Post Politics Hour

Peter Baker
Washington Post White House Reporter
Monday, October 8, 2007; 11:00 AM

Don't want to miss out on the latest in politics? Start each day with 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 Peter Baker was online Monday, Oct. 8 at 11 a.m. ET.

The transcript follows.

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Peter Baker: Good morning, everyone. A little bit of a slow week on the Washington politics front. It's a federal holiday today of course, President Bush has a light schedule (at least in terms of announced public appearances) and Congress is out of town. The Republican presidential candidates are gearing up for the first debate that will include Fred Thompson, which should be interesting. So let's get started.


Raleigh, N.C.: Good morning! Awesome, awesome piece yesterday. One thing, totally nonpolitical, that struck me, is the sense that with modern telecommunications, presidential staffers never get to just sit and think. I'm sure that Dee Dee Myers and Marlin Fitzwater and Ron Nessen put in a ton of hours just like Scott McClellan; the difference is that at night, when Myers or Nessen couldn't unplug their minds, at least they could unplug their connections. This would allow them time to think big picture. Karl Rove and Dan Bartlett were the first to start with an administration in the wired era, so they doubtless set up structures and habits and policies that took advantage of that.

I don't think it's partisan spin to point out that the Bush administration is famous for operating in a bubble. Do you think the unusually high proportion of inward-directed job time contributed to the Bush bubble? What I'm trying to ask (not very gracefully) is whether the 500 e-mails Dan Bartlett used to get every day so strapped his time that he couldn't ever get his head above water to just sit and think "big picture." Did he and the rest spend all their time reading and replying to e-mails from media and White House staffers, and never had time to think how things were playing in Peoria? An Exit Toward Soul-Searching (Post, Oct. 7)

Peter Baker: Thanks for the nice note. There's no question that staffers in the modern White House have to figure out how to balance a sort of in-box, out-box kind of response to all the messages and memos that come their way with some process that lets them think about the bigger picture. One of the folks who just left the White House told me he probably did not really read 99 percent of the written material that came across his desk/PDA. Even under President Clinton, I remember when Erskine Bowles became deputy chief of staff he was stunned at how over-programmed the president was and instituted a new schedule that would guarantee him policy time each day. President Bush's people also try to make sure he has some office time like that each day, but life inside the White House is a constant barrage of incoming fire, and the opportunities to just check out for a few moments to think are pretty rare.


Washington: Thanks for chatting, Peter! And so soon after your last one -- very nice of you. A lot of people are predicting a Clinton-Obama ticket on the Democratic side; I think Giuliani is the latest to say this. Do political reporters out there have any sense of how Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama view each other personally? I assume there is at least mutual respect for one another, but would it be accurate to characterize them as friends? Hizzoner Sees the GOP Facing A Clinton-Obama Ticket (Post, Oct. 7)

Peter Baker: It's a good question and one I'm not sure I know enough about to answer. From what other reporters have told me, I get the sense that they certainly started off with respect for one another, but any campaign usually will inject some bitterness into the relationship. I think you can see that in the comments of their staffers. That doesn't mean they won't be able to team up if it comes to that -- John Kerry and John Edwards clearly had no love lost for each other and yet formed a ticket together. Having said that, maybe their ticket would have been more successful if they did like each other a little more.


New York: Hi Peter, and thanks for taking questions. I was really struck by your story about the former Bushies -- I got the impression that most of them are more tortured by the slower pace of their post-White House lives than they are by the messy situation they're leaving behind (Iraq, Justice, poor GOP prospects, unpopular president, etc.). Is there anyone who actually questions the substance -- as opposed to the style -- of their work for the administration?

Peter Baker: I think there's a mix of emotional and intellectual reactions. Some of them probably question the substance more than others, but remember, most of them still feel very loyal toward the president (particularly while he's still in office) and many of them are very invested in what they've done. Like anybody in any White House, you want to believe that all the hard work you've put in was toward some greater purpose. And the history of this White House ultimately will not be written in its seventh year but long after it is over, although we certainly can guess at how it will look given what we know now.


Minneapolis: One of the many intriguing details in your story yesterday was that Karl Rove retains a photo of Scooter Libby and his wife on the day Libby was convicted on four counts of obstruction of justice, perjury and false statements. This reminded me of the very odd comments President Bush made shortly after commuting Libby's sentence, lamenting the fact that the person involved didn't come forward -- seemingly referring to Armitage, who however did exactly as the White House directed people with information to do. Do you think that the White House in part blames Libby, who blatantly and egregiously lied to investigators to cover for the vice president, for making the case a much bigger headache for the administration than it would have been otherwise?

