Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Although the White House basketball court is still under construction, President Obama on Tuesday got in a quick game of hoops, throwing some sharp elbows, batting down weak shots and eventually falling back into a one-man, four-corners defense to run out the clock.

His opponents, the White House press corps, looked at times like the Washington Generals, known for their long-running losing streak against the invincible Harlem Globetrotters. The president put on a clinic of fancy dribbling just like Curly Neal, and even played Meadowlark Lemon to the Huffington Post’s Nico Pitney, when he asked the Internet site “reporter” to lob up an alley-oop question so he could slam-dunk the answer.

“Nico, I know you, and all across the Internet, we’ve been seeing a lot of reports coming out of Iran,” Mr. Obama said from the podium. “I know there may actually be questions from people in Iran who are communicating through the Internet. Do you have a question?”

“Yes, I did,” said Mr. Pitney, who, according CBS News’ Mark Knoller, said the White House called him Tuesday morning and invited him to ask an Iran question at the news conference.

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Many in the hard-pressed press corps played along throughout the hourlong show, turning the ball over again and again - “accidentally,” of course.

“I answered your question, which is that we don’t yet know how this is going to play out. OK?” Mr. Obama said dismissively to NBC News’ Chuck Todd, who had asked an open-ended query on the “consequences” for Iran after its disputed election.

Reporter Macarena Vidal of the Spanish news service EFE all but handed the hoopster-in-chief the ball when she brought up democracy efforts in Latin America. “Have you noticed any particular progress in these two months?” Another presidential tomahawk dunk.

Several times, the president simply ignored the question. When USA Today’s David Jackson asked a specific question about health care, Mr. Obama pulled back in a delay offense: “Well, let’s talk first of all about health care reform more broadly,” he said, before expounding at clock-eating length about generalities.

When Mr. Obama wasn’t slashing through the defense for an easy layup, he was swinging elbows, backing reporters off.

“Hold on one second, let me answer the question,” he said to American Urban Radio Network’s April Ryan before proceeding to dodge the question. When press corps doyenne Helen Thomas tried to ask a question, he said: “Hold on a second, Helen. That’s - that’s a different question” - which he also didn’t answer.

And Mr. Obama got away with a blatant offensive charge when he ran over McClatchy’s Margaret Talev, who asked about the president’s on-and-off smoking habit, in light of his decision Monday to sign a law regulating the tobacco industry.

“I think it’s fair, Margaret, to just say that you just think it’s neat to ask me about my smoking, as opposed to it being relevant to my new law,” Mr. Obama said.

But not all reporters were willing to play ball. Fox News’ Major Garrett drove to the hoop with a strong question on Mr. Obama’s new, stronger position on Iran: “What took you so long to say those words?”

Throughout, though, the president talked over reporters seeking to follow up on their non-answered questions. He ignored a follow-up from Mr. Garrett, and called on another reporter when Mr. Jackson bluntly re-asked whether the president’s “public” health care plan “is non-negotiable.”

The news conference, Mr. Obama’s fourth at the White House, was moved from the Rose Garden to the briefing room at the last minute. White House officials said the shift was related to the summer heat, and denied it was made because teleprompters, which Mr. Obama relies on at nearly every speaking engagement, could not be seen in the bright, sunny garden.

Officials set up teleprompters in the briefing room, only to break them down an hour before the news conference.

But Mr. Obama stuck with his game plan, even working the referees when calls didn’t go his way. When ABC News’ Jake Tapper, also not playing ball with the dribbler-in-chief, stepped up to once again ask Mr. Jackson’s question, the president put on a dazzling act of having been fiercely fouled.

“Are you the ombudsman for the White House press corps? What’s your question? Is that your question?” Mr. Obama said to raucous laughter from the room, although Mr. Tapper held his ground, unamused and unsmiling.

Much has been made about the giddy laughter among the White House press corps during presidential news conferences, but Tuesday offered a window into just who packed into the tiny briefing room for the show.

A slew of nonworking “journalists” stood along one side of the room. One woman, who identified herself as working for “Hungary News TV,” took pictures with a small camera throughout the hour. Another very young woman stood among the working reporters, taking no notes. Asked afterward who she was, Rebecca Cooper, a reporter for WJLA-Channel 7 in Washington, stepped in to answer: “She’s an intern.”

“Everybody wants to see an Obama press conference!” she said happily.

• Joseph Curl can be reached at

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