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Sunday, April 21, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bush White House uses leverage on who'll show for Sunday talk shows

The Washington Post

Every week, the White House plots strategy for dealing with the Middle East, Afghanistan and the Sunday talk shows.

"We do think of who the right person might be to put on 'Meet the Press,' " says Andrew Card, White House chief of staff. "I frequently talk to the president about who the best messengers are. Sometimes he's thought I would be the best, sometimes we feel Condi (National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice) would be the best, or (Secretary of State) Colin Powell, or (Defense Secretary) Don Rumsfeld, or Vice President (Dick) Cheney."

It is a sometimes-bruising process that often leaves network anchors frustrated. Sam Donaldson, co-host of "This Week," says administration officials use their leverage to push "second-tier" guests by saying, " 'If you don't take so-and-so, you might find it difficult next week.' You can call it blackmail or anything you want. So we sit there and say, 'Do we take X so we can get the more important Y next week?' "

Adam Levine, who runs the White House booking operation, strongly disputes this: "We never say it's going to be difficult to get somebody else, but we do strongly push our message you see people being treated unfairly, you are more reluctant to play next time. I don't think you have to put people out there to get beat up."

Levine knows how to play hardball, which is somehow fitting, since he was a "Hardball" producer for Chris Matthews until January, when he went to work at the White House. Within days he had complained to "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer that economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey was grilled more aggressively than former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin on the same program.

Schieffer says he welcomes such discussions. Like the other anchors, he's unhappy that the administration has abandoned the longstanding practice of doling out exclusive interviews — now the programs are forced to share guests with their rivals. Earlier this month, Powell and Rice did two shows apiece.

"We don't like it, but with a war going on we have to be a little more flexible," Schieffer says.

What's often lost in the endless elbowing over guests is the human dimension. While many in Washington, D.C., would run over their grandmothers to get on television, Sunday duty can be a tough sell in the Bush White House.

"Sunday is kind of church and family day for me," says White House counselor Karen Hughes. "I refuse to get sucked into the workaholic culture. Your most important responsibility is to be a mom or dad," she says before rushing off to her son's baseball game.

Card, whose wife is a Methodist minister, also prefers to be in church. "I go (on television) when I can add to the success of the administration," says Card, who appeared on "Fox News Sunday" on April 14. "It's not about me. No one I know working for the president is looking for celebrity status."

Levine says he sometimes has to "twist their arms" to get Bush officials to hit the Sunday circuit. "We don't go out just for the sake of going out," he says. "We do it when we have a message." The networks, he says, "would want them every weekend. They would want all Rumsfeld all the time if they could get it. You don't want to burn these guys out."

Cheney is trotted out more occasionally, but is more likely to hit two or three shows at once. "He prefers to go out when he goes out on a mission," says Mary Matalin, the vice president's counselor. "His Sunday show appearances have all revolved around a big event: his Mideast trip, the State of the Union, post-9-11, the energy plan, the transition. He never set out to have a high profile."

The White House uses a rotation system in making guests available to NBC's "Meet the Press," CBS's "Face the Nation," ABC's "This Week," CNN's "Late Edition" and "Fox News Sunday." Says Donaldson: "If it's John Ashcroft's turn and you want someone else, they will say to the next show up, 'John Ashcroft's available,' and you've now missed your rotation. It's a very mechanized operation, a very coldblooded look at whether they think it's to their advantage to put out anyone."

So far, the undisputed Sunday show champion is Powell (27 appearances), followed by Rice (20), Rumsfeld (19), Cheney (17), Card (17), Attorney General Ashcroft (14), Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill (14) and Lindsey (12). And times have changed: Budget director Mitchell Daniels Jr. made eight appearances, and political director Karl Rove six, before Sept. 11 — and none since.

One reason some administration officials are reluctant Sunday warriors is the substantial preparation involved, led by Levine and press secretary Ari Fleischer. Levine recalls spending nearly two hours with Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge in the Roosevelt Room on the Saturday night before his appearance.

Levine, a Democrat who worked for Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the Senate, does a mean Tim Russert impression. He studies transcripts of Russert's "Today" show appearances and tries to divine what Russert will ask on Sunday, grilling officials before showtime.

After one program, an administration official told Russert that "Levine guessed two or three of those." Another said "Levine was ferocious." Russert finally called Levine, who confessed to running "mock 'Meet the Press' " sessions.

"The key is to try to think like a television news producer, not a White House staffer," Levine says.

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