White House Watch
Wednesday, October 22, 2008; 1:00 PM
What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Watch column for washingtonpost.com. He answered your questions, took your comments and links, and pointed you to coverage around the Web on Wednesday, Oct. 22 at 1 p.m. ET.
The transcript follows.
Dan is also deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.
Click here to read past White House Watch discussions.
Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone, and welcome. My column today, Pariah President, is about President Bush's nearly nonexistent role in the 2008 political campaign. I wrote on Monday about how -- in the continued avalanche of newspaper endorsements of Democrat Barack Obama -- a successful presidency frequently is being defined as the precise opposite of the current one. I wrote on Thursday about Republican John McCain's increasingly dramatic attempts to distance himself from Bush. But I'm also happy to talk about Bush's slow response to the economic crisis, or about that other failed war in Afghanistan, or anything else that you fancy.
Raleigh, N.C.: Good afternoon. I think the most fitting epitaph for Bush's presidency came from London's conservative mayor (mayour?) Boris Johnson. He wrote a piece for a British paper saying that Bush had managed to discredit both democracy (referring to Iraq) and capitalism (referring to the current rolling bailouts). Thoughts?
Dan Froomkin: Here's a link to that piece, which I hadn't seen. Thanks. He writes: "To have rocked one of [the two pillars of American philosophy] may be regarded as a misfortune. To have damaged the reputation of both, at home and abroad, is a pretty stunning achievement for an American president."
What I can't get over is that so many of the recent endorsement of Obama -- particularly in American newspapers -- are making it clear that they see this election on a referendum on Bush and Bushism. I agree, but why hasn't this been a more omnipresent theme in the coverage up until now?
Richmond, Va.: Why was Bush so hesitant to holding a financial summit? Is it simply because it was initiated by someone else? In short, was it about ego, or something else?
Dan Froomkin: My sense is that Bush feels over his head here. What's not entirely clear is whether, at the Nov. 15 global summit announced today, Bush's intention is to box in his successor or dump the whole problem in his lap. I suppose it depends in part on who that successor is.
Roseville, Calif.: Hi Dan. What do you hear about any bombshells to come out of the last days of the Bush presidency? What are the things he might do -- besides the obvious decisions of whether to pardon Scooter Libby, bomb Iran's nuclear facilities, or the Status of Forces Agreement with the government of Iraq -- as they head for the exits? And given the opening of Barack Obama's lead over John McCain in the election, have you heard of any reaction by the Bushies to the prospect of conducting a transition to a possible Obama administration?
Dan Froomkin: On your first point, I wouldn't write these guys off until they're out the door -- especially Vice President Cheney and his loyalists, and especially if Obama wins. I have plenty of ideas about what they might do. See my five-part series for NiemanWatchdog.org on Do we really expect the Bushies to go quietly? Some of it already is coming true, as I've been chronicling midnight rulemaking in my column almost daily. See, as a great example, today's item about all the rushing to ease endangered species rules.
As for the transition, that will be a real test of character, won't it?
Boulder, Colo.: During the transition from election to inauguration, how much will the Bush administration cooperate with the president-elect on issues like the second economic stimulus, international meeting on financial regulations or the Iraq Status of Forces Agreement?
Dan Froomkin: That's a great questions, and nobody really knows. I don't believe there's much precedent for a president and president-elect putting their heads together, at least not when the president-elect wasn't already the vice president.
But as Dan Balz wrote in The Post on Sunday: "Not since Franklin D. Roosevelt came to office in 1933, during the depths of the Great Depression, has a new president confronted the kinds of challenges that await the winner of the campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain." He points out that the Hoover-Roosevelt transition was not a model.
I'd have to guess that Bush would be a lot more deferential to McCain than to Obama. In fact, particularly if it's Obama, I still expect Bush to push for a formal Iraqi agreement that would actually box Obama in, rather than accede to his vision.
Champlin, Minn.: Re: Gitmo, I agree that President Bush never considered closing Guantanamo. Gen. Powell called for the immediate closing of the facility some time ago on "Meet the Press." What do you think will happen to the detainees after January? I don't recall either of the major candidates being asked about Gitmo or addressing this issue. I'm pretty sure Congress will remain inactive and silent on this subject.
Dan Froomkin: Well, first let me use this question to give props to Demetri Sevastopulo of the Financial Times who broke the story on Friday that Bush officially was punting on Gitmo.
