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FROM THIS EPISODE

The Unshakable Line

For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media .

I went to the White House today to try to find out how the press corps manages to extract information from an administration that apparently believes it must dictate what is news and what is not.

No matter what the question, the President, his press secretary and other officials usually manage to make their point of the day without obstruction. My trip down to Washington was prompted by a confrontation last week between President Bush and Helen Thomas, who's been covering the White House since the Kennedy Administration.

After snubbing her for more than two years, Bush finally pointed to Thomas, evidently having decided that he had to begin confronting his critics of the war in Iraq. "You're going to be sorry," Thomas said, smiling, as she launched into a series of questions that revolved around the theme of, "Why are we in Iraq when Iraq did nothing to us?"

Bush did not directly answer her questions, veering off into his usual rationale for invading Iraq, the war on terror. Once again, he tied the war, obliquely, to the attacks of 9/11, despite the fact that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with Osama bin Laden and his order to attack the United States.

Today, we filed out into the Rose Garden, where Bush, surrounded by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice and other members of his cabinet, sounded his anti-terror theme once again. He said Iraq was the "central front in the war on terror."

"We're not going to lose our nerve," Bush said, as birds chirped in the trees above him. He then left the podium and headed back into the Oval Office without taking a single question.

That was left to Scott McClellan, his press secretary, in a briefing a couple of hours later. But McClellan, if anything, is even more disciplined than his boss.

Before he had taken a single question, he reminded everyone that "we are a nation at war" and in a "long struggle against an extremist ideology."

No one denies any of that, of course, but it's remarkable how that unshakable line prevents any real investigation of the reason we went to war in the first place, and of the wisdom of staying in Iraq when we are clearly not wanted there.

When I first spoke with Helen Thomas a couple of days ago on the phone, she said McClellan is "a robot."

"He's really programmed," she said. "You get the same answer no matter what you ask."

"They will not deal with the question," she said. "They give you a big propaganda diatribe."

Today, McClellan gave a bland and unconvincing explanation for the resignation of the White House Chief of Staff, Andrew Card, saying that it was Card's decision and that he had simply felt it was time to move on. But when reporters like David Gregory of NBC News and David Sanger of The New York Times tried to probe deeper into the reasons for Card's departure, McClellan said they were "over-analyzing it." He would not be drawn into speculation that Card's resignation had anything to do with the president's dismal poll numbers and the widening consensus that the Iraq war was a very bad idea.

After the briefing, I spoke with Bill Plante, the veteran CBS News correspondent who's been covering the White House since the days of Jimmy Carter. "This White House," he said, "is more disciplined in staying on message than any of the previous ones I've covered. That's because, in this White House, the man at the top demands loyalty and pays attention."

This is Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.

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