you and other White House reporters balance your need to be tough on Tony Snow in the course of doing your job with the understandable compassion you will have for him, given the recurrence of his cancer?

Peter Baker: It's a good question and one we'll have to grapple with if/when he returns to the podium. He isn't likely to be briefing for a while, so for the moment we don't have to confront that. But I think Tony is enough of a professional that he wouldn't want reporters to go easy on him. He'd think that was insulting. And at the end of the day, we have a job to do and he has a job to do. That said, at the moment, we all hope he concentrates first on what he needs to do for his health.


Arlington, Va.: Very devastating news about Tony Snow. Liver involvement couldn't be worse news. This couldn't come at a worse time for the Bush administration either. Do you think it's going to be even tougher for them to hold the no oath/no transcript/no public hearing line given that their chief spokesman will be gone and the white liaison with the justice department is pleading the Fifth?

Peter Baker: Interesting question, not sure how to answer. My guess is their position is their position as long as they think it makes sense politically and policy-wise. But it's certainly the case that in the White House they consider Tony Snow a better advocate for their side of things than most anyone else and to the extent that he's not available to defend them, it makes it that much harder.


Washington: Assuming that Snow does not return, is there any sense of who might replace him? Is Dana Perino considered ready for prime time?

Peter Baker: No one's willing to go there at this point, everyone's hoping that he can beat it the way he did two years ago. Dana Perino, his deputy, will fill in for now. She's very capable and well liked. But Tony's got big shoes to fill if it comes to that.


Brookline, Mass.: McCain, Giuliani, Kerry in 2004 -- all have run for the Presidency despite a serious history with cancer. Why is there any wonder whether Edwards will be able to campaign and run the country? He seems to have a very together family, and through the past thirty years our medical industry has been set up to insure the prolonged use of costly but effective medical treatment. If my mom with Stage III cancer in 1991 still is around and kicking, I've a feeling Elizabeth Edwards will be around to see Cate Edwards running for President in 2032! Edwardses Reject Sympathy Votes, Defend His Decision to Stay in Race (AP, March 26)

Peter Baker: Well, I think there's a difference between having had cancer in the past and having it now. If Senator McCain or Mayor Giuliani had cancer at the moment, it would be a much bigger issue politically. Keep in mind, in fact, that Giuliani dropped out of the 2000 Senate race against Hillary Clinton when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer because he said he needed to focus on his health first. So these are tricky issues and ones that voters will evaluate through the lens of their own experiences and philosophy.


Prescott, Ariz.: What about the development in the U.S. Attorney scandal yesterday with Monica Goodling saying she is going to plead the Fifth ... because Congress might be mean to her? Is that a valid reason to plead the Fifth Amendment?

Anyway, I want to know why I keep hearing in the media (and I'm watching Charles Gibson on Imus repeat the screed as I write) say this ongoing scandal is all about a few people from the Justice Department telling Congress a few things that were incorrect? Beyond that you have a story of people who were either too hard on Republicans or too soft on Democrats getting fired, with tendrils reaching to Duke Cunningham, Abramoff, a submarined tobacco trial, possible attempts of voter suppression, and a semi-secret White House communication system (which leads into new Libby Trial questions, mainly what sorts of messages did Rove hide from Fitzgerald by using his RNC e-mail?). The sounds like the perfect reporters "storm" (well except for the lack of sex) ... why aren't you guys pumped about it?

Peter Baker: Moving on to non-health news, the decision by Attorney General Gonzales's counselor to plead the Fifth to avoid testifying before Congress sure got a lot of notice around Washington yesterday. You certainly raise a lot of issues that are now confronting the Justice Department and White House. I don't know about being pumped, but it seems to me that the paper is being pretty aggressive in trying to report out the answers to the many questions that have been raised on those subjects.


Northfield, Ill.: When was the last time, if ever, a member of the Justice Department pleaded the Fifth Amendment?

Peter Baker: Boy, I can't remember one. In the history of Washington scandal, there always seems to be precedent. But this one's pretty unusual to say the least.


Bristow, Va.: How would you defend against the argument that The Post is really overplaying this U.S. Attorney scandal? Some even say that The Post mocked Jay Stephens in an editorial when he complained in 1993 that we was being taken off the Dan Rostenkowski case for political reasons? Has he had any comment on the new story?

