Martha Brant

Stories by Martha Brant

  • 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...
  • West Wing Story: Bushspeak

    The president needed a pad of paper, quickly. He was huddled in a back room last Tuesday at a Florida elementary school, where he had just spoken with second graders, preparing an address to America. His task: To comfort and rally a nation under attack. An aide quickly handed him a legal pad and he whipped out his Sharpie-the thick black marker that has become his signature pen (he always has it on hand for signing autographs because it writes on anything).President Bush's speechwriter, Michael Gerson, was traveling outside Washington. His message maven, Karen Hughes, had not gone with her boss to Florida and had to be dialed in by speakerphone. Top aides in the room-Andy Card, Karl Rove, Dan Bartlett-threw out ideas. Bush listened, but didn't take much advice. Hughes's main contribution was his calling for a minute of silence. "He knew what he wanted to say," one aide explains. In his own hand, Bush drafted the majority of his first comments to the nation, reassuring America that...
  • Making Dinner

    Roland Mesnier, the artistic pastry chef at the White House, understands the geopolitics of cuisine. He has learned from painful experience. A few years ago he made dessert for a visiting Mexican head of state: he created a charming--to him--scene of a Mexican boy in a sombrero, dozing off against his mud hut. Not quite the image that President Carlos Salinas had in mind when he came to Washington to promote his nation's drive for business and industry. Horrified, a White House aide yanked off the boy with the sombrero just as Mesnier's magnificent ice-cream-and-cake confection was being carried into the State Dining Room. First Lady Barbara Bush finished off the destruction, hastily bulldozing the adobe hut with a serving spoon. At once embarrassed and angry, Chef Mesnier threatened to quit. But he stayed on through the Clinton administration, and last week he was busily making dessert--a dome of mango ice cream, decorated with sugar hibiscus flowers and hummingbirds blown like...
  • West Wing Story: The E-Mail Wars

    I thought August would be a languorous time on the White House beat. It turns out that the Democratic National Committee had plans for me and the rest on the Bush beat. While President Bush and Congress were away, the DNC's top man, Terry McAuliffe, decided it was time to play politics, by stepping up a public-relations campaign over the Internet. He hired three former Clinton staffers to run his press shop, put them to work unearthing the e-mail addresses of all the White House press corps and lined up a stable of Democratic experts primed to spin on almost anything.As the e-mail traffic and briefings from the White House died down, the DNC began sponsoring conference calls on everything from stem cells to the budget. "August is our time," McAuliffe told his war room. Hanging around the Crawford Elementary School gymnasium, Bush reporters often had nothing better to do than to patch into the calls. "We knew we had a captive audience," says DNC press secretary Jennifer Palmieri, a...
  • West Wing Story: Pool Duty

    While most of the press corps slept in last Thursday, Ed Chen of The Los Angeles Times was at the Crawford Elementary School by 5:15 a.m. President Bush was going golfing, and Chen had drawn the short straw: He was on "pool duty." Every time the president goes anywhere publicly, the press pool goes too. The group of thirteen- photographers, camera and sound men, and reporters representing newswires, radio, TV, newspapers and magazines-becomes the eyes and ears for the rest of the press corps. The designated print reporter then has to write a "pool report" for his sleepyhead colleagues.Fortunately, Chen is every bit the early riser that the president is. (The lithe correspondent has actually been going running before the sun rises in Waco, Texas-the only way to run outside and not die of heat stroke.) When I tapped into my computer that morning, his report was already waiting for me, and the entire press corps-as well as the White House staff, which has no editing rights (though they...
  • West Wing Story: There's No Place Like Waco In August

    "You been working out?" President Bush asked me, grabbing my forearm and giving it a squeeze. "As a matter of fact I have," I responded, surprised that he actually noticed (or did he hear that a lot of us in the press corps had been passing the time in Waco, Texas, working out at the Baylor University gym?). Either way, I was stunned (OK, and flattered). I hadn't had even a lighthearted exchange with the president in weeks. The stereotype of George W. Bush is that he doesn't bother himself with minutiae. But when it comes to personal dynamics, he is very attuned to detail.My tour of duty in Waco, where the press corps is staying while he vacations in nearby Crawford, started this week. He's spoken with reporters while out golfing and on short trips during his monthlong "working vacation." But even traveling on Air Force One is no guarantee reporters will get a chance to speak with the president. He almost never comes back to talk with us on the plane as he did during the campaign....
  • West Wing Story: A President's Primers

