WASHINGTON -- Need a recipe to spice up your marriage? Wonder what became of Amy Carter's tree house? Curious to know whether the White House really is haunted?
Just "Ask the White House" -- a 5-month-old effort to connect regular folks directly with top Bush administration officials through live online chat sessions on the White House Web site.
The forums provide another way for the White House to sell and defend President Bush's policies. Responding to questions that voice both skepticism and support, officials supply answers that keep to the administration line on issues ranging from tax cuts and environmental actions to Medicare and judicial nominations.
The exchanges are not without lighter moments.
Someone going by the name "King Bloop Zod" asked Housing Secretary Mel Martinez if the government might offer incentives to those considering "Mars as an ideal location for a vacation home or just a place to get away from it all."
"Dear King," replied Martinez, "Your problem is one that does not appear to be housing. I think you are doing great at promoting tourism, but affordable housing in America is more of my concern."
Treasury Secretary John Snow created a miniflap when he told "John" from Natalia, Texas, that the $500 bill is the one he would most like to have stamped with his picture.
"It has the least circulation -- that way I wouldn't have to see myself too often," he wrote with an "lol" -- Internet-speak for "laugh out loud."
Snow, however, apparently was not aware that living persons cannot appear on U.S. currency and that the $500 bill has been out of circulation for more than 30 years.
And to the mild dismay of the president's usually tightlipped staff, Laura Bush confirmed, during her online session, rumors of a previously unannounced presidential visit to Britain in October.
The few-times-a-week chats are the brainchild of Jimmy Orr, director of the White House Web site.
"It's important for the American people to have access to their government," said Orr's boss, White House communications director Dan Bartlett, sitting at his office computer and typing answers recently when he hosted an "Ask the White House" session.
Stephen Hess, a specialist in the presidency at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said the White House deserves high marks for the effort. "The more interaction one can have with the White House, the better," he said.
Orr strives for smart packaging. Photos pop up as the site refreshes with new questions and answers. Hosts connected to an in-the-news-today issue often film video backgrounders that are linked to the chat session. Other links might take surfers to Web-casted video of a presidential event.
So far, there have been more than three dozen hosts, including eight Cabinet secretaries (some twice), sports figures Cal Ripken Jr. and Lynn Swann and Vice President Dick Cheney's wife, Lynne. On Tuesday, Mike Brown, the chief of emergency preparedness at the Homeland Security Department, showed up to field questions about Hurricane Isabel bearing down on the East Coast.
White House chef Walter Scheib holds the record of 33 questions. He tarried well past the normally allotted time of 30 minutes, and was unusually succinct. (As in: "Our president is from Texas -- do you have a grill and/or smoker at the WH to make barbecue?" Walter Scheib: "Yes.")
To the Pennsylvania woman looking for the right food to inject new life into her marriage, however, Scheib had no suggestions.
White House curator Bill Allman, meanwhile, displayed his doubts about persistent rumors of the White House's haunting by Abraham Lincoln. He also revealed that the tree house that President Carter designed for his daughter now resides in government storage.
Bartlett's chat session was typical. Hundreds of questions poured in, ranging from personal queries about how he landed his powerful post to opinions on Bush policies.
Who is the smartest person in the White House? one questioner asked. "That's an easy one," Bartlett wrote. "Mrs. Bush." ("I know where my bread is buttered," he remarked, grinning.)
On the Net:
"Ask the White House:" http://www.whitehouse.gov/ask/
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