Post Politics Hour

Peter Baker
Washington Post White House Reporter
Thursday, August 23, 2007; 11:00 AM

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Washington Post White House reporter Peter Baker was online Thursday, Aug. 23 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest in political news.

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The transcript follows.

Archive: Post Politics Hour discussion transcripts


Peter Baker: Good morning, everyone. Sorry we're switching around writers. With various holiday and other schedule conflicts, we're rearranging to keep up. But even though it's the dog days of August, there seems to be plenty of politics to chat about -- the president is defending his Iraq strategy by pointing to Vietnam, the Democrats are attacking his strategy even as they're conceding that it's working in some ways, and everyone's trying to figure out what happens next. So let's get started.


Fairfax, Va.: By raising the specter of the loss of Vietnam and tying it to the situation in Iraq, isn't Bush risking further polarizing the country? Bush Compares Iraq to Vietnam (Post, Aug. 23)

Peter Baker: It's certainly a risk, but it's pretty polarized already. Up until now, the president has tried hard to avoid using the words "Vietnam" and "Iraq" in the same sentence -- not a good association. But the White House figures that since everyone else is comparing the two anyway, and not to his benefit, it might as well pull out the lessons it draws from that experience to argue for his policies.


Washington: Hi Peter. I'm a long-time fan. I have a question, though, about the coverage of the latest Bush speech. Bush's likening of Iraq to Vietnam really called for some analysis and context by The Post, but instead all we got was quotes. Bush says this. Dems say that. End of story. How is that even remotely acceptable? Don't you people understand that what we come to for is something more than that? And that we'll go elsewhere if we don't find it?

Peter Baker: Well, I think my colleague Mike Fletcher put a lot of context in his story this morning, but he's also a straight-shooter who wants to lay out the arguments and let readers decide. One thing about Vietnam is that most people, at least of a certain age, have definite opinions about it and how it does or does not relate to Iraq. But fear not, I'm sure you will see plenty of analysis and commentary on this in the Post in the days to come.


Where's Jonathan?: Peter, why is Jonathan Weisman not answering chats online these days? Is he in some kind of doghouse in your news room, or is he on vacation?

Peter Baker: Jonathan is a superstar and never would be in any doghouse, believe me. He works harder than 10 ordinary reporters and is 10 times smarter besides. He's also gracious enough to trade with me because I'll be on vacation next week. So unless I've confused the schedule again, look for him next Tuesday.


Scottsdale, Ariz.: The only lesson Bush should have drawn from the Vietnam war is that invading and occupying a country you know nothing about is a bad idea. As the widow of a Vietnam veteran, I deeply resent Bush, who opted out of the Vietnam War, now saying we (meaning they) should have stayed even longer, and lost more than the 58,000-plus soldiers who died in battle and others who died of after-effects. My advice: When you're in an unwinnable situation you should not let ego take over reason.

Peter Baker: Lots of comments rather than questions regarding the president's Vietnam-Iraq comparison, so let's post a few to get the discussion going. Thanks for your thoughts.


Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: So Iraq is Vietnam, 'eh? That war started with a bright, shining lie, too (thanks for Neil Sheehan's book). As a draftee from that glorious failure, should I get my duffel ready for this never-ending conflict or, at 55, am I safe from recall? Before you answer, I know of local Air Force pilots in their 50s and 60s who have been recalled, mainly to fly KC-135s and KC-10s for refueling missions. It appears the sins of the sons are visited upon the fathers. Perhaps Exodus can offer us some other insights in making our own overdue exit from a land in which we do not belong nor can keep the peace. In that respect, Bush was right -- it is Vietnam all over again. Thanks much.

Peter Baker: Here's another one. Thanks for weighing in.


Iowa: As a reader who participated in the Vietnam Peace marches in the 1970s, I can't imagine why the President thinks it will strengthen his Iraq cause to evoke memories of those painful years. If this is the best rationale he can come up with at this point, heaven help us all.

Peter Baker: And another. Thanks for participating.


New Carrollton, Md.: One problem with President Bush's comparison of Iraq to Vietnam is his historical inaccuracy. The feared bloodbath never occurred in Vietnam despite the fear mongering from President Nixon. And our troops were not in Kampuchea, except in April/May 1970, so that had no effect upon the Khmer Rouge. Will this be followed up by you and your colleagues?

Peter Baker: As we were just saying, I'm positive we'll see lots of discussion about this in the paper in the days to come.