Peter Baker: It's a very good question and one I would like to explore further as well. Some of them clearly do think Scooter Libby made things worse for himself (and for them) and a lot of them have questioned his original lawyer's approach to the investigation. And remember, at trial, the Libby defense strategy was to portray him as a White House scapegoat left hanging in the wind to protect Karl Rove. Having said that, most White House folks I spoke with after the trial took that to be a strategy and were not taking it personally, or at least not with me.


Westwood, Mass.: 500 e-mails a day? No wonder they conveniently forgot to archive e-mails for history. Is the record button on now at the White House, and have they stopped using the RNC e-mail accounts for government business? Does Cheney have a digital footprint with a Blackberry?

Peter Baker: I'm not sure if they have stopped using RNC accounts entirely, but certainly they are using them less so. The White House has tried to clarify when it's appropriate to use outside e-mail and when it's not. That frankly has been a messy area for a while -- the Clinton White House installed separate DNC-paid-for fax machines, for instance, to send and receive political material. In the age of e-mail, what is political and what is government business and what are the rules for which e-mail is used in which instances?


South Bend, Ind.: Wow, back again so soon, Mr. Baker. Thanks for chatting, I dig it. With new opportunities for pick-ups in the Senate (New Mexico, possibly Nebraska if Kerrey or Fahey runs), are Democrats in danger of spreading their resources too thin? It's going to take a lot to knock off strong incumbents like Susan Collins and Gordon Smith, while Norm Coleman could be helped by facing a polarizing and inexperienced opponent. Democrats positioned to widen majority in Senate (Reuters, Oct. 7)

Peter Baker: Well, that would be what President Clinton used to call a "high-class problem." Better to have too many opportunities than too few. The advantage for the Democrats is they have considerably more money than the Republicans do this cycle for once, and enthusiasm breeds enthusiasm. But overconfidence is always something any party needs to guard against when it's doing well -- and as former Democratic chairman Terry McAuliffe has said, if anyone can screw up a good thing, it's the Democrats. For a better read on the Senate races, make sure to keep checking in with Chris Cillizza's The Fix, which regularly ranks the seats most likely to switch hands.


Arlington, Va.: It might be slow on the political front, but on the diplomatic front, Sec. of State Condi Rice is now in Russia, then she will be meeting with Israel's Olmert and the Palestinian leader, Abbas. So my question is, if diplomacy works to rein in North Korea, brings the two-state solution into reality, and some sort stability is achieved in Iraq, does she get any credit for her efforts? Also, do you think the new security measures that Condi put into place for Blackwater, etc. show that she has the power to make decisions on big issues on the world stage more quickly than Congress?

Peter Baker: You're right that the secretary heads out Thursday for a long trip to Russia and the Middle East. Defense Secretary Bob Gates is joining her, at least for the first part of it, and they have a lot on the agenda -- the missile defense dispute with Russia, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Iraq, etc. If, as you posit, Secretary Rice and the rest of the Bush team are able to forge a resolution of the Middle East conflict and create a Palestinian state side-by-side with Israel, that would be a huge achievement, especially given that the administration largely has downplayed its interest in personally negotiating between the two sides through much of Bush's presidency. President Bush said last week that he still thinks a two-state solution is "achievable" before he leaves office. But there's barely 15 months left and a lot of experts in the region consider that a stretch. Stay tuned.


San Francisco: So, Peter, did you clear Karl Rove's quotes with the White House? Did you clear the other quotes as well? Is this standard practice for ex-staffers now?

Peter Baker: When sources agree to an interview, they can set ground rules if the reporter agrees. In Washington these days, too many people in both parties insist on talking "on background," meaning they can be quoted only as "a senior official" or some such, and then insist that if a reporter wants to use a quote on the record that he clear it with him first. Frankly it's a pernicious, insidious practice that has grown increasingly common in the past few years, one that tends to reduce the authenticity of interviews and reduce them to negotiated talking points. Personally I can't stand it. It's a terrible way to conduct journalism and incredibly aggravating.

Believe me, we try to avoid doing that as much as possible, but it seems inevitable in some situations, unfortunately. I know what some readers will say -- then don't interview them if they won't simply be on the record. In theory, I agree, and a lot of times I won't go along with that sort of condition, but in some circumstances we're the ones trying to convince a source to trust us enough to give an interview on something they otherwise wouldn't talk about, and the only alternative is not getting it. It's hard enough sometimes just getting some of these folks to simply return the phone call.

