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A Hard Day on the Job

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

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Unrequited Love

Pity the poor White House press corps, tortured by unrequited love. No matter how hard they try to please their man, no matter how servile they become, they are given nothing in return but scorn.
Like a teary guest on an afternoon talk show, the White House press corps has at last begun to speak up for itself and demand the respect that its endless devotion to President Barack Obama has surely earned. The White House Correspondents’ Association didn’t formally protest Obama’s stonewalling on Fast and Furious, Solyndra, Benghazi, or any of the administration’s other serious scandals, only a lack of access during the most recent presidential vacation, but at least it is a start. As any afternoon talk show host will tell you, every emotional journey begins with a single small step.
One can certainly sympathize with the reporters, who were confined to a “party bus” while the president enjoyed a round of golf at a swank country club. Aside from the horrors of their hours-long confinement in the “party bus,” which according to one reporter “may sound more fun than it is,” the reporters were understandably miffed that they were kept away from a newsworthy event. Obama was playing against Tiger Woods, after all, and the mismatch of the century would certainly have made for interesting spectating.
Nor is there any apparent reason for such appalling treatment of a press corps that has always served the president well. Great Britain’s Daily Mail insinuates that Obama thought it might look bad to be photographed playing a stereotypically upper-class game at a ritzy Florida resort with the most notorious womanizer since Bill Clinton, and at a time when the nation’s economy is struggling and Obama is railing against the rich, but the British press is always much cheekier about these sorts of things than its American counterpart. We expect the reporters would have endeavored to make the event sound very glamorous and Camelot-y, yet not at all inconsistent with his populist rhetoric, and perhaps even kicked a few balls out of the rough for the president.
Typical of the press coverage was the Los Angeles Times’ story on “a more relaxed Obama,” which explained that “Obama’s vacations have been rare, brief and regularly interrupted by crises at home and overseas.” We do not know what the Times’ vacation policy provides, but if the paper truly considers Obama’s vacation schedule so pitiably stingy we will be sending them a resume forthwith. As for the regular interruptions by crises at home and overseas, we can’t recall the Times offering any such excuses for the previous president’s less frequent retreats to his family ranch. Of course the Bush family ranch was in Crawford, Texas, a hard-scrabble patch of prairie where the sun shines mercilessly in the summer and there’s not a decent bistro for miles, so even the free-ranging reporters of that era found it more onerous than even the most primitive “party bus.”
There’s no stopping the dogged determination of the White House press corps, though, and fans of a free press will be heartened to know that when the reporters finally got an opportunity to shout a question at Obama it was to find out if he had beaten Tiger Woods. The American press might not be so love-struck as the North Korean press that reported Kim Jong Il had shot a sizzling 38-under-par on his first try at the game, but it is getting there.

— Bud Norman

The Oh-So-Polite Press Corps

By now almost everyone has heard about the controversial answer Obama gave to a question about the Supreme Court’s upcoming ruling on the constitutionality of Obamacare, but few people have noticed what wasn’t asked at that press conference with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderon.

With Harper standing right there next to Obama, it seemed a perfect opportunity to ask a question or two about the Keystone XL Pipeline. Harper was reportedly confounded and infuriated by Obama’s decision to block construction of the pipeline, and is proceeding with plans to sell his country’s oil to China despite Obama’s compromise decision to build the pipeline only halfway to Canada, so a joint appearance by the two heads of state could have shed some light on the situation. Instead, the ladies and gentlemen of the press chose to ask about the more anodyne matters of a free trade agreement and a minor squabble over visa requirements.

With Calderon standing right there next to Obama, it was also a perfect opportunity to ask about the Fast and Furious fiasco, a Department of Justice operation that allowed the sale of thousands of weapons to Mexican drug gangs. The botched operation reportedly infuriated the Mexican government when they found out about it long after hundreds of Mexicans had died as a result, yet not one reporter had the temerity to ask either leader about it. A member of the Mexican press did ask about the flow of weapons into Mexico from the United States, giving Calderon and Obama a chance to lament the Second Amendment, but without any mention of Fast and Furious.

The fact that one question prompted such a controversial response that Obama spent days trying to explain it might suggest that the reporters in attendance weren’t entirely deferential, but consider how the question about Obamacare was phrased: “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 query, posed by a reporter identified in the transcript as Julianna, as the president is apparently on a first name basis with the White House press corps, was framed as a compliment. The resulting controversy was a result of Obama’s clumsy response, not a hard-hitting question.

White House press conferences used to be more rought and tumble affairs, of course. Somewhere in Texas, we suspect, George W. Bush is wondering when these get-togethers became so chummy.

— Bud Norman