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White House Watch

Dan Froomkin
White House Watch Columnist
Wednesday, December 17, 2008 3:00 PM

What's going on inside the White House? Ask Dan Froomkin, who writes the White House Watch column for washingtonpost.com. He was online Wednesday, Dec. 18 at 3 p.m. ET to answer your questions about the Bush legacy, shoe throwing and more.

The transcript follows.

Dan is also moderator of the White House Watchers discussion group and deputy editor of Niemanwatchdog.org.

Click here to read past White House Watch discussions.

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Dan Froomkin: Hi everyone and welcome to another White House chat. Sorry about the last-minute time change.

Today's column

is a look at the Bush legacy -- and a search for the

proper epitaph.

So far, my favorite suggestions from you readers are "Not a Fact-Checker" and "Heckuva Job".

And there's so much to talk about. So let's go. Who will toss the first shoe?

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Richmond, Va.: Instead of "Proper Epitaph," can we submit a "Proper Epithet?"

I've got a bunch on the tip of my tongue.

Okay, epitaph, here goes...

Here lies George W. Bush -- Mission Accomplished!

Dan Froomkin: Ha. Thanks. But what was the mission?

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Anonymous: If Bush can use "Protected the Nation" from a terrorist strike against the United States since Sept. 11, 2001. Then maybe Hoover fans can pitch him as having "Protected the Nation" from attacks by Martians. And the cost of protecting was the Katrina cleanup, housing meltdown, four thousand dead soldiers in Iraq plus US contractors, more than enough war costs to have paid for the financial bailout out of petty cash. I hate to say being President is like being a hockey goalie, you are remembered for the shots you didn't block rather than the ones you did.

Dan Froomkin: But there is such a thing as a spectacular (and memorable) save. I had to run out and missed Bush's speech today, but my big question when I read it is going to be: Has he he given us any evidence os such a save? Here's the speech, and here's a White House "Fact Sheet".

As far as I know, the "numerous terrorist attacks" the WH says have been prevented either were stopped due to regular police work, or never amounted to much, or both. The WH list:

* An attempt to bomb fuel tanks at JFK airport;

* A plot to blow up airliners bound for the East Coast;

* A plan to destroy the tallest skyscraper in Los Angeles;

* A plot by six al Qaeda inspired individuals to kill soldiers at Fort Dix Army Base in New Jersey;

* A plan to attack a Chicago-area shopping mall using grenades; and

* A plot to attack the Sears Tower in Chicago.

I think this piece I did for

NiemanWatchdog.org

last year, addresses/debunks most if not all of these.

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Helena, Mont.: How do you think the press will treat Cheney and Bush after Jan 20? Will there ever be a kind of national shunning, a sort of OJ pre-Las Vegas where you just knew he was guilty but got off, but there is no way you were going to validate him? Or will they just hide for two years and then come out, like Nixon and Kissinger, and become elder statesmen and the go to people to comment on anything to do with Mideast policies? I would bet on the latter. Maybe even earlier than two years.

Dan Froomkin: The question is whether there will be an OJ Las Vegas moment?

I don't think they'll hide, but I think the public won't really be interested in what they have to say for a while.

The elder statesmen option is a possibility, but only if Iraq turns out OK and if there isn't a truth commission or other investigation that keeps their excesses in public view.

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Boston: Hi Dan. Re the epitaph, how about "So What?"

Dan Froomkin: But is it sufficiently timeless? We'll see.

I mean right now the shoe thing seems like an indelible image -- but will we have forgotten about it before Jan. 20?

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Stamford, Conn.: Here Lies George Bush - Again

Dan Froomkin: Oh that's cold.

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Bethesda, Md.: I was struck by this quote from the Time magazine interview excerpted in your column today: "And outside of specific policy measures, two years from now, I want the American people to be able to say, 'Government's not perfect; there are some things Obama does that get on my nerves. But you know what? I feel like the government's working for me. I feel like it's accountable. I feel like it's transparent. I feel that I am well informed about what government actions are being taken. I feel that this is a President and an Administration that admits when it makes mistakes and adapts itself to new information, that believes in making decisions based on facts and on science as opposed to what is politically expedient.' Those are some of the intangibles that I hope people two years from now can claim."

I read that and thought, "Wow, that would be great." And then I thought, "Bush hasn't done Obama many favors, but he has reduced expectations to the point that mere competence and non-criminality would make Obama seem like Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln all rolled into one."

Dan Froomkin: Good point. After eight year of Bush, an endorsement of reality seems like a radical shift.

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Pearland, Tex.: It seems that in the course of the "victory lap" interview by Bush and Cheney they always express absolute certainty about their actions.