    It's one of those evergreen questions for White House reporters: "What is the president reading?" The answer is supposed to shed light not just on the chief executive's intellectual heft, but his whimsy. (Personally, I think you can tell more about someone by how they read the newspaper. I'm told President Bush reads the sport section first, for example.) Still, it's always books that we seem to use as a gauge. ...
  • A Steely Southerner

    As a girl growing up in Birmingham, Ala., Condoleezza Rice sat quietly in her music class as the other children made a ruckus, blowing on their instruments and ignoring the teacher. "I'm waiting for my instructions," piped up little Condi. "And would you please write the music down for me?" she politely asked. She may have been trying to bring order from chaos, but to other children she could be "dainty," even "prissy." They recall that she walked almost on her tiptoes. Later, as a foreign-policy academic, Rice was not one for grand pronouncements, say her colleagues. Her work was precise and detailed, but not visionary. And as President George W. Bush's national-security adviser, she has been the target of some behind-the-scenes condescension, as staffers for rival policymakers dismiss her as a "lightweight."But last week Condi Rice was showing her clout. She went to Moscow to begin the difficult process of selling the Russians on a deal: in exchange for Moscow's acquiescence to...
  • West Wing Story: America's Favorite Bushie

    When Condoleezza Rice told a friend in California that she was headed back to Washington for a job in yet another Bush administration, the friend ribbed her about being drawn to the political spotlight. "Oh, no, I'm just going to be national-security adviser," Rice told her. "I can't stand politics." She may not like politics, but Rice knows how to play the game. She has become one of America's favorite Bush administration figures. And chances are good the public will be seeing a lot more of her: Rice is getting a new press secretary, Ana Perez, who was savvy in that job for Barbara Bush. Rice, an immaculate dresser and avid shoe shopper, will even appear in next month's Vogue.Last week, I had a chance to interview Dr. Rice, as everyone calls her. She had returned the night before from Moscow, where she set up a series of meetings between Russians and Americans on missile defense and arms control and had just been discussing the ins and outs of the ABM treaty with a group of...
  • West Wing Story: Sure, Go Right Ahead, Frisk Me

    "Do you consent to a personal check?" the young woman with the Royal Air Force asked me. "I guess so," I responded hesitantly. It was a few days into President Bush's second trip to Europe-the most security-conscious presidential trip I've been on so far. We had driven about an hour and a half outside London to an air force base, where Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair were going to hold a press conference. It would take another hour to get through security.First stop was a checkpoint where we had to lug all our things off the press bus so a bomb-sniffing dog could inspect the vehicle. In the United States, the Secret Service dogs are almost always German shepherds. So I was amused to see that the dog on guard at RAF Halton was a cute little spaniel of some sort. He was probably a fancy English hunting dog with a genetically superior sense of smell, but he looked like he wanted to play fetch.While he sniffed away, we were told to get in line. I figured we'd do the usual-put our...
  • West Wing Story: Bush In Europe, Take Two

    Here we go again. President Bush landed tonight in London, for the second stage of his continuing conversation with Europe-and, especially, Russia. In the month since his last visit, the dissonance has only gotten louder on his top priority: missile defense. Russian President Vladimir Putin repeated again this week in a meeting with China's leader his unwillingness to budge on the anti-ballistic missile treaty. Bush would like to disband the treaty so he can build his new vision of Star Wars.He is starting his visit once again on friendly turf, with lunch Thursday with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace and then a bilateral meeting and dinner with Prime Minister Tony Blair at Chequers. Blair has been noncommittal on missile defense. And he has sided with Europe on the Kyoto global-warming treaty, which Bush rejects. But except for the quaint linguistic differences of "elevators" vs. "lifts," Bush believes that the Britons speak his language.President Bush may have a rude...
  • West Wing Story: The Making Of 'Air Force One'

