Martha Brant

Stories by Martha Brant

  • West Wing Story: The Two Faces Of George W.

    I'm confused about the Bush administration's image management leading up to yesterday's speech: Is George W. Bush an Eastern establishment businessman or a Texas populist who's gonna kick some corporate butt?Last weekend, we followed our president to Kennebunkport, Maine, where he spent his birthday weekend with his parents and much of the Bush clan. He stayed at the family estate, Walker's Point, fished on his dad's boat, the Fidelity II, played some hypercompetitive "aerobic golf" and did what other rich, preppy Northeasterners do this time of year: they summer.For a president who didn't want to appear too chummy with the country-club set he was supposed to pummel in his speech this week, it seemed like an odd choice. Now, the president has a right to some R&R. Certainly, the press corps was only too happy to eat lobster rolls in the Maine breeze rather than chicken-fried-everything in the Crawford broil. But yesterday's speech was probably his most important-at least on...
  • G8 Bear It

    The Royal Canadian Mounted Police called it Operation Grizzly. Their mission: protect the G8 summit from terrorists, protesters and, it turned out, bears. The summit was held in the remote Kananaskis Valley. Surface-to-air missiles, CF-18 jets and thousands of troops patrolled the eight-mile-wide secure zone. The nearest protesters--two hours away in Calgary--didn't end up as much of a threat. Some held a "Knit-In." Others decided to drop trou. That left the Mounties free to watch the press corps. You needed a credential with a special bar code not only to get into the summit, but to get out. One member of the official White House TV crew had the wrong pass--and was held in a four-by-four chain-link pen for three hours. "I used to like Canadians until today," he said. The only action came when a bear visited a temporary military camp. Wildlife agents fired a "bear-banger" to scare it off. The noise startled the bear into falling out of a tree; it injured itself so badly it had to be...
  • West Wing Story: Pool-Duty Survival Kit

    "Be sure to bring water with you," my colleague Bob Deans of Cox Newspapers said to me with a stricken look on his face. He had just gotten back from a 12-hour "pool duty" during the G8 summit in Canada last week. I was up next and he was giving me some survival tips.Pool duty is the only kind of pool where water is not guaranteed. The pool is the 13-person group of reporters that covers the president up close. The duty rotates. We ride on Air Force One, see historic events and ask the president questions. It's great. Most of the time.That day in Canada, Bob had seen a lot of security (who knew Mounties could be surly?) but had not a glimpse of the man we cover. There are days when we spend most of your time in the eerily named "holding room." When we are not holding we are most likely "rolling"--hustling to get on a bus to go to things like a "bilat pool spray" (a photo-op of a bilateral meeting between the president and some world leader).Last Thursday, "pool call" was at 4:30 a.m...
  • This Time, We Have A Winner

    George W. Bush isn't known as a details guy, but when it comes to exercise he's a micromanager. For the presidential fitness challenge last weekend, Bush not only chose the course for the three-mile run at Fort McNair in Washington, but he also picked out the T shirt design and even the color. Allowing no room for error, he insisted that every racer wear a state-of-the-art ChampionChip--the same timing device used in the Boston and New York marathons. The only thing Bush left in doubt was whether the 250-plus staffers competing against him were allowed to beat the Runner-in-Chief. "I'm still trying to get a fill on that," said press aide Brian Bravo, 21, a few days before the race. Bravo runs the mile in under six minutes--about a minute faster than the boss. When one aide tried to clarify the rules, Bush said, "Every runner should run their pace." Then he winked.For weeks Bush had been trying to psyche out the competition: feigning injury, complaining about his heel or his knee....
  • West Wing Story: Bush At Home In Calgary

    "Buck the G8!" declared Darlene Cook and her buddy, who gave her nom de guerre as Olive Branch. The two Cowgirls for Justice, as they called themselves, rode paper horses through downtown Calgary, Alberta, to protest the international economic forum being held nearby. So far the protests--a good hour and half drive from the heavily guarded summit--have been tame.The planned "Showdown at the Hoedown" turned into a street party last night. The only wild behavior happened in front of the Gap clothing store, where some 20 activists stripped to draw attention to what they claimed were that company's unfair labor practices. They certainly drew the attention of hundreds of onlookers, who later complained they had to wait through speeches and singalongs to get to the actual stripping.This morning I saw one reminder of the violence at the last G8 in Italy. A young woman carried a handwritten sign that read CARLO GULLIANI PRESENTE. It was a reference to the Italian protestor killed by Italian...
  • West Wing Story: Wooing Europe

    They might as well have called President George W. Bush's trip to Europe and Russia this week a victory tour. At least that's how he and his staff seem to be viewing it.They have some reason to be smug: Bush's historic Reichstag speech got a better-than-expected reception from Berlin's parliamentarians. And, in spite of the doomsayers' warnings, the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty did not precipitate World War III. "[It's] a moment of vindication," said one senior administration official before Bush and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, today signed a treaty reducing nuclear warheads to below 2,200 each over the next 10 years.Last June, when Bush first met with Putin, the president said he could "trust" the former KGB agent. Pundits back home called Bush naive. This week, when a European reporter asked Bush again if he trusted Putin, the president himself couldn't resist a little self-congratulation. "They said, how do you know? I said, 'I looked into...
  • 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...