Washington Sketch

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank teams with washingtonpost.com's Akira Hakuta to provide a behind-the-scenes look at government proceedings in Washington.
Dana Milbank
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, August 7, 2008; 1:00 PM

Post columnist Dana Milbank, who serves as the capital's foremost critic of political theater in his Washington Sketch columns and videos, was online Thursday, Aug. 7 at 1 p.m. ET to take your questions and comments about the things politicians say -- and the absurd ways they find to say them.

The transcript follows.

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Dana Milbank: Good afternoon, Sketchreaders. Or good morning from here in southern California, where I sit and chat today with a view of palms and the Pacific. Had our Founding Fathers been as smart as we all think they were, they surely would have located the capital here in Solana Beach. I'll be off for the next couple of weeks before the convention, but am eager first to take your questions about happenings in the devil's city: the veepstakes, Tim Pawlenty's sex life, Barack Obama's recurring Hillary nightmare, Ted Stevens's not-guilty plea, and House Republicans' lonely fight in the darkened House chamber this week while their leader plays golf.


Silver Spring, Md.: Dana, you're not anybody in the Washington media scene until you've been called a "gutter journalist" by the White House. That was their pushback this week to the allegations in Ron Suskind's new book about the Iraq/al-Qaeda/WMD forgeries. Have you considered doing a Sketch on, well, Washington's gutters? I think you should.

Dana Milbank: Yes I am very jealous of my friend Ron Suskind, an old Wall Street Journal colleague, for the "gutter journalist" label. The closest I came was being called a "trash journalist" by Barbara Boxer. In fairness, Ron is not a tall man (a trait we have in common) so the White House may have meant the description literally, meaning he is closer to the gutter than others.


Minneapolis: I have a great appreciation for the pithiness you displayed in last week's chat, but I think in fact that many of the whiners had at least a semi-valid point that you failed to address. The context of Obama's "symbol" statement was important, just as the context of McCain's "100 years" statement was important. When we don't get the full context, we're being served poorly by the media, who are supposed to provide the context and the fact-checking. Merely falling back on saying the quote was literally accurate isn't enough. So I give you a 91 for your performance last week.

Dana Milbank: Thank you for that rating and for that no-whine question.

Hopefully we needn't go through all of this again, but to make sure everybody's clear: My colleague Jonathan Weisman and I believe the quote was correct as written, and that this supposed "context" is a recreation, after-the-fact, by Democratic aides who were worried about how the quote looked. Perhaps Obama didn't mean for it to come out that way, but there's every reason to believe it did. The Post's ombudsman will be writing about it this weekend, I think, so we'll see what she has to say.

Here's what my friend and former colleague Mike Allen wrote last weekend about it in his excellent Politico Playbook:

"FOLLOWING UP: One of Playbook's functions is drawing clear lines around what's known and what's disputed. But we miscalibrated an item last week. The Washington Post strongly stands behind its report that Obama told House Democrats during a closed meeting: 'I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.' The quote was included in the aforementioned Dana Milbank's memorable 'presumptuous nominee' Sketch, which provoked a blogswarm.

"Democratic aides are also standing behind their contention that what the senator said was more like: 'It has become increasingly clear in my travel, the campaign, that the crowds, the enthusiasm, 200,000 people in Berlin, is not about me at all. It's about America. I have just become a symbol.'

"We're told there's no tape. Adding to the intrigue, Dana wrote in an online chat on WashingtonPost.com: '[O]ur source -- who was among the [House Democratic aides] complaining about the quotes yesterday -- sent us the quotes in writing in an e-mail Wednesday night.' "


Dana Point, Calif.: I really hope Pawlenty does not get onto the ticket, and that either a true Maverick choice is made with Meg Whitman (eBay CEO) or a true GOP choice (safe) with Gov. Romney. Whitman adds demographic momentum (youth interested in a non-traditional vice president, women for McCain) and likely will provide compelling coverage for weeks. The Californian's a political newcomer who favored Romney, but her conversion provides an additional campaign narrative. Romney is the safe choice, in the mold of Cheney, Bush Sr. and Jack Kemp. Few people have the energy, brains and composure of Romney -- but this would require McCain to reach out from his cult of personality for a running mate.

Dana Milbank: Delighted to take a question from my neighbor in the beautifully named Dana Point, Calif.