    Whenever I get frustrated with the bureaucratic hoops I often jump through to get the most basic information out of the White House, I just think about Peter Schnall and Mark Wexler. They are the producers of an unprecedented National Geographic documentary on Air Force One, which airs tonight on PBS. It took them five years of wrangling to make the one-hour show. They negotiated with not one but two White Houses and the Air Force to film one of the most secretive planes in the world. "There were several moments when I thought we'd have to drop it," Wexler says.One of those moments happened even before Bill Clinton's impeachment. Just when the veteran producers thought they had a deal worked out with the Clinton White House, the key aide who had been helping them left, and they had to start negotiating all over again. When they finally struck a new deal, along came Monica. "We had to sit out the impeachment," Schnall explains. Not only was their access in doubt, but National...
  • Periscope

    For those well versed in the blood feuds of politics, the scene in the White House mess last Thursday was surreal. It was Mexican food day; presidential counselor Karen Hughes had brought John Weaver, Sen. John McCain's top political adviser, to lunch. Seated at the next table: White House political director Karl Rove. While George W. Bush and McCain may have recently cooled their hostility, Rove and Weaver remain sworn enemies. The animosity dates back to last year's South Carolina primary when, in the view of the McCain camp, Rove directed a down-and-dirty campaign against the Arizona senator. Since then, Weaver has accused Rove of spreading unfounded rumors about McCain's health (that he was suffering from brain cancer) and blackballing McCain supporters from administration jobs. Rove denies the charges; his pals call Weaver a sore loser. "It's no secret, these two guys hate each other," says a political consultant.Even more surprising was the conversation between Hughes and...
  • The Telltale Heart (Test)

    Arriving at George Washington University Hospital last Saturday morning, Dick Cheney was typically laconic as he ran the gantlet of reporters and television cameras. Asked how he felt, the vice president simply said, "Good," and kept on walking. Minutes later, he added a qualifier: "But you never know 'til it's over." By noon his doctors were reporting that their minor surgery--to insert a pacemaker-like device known as an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD)--had gone smoothly and that Cheney could return to work Monday. But the note of uncertainty sounded by Cheney himself seemed to hang in the summer air--for this was, after all, the third cardiac procedure in eight months for the man who, as George W. Bush's consigliere, is widely regarded as the most powerful vice president in history.The ICD is smaller than a beeper but smart enough to know the difference between cardiac arrest and the cardiovascular stress caused by healthy exercise. Like a pacemaker, it will...
  • West Wing Story: The Man To See

    You can tell something about the president's closest advisers from the look-and location-of their offices. Presidential counselor and message maven Karen Hughes reorganized her office, upstairs from the president's, so she could have a view of the residence. Her tabletops are full of personal photos of a younger George W. with her family, at sporting matches, as a fresh-faced governor. On her desk a placard quotes Winston Churchill: "I was not the lion but it fell to me to give the lion's roar."Downstairs, Condoleezza Rice's office is designed for the national security adviser to receive foreign dignitaries. But on a bookshelf in one corner there is a football helmet, hinting at the passion for sports she shares with her boss. Top strategist Karl Rove has a more utilitarian office across the way that, at least the day I saw it, was stacked with papers full of graphs, charts, polls-numbers everywhere. Last week, chief of staff Andy Card gave a joint interview to the three news...
  • West Wing Story: On The Road

    As we were waiting in the Warsaw sun while George W. Bush lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider last week, I wearily began to survey the awaiting motorcade. It was a serpentine hodgepodge of about a dozen vehicles, with three rented Polish buses at the tail end for the press. Near the head of the line, a Secret Service agent was already holding open the door to Bush's limousine. They do that just in case the agents have to usher Bush in quickly. I looked down at the license plate number: 800-002. My sleep-deprived mind slowly processed what I was seeing: the limo had Washington, D.C., plates.Forget the international diplomacy of Bush's first trip to Europe, pulling off the logistics of an overseas trip is worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize. Not only do military sorties fly Bush's super bulletproof limousine everywhere he goes, but they ferry a fleet of support vehicles as well-from black Suburbans (the vehicle of choice for his Counter Assault Team, or CAT guys) to Marine One,...
  • West Wing Story: Two Days, Two Europes

