WASHINGTON – The questions pour in: Will President Bush reschedule his prime-time speech to avoid a conflict with "American Idol?" (Nope.) Why does he hate nature? (He doesn't.) Do presidents pick up a hot line red phone? (No, phone colors of choice have been black, turquoise and white.)
Online exchanges like these offer a peek into the ways of the White House, not to mention a taste of what's on the minds of some Americans.
"Ask the White House" is an online chat held about five times weekly. People fire eclectic questions at administration officials and staffers, mixing heavy affairs of state with light fare about where Barney the dog sleeps. The forum is supplemented by e-mail exchanges that offer officials a bit more time to research their answer.
A Tucson, Ariz., man offered the White House chef a corndog stuffing recipe at Thanksgiving; a Richmond, Va., writer asked the Federal Trade Commission chief how he could get his ex-wife's name added to the Do-Not-Call Registry (search); a Cleveland man proposed to his girlfriend during a chat.
"When we take a question that is offbeat and funny, it's good," says Jimmy Orr, White House Internet director. "We encourage that. If there is an element of humor, they are more apt to be read."
Besides, Orr added, "it humanizes the guest. Instead of a senior administration official that is very governmental and stern, it shows they have a sense of humor too."
Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of questions are sent to Orr's e-mail during a single live session. He reviews them and forwards questions relevant to the topic of the discussion to the guest, but the guest can take on any question.
The topic is usually one that underscores the president's message, or reflects something he did that day.
Launched in April 2003, the forum has let people interact with first lady Laura Bush (search), National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (search) and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge (search). White House Chief Usher Gary Walters talked of in-residence ghosts, Presidential Chef Walter Scheib was offered a tip using chopped-up turkey corndogs as stuffing.
"This is a new recipe to me, but if you like it — enjoy," a noncommittal Scheib replied.
A few softballs are tossed over the Internet. One coach asked how his young players could become eligible for tee-ball games hosted by the president on the South Lawn of the White House. (An application can be found on the Little League Web site.) Another wanted to know how many event invitations the president receives weekly. (More than 1,000.)
In either form of cyber communication, tough questions do get through, probing officials on the environment, education and national security. Jobless people want to know when the economy will improve.
In some cases, there is anger in the air. "Who in their right minds would give Saddam Hussein back? Did we not go into that country and take him out? So why are we giving him back?"
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage delicately handled this one, responding that it was the "proper course of action."
"Saddam Hussein is responsible, some people estimate, for the deaths of a million Iraqis. He is responsible for the invasion of Kuwait and the raping and killing of thousands. Those are the people in the first instance who have a right to extract justice."
Others grouse, then get to the root of their frustration. "The Bush regime hates nature. How else to explain the war against our land, water and air?"
Jim Connaugton, chairman of the Council of Environmental Quality, rebuffed the attack, saying, "You apparently are not aware that the president is an avid outdoorsman and conservationist who enjoys restoring habitat, planting native grasses and reforesting his own land." Then, Connaugton went on to explain Healthy Forests legislation.
Orr said it's important to take the tough questions, to get a good balance. "If we only posted the questions that praised the president and the policies, people would think it's only red meat for the conservatives," he said.
The online Q&A has helped dispel some myths. Walters responded to a question about a red phone located in the Oval Office like one on the original "Batman" TV series.
"If it were a hot line, it may have been concealed in a desk drawer," he allowed. But he was only aware of black, turquoise and white desk phones used by recent presidents.
Among the testier questions:
—Chris from California: "This White House attempting to celebrate Earth Day is the biggest crock I've ever seen. How can you guys do it with a straight face?"
—Bon from France: "There will be no bygones. French people won't ever forgive your insulting behavior neither the sillyness of your president and his stupid people. You are not welcome in my country."
On a lighter note, White House press secretary Scott McClellan was asked by an Ohio middle schooler if he would move the president's speech to another time. "I want to watch 'American Idol.' How about moving the speech to 9 p.m?"
McClellan told her he thought they would stick to a 8:30 p.m speech.
"There are some important issues that the president wants to discuss with the American people at a time when most Americans will be able to hear what he has to say," he said.