Revolt of the Press Corps

By Dan Froomkin

Special to washingtonpost.com

Monday, August 16, 2004; 11:09 AM

The press corps appears to have had about enough of those hokey "Ask President Bush" events.

Instead of taking questions from reporters, President Bush has become increasingly partial to playing talk-show host to an audience of sycophantic fans.

There were four "Ask President Bush" events last week and in each case, after a long speech and staged interviews with prepped guests, Bush opened the floor to some incredible softballs.

The format allows the president to come off as very smooth.

As John Harris writes in The Washington Post: "In loosening his style, Bush tightened his message. Fielding friendly questions at 'Ask President Bush' forums, or lathering up the crowds at pep rallies like the one here on Saturday afternoon, he presented his case for reelection with a force and fluency that sometimes eluded him at important moments over the past year."

There's never a nasty question, never a heckler, nothing but love. That makes for great imagery and great soundbytes.

But now the press is pulling back the curtain.

Bill Plante did a long report on the CBS Evening News on Friday, showing video of campaign wranglers trying to pump up the hand-picked crowd.

"The art of TV-friendly political stragecraft reaches new levels in this campaign," Plante says. "This tight control means that hecklers . . . are almost never seen at Bush events. . . .

"At events like these, it's all about getting the message without any distraction, and making sure that there's no public argument to spoil the party."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in her White House Letter in the New York Times: "Bush campaign officials readily say that they carefully screen the crowds by distributing tickets through campaign volunteers. . . .

"The result is often a love-in with heavily religious crowds. Bush relaxes, shows off his humor and appears more human than in his sometimes tongue-tied and tense encounters with the press."

Bumiller notes: "As of Wednesday in Wisconsin, Bush will have had 12 such campaign forums, which is one fewer than the number of solo news conferences he has had in three and a half years in the White House."

AFP writes: "President George W. Bush famously dislikes press conferences but has embraced 'Ask President Bush' sessions packed with supporters at least as eager to pay tribute to him as get an answer."

Here's the text of the most recent "Ask the President," in Beaverton, Ore. Here are the transcripts from previous events.

Religious Themes

Another defining aspect of these events is that the audiences are packed with evangelical Christians.

Maura Reynolds writes in the Los Angeles Times: "At town hall-style events from Niceville, Fla., to Albuquerque to Beaverton, Ore., many supporters posed the president with religiously themed questions and comments about faith, prayer and issues such as abortion and stem cell research.

"And although the president does not usually shy away from discussing his personal faith, he sometimes found himself in an awkward position -- trying to validate his supporters' views without endorsing them in a way that would alienate more-moderate swing voters. . . .

"Which is why the president deflected the comment with a joke when a 60-year-old man in Niceville, Fla., said Tuesday, 'This is the very first time that I have felt that God was in the White House.'

"'Thank you. Thank you all. Let me ask you a question: Do you like Jeb?' Bush asked, referring to his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush."

As John F. Harris and Jonathan Finer wrote in Saturday's Washington Post: "Bush had to calm the ardor of the crowd at Southridge High School in Beaverton. One woman noted that Oregon has one of the nation's highest percentages of 'unchurched' citizens and asked the president to 'take a minute to pray for Oregon.'

"Bush, who had won loud applause earlier when noting his Christian faith, told the woman 'I appreciate what you say' but then seemed to rebuke her statement. 'People can choose church or not church, and they're equally American,' he said, adding that it is important that 'we jealously guard' the tradition of protecting religious freedom.

"The crowd, seemingly surprised by Bush's refusal to endorse the woman's statement, responded with only a smattering of applause."

Character Assassination

The format also offers a highly public airing of unsubstantiated charges against Bush's opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry, that the campaign would never make directly.

And Bush doesn't jump to refute those.

For instance, in Beaverton:

"Q On behalf of Vietnam veterans -- and I served six tours over there -- we do support the President. I only have one concern, and that's on the Purple Heart, and that is, is that there are over 200,000 Vietnam vets that died from Agent Orange and were never -- no Purple Heart has ever been awarded to a Vietnam veteran because of Agent Orange because it's never been changed in the regulations. Yet, we've got a candidate for President out here with two self-inflicted scratches, and I take that as an insult. (Applause.)

"THE PRESIDENT: Well, I appreciate that. Thank you. Thank you for your service. Six tours? Whew. That's a lot of tours.

"Let's see, who've we got here? You got a question?"

No Substitute

These "Ask the President" events are no substitute for news conferences.

As White House press corps veteran and columnist Helen Thomas recently put it in an interview in the Progressive: "The President of the United States should be able to answer any question, or at least dance around one. At some time -- early and often -- he should submit to questioning and be held accountable, because if you don't have that then you only have one side of the story. The Presidential news conference is the only forum in our society, the only institution, where a President can be questioned. If a leader is not questioned, he can rule by edict or executive order. He can be a king or a dictator. Who's to challenge him? We're there to pull his chain and to ask the questions that should be asked every day, for every move."

Troop Withdrawal on Today's Agenda

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "In a speech Monday at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Cincinnati, Bush will announce one of the largest troop realignments since the end of the Cold War.

"Senior administration officials say Bush's plan affects 70,000 or more uniformed military personnel plus 100,000 of their family members and support personnel."

