Friday, May 1, 2009

The White House scrambled Thursday to tell Americans to pay no attention to the advice of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who said he’s told family members not to travel in subways or airplanes to avoid catching the swine flu.

The latest gaffe from the vice president directly contradicted President Obama, who Wednesday evening had told Americans not to panic or overreact, and instead to take simple measures such as washing hands to combat the flu outbreak.

“I would tell members of my family - and I have - I wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places now,” Mr. Biden told NBC’s “Today” show as he earnestly explained how he is handling the flu situation himself.

Whether he was right or wrong in his advice, it was not the image the White House was trying to craft as it urged Americans to go about their business with only minor precautions. An hour after his appearance, his spokeswoman put out a statement saying Mr. Biden was only talking about those people who were already sick.

The problem was that Mr. Biden’s comments clearly went beyond that. Asked what advice he would give to a family member planning to travel by airplane to Mexico, Mr. Biden told NBC he would caution them not to go.

He said it wasn’t about going to Mexico, but rather that “you’re in a confined aircraft when one person sneezes it goes all the way through the aircraft. That’s me. I would not be, at this point, if they had another way of transportation, suggesting they ride the subway. So from my perspective, what it relates to is mitigation.”

The White House had put Mr. Biden on NBC and the other the morning talk shows to talk about the flu, but had to step in later to tell viewers to ignore his advice and instead take the precautions Mr. Obama laid out Wednesday.

“I understand what he said, and I’m telling you what he meant to say,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

Mr. Biden has a long history of finding the wrong words to say what he intended, and Republicans have gleefully picked up on this latest gaffe.

Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican and the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Mr. Biden appears to have violated Mr. Obama’s professed desire to follow scientific data wherever it leads.

“I am very concerned that senior administration officials are not adhering to scientific-based advice when updating the public on steps that should be taken in order to protect oneself from swine influenza A (H1N1) virus,” Mr. Issa wrote in a letter to Mr. Obama.

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