Peter Baker: Either we're not pumped enough or we're overplaying it. Can't win for trying. But I understand your question. A lot of people think the U.S. attorney thing has been overblown by the press and Democrats in Congress. To some degree, though, it's a situation that has been kept alive by the administration's own shifting answers -- if the attorney general says one day that he wasn't involved in "any discussions" and then the next we get email showing that he had a meeting on the issue, that raises legitimate questions. As for the comparison to President Clinton, that strikes me as apples and oranges. When Presidents Reagan, Clinton and, yes, Bush came to office, they replaced all or nearly all of the U.S. attorneys appointed by their predecessors. That's been considered normal and there was no uproar when President Bush did that in 2001. What's at issue here is the singling out of eight specific U.S. attorneys in the middle of a presidency, which is more unusual, and the circumstances behind them. As for the editorial you reference, we keep a strong wall between the news and editorial sides.


Seattle: Didn't John McCain have a melanoma growth removed during the 2000 campaign? I seem to remember him giving speeches with bandages on his face. I don't recall cancer being too much of an issue back then.

Peter Baker: It might be better to get our crackerjack medical correspondent, Dr. David Brown, on here. But as a non-expert, I think there's a difference between a melanoma growth and the sort of cancer Elizabeth Edwards has (or for that matter, Tony Snow). Having said that, Senator McCain's health and age very well could be a significant factor he has to confront in this campaign. If elected, he would be 72 years old when inaugurated, making him older than Ronald Reagan and every other president in American history. He tries to address any concerns about that with a vigorous personal performance.


McLean, Va.: Has Jim Webb returned to the District to rescue his aide from the clutches of Washington's (now unconstitutional) gun ban? And will this latest incident only add pressure on Congress to correct the D.C. Council's usurpation of the Second Amendment?

Peter Baker: Good question, I'm not sure where Senator Webb is today. We certainly would like to hear him comment on this situation, but he has refused so far to speak to reporters about it. As for any broader ramifications, I don't see any indications that this would change anyone's mind about gun rights or gun control. Most members of Congress are pretty firmly set in their beliefs on such subjects by the time they're elected.


Pacific Northwest: Hi Peter -- Is there any chance that the Senate or House Judiciary committees will grant Monica Goodling immunity from prosecution, thus forcing her to testify? And is there any other way to force her to testify? Thanks.

Peter Baker: It's a good question and I don't know the answer. That certainly seems to be the most efficient way of getting her testimony, but I'm not clear whether members of Congress would feel that's a precedent they want to set in this case or whether her lawyer would feel their immunity would adequately protect her. We'll have to explore those questions. Thanks for asking.


Baltimore: Re: The role of the press (and newspapers specifically) -- I recently watched the epic, four-part PBS Frontline series about the role of today's press in politics and I wonder what you say to the assertion made in that series that one researcher found that something like 80 percent of national news was broken by newspapers (as opposed to broadcast or online reporters)? Have you seen it? What do you think of that show? Upcoming Discussion -- PBS Frontline: 'News War: Stories From a Small Planet' (, Wednesday at 11 a.m. ET)

Peter Baker: I haven't seen it, I'm afraid, but have heard good things about it. In general, I think it's fair to say that national newspapers over the years have had the resources, commitment and tradition of breaking important stories that other news outlets have not always been able to break. What's worrisome in this day and age is whether that will continue when you have companies like Tribune and McClatchy and all the others slashing budgets, laying off employees and so on. The sort of tough, revealing, investigative journalism that you're talking about requires resources but too many newspaper owners think they can just make a profit without having to spend that sort of money. Fortunately, the Post, the New York Times and a few others continue to be dedicated to that sort of journalism but everyone feels the pressure of an industry that's changing dramatically.


Alexandria, Va.: Sir: After reading Washington Post reporters (Gearan and Kessler) give readers updates on the "Condiplomacy" efforts in the Middle East, do you think she finally will get any credit of making deals? Will the Secretary have future success with her "shuttle diplomacy" to bring long-lasting peace to the Middle East? Will this be her "George Marshall/Dean Acheson" legacy? Rice: Mideast Leaders Agree to Biweekly Meetings (Post, March 27)

Peter Baker: Predictions are dangerous, so I won't make any. But I think even Secretary Rice's advisers recognize that making a genuine breakthrough in the Middle East is a tough, tough proposition. She's making a go of it at the moment and we'll have to see if she can succeed where others have failed. But given the situation on the ground, with Prime Minister Olmert so weak and President Abbas in bed with Hamas and Iraq so volatile, there's a lot working against the sort of success she's seeking.


