Anyone who has ever endured a tough week on the job can almost, but not quite, feel sorry for Jay Carney.
The boyish White House press secretary has been having an undeniably hard time of it lately, what with his boss suddenly beset by scandals ranging from the multi-layered fiasco of the Benghazi terror attack and its aftermath to the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of opposition groups to a Justice Department that has been spying on the Associated Press, and the embarrassing spectacle of Carney flailing about as he struggles to provide a plausible explanation for all of it would ordinarily induce pity in a sympathetic soul. Even so, Carney is more to be scorned than pitied because he is so obviously out of practice.
At Tuesday’s news briefing Carney was aggressively grilled by the assembled reporters about all of the aforementioned issues, and the poor fellow seemed quite taken aback that anyone in the media would be guilty of such brazen lese majesty as to ask a question at a press conference. His surprise is somewhat understandable, given the polite behavior of the press during such past scandals as the New Black Panthers’ kid-glove treatment, Solyndra and other “green job” boondoggles, Fast and Furious, the presidenlavish lifestyle, and assorted failures such as the stimulus and the broken promises of Obamacare, but Carney should have foreseen that those reporters’ instinctive pugnaciousness would eventually assert itself. The press still isn’t nearly so adversarial as it has been during Republican administrations, but on Tuesday they at least stopped being obsequious.
In a previous week’s news conference Carney had insisted that the scrubbing of any mention of an al-Qaeda terror from the government’s official explanation of the Benghazi attack and substituting some fanciful nonsense about a spontaneous popular reaction a little-seen YouTube video was only a “stylistic” and “not substantive” change, but the reporters on Tuesday were stubbornly cynical about the claim. Even such stalwart supporters as The New Yorker and The Washington Post are starting to treat Benghazi as a story that reflects poorly on the administration, and Carney had a rather stunned look on his face when the reporters were so unenthused about his denunciations of the Republicans for taking an interest in the death of an ambassador and four other Americans.
The same rudeness attended the matter of the IRS harassment of conservative groups, which has offended civil libertarian sensibilities to the point that some news media have been using the N-word — Nixon — to describe the scandal. Carney gamely insisted that he and his boss were also appalled that an agency under executive branch control would do such nasty things to groups that the president had vilified in countless speeches. Although the press wasn’t so ravenous as it was about George W. Bush’s 30-year-old National Guard attendance records, it was more than inquisitive enough to rattle Carney. He boldly asserted that the White House had nothing to do with the scandal, but added that all he or the president knew was what they read in the papers. A reporter from the Bloomberg news service, of all places, asked how Carney could be so certain of the White House’s innocence if he didn’t know any more than what was being reported, and Carney responded with a flustered “I think I can say that I feel confident in that, but, I you know, I don’t have any.”
Harsher questions were asked about the Justice Department’s snooping around the phone records of the Associated Press, an action that everyone in the press is taking personally. The press has been badly mistreated for many years by the Obama administration, which has kicked reporters off airplanes for insufficiently enthusiastic editorials in their papers, denied access on an unprecedented scale, stonewalled investigations into various matters, and even kept a reporter in a closet during a vice presidential appearance, but the assault on AP seems to have at last caused a rift in the longstanding love affair between the president and the press. More respectful treatment might be accorded at the next presidential news conference, which might be many healing months away, but the reporters had no reluctance to beat up on Carney over the matter. Unaccustomed to such treatment, Carney wound up using the word “unfettered” a dozen times when explaining the president’s commitment to a free press.
The president’s high opinion of a free press is likely based on an assumption that it would it always sing his praises, and it remains to be seen if he will be as tolerate when the press is critical. Those reporters might fall back in line if it appears that efforts are redounding to the benefit of the Republican party, but in the meantime Jay Carney should get used to working for a living.
— Bud Norman