    During the last two days of President Bush's European adventure it has often felt like we have been traveling in parallel but opposite universes. Take yesterday in Goteborg, Sweden. Thousands of protestors jammed a central park to protest Bush's policies. They raised placards reading "Toxic Texan" and "Say No To Son of Star Wars." The crowd made it plain that Bush was not welcome; a band even played the Beatles song "Get Back to Where You Once Belonged."The protest turned violent on Friday, the second day of the European Union summit, but while Bush was in town it was pretty tame. A small group did congregate across from Bush's tightly secured hotel and stage a "mass mooning." Only a handful actually dropped trou, but it got plenty of coverage in the press (at least here in Europe where the mooning aired repeatedly on TV). Three mooners had written "We Hate Bush" across their collective behinds.Now flash forward to today in Warsaw. As we were leaving the Presidential Palace this...
  • West Wing Story: ¿Cómo Se Dice Malaprop En Español?

    Before he landed in Madrid on Tuesday, President Bush had been briefed on everything from youth trends in Spain to how to pronounce the Spanish letter Z (pronounced as a "th" sound). The White House had carefully chosen Spain as the president's first stop in Europe not only because he can hablar a little Espanol but because President Jose Maria Aznar is a straight-talking conservative like Bush. The 48-year-old Spanish leader had also made it clear that he would be more sympathetic than other European leaders to Bush's signature issue: missile defense. Pictures of the men together showed two energetic guys in their shirtsleeves checking out Aznar's "ranch."But somebody forgot to brief Bush that Spain is not Mexico, that the cowboy chic is not fashionable in Europe. The Spanish press howled when the U.S. press called Aznar's grand country retreat a "ranch." (Sorry, that's what all of our briefing books said.) Los Quintos de Mora-as it is known-is a 20,000-acre national game preserve,...
  • Busted Again In Margaritaville

    About half of college freshmen admit to drinking beer, down from about 75 percent two decades ago, according to a study by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. At the University of Texas, ranked No. 2 in the nation for "lots of beer" by the Princeton Review, a college guide, the party goes on. The underage drinkers who use fake IDs to patronize the many bars of Austin usually do not have to worry about being fingered by other patrons or turned in to the cops by the bartender. But the daughter of a president lives in a different world.So Jenna Bush was reminded last Tuesday at about 10:15 p.m., when the 19-year-old was caught using a borrowed ID card to buy a Margarita. She pleaded--or, according to some accounts, demanded--to be let off the hook, but the restaurant bartender reportedly replied, "You think I'm going to put my liquor license on the line for you?" The manager called 911 instead. The police arrived and two days later Jenna and her twin sister, Barbara, were...
  • West Wing Story: Bush In California, Finally

    Style matters in politics. That's especially true in style-setting California. So when President Bush stepped off Air Force One on Monday and plunked on a cowboy hat someone handed him, I had a feeling things weren't going to go so smoothly on his first trip to my home state. ...
  • West Wing Story: A Yale Man Returns

    One thing about George W. Bush, he has a long memory. When a Yale classmate asked him to contribute to their 25th-reunion class book several years ago, Bush responded: "I don't have such great feelings about the place right now." He was a no-show at the reunion. While governor of Texas, Bush turned down a prestigious Chubb Fellowship from the university. ...
  • West Wing Story: The Characters Of The White House Press Corps

    The president was pretty much acing his third press conference last Friday, making it almost to the end without a major gaffe or glitch, when he called upon an older gentleman standing to his left. "Yes sir," Bush said, nodding to Lester Kinsolving, a radio personality out of Baltimore. Bush's press aides cringed, bracing themselves. "Mr. President," Les, as he's known by all, began. "You would not equate the baby that was killed in retaliatory Israeli fire in the Gaza Strip with the 13- and 14-year old Jewish boys, one of them a U.S. citizen, who were tied up, beaten to death and mutilated near Tekoa would you?" ...
  • West Wing Story: Bush Is Big League In Humor Department

    "Have you been to any of these 'Let's make fun of George and let's watch George make fun of himself' dinners?" President Bush asked me the other week after I'd interviewed him. He was referring to four Washington institutions: the Alfalfa Club, the Gridiron Club, the Radio-Television Correspondents Association and the White House Correspondents Association, which all host annual dinners-roasts really-that humanize and sometimes humiliate the president. ...