The one benefit of this is that at least we're often able to get things on the record rather than attributed to an anonymous source. In the case of Karl Rove's interview for this particular piece, he did ask that I send the quotes first to the White House, which I agreed to do as a courtesy. That is not standard practice for other ex-staffers, though.


Anonymous: "I'm not sure if they have stopped using RNC accounts entirely, but certainly they are using them less so." When I read a statement like that, I have to ask, how do you know? Admin claims or comments aside, do you have any factual corroboration for that claim?

Peter Baker: That's a fair question. I'm not purporting to give you a reported answer, just what my sense is in dealing with them every day. I know from trying them that a number of RNC e-mail addresses have been shut down.


Washington: Who do you think would be on Gov. Romney's short list for vice president? I figure he must balance the concerns of social conservatives -- which points to, say, a Mike Huckabee -- but also could use some foreign policy heft since he is a one-term former governor running for president in a post-Sept. 11 world. Who fits that bill?

Peter Baker: Fascinating question, but obviously a little premature, don't you think? He's got a ways to go to win the nomination first. But as long as we're playing the parlor game -- and no one loves the parlor game more than we do at The Post -- then I'd say appealing to the right may be less of a concern if he already has won the nomination, particularly so because if he does win the nomination, it will be by positioning himself as the more conservative alternative to Rudy Giuliani. The usual pattern is to pick a vice president who broadens your appeal rather than microtargets it, and you're right that he might want to pick someone who gives reassurance in terms of foreign policy experience in a time of war. But you and I could map a hundred different scenarios for how things will look by the time we get to next summer.


Chevy Chase, Md.: Okay, Mr. Baker, looks like a slow day for questions so I'll give it a try. You have written often -- and in my opinion, too obligingly -- about the many characters in Rove's (former) political shop at the White House. Have you ever tallied up the number of staff who work there in purely political roles and compared that to the number in previous administrations? Seems to me a fair line of inquiry for journalists should be how many such operatives we taxpayers are funding and, indeed, whether there should be any such office at all in the White House. Then, of course, there was the first one to leave the ship, John DiIulio, who revealed what most of us already knew -- that the whole Bush White is a political operation -- the "Mayberry Machiavellis," as he famously called them.

Peter Baker: I haven't seen any tally. It would be interesting to know. Having covered the Clinton White House, I certainly remember a lot of people who worked on politics in both administrations, but I have no numerical comparisons. It's an interesting question whether any White House -- regardless of party -- should be allowed to have a political office the job of which essentially is campaign politics. But that's not unique to the Bush White House.


Roseland, N.J.: An odd side effect from the rumblings of Dobson and the religious right threatening they might back a third party candidate if Giuliani were the nominee: Is it possible this provides an opening for billionaire mayor Mike Bloomberg? Not to run as a third party- but as a fourth party! He'd have fewer qualms about throwing the election one way or the other, and he'd have a much lower threshold to actually winning some states.

Peter Baker: Speaking of parlor games! We all love to spin out scenarios, to be sure, and this would be a fun one. The best race I ever covered was the 1994 Senate race in Virginia when we had four major candidates for much of the campaign -- Democratic incumbent Chuck Robb, Republican nominee Ollie North, former Democratic governor Doug Wilder running as an independent, and former Republican attorney general Marshall Coleman running as an independent. (Wilder eventually dropped out just before Election Day and threw his support to Robb, ensuring his re-election). But as much as we might think a multicandidate race would be interesting and open up American politics, the Dobson scenario assumes Rudy Giuliani wins the Republican nomination, and if Hillary Clinton hangs on and wins the Democratic nomination it's harder to see room for a third New Yorker in the race.


Washington: What are your thoughts on whether tomorrow's GOP Debate could be a make-or-break for Fred Thompson?

Peter Baker: I don't know about make-or-break, but it's certainly an important moment for his campaign. It will be the first time he participates in one of these debates and the first time many Republicans get a real look at him. Expectations are high enough given the Hollywood buzz he brought to his candidacy that it may be hard for him to meet them, and a lot of candidates aren't very good their first time out in one of these debates -- and in this case, all the others have had quite a few under their belt to polish their performances while Sen. Thompson will be coming in cold. So it's a challenging and critical moment for him.


South Bend, Ind.: Mr. Baker, this presidential election has a lot of people asking "are we ready for a woman president" or "are we ready for a black president." But there are also questions about Gov. Romney. My question to you is, do you think America is ready for a president ... whose first name is actually Willard?