Anonymous: What is with every politician trying to make a bigger name for themselves by trying to get into stuff they don't belong in? Major League Baseball is one topic that every frickin' government person wants to work with (i.e.: steroid situation); in another area newspaper I read that Sen. Kerry wants to attack DirecTV. Why? Why don't you do all of us Dems a favor and just shut up? You already cost us everything. Kerry Laments Baseball TV Package Deal (AP, March 26)

Peter Baker: Ouch. Of course, as you indicate, Senator Kerry isn't the only politician who gets interested in sports issues like that. They're high profile and they involve a lot of voters who may not pay attention to other issues. In some cases it may be grandstanding, but lawmakers rightly or wrongly get involved in all sorts of issues in American society, so should sports be immune?


Vermonter: Re: McClean's comments about Webb's aide: I don't think Webb's aide was arrested for violating the D.C. laws against handguns, but for violating federal laws governing Capitol Hill security. Whatever our views about the Second Amendment I don't think anyone would be in favor of permitting anybody with a concealed weapon to wander through the halls of Congress.

Peter Baker: Well, it's not my story, but reading the account in our paper this morning, it does look like he's charged with violating D.C. law. The story says he was charged with carrying a pistol without a license and possessing an unregistered firearm and unregistered ammunition and will appear in D.C. Superior Court. As for concealed weapons in Congress, well, that sure would change the filibuster rule, now wouldn't it?


Dale City, Va.: Can the fifth amendment be invoked if you just don't want to answer questions, or must there be some real legal danger to you in order to allow it to be used?

Peter Baker: Again, I'm no lawyer, but my understanding is you have to have reason to believe that your testimony could serve to incriminate you. Now, how you apply that standard is an interesting question, since you're the one invoking the privilege and you won't say what it is you think might incriminate you.


Raleigh, N.C.: Given that last Friday's document dump has rendered yet more of Gonzales' previous statements inoperative (yeah, I'm old-school), might this be the straw that breaks the camel's back? Further, my belief is that the proper remedy is for Congress to impeach and convict him. How long would that process take if a large portions of Republicans agree that it's time for him to go and don't set up many roadblocks?

Peter Baker: It's certainly another blow for the attorney general and if he were not a close friend of the president, or if this were a different president, he might be gone by now. But keep in mind that Al Gonzales is an old friend and confidant of President Bush's and that the president has faith in him and is traditionally loath to dump loyal advisers under pressure from the outside. As for impeachment, the House can proceed against a cabinet officer if it feels there is evidence of "high crimes or misdemeanors." There doesn't seem to be much stomach for that in this case at this point.


Chicago: Do you see the Feb. 5 super-duper primary as possibly increasing the possibility of a brokered convention?

Peter Baker: I've heard some smart political folks suggest that possibility, but it's been a long time since a nomination was genuinely decided at a convention and all the modern dynamics of presidential politics work against such an outcome.


Falls Church, Va.: Local Senator's aide brings gun to capitol, says he was keeping it for Senator, and Senator fails to corroborate his account. And this story is buried on the bottom half of the Metro section? What is the news judgment behind that decision? Webb Aide Tried To Take Gun Into Senate Building, Capitol Police Say (Post, March 27)

Peter Baker: Well, I don't make play decisions. I thought it was an interesting story and it seemed to get a lot of attention where it was in the paper. My guess is the feeling was that so far as we know it was inadvertent and it was an aide. If it were the senator himself carrying it in, there would be a different decision to make on play.


Rockville, Md.:"A melanoma growth" -- for many it is a terminal condition. We are doing better, but the odds are not good. Other skin cancers are much easier to control. I have worked in medical libraries as a medical librarian for over 30 years.

Peter Baker: Thanks for passing this along.


Peter Baker: Note to readers: Jim Webb is on television right now discussing the arrest. Check out CNN.


re: Webb and gun control: Vermonter raises an interesting question: I've always thought the line between Capitol police and D.C. police was blurry -- try asking a Capitol policeman for help if you're at Union Station. But how about guns on the Hill? Whose jurisdiction is that? Especially as you have to go through D.C. to get to the Hill.

Peter Baker: Senator Webb said his aide was a trusted person but did not want to comment on a legal matter specifically because he did not want to prejudice the case. He noted that he is a longtime supporter of the Second Amendment and defended his own need to carry a concealed weapon, for which he has a permit in Virginia. "It's important for me personally ... that I be able to defend myself and my family," he said, something that became more important for public figures, he added, after Sept. 11, 2001. Asked by a reporter if he feels he's above D.C. gun laws, he said he would not comment on how he provides for his own security.

With that, time's up and I need to run. Thanks for all the comments and questions today.




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