The Washington Post's Mike Allen and Thomas E. Ricks wrote on Saturday that Bush "plans to say that the change is necessary to adapt the nation's military to the demands of the global war on terrorism and to take advantage of new technologies, said a senior aide involved in developing the plan. "

Anne E. Kornblut writes in the Boston Globe: "Armed with the advantage of incumbency, President Bush is preparing to showcase his role as commander in chief this week while his Republican allies are attempting to cast doubt on the national security credentials claimed by his Democratic rival, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts."

After his speech in Cincinnati, Bush heads to Traverse City, Mich., for a campaign rally.

John Flesher writes for the Associated Press: "Traverse City and the rest of the northwestern Lower Peninsula is mostly friendly turf" for Bush.

All About Iraq

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "By challenging Kerry to say whether he too would have invaded Iraq, Bush has targeted what may be Kerry's greatest weakness with voters: a reputation for vacillation and hairsplitting.

"But Bush simultaneously may be spotlighting what many voters like least about him: a reluctance to change course even amid changing circumstances and a belief in his own decisions so unwavering that it straddles the line between confidence and arrogance."

Hugh Sykes reports from Washington for the BBC: "There is widespread - and, I sense, slowly growing - mystification about the Iraq war of George Bush and Tony Blair."

Broder Watch

The blogosphere is chattering about the significance of David S. Broder's column in The Washington Post on Sunday, in which he writes: "The factors that make President Bush a vulnerable incumbent have almost nothing to do with his opponent, John F. Kerry. They stem directly from two closely linked, high-stakes policy gambles that Bush chose on his own. Neither has worked out as he hoped.

"The first gamble was the decision to attack Iraq; the second, to avoid paying for the war."

Blogger Joshua Micah Marshall writes that Broder's words "mark a significant milestone simply because of Broder's role in defining conventional wisdom in Washington."

Bush and Florida

Ceci Connolly writes in The Washington Post: "With Gov. Jeb Bush as guide, the president saw the devastation wrought by Hurricane Charley, pledging speedy relief to a state that still smarts from the slow response by his father's administration to Hurricane Andrew in 1992."

Bush was asked about suggestions the tour was about Campaign 2004. "If I didn't come, they would have said, 'He should have been here more rapidly,' " he said. Here's the text of his remarks in Punta Gorda.

Henry Hamman and James Harding write in the Financial Times that the hurricane is "a natural disaster loaded with unforeseen costs for the state government of Jeb Bush, his brother, and for his re-election."

Congressional Quarterly columnist Craig Crawford tells Keith Olbermann on MSNBC: "Hard to know what's worse, the hurricane or the politicians that file in after them."

Who's Sensitive?

Bush administration critics have been quick to note just how many times Bush and Vice President Cheney have stressed the need to be sensitive in military affairs (see for instance, the Center for American Progress.)

But now a reader of the Eschaton blog points out that in the course of the very same interview with Hugh Hewitt on Thursday in which Cheney savaged Kerry for his use of the s-word, Cheney then used it twice himself, in comments about the fighting around a shrine in Najaf.

"Well, from the standpoint of the shrine, obviously it is a sensitive area, and we are very much aware of its sensitivity," Cheney said.

Writing Regulations

The Washington Post is publishing a series about how the Bush administration has used the regulatory process to redirect the course of government.

The stories show "how an administration can employ this subtle aspect of presidential power to implement far-reaching policy changes. Most of the decisions are made without the public attention that accompanies congressional debate."

Amy Goldstein and Sarah Cohen write about "the way OSHA has altered its regulatory mission to embrace a more business-friendly posture. In the past 3 1/2 years, OSHA, the branch of the Labor Department in charge of workers' well-being, has eliminated nearly five times as many pending standards as it has completed. It has not started any major new health or safety rules, setting Bush apart from the previous three presidents, including Ronald Reagan."

Rick Weiss writes about how "the Data Quality Act, a little-known piece of legislation that, under President Bush's Office of Management and Budget, has become a potent tool for companies seeking to beat back regulation."

The New York Times also weighs in on the topic. Joel Brinkley writes: "Allies and critics of the Bush administration agree that the Sept. 11 attacks, the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq have preoccupied the public, overshadowing an important element of the president's agenda: new regulatory initiatives."

Poll Watch

The latest Zogby poll shows Bush's approval rating up three points to 47 percent, with 52 percent disapproving. In the horserace, Zogby shows Kerry at 47 percent, Bush at 43 and Ralph Nader at 2.

Richard Morin and Christopher Muste write in The Washington Post: "Mounting concerns over the war and the sluggish economy have sent President Bush's popularity plummeting among young adults in the past four months, complicating his bid for reelection and challenging Republicans to increase their efforts to win over new or lightly committed young voters."

Valerie Plame Watch

Howard Kurtz asks in The Washington Post: "Do journalists deserve blanket immunity when accepting information that is illegal to leak, as in the Plame case?"

Tax Policy Watch

William Neikirk writes for the Chicago Tribune: "A once-quiet campaign by several top Republicans to abolish the IRS and replace the federal income tax with a European-style national sales tax has burst into the open, leading President Bush to withhold his blessing of the controversial proposal."

Karen Hughes Watch

It's official.

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service: "The most important woman in President Bush's political life is back on the payroll as of today.

"Longtime adviser and friend Karen Hughes traveled with Bush on the campaign trail this past week for the first time in the current election cycle."

In the 2002 campaign, as Herman notes, "The Bush-Hughes connection became the stuff of legend as reporters noted her penchant for mouthing words as Bush said them."