I've been flacking Carly Fiorina pretty hard, but it looks as if I'm an army of one on that. So, yes, Meg Whitman would help McCain a good bit, particularly if Obama goes with a St. Albans guy like Bayh.

Pawlenty wouldn't be all bad, though -- particularly if he keeps making jokes about his wife.


Laurel, Md.: I was wondering if you think many people are buying this ridiculous dog-and-pony show the Republicans are putting on regarding bringing Congress back, giving out tire pressure gauges, etc. Bush does nothing on energy for seven and a half years except to give oil companies big tax breaks, the Republicans vote against alternative energy funding and tax breaks for wind, solar, etc. ... and now they try and pull this? The tire pressure gauges remind me of a milder version of what they did to John Kerry. Give me a break!

washingtonpost.com: At Recess, a Little One-Sided Dodgeball (Post, Aug. 5)

Dana Milbank: The tire pressure gauge is clever, I think, but the McCain demand to call Congress back probably won't go far. After all, he hardly ever showed up to vote when Congress was in session. Meanwhile, gas prices continue to fall, which suggests that maybe the best thing for lawmakers to do about the energy crisis is to stay home and play golf.


Chaska, Minn.: If I may go back to last week, while most folks were caught up in the symbol quote kerfuffle, I was more wondering about the notion of Obama being arrogant or presumptuous. I guess I'm having a hard time seeing how what Obama is doing that is fundamentally more arrogant than past candidates. Or is it more the way he is doing it?

washingtonpost.com: President Obama Continues Hectic Victory Tour (Post, July 30)

Dana Milbank: Another thoughtful question without a drop of whine! Maybe everybody is calmed by the soothing Pacific this morning.

It's true that every person running for president has an inflated sense of self, by definition. I think Obama went a bit too far with the Berlin speech, the faux presidential seal on the lectern, and some of his over-confident talk of victory. I was struck by the lead of CBS News's "Horserace" this morning:

"Everyone's had a lot of fun over the last couple of weeks with the whole 'celebrity' theme coming out of John McCain's campaign. There's been a lot of gnashing of teeth over the appropriateness of the suggestion that Barack Obama is an empty suit of the celebrity culture and not a few questions about its effectiveness. And we've heard plenty about the hollowness of the debate at a time when voters seem to be concerned about more pressing issues.

"At the same time, pundits and prognosticators of all stripes have been stumped at Obama's inability to break away from McCain - at least in the national polls. He appears to have just about every political advantage in the book. He's a historic figure representing a party whose traditional strengths line up well with voter concerns and he's running against a candidate whose party and president are near all-time lows in popularity. If there ever was a 'change' election, this should be it.

"So it might be time to ask whether there's something more to this 'celebrity' business than just another publicity opportunity for Paris Hilton."


Anonymous: After watching the video of yourself in shorts and later Richard Simmons in shorts, I was stricken by how much you two resemble each other. Are you related?

washingtonpost.com: Capitol Hill Gets Exercised (Post, July 25)

Dana Milbank: Yes, I look like the "before" picture in the before-and-after photo of his turn from couch potato to wearer of spandex.


Nevada: If Pawlenty runs as veep, I'm going to be nauseous for three months. First McCain invites us to picture his 50-plus wife prancing around on stage in the all-together, and now Pawlenty is just bursting to share his complaints that his wife won't have sex with him. What is this, the Viagra Ticket? I think I might really vote for Paris now.

washingtonpost.com: Outspoken Pawlenty Auditions for Role of Mr. Discretion (Post, Aug. 7)

Dana Milbank: Then there was my friend Carly Fiorina discussing the merits of medical insurance covering Viagra several weeks ago.


San Francisco: McCain should choose Tim Pawlenty as vice president, if only so he can say: "My friends, Sen. Barack Obama lacks experience. Me, on the other hand ... well, I've got Pawlenty." Ba-dum-bum ching!

Dana Milbank: Pawlenty of postings coming out of my newly adopted home of the Golden State this morning.


Chicago: Hey Dana, what's your take on the John Edwards baby daddy imbroglio? Is the mainstream media just being snobbish (toward the National Enquirer) or is there a legit reason why this story isn't getting more play? How can you guys resist?

Dana Milbank: There are two Two Americas. One reads the National Enquirer; the other does not. I am in the latter America

I assume that if something in the National Enquirer is true it will make its way over to the MSM, but I'll let somebody else do that first.


