White House Fires Back at Critics With Online Memos

President Truman got so upset when a newspaper panned his daughter's singing that he wrote the critic: "Someday I hope to meet you. When that happens, you'll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!"

Today, the Bush White House punches back with virtual boxing gloves.

It fires off electronic rebuttals when it has a beef with news stories, broadcasts or statements by its critics, shooting its retorts directly into reporters' e-mail inboxes and posting them on the Internet.

Bush officials say their "Setting the Record Straight" memos, which dispute passages in stories aired and printed about the president, are about seeking the truth. Democrats and other targets of the memos say they're more about spin than rebuttal.

"The primary purpose is that un-rebutted charges on important issues sometimes become viewed as fact," said Dan Bartlett, who is counselor to the president and oversees the White House communications operation.

Even if attempts are made to fix mistakes, corrections published in newspapers or broadcast on TV aren't always seen, Bartlett said. It's essential, especially in today's era of Internet chat rooms and 24-hour news, that the White House issue its rebuttal as soon as possible, he said.

"If it's a day late, it's not very useful," he said.

Democrats dismiss the aggressive tactic, and say it suggests the Bush White House is on the defense, fighting an uphill battle over ratings.

"They're attacking everybody — the media, the Democrats, government auditors, nonpartisan interest groups," said Phil Singer, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the person who provided the party's rapid response to the GOP during the 2004 presidential race.

"It's as though they are the sole arbitrators of the truth. This is yet another step of the politicization of the White House. It's less a bastion of policymaking and more of a traditional permanent campaign," Singer said.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, disagrees that the "Setting the Record Straight" memos are just part of a Republican attempt to spin public opinion in their favor. This is increasingly going to be the way that presidential administrations — both Republican and Democrat — communicate, she said.

"The Internet facilitates it," she said. "Why wouldn't you post your side of things?"

She said the memos run parallel to Rush Limbaugh's conservative talk radio show. "Limbaugh will systematically take on a reporter he thinks is unfair to George Bush, or unfair to Bush's perspective," Jamieson said.

The administration is hoping the targeted reporter will feel scolded and adapt in a way that pleases the White House and get other reporters to self-censor their stories and broadcasts to avoid being singled out.

"If it accomplishes that, and nothing else, that's a very powerful effect," Jamieson said.

Decisions about when to issue a "Setting the Record Straight" typically are made during morning senior staff or communications team meetings at the White House.

Nearly half of the 32 issued so far were released in November 2005 and May of this year, two months when Bush's job approval numbers plummeted. Ten of the 32 were leveled against Democrats on Capitol Hill. Twenty took issue with newspaper, magazine or broadcast reports on subjects ranging from climate change to tax cuts to prewar intelligence on weapons of mass destruction.

In the first one, issued in March 2004, the White House took to task Richard Clarke, former Bush administration counterterrorism adviser who accused the Bush administration of ignoring terrorist threats.

The White House didn't issue its second one — attacking a story in The Washington Post on personal retirement accounts — for nearly a year.

Late last year, the White House started sending them on a more regular basis.

In November 2005, the White House unleashed a barrage of "Setting the Record Straight" memos, all on Iraq. That was the month that Bush's job approval rating fell to 37 percent — the lowest level of his presidency at that time. The drop in the polls was driven by worries about the war, the fumbled Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers and the indictment of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, in the CIA leak case.

The seven consecutive memos on the war were part of an effort by Bush officials to hit back at the president's critics. There were divisions within the GOP over the war at the time and Republicans were beginning to worry that the president's problems and low approval rating could impede their re-elections just one year away.

Another seven memos were issued in May when Bush's job approval rating fell to 33 percent — the lowest ever in the AP-Ipsos poll. All were on domestic issues, including tax relief, the nation's economic health and the Medicare prescription drug benefit.

It's hard to know if the Bush White House's setting-the-record straight campaign is having any effect.

Bartlett said he thinks it's useful, and that Bush allies have responded with positive feedback, saying the memos provide them with talking points and a context for debating issues.

Democratic strategist Stephanie Cutter isn't so sure. "Unfortunately, facts are troublesome things, and refuting things on paper is not going to go very far," she said. "People are living through the reality of this administration, and a piece of paper is not going to clear it up."