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Even With a War, Business as Usual (Post, March 20, 2003)
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Confronting Iraq: The White House
With Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer

Friday, March 21, 2003; 11 a.m. ET

With the early stages of military operations in Iraq underway, what is the mood in the White House? How was the decision to start the conflict with a surgical attack on Hussein and the Iraqi leadership made? Who is advising Bush? How will the outcome of the war in Iraq shape his legacy?

Washington Post Staff Writer Dana Milbank was online to discuss the latest news from the White House as the war in Iraq continues.

A Transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Washington, D.C.: Why has The Washington Post not reported the closing of Lafayette Park to protesters? Throughout the Vietnam War, the "People's Park" has been a central and important focus of our First Amendment. Yet, the Bush Administration has shut it down. As an analogy, the press does condemn Bush when he fails to hold news conferences.

Dana Milbank: I actually was in the White House briefing room when Lafayette Park was closed the other day. What happened is the police set up barricades along the south end of Lafayette Park, but some demonstrators broke through the barricades, leading to arrests and to the moving of the barricades to the north side of Lafayette Park. Yes, the park was open during the Vietnam War, and Pennsylvania Ave was open to traffic until a few years ago, and for years the White House lawn itself was open to the public. In a time of sarin and anthrax, security requires changes. I don't see it as a huge barrier to free expression that the demonstrations were pushed back to the other side of the park. Those working in the West Wing can't hear the demonstrators even when they're close in.

Boston, Mass.: Dana,

This may a strange type of question, but the Iraqi army seems to be putting almost no resistance. If the war goes too smoothly, will the U.S. be seen as a bully, in effect attacking a nation that has very little defense, and that in realty did not pose a threat to the U.S.?

Dana Milbank: The crucial question is not the level of resistance but whether the United States can recover, and show to the world, an Iraqi stash of chemical, biological and possibly nuclear weapons. One adviser to the administration told me yesterday that one explanation for the go-slow approach in Iraq so far is not to destroy the stockpiles of illegal weapons before they can be recovered. If the U.S. cannot demonstrate to the world that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction, the American image will suffer greatly. If a vast assortment of WMD are discovered, the American position against France et al will be vindicated.

New Rochelle, N.Y.: Thanks for your great articles in the spirit of Helen Thomas about this White House. I read you among others because I can't watch the propaganda news channels. Any flack for the story you did on Karen Hughes? This whole war seems like one very long PR and she's the force behind it.

washingtonpost.com: Hughes's New Role In Shaping Bush's Message Questioned (Post, March 20, 2003)

Dana Milbank: Thank you, although I think my role at the White House is quite a bit different from Helen's current role. Though she was a storied reporter for UPI for decades, she is now a Hearst columnist and is known mainly these days for hectoring Ari Fleischer during briefings over her objections to Bush's policies. By contrast, I see my role as holding the administration to account for the policies it proposes, the strategies it pursues and the words it utters. This sort of questioning should be done regardless of which administration is in power and which policies and strategies it is pursuing.

On the question of Karen Hughes's involvement in the war effort, I was interested in the comparison between her role now and that of the likes of James Carville and Paul Begala in the early Clinton administration. Then, there were accusations that these "outside" advisers to the president had potential conflicts of interest and should disclose their sources of income. Hughes receives $15,000 per month from the Republican National Committee and is not, apparently, subject to any financial disclosure requirements, either.

Stanton Park, Washington, D.C.: Why do you think the media shied away from difficult or critical questions during Bush's televised press conference?

Dana Milbank: This question has been much discussed since the press conference, and while I think there often can be a case made that the White House press corps is too tame, I don't think this is an example of that. Reporters asked a range of questions about an Iraq war: Its costs, its purpose, international objections, domestic protests, etc. The questions did not elicit elaborate responses, but that is because the president was determined to stick to his theme, not because the questions were weak. Where the questioners let the country down, perhaps, was in not asking about homeland security, al Qaeda, the economy and the budget.

Washington, D.C.: Re: your article on Bush strong arm tactics for enforcing loyalty -- are the examples you give so different from the tactics used by any White House such as exclusion, loss of access, cutting of opposition projects, etc.?

Dana Milbank: Many lawmakers and longtime political operatives my colleague and I interviewed for that story said there was indeed a difference in the current administration's tactics from those of the Clinton, Bush 41 and Reagan administrations. While every administration uses such tactics on its opponents, the current White House seems unusually aggressive in using such tactics on its friends and allies. The fear this has induced among Republican lawmakers and interest groups has been responsible for unprecedented unity and discipline.

Sacramento, Calif.: How successful is the philosophy that says one must not express dissent after the troops have been deployed? Are any members of Congress making the distinction between criticism of policy and criticism of soldiers? How long has this philosophy been successful in American politics, and how does the level of criticism now, from politician to citizen, compare with the opening days of the Vietnam War? Please respond as best you can, and thank you very much for your willingness to engage with the public.

Dana Milbank: There is, of course, a huge distinction between criticizing a war and criticizing the soldiers fighting the war. That, apparently, is what Daschle was attempting the other day. But his remarks came across as opportunistic: he was positioning himself, and his party, to share credit if the war goes well and to avoid blame if it goes badly. That, to some extent, has been the position of the Democratic presidential candidates and other party leaders--not a particularly courageous position. On the other hand, the response from some Republicans, such as DeLay and Racicot, has been to question Daschle's patriotism and to ignore the distinction between questioning a policy and questioning the troops. It hasn't been a proud moment for either side.

Washington, D.C.: Dana -- I appreciate that you feel it is your duty to hold the Administration to account -- and I applaud your knowledge and writing ability -- but your hard-line coverage of this administration seems to be biased against it, and I am curious why you think it's your obligation to try to spin the White House's spin rather than just report the facts and let us decide for ourselves how we should think and feel about the President and his policies?

Dana Milbank: That's an important question, and worthy of a much lengthier discussion than this format. Many Republicans and conservatives assume that I have a "liberal bias" against President Bush and his administration. Similarly, when I covered President Clinton and Al Gore's presidential campaign, many Democrats and liberals assumed I had a "conservative bias" against them. I do indeed have a bias in my coverage, but it is not an ideological or partisan one. It is a bias in favor of honest and open government. This puts me into an inherently adversarial role with many politicians in both parties, particularly those in the White House, because the place has such concentrated authority and unified messages.

As I see it, I am "reporting the facts," as you put it. If you are merely looking for a transcription service, you can get the president's remarks and Ari Fleischer's briefings verbatim from www.whitehouse.gov. I believe readers of the Washington Post are paying their 35 cents each morning because they want to understand what is truly happening--not what spin doctors, be they Republican or Democratic, say is happening.

Pennsylvania: The Bush White House seems to have done a good job solidifying political power: they have Speaker Hastert on board, and he has the House committee chairs on board, and they have Senator Majority Leader Frist on board. This is an enviable position to be, in terms of power. Yet, what happens if somehow it all falls apart, if the economy or the war or some other incident goes bad? Do Republicans have a plan to distance themselves from the Bush Presidency, or is the whole party essentially putting their future into the hands of their President?

Dana Milbank: By any measure, the Bush White House and the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill, even before Frist replaced Lott, has been strikingly unified. As we reported today, some rank-and-file Republicans are beginning to chafe at this. As the House budget vote shows, the unity is holding, if narrowly. Historically, the discipline changes after either a scandal or a major policy failure. In the Clinton administration, both came fairly early. The Bush administration has not had a significant case of either.


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company