There are some thorny issues about closing Guantanamo -- among them, what do you do with all these people who -- whether or not they were our enemies to start with -- now certainly have cause to dislike us? But the Supreme Court's decision in June essentially eliminates Gitmo's "advantage" over a domestic brig, so I think the next president would be absolutely nuts to keep it open, given what a vile symbol it has become across the world.
Crawford, Texas: Hi Dan. Thanks for all the informative articles. I've prayed that Cheney's secret energy meeting documents would be unsealed, and if they revealed something impeachable that Cheney would be imprisoned. What do you think the chance is that this ever will happen?
Dan Froomkin: That's the best you can pray for?
Unlike documents to and from the executive branch agencies, which the next president could release immediately, exclusively White House records won't be seeing the light of day anytime soon. Furthermore, I doubt there's anything criminal in there, just utterly outrageous.
Ithaca, N.Y.: I have to admit that I don't automatically look for your column everyday. This, after reading it every day for I don't know how long. Bush is just so far in the back of my mind. I know that I'm not alone. Are you receiving fewer hits for your column? (Sorry.)
Dan Froomkin: Yes. And I must admit that I'm not jumping out of bed and into my office with quite the enthusiasm I once had. Don't get me wrong, there is still lots of fascinating stuff going on, but obviously Bush is not at the center of the universe anymore, and neither am I.
That said, coming soon: Bush retrospectives!
Ellicott City, Md.: Hi Dan. Has anyone ever come up with a reason why the president of the United States, leader of the free world, needs a political adviser in the White House (formerly Rove)? Doesn't this sound a bit like the ubiquitous "political officer" the old Soviet Union used to have around? Was Bush the first to have this position in the White House?
Dan Froomkin: I don't have a problem with there being a political adviser in the White House, per se. My problem is with putting him in charge.
As I wrote in August 2007: "The political guru who made President Bush what he is today had hoped to leave behind a permanent Republican ruling majority. Instead, his tenure will stand as an example of how divisiveness and partisanship are not conducive to successful governance."
Legacy?: Why do you think Bush has been so absent during the financial crisis considering it could be a chance to do something positive for his legacy? If politicians are anything they are opportunists, so why not take advantage of it?
Dan Froomkin: Well, I think you sort of answered your own question there. How could this possibly be an opportunity? Or more specifically, how could this possibly be an opportunity for someone who believes in the unrestrained free market?
That said, there are some who think the Bush team did have the president intentionally spread fear in order to pass a bailout for the fat cats. Others think it was indeed seen as an opportunity to put the "starve the beast" strategy to work.
As for why Bush himself has been so absent, as I said above, I think he feels like he's in over his head on this one. (Too bad he didn't just listen to Paul Krugman, huh?)
Franklin, Tenn.: How much of a burden will "Bush White House" be on a resume? Is anyone other than Alberto Gonzales having trouble finding work? Is it mostly a matter of how high you were in the food chain?
Dan Froomkin: Good question. In some circles I'm sure they will be welcomed (I'm thinking defense contractors, the oil industry, etc.), but it will be interesting to compare how they do compared to folks in previous administrations. Quite possibly very poorly.
Champaign, Ill.: Hi Dan. Once Bush is out of office do you think he will be able to maintain the information bubble, or will he actually have to read and/or listen to people say wicked or unpleasant things about his presidency?
Dan Froomkin: Great question. I would be willing to bet good money that the bubble will live on. In fact, it will be much easier for him (and his handlers) to avoid dissent once he's out of office. It's been really hard to do at the White House, and look how good a job they've done.
Austin, Texas: What do you think Bush's farewell address will be like?
Dan Froomkin: I can say with some confidence that it will be painful for just about everyone.
Minneapolis: How's your countdown clock? Are you ready for a change of subject yet? As a former White House Briefing(/Watch) junkie, I have to admit the race for his replacement has temporarily taken over my interests. I look forward to your analysis of our next president!
Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Keep reading -- there's plenty of interesting stuff going on yet. But yeah, I'm looking forward to January and a new challenge.
Charlottesville, Va.: Dan -- Your column today gets close to a question I keep asking myself -- what are the chances of Bush becoming a pariah ex-president? In the short term, maybe he pals around with other former world leaders, but with time and the inevitable disclosures of questionable activities while in office, will he become as toxic a former president as he is now?
