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Kelly Wallace: Scoping out the White House

Kelly Wallace is a White House correspondent for CNN. Since her appointment in October 1999, she has reported on presidential activities both nationally and internationally.

Q: Have there been any surprises covering President George W. Bush in the White House in terms of how the administration treated issues that came up?

WALLACE: There have been a couple of surprises. First, this president has not sought out the spotlight, and in fact, has kept a low profile during some major news events. He didn't say much when the Seattle earthquake hit, or after some recent school shootings, and he didn't choose to be on hand for the homecoming for the crew members detained by the Chinese. This represents a stark contrast from how former President Clinton would have handled these situations.

Secondly, what was also surprising was how little the administration itself said when major international news events took place during the first several weeks of the Bush White House. I remember when that U.S. submarine struck the Japanese fishing vessel on a Friday night, the administration did not say much until Monday. Again, this has changed a bit over time. As the administration has gotten up to speed, it has responded more extensively and more quickly. Still, it was surprising during those first weeks of the new administration, especially when compared to the Clinton White House, which spoke out quickly on almost every national and international development.

 
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Q: Has Bush been accessible to the White House media?

WALLACE: The president has been accessible, although any access is quite limited. Typically, Bush has one event a day during which a small group of reporters can ask a few questions. His aides seem to be doing a good job, keeping him from getting hammered with several questions on a daily basis. This, of course, can be frustrating for reporters.

Bush was criticized during the first weeks of his administration for not holding an official news conference. His aides said they were planning all along to hold a (news conference) after his first 30 days and scheduled one during the end of February. Another news conference was held at the end of March, around the 60-day mark.

Also, the president has taken the time to meet with reporters to give members of the White House press corps a sense of his thinking on a variety of domestic and international issues.

So, overall, I would say we have access to him, but not as much as we would like.

Q: How does the administration react to what it perceives as negative publicity?

WALLACE: Well, we have seen the administration react quickly to negative publicity by trying to stop any unfavorable story in its tracks. For example, early on, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card told USA Today that the White House offices on AIDS policy and race relations would be closed. Early in the morning, the day the story hit the newsstands, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said that Card made a mistake and that the chief of staff did not know the offices would remain a part of the administration.

A second example of this same rapid response was concerning news of a decision at the Agriculture Department. A senior staffer at the Agriculture Department told The Washington Post that the administration had decided not to continue with salmonella testing at public schools. The White House immediately shot down the story, saying the staffer was mistaken.

Cynics might say the administration reacted to negative publicity and changed its policy. The White House dismisses such a notion.

What is clear is this administration does react quickly to negative stories.

Q: Who are the big players in the White House? Any surprises there?

WALLACE: You may recall then-Gov. Bush had a so-called "Iron Triangle," three people who served as his closest advisers during the presidential campaign. They were Karen Hughes, his communications director; Karl Rove, his political strategist; and Joe Allbaugh, Bush's campaign manager.

Well, in this White House, you might not be surprised to hear that two of those three people are part of the president's new "Iron Triangle." Hughes, the president's counselor, and Rove, his senior adviser, are viewed as two of the three most powerful people in the White House. The third is believed to be Andrew Card, the president's chief of staff.

Of the three, Hughes seems to be the one person whom the president trusts and relies on more than any other.

However, when it comes to international policy, President Bush seems to consult Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, perhaps more than any other member of his national security team. For example, during the standoff with China, he talked with her repeatedly.

Of course, his vice president, Dick Cheney, also serves as a key adviser and is viewed as perhaps the most influential and powerful vice president in modern history.

Q: Compare the Bush style to former President Bill Clinton. What are the major differences?

WALLACE: One of the major differences I noted earlier. Whereas former President Clinton would often speak out and inject himself into almost every major issue, President Bush has taken a more low-profile approach.

Secondly, Bush appears to run the White House like a corporate CEO, delegating work to his advisers, who then report back to him or to his staff, before he makes key decisions. Meetings are said to be run efficiently, starting and stopping on schedule. This is quite a contrast to former President Clinton who often would debate issues for hours with his aides, and debate them some more, before making decisions. Meetings in the Clinton White House could last several hours.

Other differences include the fact that President Bush is always on time and is sometimes even early for events, whereas the former president was notoriously late, with the Clinton White House always running a few minutes behind schedule. Clinton would often speak for about 35 to 45 minutes at an event and remain behind, shaking almost every hand in the audience. Bush's speeches are shorter, and he seems to spend less time glad-handing.

Finally, both men are very charismatic, but President Bush seems to have a better relationship with the press. He is known to give nicknames to his favorites in the press corps and enjoys playing jokes, such as popping in the briefing room unannounced, surprising any reporters, producers and photographers who might be there waiting for the next White House event.

Q: Is it hard for reporters to get the inside scoop on the White House?

