Martha Brant

Stories by Martha Brant

  • West Wing Story: A Delicate Balance

    When Karen Hughes asked President Bush about sharing his weekly radio address with his wife some months ago, he replied, "What do you need me for?"They agreed that Laura Bush would be the most effective in getting out the message: condemning the Taliban's treatment of women. She became the only First Lady to present a presidential radio address and, in doing so, she launched her international debut as a soft-spoken advocate for the administration's foreign-policy goals. "She's a natural communicator," explains Hughes.On Tuesday, the First Lady presented Act II. In Prague, at the tail end of her first solo tour abroad, Mrs. Bush gave a 13-minute address on Radio Free Afghanistan. "America ba shooma ahst [America is with you]," she greeted listeners in Farsi. With photographers in the cramped studio clicking and flashing in her face, she dashed off the speech in just one take. It was then translated into Afghanistan's other main languages, Dari and Pashto. With the Loya Jirga--a grand...
  • West Wing Story: On The Road With Laura Bush

    "Did you pack 15 different outfits? Or 30?" Laura Bush playfully asked reporters as we boarded her plane Monday. It had taken days to prepare just the First Lady's clothes for her first solo trip to Europe.Her multiple garment bags were grouped by the cities she would visit during our nine-day tour: Paris, Budapest and Prague. The famously organized First Lady went so far as to have a computerized itinerary of which outfits were for what events.Even before she debuted her soft lemon Oscar de la Renta suit Tuesday morning at her first international speech, Le Figaro was praising her toilette simple (natural look). "She listens more than she speaks," the paper also said. Perhaps with that assumption in mind, Le Figaro scarcely covered the speech Bush gave that morning to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development about education as a weapon against terrorism. First Ladies, it seems, are still relegated to the style pages--especially in France, where the candidates'...
  • West Wing Story: His Mind On Education

    If there is one issue George W. Bush is truly passionate about it's education. He seemed relieved to take a break from the Middle East this week to talk about a topic he knows very well and believes has crystal clear solutions.Between meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday and Jordanian King Abdullah II today, he has been flying around the Midwest to talk about "accountability" in schools and remind voters in key states like Michigan and Wisconsin of the education-reform bill he signed.During his first stop at Vandenberg Elementary School in Southfield, Mich., on Monday he seemed annoyed when reporters asked him about Yasir Arafat. "If I have been asked once, I've been asked 20 times about him. He has disappointed me," he answered tersely. But when the talk turned to education, he was voluble. "Public education is on the minds of our citizens every day, because our citizens see public schools in their neighborhoods and our citizens know how important public...
  • West Wing Story: D.C. United

    In the Bush White House, there is one sure thing that will block your way to a bigger and more powerful job: wanting it.Or at least acting like you do. That's why when top aide Karen Hughes announced her resignation last week it set in motion an almost comedic routine among likely beneficiaries who denied any interest in carving up her territory.Chief strategist Karl Rove had the funniest act. Much has been made in Washington of the rivalry between Rove and Hughes. They have at times seemed like high schoolers, both competing for favor with the most popular kid: President Bush. So Rove, in a classic reverse-psychology move, made fun of the speculation that he would benefit most from Hughes's departure. He gets a kick out of his Machiavellian image. Last week, as two of my colleagues from The Washington Post were interviewing Hughes in her office, Rove popped in with a yardstick in hand and started measuring. Of course the photographer captured the moment, and it made the front page...
  • West Wing Story: Karen, We Hardly Knew Ye

    Back in Texas, when George W. Bush was trying to decide if he should run for president, he told his longtime Texas adviser Karen Hughes, that he wouldn't run without her. But now that Bush is settled in, he'll have to go the rest of the way sans Hughes. Arguably Bush's closest and most trusted aide, she officially resigned today. "I have made a difficult but right decision to move our family home back to Texas," Hughes told reporters this morning at a surprise briefing.In Hughes's case, the often tired "I want to spend more time with my family" excuse is true. Her 15-year-old son, Robert, had not been happy with Washington or his mother's hours. The president "respected" her decision, Hughes says, but it is a big blow to him personally and to the working infrastructure of the White House.The daily communications meeting fell silent when she told her staff the news this morning. With the exception of a few top staffers, no one seemed to know. Perhaps it was a testament to the tight...
  • West Wing Story: More Than A War Of Words

