- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2009

LOS ANGELES (AP) - President Barack Obama’s appearance two weeks ago before 1,100 people at a downtown school was advertised by the White House as free and open to the public.

It was free. But it wasn’t exactly public.

Far from being an open-doors forum, hundreds of tickets never made it into the public’s hands. Instead, they were distributed to Democratic officeholders and their staffs, community leaders, people connected to Obama’s 2008 campaign, Democratic fundraisers and others invited by the White House.

When Obama took the stage to cheers, he assured the audience the deck wasn’t stacked in his favor.

“We haven’t prescreened anybody,” Obama told the crowd. “If you don’t like me, go ahead and just say, you know, ‘You’re a bum.’”

At a time of double-digit unemployment in the state, and with public outrage peaking over $165 million in bonuses paid to executives of insurance giant American International Group Inc., Obama was greeted with resounding cheers. He was applauded often and appeared at ease, making occasional jokes.

The first woman selected by the president began her question by saying, “I’m very glad and thankful that you are our president.” The first man Obama chose began, “Mr. President, thank God for you.”

Later, Obama selected a man who identified himself as “one of your volunteers.” Then he added, “They’re all around here.”

“You inspired such a passion for us to do things that we never had before in the name of volunteerism, in the name of making you become our president,” the man said.

When the president holds events outside Washington, it’s customary for his staff to dole out invitations to local supporters. But the significant number of tickets kept back from the public _ about half the total _ raises the question of whether the White House spiked the crowd with friends of the administration for an event carried on national TV.

“Words do matter. If you are saying from your press release it’s ‘free and open to the public,’ then you have to take it at face value that’s the truth,” said Jaime Regalado of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

Compared with President George W. Bush, Obama “is doing things that are more open, less scripted, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have some control over these events,” Regalado added.

Bush’s staff was known for tightly controlling access to his events, which ensured adoring audiences even at the low point of his popularity. Critics said the invitation-only crowds amounted to an attempt to manipulate the media; the White House attributed the restrictions to security, not political stagecraft.

Responding to questions over several days, the Obama White House initially said 660 tickets were distributed to randomly selected people through the online lottery, representing about 60 percent of the crowd in Los Angeles.

But those figures conflicted with a tally by the staff of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whose downtown office was used to distribute the tickets. According to the mayor’s office, the White House made 500 tickets available to the public for the March 19 event.

The White House later revised its figures, confirming that about 500 tickets went out through the lottery, or less than half.

The White House said it invited approximately 480 people. It declined to name them. About 40 volunteers at the event got in, and 60 went to the Los Angeles Unified School District, which runs the school where Obama appeared.

The White House pitched the town hall-style meeting as a chance for Obama to interact with average Californians in a city battered by recession. It would be “free and open to the public,” with limited seating at the school, according to a press release.

“The president looks forward to the ability to talk directly with the American people,” press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters.

White House spokeswoman Gannet Tseggai said there was no attempt to tilt the crowd in the president’s favor. “The President values the opportunity to answer tough questions and hear first hand from the American people,” she said in an e-mail.

White House staff is always eager for a controlled environment for presidential appearances, where there is little chance of hostile questions or unexpected outbursts, said Kenneth Khachigian, an aide to Republican Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.

“The staff does not want to take any chances. It’s been ever thus since my days in the White House. Staging is very important,” Khachigian said. “You don’t want any major distractions from your message, period.”

Obama had the advantage of holding the town hall in a heavily Democratic city at a time when polls show he is personally popular. One high-profile Republican was visible on the stage: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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