Peter Baker: Question of the day! At least Willard is better than Millard, and we had one of those, right?


Washington: Is Hillary tone deaf? Is it true that she has put Sandy Berger on her team to advise on security and foreign policy? Does she really think you guys at The Washington Post are just going to overlook her bad judgment? Also, isn't Scooter Libby the same guy who did a Marc Rich deal to get a pardon with Bill before he left the White House in 2001? Is there any hope of having a clean ethical team for Hillary, or is this just the beginning of dragging more baggage back into the possible Clinton White House? He's back: Sandy Berger now advising Hillary Clinton (Washington Examiner, Oct. 8)

Peter Baker: The people a candidate surrounds herself with become an important measure for the candidate, no question. Because I don't actually cover the campaign, I don't happen to know whether Sandy Berger actually is officially on Sen. Clinton's team -- but if he were, it certainly would be an issue, given his guilty plea to taking classified documents from the National Archives. As for Scooter Libby, he did represent Marc Rich and helped shape the arguments that later were used by others to get him a pardon from President Clinton. If I remember correctly, Libby did not personally lobby for the pardon, though, because by that point he already was affiliated with incoming Vice President Cheney.


Hong Kong: Hi Peter -- thanks for your very interesting article on Sunday. I was struck by this passage about Karl Rove: "But it's not as if he (Rove) has gone off the reservation. At the end of the interview, he asked that his quotes be sent to the White House first. 'I'm still a cog in the great machine,' he explained" Do administration officials often ask you to send their quotes to the White House first? Has the White House ever asked you not to use such quotes after review? Do you agree to such requests? Thanks in advance.

Peter Baker: I think I basically answered this with one of the previous questions. In the end, any agreement I make with an interview source is with the source, not the White House, but the source may choose to take his or her direction from the White House as to what he will or will not put on the record.


New York: Interesting article yesterday. I wonder if we'll ever see any of these people again. I imagine some will become fixers for some future president, but I suspect that a majority of Americans don't want to see any of the major faces again (Rove, Cheney, Gonzales etc.). Yesterday I was watching a greatest hits clip show from "Saturday Night Live" and saw Janet Reno -- it made me think about all the cabinet members in the current administration who are completely invisible. I couldn't pick out the Commerce, Agriculture, Interior, HUD members if they were in a lineup. Yet I can remember almost all of the Clinton cabinet members. I think the Bush cult of personality has created a very forgettable administration -- in spite of the tragedy they wrought.

Peter Baker: It's true that cabinet secretaries in this administration do seem to have a lower profile than the last one. Slate, the online magazine, did a funny "pick the cabinet" feature the other day testing readers on whether they knew who the secretary of agriculture was, for instance, or secretary of housing and urban development. My guess is not a lot of folks passed.


Alexandria, Va.: Peter, great article on the whittling-down of White House staff. Do you think the legacy question is the all-consuming focus at this point? Because that suggests that the end is really in sight and that nothing new will be pushed forward between now and next November. Thanks for taking questions!

Peter Baker: Or it could suggest that new things are pushed to create or enhance a legacy between now and the end. It's striking that a week or so ago, for instance, the president was working to build support for his Middle East peace conference in hopes of still creating a Palestinian state before leaving office. He also was hosting a climate change conference in hopes of creating an international agreement for what to do next after Kyoto. Both of those are things he clearly wants to get done before leaving office, so the rush of time and the interest in legacy can cut different ways.


Boston: Enjoyed your article on Bush alums. Which Bush alums will try to settle internal administration scores with their comments (anonymous or on the record), op-eds or books about their experiences versus repeating Bush talking points for history? Wouldn't you love to see Rove/Bartlett no-holds-barred, point/counterpoint memoirs of their internal battles?

Peter Baker: The more time passes, the more candid assessments I think you'll see from various insiders. You already see some, obviously. Jack Goldsmith, who was a top Justice Department official, just published his book detailing fights with David Addington, Vice President Cheney's counsel and now chief of staff, regarding national security issues such as torture and surveillance. Former CIA director George Tenet, of course, settled some scores in his recent memoir. Matt Scully, a Bush speech writer, just wrote a long piece for the Atlantic savaging his former boss, Mike Gerson. And a lot of insiders obviously talked with Robert Draper for his fascinating new book, "Dead Certain," which in fact details some of the Rove-Bartlett rivalry. Keep your eyes out for more.


Peter Baker: Out of time again. Thanks for so many great questions on a slow day. Have a terrific week.


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