It was, perhaps, inevitable, and it happened late last week: The White House went completely incommunicado.
For two years, lawmakers, journalists and watchdog groups have complained that the Bush administration has been stingy with information on everything from energy policy to Iraq rebuilding. But the less-is-more communications approach reached its logical extreme in a pair of briefings in Texas on Thursday and Friday by deputy White House press secretary Claire Buchan. In an exchange of nearly 3,800 words, the spokeswoman managed not to answer about 75 questions. Thursday went like this:
Did President Bush discuss U.N. sanctions on Iraq with the Spanish prime minister? "I don't have the specifics of their call." Timing of the lifting of sanctions? "We have not set a specific time line." Timing of weapons inspections? "I don't have a time frame." Aid groups proselytizing in Iraq? "I haven't seen the reports." Scientists going to Iraq to find weapons? "That's a question you ought to put to DOD." Syrian proposal for disarming Middle East? "They know our views, and I will leave it at that." Will Bush make statements about Cuba? "I don't have anything on that." Information on Bush's discussion with Gen. Tommy Franks? "No."
After more such questions, the reporters shifted to a gentle line of inquiry: Bush's weekend plans. Friends visiting? "If he has friends joining him, I don't have a list of them." How about his parents? "At this point, I don't have anything on that." Is it possible to inquire? "If we get any updates on his visitors and can share them with you, we will." Where will he go to church? "We will have details on that tomorrow." What's for Easter dinner? "We will try and endeavor to get the menu."
With so much information in their notebooks, it's a wonder so many reporters returned Friday, when they asked whether Bush would meet with the released prisoners of war. "If we have any updates to the schedule, we'll let you know," Buchan said. But the intrepid scribes demanded an answer. Is it possible he'll meet them? "At this point, his schedule is that he will go to Fort Hood on Sunday to attend church." So it's an open question? "If there's anything to add, we'll always let you know." Will the POWs be at the church service? "If we get word that they're going to be there, we'll let you know if we're able to do that." Thwarted, the questioners returned to visitors to Bush's ranch. "I don't have their names." What about his parents? "I do not have any updates on any family that's arrived."
When the matter is inconsequential, such as what the president is eating for dinner, the White House's determination not to answer the question is harmless, and often amusing. But it is indicative of something larger. In a study of communications in the Bush White House, to be published in the June issue of Presidential Studies Quarterly, academic Martha Joynt Kumar writes that the administration's intense control over information has the benefit of keeping the message simple and unified. But it also leaves presidential policies unexplained and White House responses inflexible.
"While previous administrations regularly explained policy proposals from the White House podium, it has not been a practice of the Bush administration to do so," she writes. Kumar also observes that "one of the byproducts of a communications operation geared toward action is the difficulty inherent in listening while selling."
That trouble was clear in the briefing Friday, when Buchan was asked no fewer than 16 times about how North Korea's statement that it had begun reprocessing nuclear fuel would affect diplomacy. Buchan had only one talking point: "We're consulting with others; we're reviewing the facts." Again and again, the reporters inquired. Again and again, Buchan spoke of reviewing and consulting.
Muslims were upset that Franklin Graham, who had condemned Islam as evil, preached at the Pentagon last week. Now comes word that the White House held a private briefing for 141 evangelical Christian leaders March 27 to discuss the Iraq war and other subjects.
Those invited included Jerry Falwell, who apologized last year for calling the prophet Muhammad a "terrorist," and broadcaster Marlin Maddoux, who has proclaimed an "irrefutable connection" between Islam and terror. Also invited were the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, which is sending food to Iraq labeled "grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ," and Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who said Iraqis are "desperately in need of the gospel." Invited, too, was D. James Kennedy, whose ministry published an article calling Islam "one of the greatest challenges to Christianity."
A White House spokesman said Bush does not share these views and that similar briefings were held for groups such as veterans and think tanks.
The National Rifle Association, which opens its convention in Orlando this week, has held its fire after a Bush spokesman said the president supports reauthorizing the assault weapons ban. Not so the pro-gun Web site keepandbeararms.com, which did a somewhat, er, loaded Web poll. Asked whether they would still vote for Bush if he signs a renewal of the ban, 79.6 percent of respondents chose the option, "Hell no, and I'll tell all of my friends to abandon him, too." Three percent chose the less extreme option, "Yes, I would still vote for him, even after he proves that he's a traitor."