New York: Do you ever feel that you are operating under a cloud of cognitive dissonance? Your first article this week discussed the preposterous self-elusion/self-grandeur of the president, who views himself as a dissident. His embrace of nations just barely democratic (Eastern Europe and ex-Soviet states) has more to do with his reception in those places than ideology. Face it, they are the only places in the world where he is welcome. So he doesn't need to fund his "ideals," he just needs some footage of people applauding him. Then a day later you are writing about the White House manual that sets out guidelines for undermining our own democratic ideals of free speech and the right of free assembly when he appears in the U.S. -- there's a contradiction a mile wide in these positions. As Democracy Push Falters, Bush Feels Like a 'Dissident' (Post, Aug. 20)

Peter Baker: Thanks for the post. Having lived overseas during President Bush's first term, it's certainly true that some of the administration's actions at home have -- rightly or wrongly -- undermined the credibility or effectiveness of its own message promoting democracy abroad. Foreign autocrats in places such as Russia, where I lived, point to policies in the United States as justification for their repression. Of course there's no real comparison between the White House manual on protesters and the sort of crackdown on opposition that's been happening in Russia in the past few years, but one has provided ammunition for the other.


Washington: This is the first election in quite a while where neither the sitting president nor his vice president is in the running for the White House. At what point does the president actually back a candidate? Does he wait until after the primaries, or does he throw his weight behind someone beforehand? What's the historical standard?

Peter Baker: You're absolutely right about that, it's basically an unprecedented situation in our lifetimes. It's been 80 years since we had a presidential election in which neither incumbent president nor vice president was running, so there's not a lot of experience with this in modern times. President Bush has made clear he does not plan to endorse anyone in the primaries and will wait until a nominee emerges. That's not unusual -- even President Reagan didn't endorse his own vice president, George H.W. Bush, until after he won the nomination. But in that case, it was a barely disguised fiction, as everyone assumed Reagan wanted the elder Bush to succeed him. In this instance it's not at all clear who the younger Bush would favor.

_______________________ White House On Sidelines In 2008 Contest (Post, Feb. 9)


Silver Spring, Md.: Mr. Baker, great story yesterday on the Advance Book. I am now wondering what benefits accrue to a Rally Squad -- do you have any idea? T-shirts? Extra hot dogs? On another note, it seems that both sides of the Iraq debate have staked out their positions in advance of Gen. Petraeus's report next month -- leaving them no room to actually react to the contents of the report. Are there any solid middle-of-the-roaders left in this debate? Will anyone actually be listening when the General testifies? White House Manual Details How to Deal With Protesters (Post, Aug. 22)

Peter Baker: Thanks for that. The White House manual on how to organize crowds at presidential events -- and avoid protesters being seen by the president or the media -- certainly was interesting. Don't know if any of the "rally squads" assigned to block any demonstrators get any freebies.

As for the Petraeus report, you're certainly right, most members of Congress already have their minds made up on this question without waiting for the report. At the same time, I do believe there are some key people on the Hill who are genuinely torn and trying to figure out the best way forward. Some of the Democrats, even, who have come back from visiting Iraq recently have softened their opposition and conceded that there has been some progress on the security side. Probably more important to watch, though, are the Republicans -- will they stick with Bush? As recently as last month, they seemed incredibly restive and seemed to be warning that they would not wait past September. Will the latest trickle of cautious optimism calm them down and convince them to stay with Bush again?


Arlington, Va.: Peter, I notice the White House has declared itself not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, but what about the rest of us? Any chance Sen. Leahy's efforts to overhaul FOIA actually will get somewhere? White House Declares Office Off-Limits (Post, Aug. 23)

Peter Baker: This was a fascinating story by my colleague, Dan Eggen. The White House is arguing that the Office of Administration within it is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act -- even though it says on the White House Web site that the office is subject to FOIA, it routinely has responded to FOIA requests and even has its own FOIA officer charged with processing those requests. It's sort of head-spinning. The administration is now saying that, well, even if it complied with FOIA in the past, it doesn't mean it has to anymore.


Westminster, Md.: Hello Peter. I am hearing that the White House or one of their political affiliates is about to roll out an advertising campaign to coincide with the Petraeus reports to Congress. The ads are to have wounded Iraq veterans imploring Americans to support the president and the war or their injuries will have been meaningless. Any truth to this? Left, Right Proxies Push on Iraq (Post, Aug. 23)

Peter Baker: A group called Freedom's Watch -- led by Brad Blakeman, a former Bush aide, and including former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer on the board -- plans a $15 million advertising and grassroots campaign to prod Republicans into sticking with the president on Iraq.