Dan Froomkin: That's the big question. I'd say signs are not good for him. I think once he's out of the spotlight, people will hate him less -- but that doesn't mean he'll ever be loved widely.
Annapolis, Md.: Hi Dan. George Bush's present mien reminds me, chillingly, of his stunned response to the events of Sept. 11. On that morning, his ability (however you care to adjectivally describe it) to respond decisively was woefully overwhelmed. In like fashion, current events appear to have washed over him and his relevance, and once again, he appears demonstrably overwhelmed. I'm interested in knowing if we share a concern about the conjunction of W's ego, (particularly as it regards his legacy), his perception of his deepening irrelevance and disapproval, and his penchant for violent, irrational acts. Is anyone watching his trigger finger?
Dan Froomkin: I was actually with you until the part about violent, irrational acts. For one, I think Bush's complete leadership collapse that morning of Sept. 11 is an often overlooked but significant part of his legacy. And I agree that he seems checked-out a lot these days, particularly when he's talking about the financial crisis.
But I think he's more likely to drift inertially than take rash action. I think his id is crushed, not rampant. (That said, you've got to keep an eye out for his walking id, the vice president.)
Rockville, Md.: Could the Clinton-to-Bush transition provide an inkling of the nature of a possible Bush-to-Obama transition? How smoothly could it go?
Dan Froomkin: You mean you think they'll remove all the Os from the keyboards? (Actually, that was a myth, as I recall.)
That bviusly wuld be an utrageus ffense tward the pr bama peple.
Kansas: Hey Dan. It has occurred to me that you might be an uniquely qualified movie reviewer -- have you seen Oliver Stone's "W."? If you have, what did you think of it?
Dan Froomkin: I have seen it. First off, I found it boring as hell. Secondly, I found it more critical than I had expected, given the reviews (I thought the scene with Bush acting like a buffoon with the wounded soldier was scorching). Thirdly, I thought Stone portrayed the dissolute and wasted nature of Bush's youth and early adulthood a lot more vividly than the dissolute and wasted nature of his presidency. But finally, I appreciated that people were leaving the theater with an important question in their minds: How the heck did we let that happen? But all in all, deeply flawed.
A loyal book editor/reader in New York: If the White House suddenly told you that as a reward for all your years of reporting on the Bush presidency, you would afforded the chance to interview him, what would your first two questions be?
Dan Froomkin: Ha ha ha. Sorry. Must stop laughing.
I would ask him how he defines torture. And because I wouldn't stop asking until he answered, I probably wouldn't get to ask a second question. I think torture, and how we found ourselves to be a torturing nation, is the alpha and omega of this man's presidency.
Cincinnati: Hi Dan. Always a great pleasure to read you. Based on all documented evidence of what this administration has done (torture, justice dept. political firings, manipulation of intelligence to start a war, etc.), what are the mechanisms in place to prevent them to steal the elections in key battleground states? Or are we just "trusting" them to not go that far?
Dan Froomkin: Thanks. Well, first of all, I think attempts at voter suppression are much more likely than attempts at election stealing. But that's only because those are guaranteed. Also, I simply cannot imagine a widespread conspiracy to steal votes, but there's no question that elections are more vulnerable to theft than they used to be, and we all should be extremely vigilant.
Waunakee, Wis.: Is there a way to prevent or blunt blanket pardons being issued by Bush on his way out the door?
Dan Froomkin: Not formally or legally, no. But I strongly believe the time for a national discussion on that issue is before Bush grants them, not after. That might have some effect.
Washington: Dan, sorry your postings aren't getting the traffic they used to. Maybe you need to create an "October Surprise"! Regarding the midnight rulemaking, how difficult will it be for either new administration to undo these policies and/or others (torture, domestic surveillance/spying, global war on terror, etc.)? Thanks, we still appreciate your work.
Dan Froomkin: Thanks. And not to worry, I'm still getting lots of traffic -- just not as much as I'm used to.
As for the rulemaking, etc., some of those things can be hard to undo. Things like torture, the next president obviously could stop with a phone call.
Dan Froomkin: Okay, I've got to run. Thanks for all the great questions and comments. See you again here in two weeks and every weekday afternoon at washingtonpost.com/whitehousewatch.
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