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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 January 2006, 12:17 GMT
Washington diary: New Year squabbles

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

BBC Washington correspondent Matt Frei is starting a fortnightly diary on life and events in the capital of the United States

It will be posted on the BBC News website every other Wednesday.

The Capitol before Christmas
The holidays are over and so is the season of good cheer
4 January

Washington has greeted the New Year under damp leaden skies. In Cleveland Park, where we live, discarded Christmas trees litter the pavements like ejected relatives, plucked bare of baubles, shedding needles and waiting for the District of Columbia Refuse Collection Department (Forestry division).

The fairy lights that had turned our otherwise demure street into a gaudy fair ground have been rolled up and the six foot high inflatable Santa, levitating in his own bubble of fake snow outside Number 4517 has been shrunk with one final flatulent blast. Much to my children's chagrin.

Yes kids, the season of good cheer is officially over and the political equivalent of squabbling over the presents is well under way.

Media v White House

First up is the bruising, and I have to say rather depressing, battle between the media - ie the New York Times - and the Bush White House.

This debate is as old as George Washington - who advocated a quasi-monarchical role for the president - and Thomas Jefferson, who wanted to take the "chief" out of chief executive
This all stems back to an article which appeared on 16 December in which the Grey Lady detailed how the president personally authorised the NSA - the National Security Agency, a body so secret it has been nicknamed "No Such Agency" - to tap the conversations and e-mails of hundreds of American citizens without seeking the customary approval of a special court.

The administration moved swiftly from defensive to offensive, and a few days ago the attorney general authorised an investigation into who leaked what to whom and why.

The administration is blaming the messenger for undermining an essential tool of surprise in the war on terror. Capitol Hill is huffing and puffing that it was never consulted by the White House. The New York Times is trying to work out whether to be victim or hero.

Once again all the papers are groaning under the weight of dense articles and worthy columns about the right balance between executive powers in a time of war and the need to check any president's monarchical instincts.

The Bush buddies argue that Dubya is doing what it takes to fight the war on terror. The Bush baiters charge he's behaving like a nascent dictator. This debate is as old as George Washington - who advocated a quasi-monarchical role for the president - and Thomas Jefferson, who wanted to take the "chief" out of chief executive.

Potus - President of the United States, as the secret service refer to the most powerful man on Earth in their briefs - is more like a Venetian doge
It is bitter and it goes to the very heart of the American system of governance.

Personally, I am always struck by how weak the American president is compared to, say, a British prime minister, who can do more or less as he and his party please if they have the right majority in parliament.

Potus - President of the United States, as the secret service refer to the most powerful man on Earth in their briefs - is more like a Venetian doge: surrounded by the trappings of monarchy but forever checked in the exercise of his power.

From Potus to Flotus

We are only one year into the second term of a supposedly transformational presidency, we are fighting two (or is it three?) wars, but the parlour game that really excites Beltway types is one whose outcome will only be known in three years from now. Who will run - and win - in 2008?

Virginia Governor Mark Warner
Mark Warner ticks all the right boxes
You won't find anyone outside this city agonising over this but here the gossips can't tear themselves away from the prospect of Condi v Blondie. The secretary of state versus the former Flotus (First Lady of the United States), Hillary Clinton.

Both are serene in their denials of any such intentions and so they should be. Hillary needs to get re-elected as senator for New York state in November and Condi is busy running the world of diplomacy.

For now my pennies are on the outgoing Democratic Governor of Virginia, Mark Warner, who leaves his state with a high approval rating.

He ticks all the right boxes: not impossibly handsome; a self-made telecoms millionaire, who is rich but a lot poorer than John Kerry; running a southern state that voted overwhelmingly for George Bush, is fiercely patriotic and sends almost as many convicts to death row as Texas.

He is as yet undeclared and that means yours truly can accost him for a chat without being rebuffed by staffers or burly men with wires coming out of their ears.

Count me in

There is one democratic race that has really caught my imagination and that is certain to reassure even the most hard-bitten Americaphobe, that this is still a great democracy.

Forget Condi v Blondie, Potus, Flotus and the "Midterms". What's really gripping the Beltway is the fierce competition for the "doors closing voice" on the Washington Metro: the voice that warns commuters that the doors of their metro car are about to, yes, shut.

This vital but unsung feat of public speaking, which has for years been rendered by a voice so non-descript that I can't even remember its gender, is about to be humanised, given the star treatment and, above all, handed back to the people.

"Professionals and non professionals" have been invited to apply by 20 January. A panel of experts will decide on the top 10 entries "on the basis of vocal quality, versatility, enunciation and elocution".

What could be better than to give this unique opportunity to a foreign voice that stands above the usual divisions of the United States?

Count me in! Happy 2006.


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