Arlington, Va.: How about the President's threat to veto increases in the SCHIP-children's health program because of costs -- does he think this is a winner with his base? I note that even Republican Governors (Ritter of Colorado is the latest) have come out in support of the increase. New Bush Policies Limit Reach of Child Insurance Plan (Post, Aug. 21)

Peter Baker: The president has argued that the expansion of SCHIP would in effect by an expansion of government health care, and that is an argument that resonates among some conservatives. But you're right, it has divided Republicans, some of whom have been supportive of the plan -- including conservative senators such as Orrin Hatch and Chuck Grassley.


Springfield, Va.: "In this instance, it's not at all clear who the younger Bush would favor." Or whether the favored candidate would want his endorsement.

Peter Baker: Touche. The Republican candidates have been trying to walk a fine line -- distancing themselves from the president without breaking with him too brazenly. Most of them support him on Iraq, for instance, but are willing to criticize the handling of the war. Just the other day, during a discussion of the president's democracy promotion agenda, Mitt Romney said "I'm not a carbon copy of President Bush," and Mike Huckabee when asked if he agreed with Bush's vision said "absolutely not." At the same time they understand that Bush, while unpopular with the electorate at large, retains support among most Republicans who will vote in primaries and caucuses.


Albany, N.Y.: I'm kind of baffled by Hillary Clinton's claim that being married to the president is relevant experience for the position. Maybe a White House reporter like yourself should run on that experience! What are your thoughts of the experience of observing?

Peter Baker: A White House reporter running for something? Heaven forbid -- we barely can run our own correspondents' association. But Hillary Clinton's claim, presumably, is a little different. It's no secret that she played an important role in her husband's White House in terms of policy and politics. Sometimes that worked out, sometimes it didn't (e.g. health care), but she was closer to the center of decision-making than most anyone else.

Does that qualify her to be president? That's a central question of her campaign and one that voters will have to judge. If she only had been first lady it might be a harder sell, but by serving eight years in the Senate (by the time next year rolls around) she has broadened her record in a way that may mute the issue somewhat. Of course, if her tenure as first lady is relevant, it also presumably should be open to scrutiny. And that's why there was a stir recently when the archivists at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in Arkansas said they wouldn't be able to process and release before the election nearly 2 million pages of documents relating to her time as first lady.


Sun Prairie, Wis.: Mr. Baker: Good morning and thanks for taking this question. I understand why the Vietnam analogy the President made yesterday attracted attention, but I was surprised more reporters didn't pick up on his remarks about the American sponsorship of democracy in postwar Japan -- a country and culture surely as different from Arab Iraq as it is possible to be. Do you think that is just because more reporters know very little about the American occupation of Japan, or would the herd instinct to report what all the other press types were reporting have been too strong in any event?

Peter Baker: Well, you're certainly right that reporters are less versed in the details of post-war Japan. But I think the media focused more on Vietnam because it's more recent and because it was such a searing experience in our national life. It's also true that the president has been citing Japan for some time, and so that was not a particularly new part of his argument.


DC Metro: MSNBC Breaking News -- New U.S. report: Iraq government to become more precarious in next 6-12 months. What does this mean? Intel Report Questions Iraq's Progress (AP, Aug. 23)

Peter Baker: This is the new National Intelligence Estimate that is being released today by the intelligence community. This report no doubt will be digested and used by both sides as ammunition for its arguments. We'll have our own story on this posted this afternoon. Stay tuned.


Seattle: Your colleague Anne Kornblut suggested on "Hardball" this week that ending the war in Iraq equals not supporting the troops: "There is no applause line that gets a bigger response when you're out with Sen. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, than when they say the first thing I'm going to do is I'm going to start ending this war in Iraq. Republican crowds are a little different. They still want to be supporting the troops."

Is this a commonly held belief amongst Washington reporters? Given that the majority of Americans favor ending the war, do you believe that they don't support the troops?

Peter Baker: I didn't see the program, but judging by the quote you attach here I don't think that's what she was saying at all. It seems clear to me that Anne, who's one of the most talented and fair-minded political reporters out there, was saying that Republicans see the issue as supporting the troops. She wasn't saying that's her view.


