Tales from the Trail
Talk about being in good company.
President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, considered the highest U.S. civilian honor, to 16 people on Wednesday including a celebrated scientist, the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court, a gay rights pioneer, and a top leader against apartheid in South Africa.
If Barack Obama and the gay community have strained relations, an elegant reception in the White House East Room to celebrate LGBT Pride Month was a good way to start mending fences — at least for now.
There’s a real school’s-out feeling around Washington today. Congress left town last week after the House voted for bill to curb climate change, and most lawmakers won’t be back until after the July 4 holiday weekend. The Supreme Court issues its last rulings of the term, with a full sheaf of decisions expected — but then the justices will be gone for the summer.
Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs barely got a foot through the door of the White House briefing room Thursday before being hit by the full force of a press corps demanding information on the big news of the day.
Not Iran or healthcare, of course, or even the energy bill that President Barack Obama had discussed earlier in the White House Rose Garden.
Nope, the big news Thursday was who on the White House staff would take a turn in the dunk tank at the Hawaiian luau being thrown by Obama for members of Congress and their families on the White House south lawn.
“I went out there to see it. It’s out there,” Gibbs said in response to questions about the tank — one of those amusement park devices where someone sits suspended over a huge tub of water while others hurl balls at a trigger in an effort to dunk him.
“Rahm is going to be in it. Phil Schiliro’s going to be in it,” Gibbs said, referring to Rahm Emanuel, the president’s chief of staff, and Schiliro, the president’s assistant for legislative affairs.
“Robert Gibbs is going to be in it,” he added, referring to himself.
News that Emanuel and Schiliro would be targets in the dunk tank set off speculation on Capitol Hill that Obama was deviously trying to round up more support for an expected vote in the House Friday on the energy bill.
News that Gibbs had volunteered set off a round of journalistic pleading for news coverage, or perhaps an opportunity to try it out on White House spokesman.
Offers of fundraising for charity were made — $5 or $10 per reporter in exchange for a throw and a video of the results.
“I’m happy to. You guys collect the pot of money, you guys pick your best arm, and we can — you can have a shot at it. You can throw it (at) me and I’ll get you the video,” Gibbs said.
He did express one reservation.
“My only concern at this point is that the water gets a little warmer maybe before we start throwing.”
And so at the appointed hour a little past 5 p.m., the press corps filed out for the dunking shortly before the start of the luau, cheered on by Obama, who poked his head out a West Wing door and shouted: “Go get him! Go get him! You can do it!”
Gibbs went into the water twice in five minutes — once at the hands of AP’s Ben Feller and a second time on the pitching of CBS’s Bill Plante, who’s been covering the White House for nearly 30 years.
Gibbs was still drying off as the luau got underway.
“Bill Plante,” he said. “Who’d have thought?”
For more Reuters political news, click here.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs took heat on Wednesday over the use of what one reporter called a “designated hitter” to ask President Barack Obama about protests in Iran.
“What kind of a message do you think that sends to the American people and to the world about the kind of free flow and pure questioning that’s been expected at presidential news conferences?” CBS White House correspondent Peter Maer asked.
Iran’s disputed election and the violent crackdown on the huge protests that followed dominated Obama’s fourth news conference on Tuesday.
But Maer and other reporters objected to Obama taking an arranged question from the Huffington Post website.
“What led to your decision to plant a designated hitter right here to ask the president a question,” Maer asked.
White House aides had arranged for Nico Pitney from the Huffington Post to attend the press conference and Obama called on him second, after answering an earlier question on Iran.
“I know that there may actually be questions from people in Iran who are communicating through the Internet. Do you have a question?” Obama asked.
Pitney then relayed a question from an Iranian who wanted to know under what conditions Obama would accept the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the disputed poll.
Obama dodged that but said “a sizable percentage of the Iranian people themselves, spanning Iranian society, consider this election illegitimate. It’s not an isolated instance, a little grumbling here or there. There is significant questions about the legitimacy of the election.”
Gibbs defended the White House’s decision to invite Pitney to the press conference to ask a question. He insisted the White House had no idea “what the exact question would be.”
He called the exchange a “very powerful message” of press freedoms Iranians do not currently enjoy in their own county, rather than an example of contrived newsmaking.
The Huffington Post and other liberal outlets often accused former President George W. Bush of planting questioners in news conferences to ask softball questions.
Gibbs left open the possibility that Obama could use the same tactic again, saying the president thought it was important to try to take a question indirectly from someone in Iran.
“I won’t make any apologies for that,” Gibbs said.
For more Reuters political news, click here.