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Mouthpiece Is Given an Earful

Bush's communications director faces tough questions during an online public forum.

September 22, 2004|Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Softball questions they were not.

How can President Bush persuade the United Nations to help with Iraq, since he and Vice President Dick Cheney have "totally dissed" the world body?

Why is Bush "unwilling to acknowledge the mounting problems we [are] facing in Iraq?" Isn't he "unrealistically over-optimistic?"

Will the president "come clean about his missing years" in the National Guard? Has the White House ever purged documents from his military files?

Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, earned his pay Tuesday.

Bartlett appeared on "Ask the White House," an occasional question-and-answer forum the president's staff runs on the official White House website, www.whitehouse.gov. Since its inception, just about all senior White House officials have appeared on "Ask the White House."

But Bartlett's appearance featured a barrage of pointed questions from the likes of "Marilee from Denver" and "Josef from Tennessee," probably the toughest grilling that any administration official had encountered since "Ask the White House" was launched in April 2003.

The session ended after 12 questions, with Bartlett writing: "Sorry I need to run. I enjoyed taking your questions."

By contrast, when White House chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr. appeared Aug. 12, he fielded 33 questions, chatting about Barney, the president's dog, and such affairs of state as the quality of "West Wing burgers." At one point, he told "Dave from Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.," that Bush "is in phenomenal shape and gives those extremely fit Secret Service agents a good challenge." There was no immediate explanation from the White House as to why its website screeners passed questions to Bartlett that were so different in tone from those in past sessions. Nearly all previous sessions have been filled with questions -- and answers -- that ranged from the banal to the zany.

At the Democratic National Committee, one top staffer said he knew of no organized write-in effort among Bush detractors. "But I'd take credit for it if I could," he said. In his answers, Bartlett broke no new ground, adhering to familiar White House talking points.

When "Nathalie from Washington, D.C." asked about Bush's National Guard records, Bartlett wrote: "The president has released ALL the official records the federal government can find."

He told "George from Kettering, Ohio," who asked if Bush was being unrealistically optimistic about Iraq: "The president understands we are doing tough work in Iraq and that terrorists and insurgents are trying to literally blow up the progress we are making. We all want instant success. But the path from tyranny to democracy will be tough and take time.... But the fact of the matter is that we are winning. And pulling out now would be disastrous for Iraq's security and our own."

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