Akron, Ohio: Have you asked any of the candidates running for president whether they support the kind of manual the Bush administration issued regarding protesters at rallies and whether, if they are elected, they will adopt the same policies? Also, we know about the one settlement for $80,000, but have there been other settlements?

Peter Baker: I'm not aware of any other settlements, but there are at least two other lawsuits that address similar complaints. I don't know what the campaigns do or whether they have similar manuals, but it's certainly true that politicians try to anticipate protesters and figure out strategies to counter them. Of course, there's a difference between a political rally for a candidate and an official presidential speech on public property.


Berkeley, Calif.: I think it's notable that "the Vietnam speech" is Bush's first major delivery of the post-Karl Rove era (and I have to wonder whether Rove would have let Bush give it). This leads to my larger question -- who is running Bush's political shop now? Is there a chief, a committee? Whose work was "the Vietnam speech," and who would have vetted it? Thanks, Peter...

Peter Baker: Well, Karl Rove hasn't actually left the White House yet -- his resignation is effective Aug. 31 -- so I would presume he saw the speech or certainly knew about the planned message. Once Rove is gone, the major political adviser left will be Ed Gillespie, who just replaced counselor Dan Bartlett.


Leesburg, Va.: Just a comment -- if Vietnam is an example of what will happen if we withdraw from Iraq, then I say, "Bring it on!" I was in Hanoi three weeks ago, and Vietnam is a modern country (and they are a country, not a group of warring tribes) where you can travel without body armor and a tank. We can only hope Iraq turns out as well.

Peter Baker: Time's about up, so let me just post a few more comments on the Iraq-Vietnam comparison and we'll call it a day.


Vietnam: Ah yes, I remember the "domino theory" well ... if Nam falls to the Commies, the whole world will tumble in succession. And today, we have capitalist markets in mainland China and non-Communism (I won't go as far as "democracy" for Russia) in Eastern Europe.

Peter Baker: Here's another. Thanks for the input.


Montgomery Village, Md.: Peter -- wouldn't part of the context for Bush's historically inaccurate and convoluted remarks yesterday be that he was speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, a group of older, very pro-military guys, many of whom think the U.S. never has been the same since "abandoning" and "losing" Vietnam? He basically was saying "you guys don't want us to 'lose' again, do you?"

Peter Baker: And another. Thanks much.


New York: How can Bush say that our leaving Vietnam caused the Cambodian killing fields situation? Reality check: The Khmer Rouge came to power partly because U.S. bombing in Cambodia (a neutral country) caused an upheaval in Cambodian society. Also, the U.S. officially supported the Khmer Rouge initially as a counterweight to the North Vietnamese. Finally, it was the Vietnamese who eventually invaded Cambodia and put an end to the Khmer Rouge's terror, and the U.S. opposed that invasion.

Peter Baker: And still another. Appreciate the post.


Arlington, Va.: From a distance of 30 years, the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam looks like a cold calculation: Having prevented China from moving south, U.S. leaders no longer cared about our allies in South Vietnam. Because of public opinion, they only cared about stopping our own losses. This wasn't a proud moment, as Bush suggests, but this former flower child would like to know what he would have done differently.

Peter Baker: One more. Thanks.


Anonymous: Iraq, Vietnam -- tomato, tomahto, potato, potahto, let's call the whole thing off.

Peter Baker: This one may be a little less substantive, but what the heck. Thanks.


Washington: Peter ... Question one: doesn't "polarization" mean something like a 50/50 split? The country isn't polarized about Bush or the war, it is lopsided against. Using words like polarization hides the fact that most people have lost trust in Bush, his plans or his ability to judge the situation. Question two: Did you see the New York Times front page today? Above the fold, Bush expressing confidence in Maliki and the ability of a free Iraq to handle the challenges it faces. Below the fold is an article describing how militias control the switching posts for the electrical grid. I'm struck by the two different worlds ... the one Washington and the pundits want to see (it's working, more or less) and the fact that militias can control the electrical grid ... which seems like a fundamental failure of management, control and military planning (i.e. isn't the electrical grid one of the first things you control, militarily, if you're going to win a war?).

Peter Baker: And we'll end on this one. Actually, I don't think polarize suggests equal division -- I think it suggests the tenor and tone of the division. My online dictionary says "to polarize" means "to divide into sharply opposing factions." We certainly have sharply opposing factions in this country at the moment.


Peter Baker: And with that, let's bring it to a close. Thanks everyone for participating on an August day. Have a great week, and I'll see you in September.


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