Has anyone, to your knowledge, done an analysis of this behavior?

Dan Froomkin: You mean, like a psychiatrist?

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Concord, N.H.: Dan, I enjoy your column. Today you describe the PR effort by the Bush White House to claim credit for having prevented another terrorist attack in this country after 9/11. Of course, they ignore the fact that 9/11 occurred on Bush's watch. We now know that pre-9/11 warnings of terrorist threats were presented to then-NSA Director Rice and to Bush (e.g., "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US") and that they failed to act on those warnings. Yet assigning blame to Bush and his administration for failing to prevent 9/11 seems to be off-limits in our political discourse. I am confident that if a President Gore had allowed 9/11 to occur despite repeated warnings, the right would not have given him a pass. Why does Bush continue to dodge any blame for 9/11, even as he is (correctly) blamed for his many other debacles?

Dan Froomkin: I think you raise a legitimate point. As far as we know, Bush is 0 for 1 in preventing massive domestic terror attacks.

I think Bush did get a relative "pass" for this at the time, since journalists were disinclined to write negatively about the president in a time of crisis. It will be interesting to see how this is dealt with in the inevitable retrospectives.

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Washington, D.C.: Dan: You've asked for questions to ask President Bush. The trick when framing a question is to ask one that doesn't lead to an argument or a dodge, and isn't antagonistic, but instead just seeks a small piece of information that would be interesting. Those questions are harder to dodge, especially if they are yes/no questions.

One suggestion: "Did you ever personally apologize to anyone in the CIA for your staff having leaked information concerning Valerie Plame to the press?" (Follow-ups: "To whom? When?")

Dan Froomkin: First of all, what I asked for were questions to ask Bush if he were on Pentothal. The point being, I wanted questions that he would never be expected to answer honestly -- unless he had no choice.

As for the "small piece of information" questions, I would normally agree with you completely. But consider what Bush biographer

Robert Draper

writes in CQ: "Early on, Bush had confessed to having a very poor memory -- 'I literally have trouble reconstructing events two weeks ago' -- and so I had learned that little was to be gained by hammering him on specific matters. Instead, I tended to throw out a couple of topics -- his relationship with al-Maliki, the Katrina flubs, immigration, the midterm 'thumpin' -- and let Bush free-associate, guided by my occasional intrusions."

In other words, it's possible that Bush just wouldn't know the answer.

And the problem with Bush's free-associating, of course, is that you can't be sure it's based on reality if he can't remember any of the details.

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Leesburg, Va.: An epitaph suggestion: Given the recent shoe incident and his amazing number of vacation days during his two terms, I suggest "loafer."

Dan Froomkin: Ha. Thanks.

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Vienna, Va.: Dan: If my memory is somewhat accurate, the only two terrorist attacks committed on US soil were both directed at the World Trade Center, and both attacks occurred eight years apart (The first, and less spectacular attack was in 1993). Could one then suppose that, in spite of domestic precautions, that all we have done is prepare for the last attempt (similar to the criticism that nations always prepare to fight the last war), and that another attack could be on the horizon - say, in 2009? Ironically, AFTER Mr. Bush is out of the Oval Office.

Dan Froomkin: Why we haven't been attacked is, I think, a very important question. See, for instance, my March 7 column, Why Haven't We Been Attacked?. One possibility is that no one's really tried -- see, for instance, the 2006 Foreign Affairs article by John Mueller, an Ohio State University political scientist and noted contrarian.

There are in fact three distinct possibilities: 1) No one has really tried to attack us a la 9/11 since then; 2) They've tried, but been tripped up by normal intelligence/police work by us or others that Bush can't take credit for; or 3) They've tried, but been tripped up thanks to Bush's extraordinary measures, such as warrantless wiretapping or the torturing of detainees.

Even if 3 is the case, that's not a moral argument, just a practical one. But the evidence we have, at this point, actually supports option 1 and, to some extent, option 2.

And yes, before I get angry comments: Saying we haven't been attacked again isn't strictly true, as in an attack shortly after 9/11 (now conveniently

blamed

on a dead man) a half-dozen letters containing anthrax bacteria were mailed to media and government offices, taking five lives.

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New York, N.Y.: The cultural metaphor of the shoe-throwing seems to elude Bush even more than the shoe itself did. Is he not aware of the widespread outpouring of respect and affinity from many Arabs for the Iraqi reporter who threw them? Has no one in the Bush bubble explained to him that this is more than one individual playing a silly prank?

