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View From Washington: The Briefing


Storied White House reporter Helen Thomas has gotten to that period in life where she just doesn't care anymore. You know the one we all talk about -- when our grandparents or parents start saying exactly what they think, unencumbered by any notion of what's considered proper etiquette.

Thomas, who is 89, regularly chides White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, but her reprimand Thursday was quintessential Thomas. Almost every day of late she's asked Gibbs how committed President Barack Obama is to including a public option in health reform, which she did again Thursday (video here). As Gibbs began to answer, Thomas interrupted with, "I ask it day after day because it has great meaning in this country and you never answer it."

When Gibbs jested, "Well, I apparently don't answer it to your satisfaction," Thomas shot back, "That's right," as the White House press corps giggled behind her.

"Well, is he going to fight for it or not?" she persisted.

"We're going to work to get choice and competition into health care reform," Gibbs said.

"You're not going to get it," she proclaimed.

"Well, then, why do you keep asking me?" Gibbs asked.

"Because I want your conscience to bother you," Thomas concluded.

Reporters aren't supposed to have an opinion about the public option, but Thomas clearly does and she was putting the White House on notice that she was unimpressed with their efforts.

And although she may be alone in her activism, she was not alone that day in her frustration with Gibbs, who later declined to answer whether the White House would allow Gen. Stanley McChrystal, top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, to visit Capitol Hill and brief Congress about the situation there.

When one reporter asked for a response to congressional members, including Sen. John McCain, who had requested a briefing from General McChrystal, Gibbs asserted that he had not seen McCain's remarks and therefore couldn't comment on them.

MSNBC's Chuck Todd protested, "Robert, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell has called for this; congressman after congressman has called for this; Joe Lieberman has called for this -- there's a whole bunch of people."

A chorus of reporters pressed further and Gibbs finally offered, "I'd like to see the comments. But at that point, I could comment for you."

It was the exact premise of the response Gibbs gave this week when I asked about former president Bill Clinton's recent CNN interview in which he unequivocally stated his support for same-sex marriage, said he had been wrong to oppose it, and called his former position "untenable."

When I inquired about it Tuesday, Gibbs said, "I did not see President Clinton's comments and I haven't talked directly to [President Obama] about it."

Quite honestly, I expected that Gibbs might say he hadn't spoken to the president about the matter. What I didn't anticipate was that he would suggest he hadn't seen the comments at all. CNN had teased the interview with Clinton during Anderson Cooper's show, sending out an advanced copy of it to various outlets, and it was instantly available on the Internet moments after it ran.

While the answer was par for the course this week, it stood in sharp contrast to the last time Gibbs confronted questions related to a minority group injected into the national discourse by a former president: Jimmy Carter.

The day after Carter suggested last month that much of the animosity directed at President Obama and his policies was based on the color of his skin, Gibbs repeatedly said the president disagreed with that analysis.

The race discussion was another conversation the White House didn't want to have during their adventures in health care, but they clearly concluded they couldn't claim ignorance on Carter's comments, especially not in the wake of the Rep. Joe Wilson saga. The press corps peppered Gibbs with questions on the subject of race for three straight days, and he dutifully restated over and over again that the president rejected the assessment of Carter of others.

Of course, the job of the White House press secretary -- or any press secretary, for that matter -- is to create the illusion that they've addressed a subject while telegraphing as little as possible about the deliberations that are really taking place behind the scenes.

And the truth is, a journalist's appetite for answers is rarely sated. But the difference between the way Gibbs fielded questions about race and his handling of the query about same-sex marriage is that at least he acknowledged that the topic of race was being discussed nationally, even as he disagreed with the premise of the questions.

As for marriage, one of my communications friends said he couldn't understand why Gibbs didn't simply say, "Of course the White House respects President Clinton's views on same-sex marriage -- it's a topic many Americans have been thinking about and every former president has the right to express his opinion. But President Obama has been very clear and consistent on this matter."

Another associate channeled Helen Thomas for a blunter assessment, "I just wish someone would tell Gibbs that gay people exist."

To his credit, Gibbs continues to call on The Advocate at the briefings, and every time he does, he knows the general nature of the question he's going to get.

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