    People holding banners and signs are jockeying with tourists for the best position in front of the White House more often these days. Soon after George W. Bush took office, I'd occasionally see someone with a "Hail to the Thief" poster, referring to Election 2000. But during the height of the war in Afghanistan, I rarely saw any protesters outside 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Now, with war in the Middle East, both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli groups are bringing their case to the White House.This week the White House went to the protesters. Bush sent his Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, to address tens of thousands of Israel supporters attending a rally on the Hill Monday. Wolfowitz, a pro-Israel hawk who is also Jewish, should have been a welcome messenger. But hecklers called out "no more Arafat" and booed when he spoke of "innocent Palestinians." "I think Secretary Wolfowitz did an excellent job delivering the President's message," Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said...
  • West Wing Story: Bush Versus The Senate

    It's going to take more than hope and a prayer to bring the two sides together in peace. No, not the Israelis and Palestinians, but, rather, the White House and the Senate.Congress is back from recess this week and the Bush administration has rolled out a new partisan offensive. Yesterday, President Bush swung by a GOP fund-raiser in Greenwich, Conn., where a country-western band called Gunsmoke (incongruously from Darien, an upscale Connecticut town) warmed up the crowd. The music proved a perfect intro for the verbal potshots that followed. Every time the president spoke of some piece of legislation he thought vital, he added, "That bill passed the House ... It stalled in the Senate. Nothing seems to be moving out of the Senate these days."When he was governor of Texas, Bush prided himself on his friendly relations with Democrats in the State House. Through his personal politicking, he made an ally of the powerful Texas Democrat Bob Bullock. But here in Washington, Bush has made...
  • West Wing Story: Bush's Tears

    For all his cowboy swagger, President Bush is a crier. "Nobody grieves harder than I do when we lose a life," he told reporters at his recent press conference. "It breaks my heart when I see a mom sitting on the front row of a speech and she's weeping, openly weeping for the loss of her son. It's, it's just--I'm not very good about concealing my emotions."Bush's eyes will often well up. Sometimes with tears of pride, like when he talks about the life story of Al Gonzales, his White House counsel and an immigrant's son. The president is tremendously sentimental. Forget about putting his parents anywhere near him. At his inauguration he purposely kept them out of his line of sight so he could stay as dry-eyed as possible. He has learned not to brush the tears away. (Photographers would love to get a shot of the president wiping his eyes, but they can't easily capture invisible teardrops sliding down his face.)Since September 11, there have been so many reasons to cry. Bush's most...
  • West Wing Story: November's In The Air

    Press Secretary Ari Fleischer brought props to the daily White House briefing yesterday. He brandished the blue, bound volume of the National Energy Policy report from the podium."This is the report, and people can read it for themselves," he said. "I hope people will read it, and they'll see that of the recommendations that are in here, there are many that were supported by the environmental community."His defensiveness was understandable. A court order has just forced the Energy Department to turn over documents relating to the vice president's controversial task force that put the report together. Environmental groups say they were hardly consulted compared to energy companies. And government lawyers had blotted out whole lines and paragraphs. Other pages were blank. When asked about the "censorship," Fleischer rejected the term then read from the law (which he just happened to have at the podium) under which the documents were redacted. Another lawsuit is in the works to get the...
  • It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like 1980

    They were not the headlines the Bush administration wanted. FIDEL SECUDE LA CUMBRE shouted the Mexican newspaper Milenio on Friday. FIDEL SHAKES UP THE SUMMIT. Bush had come to the United Nations antipoverty summit here in Monterrey, Mexico, hoping to avoid wrangling with Cuba's Fidel Castro. "It won't surprise you that we're not meeting with Castro," national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice told reporters before leaving Washington.When asked why Rice seemed so snippy, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said today: "That's a topic on which we snip." Not a "demi snip" or a "diplo snip" but a "full-throttle snip," he said. The administration had made it plain that they didn't want Bush to have to even be in the same room as Castro. There were plans for the U.S. delegation to protest his dictatorship by leaving their seats when Castro gave his speech Thursday.Instead, it was Fidel Castro who made the most dramatic exit. Castro wore fatigues and tennis shoes to the podium. In the past,...
  • West Wing Story: Church And President

    "America is a nation guided by faith," a fired-up President Bush told a crowd of Chinese university students during his visit to Beijing last week. "Ninety-five percent of Americans say they believe in God, and I'm one of them." It was the closest he'd come to a public testimonial about his faith since he was campaigning in the Deep South. ...
  • West Wing Story: When In China...