Pittsburgh: So, how does working with Campbell Brown stack up against Keith?

Dana Milbank: Okay, I'll just dip my toe in this one for a moment.

I have the highest regard for Keith Olbermann and think he's one of the smartest and funniest guys in the business.

But I am also a huge fan of my friend Campbell and have been since we were on the White House beat together early in the Bush years. So I worked out a contract with CNN in the past month and, after persuading them to take me on board, started with CNN on Monday. Planning to be on Campbell's show tonight, at 5 p.m. Pacific -- 8 p.m. for you guys out east.


Richmond, Va.: What's the deal with McCain saying "my friends" all the time. It's starting to sound a bit too robotic ... and it's starting to creep me out...

Dana Milbank: An excellent question, my friend. It has been bothering me for some time. At first it sounded sincere and intimate, but that was in 1998. Now I think it is a tic like "nucular."


Undisclosed Location, Pennsylvania Avenue: My focus group tells me the voters see the most articulate candidate as Paris Hilton. I hear the Hiltons have money. Should we be vetting her for vice president?

Dana Milbank: I have begun the, um, vetting of Paris already, but the Post IT folks have apparently started blocking my access to certain Web sites. Go figure.


Newark, N.J.: Why have you failed, to date, to admit to misreporting and mischaracterizing Barack Obama's comments last week? All indications are that you misquoted, out of context, what he said and how he said it, and yet you have conspicuously failed to set the record straight. A correction/retraction would have been journalistically/politically correct. Or has your racism compromised your journalistic integrity?

Dana Milbank: Ruh-roh. I think this one was from last week.


Boston: After witnessing the backlash from your President Obama article, don't you get the sense that there are Democrats out there who feel as though it is almost the press's duty to protect Obama, and that not doing so is somehow going against their responsibility? It just seems like they feel as though being objective has no place in the news media when, in fact, that ought to be their main standard of procedure.

Dana Milbank: Take that, Newark!


Tire gauges: Clever? Really? Seems totally junior-high to me. But then so does a lot of the McCain campaign (and your chat from last week ... but I digress). Chet Edwards for vice president -- what say you?

Dana Milbank: See, I don't see "junior-high" as a negative. But then again, I like all of Dana Priest's flatulence jokes.

I am strongly opposed to a Chet Edwards vice presidency. I have spent plenty of time in Waco-Crawford over the past seven years and I think presidents and vice presidents should be selected based entirely on their vacation home locations. McCain makes a strong bid with Sedona. Obama should buy property in his native Hawaii or pick a running mate from my new hometown of Solana Beach.


Seattle: I am utterly disappointed with your column on T-Paw. How dare you discuss the man without mentioning that he got rid of the only mullet among governors? How can a governor who had a mullet and got rid of it escape your attention?

Dana Milbank: Seattle, I am duly chastened, my friend.

Won't let this sort of thing happen again.


Fern Forest, Hawaii: If the Founding Fathers had as much foresight as we credit them with, they would have planned the capitol for Lahaina, Hawaii.

Dana Milbank: Maybe it is not too late.


Trash Journalist: What did you do to incur Sen. Boxer's ire? It doesn't make me admire you as much as your hacking off Keith Olbermann did, but it still is intriguing.

Dana Milbank: In fairness to Boxer, she did have a point. After a hearing, I retrieved (with the help of a friend from Fox News) Russ Feingold's discarded notes from under the table.


Los Angeles: The public is upset because Pawlenty doesn't have sex? The public is upset when an official does have sex? Maybe the public wants our leaders to be cyborgs from another dimension? Oops, sorry, that means we want the governor of California to be president.

Dana Milbank: Let me be clear: I am not upset because Pawlenty doesn't get sex. I am upset because he no longer has a mullet.

If I had it my way, every member of Congress would be Vito Fossella and every governor would be Elliot Spitzer.


Issues of Import: Paris Hilton's video response to McCain's "Celebrity Ad" -- inspired rebuttal, or backhanded compliment to wrinkly old dude?

Dana Milbank: See, I told The Post's IT people that this is the Paris Hilton video I was looking for, but nobody believes me.


Dana Milbank: Okay, chatters. The palm trees are swaying in the breeze and the dolphins are jumping. (Actually I can't see any dolphins, but they are probably jumping somewhere out there.) Please keep an eye on things while I'm away, and I'll be back in a few of weeks.


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