Dan Froomkin: Here's Newsweek's Howard Fineman talking to Keith Olbermann on MSNBC Monday night:

"[T]he key to George Bush is that he doesn't really care... This is a guy capable of self-denial, but more than that, a studied indifference to the opinions of the rest of the world...[H]e's arguing our brand of democracy is so fundamental to human life, is so essential to the human condition, that local cultural differences don't matter as much as our basic commitment to freedom as we know it and understand it here in America. That's been his theory from the beginning. That was the theory that justified his response to 9/11. And that is the theory that's soliciting the throwing of shoes and the continued unsettled state of world opinion about the United States [and] in particular, George Bush's leadership. As slapstick as this was, as trivial as it was in a way, it's all too symbolic of what the rest of the world has come to view as George Bush's legacy in the world."

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Peaks Island, Maine: What do you find in the Senate Armed Services Committee report on detainee treatment that has not already been written about at length in "The Dark Side", "Torture Team", "Angler", etc?

And what is your take on why the report says nothing about false testimony presented circa May 2004 by senior DOD officials?

Dan Froomkin: Little if anything in the bipartisan Senate report that I wrote about in Friday's column, Pack of Liars, is necessarily new. But now it's official. And bipartisan.

You raise an interesting point about false testimony. The report (unusually) didn't hesitate to name names of the people responsible for the abuse -- but was conspicuously silent on the ensuing cover up. You would think they would be upset about having been lied to.

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Boulder, Colo.: ''I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.'' And the way to get it down to that size is to starve it of revenue. ''The goal is reducing the size and scope of government by draining its lifeblood,'' Grover Norquist

The starve-the-beast doctrine seems to be firmly within the conservative mainstream? Has George Bush succeeded beyond his wildest dreams by practically bankrupting the federal government and appointing incompetent people to fill federal positions. Am I being too cynical?

Dan Froomkin: First of all, yes, I think you're being too cynical. I don't think Bush is (consciously) a starve-the-beaster. (Although maybe I'm being naive.)

And -- irony of ironies -- if there was a starve-the-beast strategy, it backfired cataclysmically! The financial crisis is now so severe that Obama essentially has a blank check from the public for like a trillion dollars. That's real money. No one cares about the deficit right now. Had it not been for the financial crisis, Obama's options might actually have been more limited. So if the starve-the-beasters really exist, they just pushed things a bit too far. How like them (if they exist).

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Madison, Ind.: So how will he write a book about the past 8 years if he can't remember what happened 10 minutes ago? I can't imagine he keeps much of a diary or even a log. So -- will he just make up what he wishes he had done?

Dan Froomkin: Excellent questions. I suspect it will be a collection of stale talking points and rationalizations -- unless he gets a really good ghostwriter and researcher to help him. Hey, I wonder if Cheney's busy?

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Peaks Island, Maine: Epitaph per Howard Fineman

"A studied indifference to the opinions of the rest of the world..."

Dan Froomkin: It's a bit long, though. How about "Indifferent to the World"?

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Hanover, Va.: I'm not one to defend the Bush administration, but isn't saying that the anthrax attacks were a terrorist attack in the same manner as 9/11 a little problematic? If you assume, for the sake of argument, that the attacks were the work of the man that investigators have concluded was behind the attacks, and still call it "terrorism," wasn't the D.C. sniper also a form of terrorism? Rightly or wrongly, I think a distinction is made between domestic terrorism and terrorist acts from abroad. In that sense, we haven't suffered, on U.S. soil, a terrorist attack from abroad since 2001. But, as you say, unless there is some greater evidence of a foiled plot (or, if classified information is the issue, a report from someone outside the administration who has proper clearance that they've reviewed the evidence and agree that an attack has been thwarted), we'll never know if any such attacks were prevented.

Dan Froomkin: Yes, yes and yes. I think there is a huge difference between the anthrax and sniper attacks, on the one and, and a terrorist attack from abroad like 9/11. But it is worth remembering that all of them caused great fear.

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Richmond, Va.: Were you as aghast as I with Bush's "So what?" when Martha Raddatz of ABC News pointed out to him that al-Qaeda had not been in Iraq before the invasion, and at the shocking response itself to his own justification for going to war that has led to such death and destruction?

Dan Froomkin: Much like Cheney's "So?" -- also in response to a Raddatz question -- I think it has hugely potent metaphorical significance. It sort of seems to sum things up, doesn't it?

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Anonymous: Will White House reporters be creating a Golden Shoe Award?

Dan Froomkin: Reporters -- even those who have gotten mighty annoyed by the president -- are very unlikely to say anything that might be perceived as expressing solidarity with the shoe-hurler. See for instance Marc Sandalow in the San Francisco Chronicle.

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Dan Froomkin: Okay thanks everyone for all the questions and comments. Sorry I couldn't get to more of them. And don't forget to join my new discussion group, White House Watchers.

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