Sometimes, being the White House press secretary is a pretty unpleasant job — like being the spokesman for a coal company after a cave-in that kills nine and traps a dozen.
Whadddya gonna say? “Boy, we had a hundred and eighty-seven code violations we really shoulda done something about”? Or, “Well, I guess those guys down in the pit messed up real bad”? No, you drop into full defensive mode, circle the wagons, hunker down — then say whatever you gotta say.
Throw a rock in Washington, D.C., and you’ll hit a couple hundred guys willing to do just that — for a price (you’ll even find one or two eager to tell you that every time you pay LiveNation $9.75 to order a ticket online that it’s really just a “convenience fee”).
So, sometimes, you find someone guided by voices ready to say whatever needs to be said from the White House podium. A degree from Yale doesn’t matter then, it’s wriggle out as best you can. And only in Washington can you be sure to get away with simply blaming the press.
Which is just what former “reporter” Jay Carney did this week in a shameless — and, really, quite embarrassing — display of petty partisan PR. But finally, his one-time colleagues called him out on his meandering mendacity, and it was, in a word, hilarious.
On Monday, the great post-partisan president was asked this: “After last week’s arguments at the Supreme Court, many experts believe that there could be a majority, a five-member majority, to strike down the individual mandate. And if that were to happen, if it were to be ruled unconstitutional, how would you still guarantee health care to the uninsured and those Americans who’ve become insured as a result of the law?”
The One’s answer: “Ultimately, I’m confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress. And I’d just remind conservative commentators that for years what we’ve heard is, the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism or a lack of judicial restraint — that an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law.”
An unprecedented — and extraordinary — answer. But wait, it gets better.
The boys and girls in the front row of the White House briefing room finally came alive, if only for a bit.
“Does he regret using the word ‘unprecedented?’ ” NBC’s Norah O’Donnell asked the White House’s PR agent.
“Since the Lochner era …” Yale boy said. Huh? Wait, what?
“A handful of people,” he continued, “didn’t seem to understand what he was referring to. Of course, he was referring to the fact that it would be unprecedented in the modern era of the Supreme Court, since the New Deal era, for the Supreme Court to overturn legislation passed by Congress designed to regulate and deal with a national economic — a matter of national economic importance like our health care system.”
Oh. Well, he’s such a great orator, why didn’t he just say THAT?
“But …” the next reporter started.
“It was clear to most folks who observe this and understand what is at issue here,” Mr. Carney said.
“But …” another reporter said.
“Well, it may not be evident to you. It is clear that the president was talking about …”
The boys and girls had a field day Wednesday, then came back again Thursday ready to play. Ed Henry of Fox News struck first.
“The premise of your question,” a miffed Mr. Carney said, “suggests that the president of the United States, in the comments he made Monday, did not believe that the Supreme Court could rule on the constitutionality of legislation, which is a preposterous premise, and I know you don’t believe that.”
“Well,” etc Mr. Henry said.
“In speaking on Monday,” Mr. Carney said, “the president was not clearly understood by some people. Because he is a law professor, he spoke in shorthand,” the coal company spokesman said.
Then, finally, CBS News’ Bill Plante, aging like a fine wine, had had quite enough. “He made a mistake, and you can’t admit it,” the 74-year-old reporter said, point-blank.
“I grant to you,” Mr. Carney said, “I totally grant to you that he did not refer to the Commerce Clause; he did not refer to the full context. I think he believed that that was understood. Clearly, some folks, notably people sitting in that chair and others, missed that and …”
“It’s our fault,” Mr. Henry said.
“It surely is,” another reporter said.
“No, no, look, others — look, others …” Mr. Carney stammered. “I’m just saying that there’s a lot of — I mean, it’s kind of ridiculous to believe that the president wasn’t talking about the context of the case. But I completely concede that he did not describe the context when he took the question and answered it on Monday. He then, asked again on Tuesday, provided the full context. And so, did he clarify his comments? Absolutely. Did he expand on them? Absolutely.”
Mr. Plante got in one last zinger. “You’re standing up there twisting yourself in knots.”
And not too long from now, Mr. Carney will be telling us how convenient the “convenience fee” is. Perhaps he’ll be better suited for that job.
• Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.