    After George W. Bush gave a speech extolling U.S. values and freedom on Friday, he fielded questions from students at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He was open and engaging as he called on several Chinese students to ask about anything they wanted--from Taiwan to crime, it turned out. Under pressure from the U.S. Embassy, Chinese TV covered his speech and the Q&A session live. ...
  • West Wing Story: On The Border Of 'Evil'

    As President Bush surveyed the DMZ that splits the two Koreas, a siren song came wafting over the rusted razor wire. The cold air transported the chorus of ethereal women's voices from loud speakers just two kilometers to the North. Soon the recording would stop and a man--likely North Korean President Kim Jung Il--would start speaking stridently in Korean. ...
  • West Wing Story: Bush's Olympics Ad Lib Causes A Stir Abroad

    With just nine little words, President Bush caused an international stir last week. No, it had nothing to do with the "axis of evil." But it does shed some light on why the United States and its allies don't always speak each other's political language. ...
  • West Wing Story: Bush The Public Servant

    I've finally discovered one of the keys to successful reporting on Washington--the green room. There are many theories of how the waiting room in TV studios got that peculiar name. Some say it goes back to Shakespeare. Whatever the derivation, if you sit in one long enough you'll meet all sorts of important (and quite a few self-important) politicians and pundits. ...
  • West Wing Story: A Defiant Little Act

    Ever since Ronald Reagan's days, there has been a surprise guest at the State of the Union Message. Last night's was none other than ... Vice President Dick Cheney. ...
  • West Wing Story: Pretzelgate And Enron

    "I just have one question for you," a good friend of mine in Los Angeles told me. "Was he drunk?" She didn't buy the pretzel theory: that President Bush had passed out, fallen off the couch and cut his cheek on his glasses when the salty snack went down the wrong way. ...
  • West Wing Story: A New Gop?

    Karl Rove is not big on regret. When pressed to come up with something that has disappointed George W. Bush, the top White House strategist can think of only one thing: as president, he can no longer use e-mail.Rove assessed the first year of the Bush administration on Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, the conservative think tank. He confessed to one surprisingly candid shortcoming of Team Bush. "We failed to marshal support among the base as well as we should have," he told the audience during the 75-minute forum. "The big discrepancy is among self-identified, white, evangelical Protestants, Pentecostals and fundamentalists," Rove explained. Instead of the 19 million he expected to turn out for Bush, just 15 million of these voters cast their ballot for Bush. "Politically involved religious conservatives" may be returning to the sidelines," Rove mused. "I hope it's temporary."Charles Francis, the founder of the Republican Unity Coalition and an old Bush family friend,...
  • West Wing Story: The First Lady's Grace

    Laura Bush said more with her laugh, her glances and her gestures than she did with words last week during our interview with the First Lady and the president. My colleague Howard Fineman and I sat down with the First Couple on Air Force One the day before Thanksgiving for an hour. It was their first joint interview since September 11 and the first time I had ever tried to interview them together.I wasn't sure how well it was going to work with all four of us (not to mention three aides and a stenographer). Interviews always make for funny personal dynamics. I try to just have a conversation, but the simple act of turning on a tape recorder inevitably changes the tone.Mrs. Bush, however, immediately established that comfortable tone: she ordered a basket of pretzels. She'd pop one in her mouth and then nudge the basket down to the other end of the table or over to her husband. There we were in the Air Force One conference room with a war going on passing around the pretzels. At one...
  • West Wing Story: 'Tis Not The Season

    The White House has decided that its doors will stay closed to public tours--even for the holidays. Nobody at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is more upset about this decision than the First Lady, who often refers to the mansion as the "People's House." Of course, there were always sections that were off limits to the public. During tours, a screen stood between the tour pathway and the stairs leading to the residence. When Laura Bush used to go downstairs to take the dogs for a walk she often heard the sounds of excited citizens beyond the screen. Since the tours ended on September 11, then restarted for a day, then ended again, Mrs. Bush says, "It's lonely and sort of quiet in there. So I hope that will come back pretty soon."No such luck. The word from the White House is that the tours are off limits "until further notice" for security reasons. "Evil does not take a break or take a rest for the holidays," Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said on Tuesday. The Secret Service decided it was...
  • West Wing Story: Down-Home Diplomacy

    Even before President Putin arrived in Texas on Wednesday afternoon, George W. Bush was extolling his beloved home state. Bush gave his Russian counterpart an impromptu art tour of the Oval Office, pointing out the various landscape paintings he personally picked out to remind him of home. There was a landscape of Central Texas, East Texas and, of course, Bush's own West Texas. To some, they might all look roughly the same--arid earth and big sky. But to Bush, they each offer a different perspective. To Putin, the paintings lacked one key ingredient that makes Texas Texas. "Where are the Texas people?" Putin asked, a Texas sized smile on his face. "I'm a Texas person," Bush replied.In this era of identity politics, Bush is most definitely a Person of Texas. He waxes about Texas the way immigrants talk about their native lands. "It's important for [Putin] to see the fairest state of all 50," Bush told reporters upon landing in Texas yesterday. The president had not been back to his...
  • Bush's New War Room

