The White House press operation got off to a fumbling and stumbling start Thursday, with the day’s opening briefers insisting on being identified only as “senior administration officials,” followed swiftly by the new president’s spokesman accidently outing one of the secret aides less than two minutes into his first White House briefing.
Although President Obama swept into office pledging transparency and a new air of openness, the press hammered spokesman Robert Gibbs for nearly an hour over a slate of perceived secretive slights that have piled up quickly for the new administration. It wasn’t pretty.
“Why did the administration believe it was important for the American people not to know the name of the two senior administration officials who briefed us this morning on Guantanamo?” one reporter asked in the packed and steaming hot briefing room just off the White House West Wing.
“I hope that you all found the exercise that we did this morning helpful,” Mr. Gibbs offered helpfully.
“Do you know,” the reporter followed, “that you’ve used … one of those senior officials’ first names several times in this briefing?” A very long pause ensued.
“I do,” the spokesman said, his cornflower-colored tie suddenly looking a bit too tight. “Are we allowed to repeat that name?” Mr. Gibbs answered by citing as precedent of Brazilian soccer stars being known only by a single name - sure to one day be a classic White House non-answer.
Then it got uglier.
“How is it transparent,” another reporter asked, “when you control the only image of the re-swearing - there’s nobody in there but four print reporters, there’s no stills, there’s no television? And the only recording that comes out, as I understand it, is one that a reporter made, not one that the White House supplied.”
“Let me take your questions separately there,” Mr. Gibbs began. “Well, we’d have had to get a big room,” he finally posited with a smile.
“You could have had more than four in the pool,” one reporter said. “Could have had a pool!” shouted another. “The whole pool!” spat a third. “We have a tradition here of covering the president!” yelled a fourth.
And so it went at the first official White House briefing of the new Obama administration - a fiery back and forth dispelling the notion that journalists would go easy on the guy that many reports show it went easy on during the marathon primary and general election campaigns.
Halfway through the interrogation, a reporter asked succinctly: “Is the honeymoon over already?”
A smiling Mr. Gibbs answered with sublime brevity: “I should ask you that.”