Friday, January 23, 2009

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.”

The warmish winter day began with heated objections from the White House press corps. Before a “background briefing” to help reporters understand Mr. Obama’s complex executive order on the detention of enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay, junior press aide Josh Earnest said “for your stories, they should be attributed to ‘senior administration officials.’ ”

When an objection came from Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association, Mr. Earnest said earnestly: “It’s not necessarily a precedent-setting decision, but it’s a decision that we think will work best.”

That set the mood for Mr. Gibbs’ debut. After a session over the secret briefers, reporters moved to the debacle of the second swearing-in ceremony Mr. Obama undertook in the Oval Office on Wednesday evening. During a barrage of questions, the press secretary said eight times that the second oath of office was decided upon only out of “an abundance of caution,” leaving the phrase alone only after reporters cackled at its last utterance.

Still, throughout the day’s session, Mr. Gibbs was in control - affable, smiling often, answering questions in a slow, measured, slightly Southern drawl, joking with reporters who had covered Mr. Obama on the campaign trail. But he made clear who he works for: Over and over, he began his answers with “the president believes” and at least once said, “I just want to reiterate what the president said throughout the campaign and the transition.”

On the creation of a new White House panel to recommend action on Guantanamo, he said: “I don’t want to get ahead of the recommendations.” In answer to one specific question, he said: “I don’t have anything specifically.” Asked the bottom line on another topic, he said it’s “an ongoing discussion, ongoing planning process.” When a reporter used the word “if” in a question, the new spokesman dismissed the query as “hypothetical,” just as all four Bush spokesman had done before him.

And like many of his predecessors, he had his oddly unintelligible moments. Asked whether Mr. Obama should “lead by example,” Mr. Gibbs said: “We’ll check on that.”

On more pointed questions, such as whether Osama bin Laden would be aggressively interrogated if captured, Mr. Gibbs dodged altogether: “Let me get some guidance from [White House Counsel] Greg [Craig] and members of the [National Security Council].”

“Is it fair for me then to conclude that it is an open question?” the reporter asked.

“No, it’s fair for you to conclude that I want to make sure I don’t make a mistake,” Mr. Gibbs said to laughter.

With that, he was off. But he had a parting idea for the heaving throng of reporters. “We should sell tickets and have the money go to the deficit or something,” he said before heading for the door, shouting over his shoulder, “See you tomorrow.”

E-mail Joseph Curl.

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