    This time, the White House was ready. Last Saturday morning, Osama bin Laden released a videotaped message denouncing the United States and the "unjust, ferocious campaign" against Afghanistan. The tape was sent to Al Jazeera, the independent Arab television station. But before it was aired in full, the Bush administration launched a pre-emptive strike--negotiating with Al Jazeera to give a U.S. spokesman nearly two hours of live airtime to respond. Speaking in fluent Arabic, Christopher Ross, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria, charged, "The terrorists are falsifying facts and history."The media coup was the work of the Coalition Information Centers, the administration's new "rapid response" team, created to wage the propaganda war against bin Laden. The CIC is the Bush team's answer to a growing problem: though many Arab governments support the United States, bin Laden has been winning the war of words in the souks and universities of the Arab world. Bin Laden and his Taliban...
  • West Wing Story: Ground Zero For Communications

    When GOP supporters at home and U.S. embassy staffs around the world woke up this morning, they already had an e-mail from the newly created Coalition Information Centers. It was the "daily message" from the CIC, the White House's round-the-clock message machine.The Center's e-mails probably reach hundreds of thousands of people around the world (counting pass-along). Today's message: that the world's financial-services firms must either help shut down terrorists or forget about doing business with the United States. That's a talking point that dovetailed nicely with today's federal clamp down on Islamic financial networks operating in the United States.While it zaps out its daily missive, the White House, in turn, has been inundated with messages from its allies. European leaders have been telling President George W. Bush and his staff that they need to shore up public support for the war abroad. France's President Jacques Chirac brought it up with Bush yesterday. Britain's Tony...
  • West Wing Story: Eminence Grise

    There is a lot of frightening stuff happening at the White House. So much so there's even a scary new lexicon that has crept into the West Wing: "aerosolized" (when anthrax particles are small enough to get into the air); the Orwellian-sounding "Domestic Consequences" group (which deals with the economic fallout of Sept. 11); the "evil one" and the "evil-doers" (how the president refers to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda respectively).The "Office of Homeland Security" has raised the most hackles around town. Even one high-powered Republican consultant, who has worked with his share of right-wingers, finds the name too draconian. "We always tried to stay away from those kinds of names," he says. "It sounds like Der Vaterland."Perhaps what is most spooky is the fact that Vice President Cheney has disappeared again to his "secure location"--though you can feel his presence lurking almost everywhere. Nothing has become a more frightening sign of an imminent terrorist threat than Cheney...
  • West Wing Story: White House Blues

    President George W. Bush said yesterday that he is confident that he is safe at work. But after hearing that trace amounts of anthrax were found in a remote mail-screening facility, not everyone who works in and around the White House shares the president's confidence. The deadly bacteria showed up on a "slitter" machine used to open the mail, though it has not actually been found in the White House itself.As of Wednesday morning, about 120 people at the remote site and at the Old Executive Office Building--where the White House mail gets sorted after being screened--had all tested negative for anthrax. More tests are underway. It turns out that the White House mail originates from the Brentwood facility in D.C. where two workers contracted anthrax and died. And the president himself? Asked twice if he had been tested, Bush would only say, "I don't have anthrax." The tea-leaf reading around the White House interpreted that to mean he had been either vaccinated or given Cipro.Letters...
  • Quick, Meet The Press

    SHANGHAI, Oct. 19 -- I had been feeling a bit miffed about President Bush's prime-time press conference last week. It wasn't just that he didn't call on me, but that he didn't really answer the questions he did take. He even asked himself a question. ("How do I respond when I see that in some Islamic countries there is vitriolic hatred for America?") But after attending the "press conference" during the bilateral meeting between China's Jiang Zemin and Bush on Friday in Shanghai, I have a whole new appreciation of our dealings with the president.President Jiang didn't really want to do any press at all. His handlers had even insisted that the cameramen kill the TV lights. "They bother our leader's eyes," they told U.S. press aides. If it had been up to Jiang the two presidents would have just exchanged their opening bromides and called it a day. But he did agree to a few questions. The first came from a reporter from China Central Television. "Recently, there have been improvements...
  • Questions And Answers: The Legacy Of Internment Camps

    Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta is not a bitter man, but it would have been understandable if he turned into one. His family--along with some 120,000 Japanese-Americans--was forced into an internment camp during World War II. After Pearl Harbor, if you were 1/16th Japanese, you were suspect in your own land. Mineta remembers the barbed wire, the search lights and the mounted machine guns, said to be for their protection, but pointing inward at them.Instead of turning against the U.S. government, Mineta threw himself into serving it and improving it. As a 10-term congressman from San Jose, Calif., he was known for his high-tech acumen. But he was also a driving force behind the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1988, which won an apology and $20,000 for each internee from the U.S. government. He became the first Asian-American to hold a cabinet post, as Bill Clinton's secretary of Commerce. Now he is the only Democrat in Bush's cabinet, where he is known for his measured,...
  • West Wing Story: President Softy

    For all his tough guy talk, George W. Bush can be a real softy. Like his dad, he tears up easily at emotional moments. There have been a lot of those lately. Last Friday afternoon, tears slid down the president's face at a ceremony for Hispanic Heritage Month as he listened to Latino artists like Gloria Estefan sing "El Ultimo Adios," a last goodbye to the victims of Sept. 11. The president--ever conscious of the cameras trained on him--knows better than to wipe his eyes. But the cameras caught tears glistening on his cheeks as he congratulated the ensemble.Bush's sentimentality has only been stoked by the circumstances. Of all the poignant moments for the president during the aftermath of the attack, his first trip to New York left an indelible impression. After he stood atop the rubble and bullhorned his way into the hearts of the firemen there, he met with some 400 grieving family members. The by-the-clock president stayed about an hour past his scheduled time to talk with the...
  • West Wing Story: The Wrath Of W

    I have to learn to be more duplicitous if I'm going to cover this White House. The other day a source said to me: "Remember, if you run into me somewhere, make sure you stick out your hand and introduce yourself." In other words, act like we never met. At first, I thought this person was kidding. He--or is it she?--wasn't.The already leak-paranoid White House is at war against loose lips (the same ones that we were told sank ships back in World War II). Bush aides have told people like this guy--or gal--not to talk to the press. Others have been told that specific reporters are persona non grata.Sources are more reticent than usual to talk, not so much out of fear of telling me something classified, but out of fear of the Wrath of W. Congress felt that wrath this week. When the president heard that some congressional members had shared a few intelligence-briefing tidbits with The Washington Post, he was livid. He immediately drafted a new policy: only eight members of Congress--the...
  • West Wing Story: Business As Usual?

    Last night, President Bush and District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams went out to dinner in "the District" as Washingtonians call their town. It was yet another message to America to get back to doing what we're good at: consuming. It was also part of the White House's ongoing mission to get people to return to their normal lives. The most obvious will be the reopening National Airport (a.k.a. Ronald Reagan Airport) on Thursday. "There is no greater symbol that America's back in business than the reopening of this airport," Bush said Tuesday as he visited a shuttered terminal.There are also little examples around the White House of people trying to lead their regular lives again. Karen Hughes, counselor to the president, left a little early last Friday to make her son's soccer game. But the White House also started stringent new security measures. As chief of staff Andy Card put it recently, "We're back to business, but it's not business as usual."Life hasn't changed too much...
  • The Chief Caretaker

    On the morning of Sept. 11, Laura Bush was in the Capitol, waiting to testify on one of her favorite issues: early-childhood education. As the news broke, she turned her ashen face to the cameras. The Secret Service was anxious to scurry her off to a secure location, but first she had a message to deliver to a shocked country: "Our hearts and prayers," she said, "go to the victims of terrorism, and our support goes to the rescue workers."In the weeks since then, the very private First Lady has emerged as a very public caretaker in chief--not only to her husband but to the whole nation. While rescuers were combing through the smoky rubble, she appeared on all the morning television shows with a simple, heartfelt plea to Americans: take care of your kids. Two days after the crash she issued letters to schoolchildren, encouraging elementary-school kids to "draw a picture that shows how you are feeling." She represented the administration at a memorial service in Pennsylvania for the...
  • West Wing Story: Behind A Great Speech

    George W. Bush had the reputation of not being a great scholar. He certainly was not a grind as a history major at Yale University. But during this national crisis, he has emerged as a student of history.When he invited Rev. Franklin Graham-Billy Graham's son-and a small group of other religious leaders into the Oval Office last Thursday, he pointed out three things he held especially dear: a Western-style painting called "A Charge to Keep" (named for the Methodist hymn that he borrowed for the title of his autobiography), a portrait of Abraham Lincoln and a bust of Winston Churchill. "It was kind of spontaneous on the president's part to pick out those things," said Chief of Staff, Andy Card, who spoke with newsmagazine reporters last week.More than just a spontaneous gesture, it spoke to how much history and destiny are weighing on the president's mind. Bush considers Abraham Lincoln probably America's finest president. "Bush believes [Lincoln] had the greatest challenge of any...