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White House press corps can't think on its feet
Scripps Howard News Service


May 04, 2005

Standing behind the podium in the East Room during his prime time press conference, President Bush was frankly surprised. Not about what was being asked, but about what wasn't.

It turns out that we have a mutual frustration, President Bush and I. It's about the White House press corps. We don't think it is doing a very good job at these news conferences.

Today, we have a valuable insight into the president's thinking, thanks to a rare confluence of journalism and politics that I'll explain later. (Hint: I didn't dig up this insight through investigative reporting; I interviewed another journalist who was in two right places at two right times.)

On Thursday night, the president figured he'd just made some big news - he began by announcing the first details of his Social Security reform plan and telegraphed hints that begged new questions.

He had promised: "All Americans born before 1950 will receive the full benefits." So will those born after 1950 face cuts in their benefits? Even though his staff withheld releasing its Social Security fact sheet until the conference started, Bush expected some tough questions on his plan and was prepared to reveal a few more details.

But in almost one hour, those questions weren't asked. Not until after three of America's once-proud, now shameless networks of broadcast news unplugged the president as he was talking to the nation. CBS switched to Survivor, Fox to Paris Hilton, NBC to Donald Trump. ABC was the only commercial broadcast network to continue covering the news.

Millions of Americans who were force-fed The Donald, The Survivor or The Eyeful Tower missed the night's final question - the one they most needed to hear answered. Ron Hutcheson, of Knight Ridder newspapers, noted that Bush's promise that future benefits would be no lower than they are now "probably won't mean much," unadjusted for inflation. He also asked about Bush's disclosure that his plan would feature a sliding scale of means-testing by which benefits for the lowest income people would increase more rapidly than for the rest.

In answering, the president revealed that 30 percent of Americans would be in this lower income group whose benefits would rise most rapidly. So 70 percent of Americans are going to have benefits rising at a lower rate? Middle class Americans would face de facto cuts in benefits in 2055 compared to what they are promised under the current rules? (Yes. Social Security officials estimate that all earning more than $25,000 would face de facto cuts in benefits - ranging from 20 percent to 40 percent for those making more than $90,000 a year.)

Bush's plan anticipates that these cuts - to make the system solvent - will be made up by significant gains from personal account investments in the stock market.

Fast-Forward: On Saturday night, Knight Ridder's Hutcheson, in another role as president of the White House Correspondents Association, was seated alongside Bush at the group's annual black tie dinner. "The president told me he appreciated my question - and that he was surprised that it hadn't been asked until the very last question," Hutcheson told me. (Yes, this is one of those times when one journalist has interviewed another to discover the thinking of the man we both cover. Hutch is my on-the-record source.) The president had more details to share, but time ran out.

Bush has made no secret that he has little use for formal prime time television news conference extravaganzas, where reporters write out their questions in advance so they can look good and sound sharp for their families, friends and bosses.

Indeed, this press conference included the usual time-wasters.

Temperature-taking questions: Are you frustrated by Congress?

Silly questions: About polls and whether he thinks he's responsible for Washington's "poisonous" political atmosphere? (He does not.)

And: "I'd just like to ask, simply, what's your view of the economy right now?"

On this occasion, the White House outsmarted itself by failing to brief the reporters in advance so they could ask informed (if not intelligent) questions that would have permitted Bush to better inform Americans about his Social Security plan.

But mainly, once again, many in the White House press corps undersmarted themselves by failing to think on their seats and on their feet. They failed to press a president who was primed to make even more prime time news.


Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.
E-mail him at martin.schram(at)

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