WALLACE: It has been a tougher challenge with this White House to get any scoops than with the Clinton administration. First, Bush aides often want the president to make the news, so there are less leaks like the ones we saw during the Clinton White House, which were designed to focus attention on a story before the president made an announcement.

Secondly, there are only a handful of advisers who are really involved in all major decisions, and again, they don't want to upstage the president, and many don't want to talk on background. During the Clinton administration, you could often find a number of senior administration officials who would talk on background about current or future issues affecting the White House.

Q: Has Bush been able to live up to his promise to change the partisan atmosphere in Washington?

WALLACE: In the beginning, the president surprised many people by taking steps such as inviting a record number of Democrats and Republicans to the White House during his first weeks in Washington, and becoming the first president in modern history to attend the opposing party's congressional retreat.

So, there was a lot of talk about the b-word, bipartisanship, during the first few weeks. That changed with time, as Democrats charged the president wasn't interested in negotiating about any parts of his agenda. Some lawmakers accused the president of taking the "It's my way or the highway" approach.

Frustration with the president may have led to what happened in the Senate during debate on his budget blueprint. All Democrats but one and some moderate Republicans voted for a $1.2 trillion tax cut instead of the $1.6 trillion plan the president was pushing.

Bush may be more inclined to negotiate now, following this vote, than before.

Q: How would you characterize his relations with congressional Republicans and Democrats?

WALLACE: I would say he has good relations with congressional Republicans, and when it comes to Democrats, many lawmakers say they like the president, but they question whether he will negotiate with them.

One interesting development is that both Republicans and Democrats are starting to question Bush's commitment to getting his agenda passed and believe he should be doing more.

Republicans have privately said they think the president could have done more lobbying of key senators before the vote on his budget blueprint and are urging him to do more in the next several weeks. And now, some Democrats are saying they don't think the president has done enough to get agreement for his education reform plan.

This is another contrast with former President Clinton. No one ever questioned whether he was doing enough as he often worked the phones continuously leading up to any key votes.

The White House says the president is talking and meeting with lawmakers as he sees fit, but he may be forced to do some more lobbying just to quiet critics who charge he needs to be doing more.

Q: How has life inside the White House changed with the Bush administration? There's a dress code, for instance.

WALLACE: Life has changed quite a bit inside the White House. As you noted, the Bush administration instituted a dress code, which means no jeans in the West Wing. This is a difference from the Clinton White House, when during the weekend, you would often see senior staffers in their jeans and T-shirts toiling away in the West Wing.

You don't often see a lot of senior Bush staffers at the White House during the weekend. President Bush, aides say, wants his staff to work hard but efficiently, encouraging his aides to leave during the week at a decent hour and to remain home with their families during the weekends. The president himself often goes to the presidential retreat at Camp David during the weekends. During the Clinton administration, senior staffers often spent most of their weekends in the West Wing. Clinton also remained at the White House, choosing to go to Camp David only once in awhile.

As I noted earlier, another difference is that the Bush administration tries to run like clockwork, with meetings and events beginning on time, while the Clinton White House was often behind schedule.

Q: Does President Bush consult much with his father on running the country?

WALLACE: We really don't know. The White House says that any conversations between President Bush and his father, the former president, are "private," and therefore the administration won't say when the two men talk or what they are talking about.

This question came up just recently during the standoff between Washington and Beijing. Everybody wanted to know if the president was seeking advice from his father, who served as a U.S. diplomat in Beijing and who has extensive experience working with the Chinese government. The president's spokesman and his top aides would not say if Bush's father gave him any advice, or if the two talked about the standoff at all.

The senior Bush has said he will be providing love and support to his son, but that the president doesn't need his advice. Still, what could be more valuable than the advice of someone who has done the job, so it seems hard to believe President Bush isn't talking to his dad about issues and that the former president isn't giving the current president some advice along the way.

Q: How effective has President Bush been at getting his message out and controlling the message, given his ability to stay "on message"?

WALLACE: Early on, during the first weeks of the Bush administration, President Bush and his aides were quite effective at controlling the message and staying "on message." You'll recall in the beginning it was the "issue a week White House," with the president focusing on education during week No. 1 and then tackling other issues, such as his faith-based initiative, the military and tax cuts, during future weeks.

The White House, though, did have some trouble dominating the headlines, when other developments took center stage, such as Republican Sen. John McCain's quest for campaign finance reform and the investigation into former President Clinton's pardons.

But even though other stories were getting attention on Page One in the nation's newspapers, the president showed some discipline and continued to talk about his budget and tax plans and other parts of his domestic agenda. Aides said that the national press corps might not have been paying attention, but that local and regional reporters were. And so, the president traveled around the country, getting glowing local coverage for his plans, even while the national press corps was focused on other issues.

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