MEMBERS ONLY: A Not-So-Close Shave

Banter White House correspondent Tommy Christopher unveiled a hot new look last week, and it did not go unnoticed.
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Banter White House correspondent Tommy Christopher unveiled a hot new look last week, and it did not go unnoticed.
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Greetings, Banterers, and welcome to another in the Chronic-WHAT?-cles of Christopher. If you watched these pages last week, then you got to see the results of what I did on Monday and Tuesday firsthand, but here's where I tell you how the sausage got made, and all the things you didn't see.

In this week's A Day at the White House film, we get to see my comings and goings at the White House, plus talk with our pal Jon-Christopher Bua of Huffington Post UK, and get a glimpse of the electric atmosphere that occurs at the White House when actual news is happening.

While Monday was a great day for me because I got three questions in at the briefing, Tuesday was the day of Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech before Congress, and the White House was positively buzzing. You'll get to see White House reporters huddling around monitors as President Obama reacts to the speech, while MSNBC's Chris Jansing, Fox News' Ed Henry, and CNN's Michelle Kosinski do live hits at the front of the briefing room. It's the kind of chaotic scene you almost expect to be interrupted by a shout of "Stop the presses!"

Ordinarily, briefing room chatter consists of mundane shop talk and light joshing, but on Tuesday, it was all about Bibi and Obama, and Israel and Iran, and it was a great day to be a journalist. The consensus was pretty much what you hear on the air, that Netanyahu and Boehner were pulling a political stunt, but I also think his political acts are grounded in a genuine belief that only the  hardest of hardline approaches will ensure the survival of his country. Right or wrong, for better or worse, I don't think this is an act.

You should also watch for a brief interview with Paul Brandus, curator of the indispensable West Wing Report Twitter feed, and author of the upcoming book A History of the White House in 21 Rooms. Brandus is one of the best-kept secrets in political media, but he's got a large and influential following on Twitter, and a store of White House lore in his noggin to rival Mark Knoller, minus the beard:

Speaking of beards, a funny thing happened to me on Tuesday. When I got to the briefing room, I was immediately greeted by a large, affable reporter I'd never met before, and so I introduced myself. "I know," he said, "I read about you online, you're growing a lucky beard!"

My first thought was that this guy was just busting my chops because I forgot to shave before I left home on Monday, and if he hadn't been such a friendly sort, I might have told him to cut the Schick. He was a really friendly Postal Service reporter from Michigan named John Greathouse who, I quickly learned, was in town to pressure the administration to sign an executive order reinstating delivery standards.

As is my wont (and because I'm a huge fan of the USPS), I did my best to show him the ropes, threw him together with The Hill's Justin Sink to see if he could get some ink, and after the briefing, tried to get him a meeting with a White House o fficial. In the film, you'll see a brief shot of a desk with books piled up on it as a makeshift monitor stand, an image that I found very amusing because the books were copies of the President's budget. That desk belongs to Josh Earnest's assistant, who was dutifully writing her email address on post-it notes for the both of us. As we walked back sown to the lower press office, I demonstratively tore that note up in front of him and told him "She is the last person you ever want to email. You're just tipping her to when she's going to need to blow you off."

See, there are two kinds of people in the press office: the ones who want to help you (most of the press secretaries and spokesmen), and the ones who want to make sure no one ever talks to you (most of the aides). The Earnest press shop has been much more accessible than those of his predecessors, but I've noted a shift in hiring toward the latter type in recent weeks. I even had one try to kick me out of the lower press office after one of the press secretaries had already asked me to wait there. They live to push around people who they think don't matter. Alas, John never did get his meeting. Let's keep all of this between us, though, because I still got mine.

So, I found out later that John wasn't just busting my chops, he actually had read about my beard (if you can call it that, I can go without shaving for months and still look like an adolescent catfish) in The Daily Caller. DC gossip columnist Betsy Rothstein keeps pretty regular tabs on me, and while I was initially nonplussed, I have to give her credit for noticing, and yeah, I did look like a slob. I have a valid excuse, though, because I fully intended to shave, but ran so late that I didn't pack my shaver, or an extra shirt, or my medicine. Luckily, I already had a shirt in the car.

Betsy also noted that not only had I gotten in three questions on Monday, but Josh had also called on me very early in the briefing, even before Fox News and MSNBC. She's got a good eye, because whenever I do get called on, it's almost always in the last minutes of the briefing. She later asked me, on Twitter, if the other reporters get mad when I get called on, which I don't think they do anymore, but again, she's surprisingly perceptive here. Lots of people assume that because I'm a liberal, I'm some kind of White House pet, which is not at all the case. I've gotten into it with all three Obama press secretaries, and numerous deputies, on many occasions, and I've been frozen out of briefing questions for months at a time.

At the beginning, after a few months of persistence, Gibbs started calling on me with relative frequency, and there was a lot of resentment about it, but not from where I'd expected it. Reporters from smaller outfits were actually great about it, and the TV correspondents have always been the most supportive and helpful to me. It was the national print reporters who used to give e dirty looks and murmurs. Honestly, I think it was that same sense of superiority that caused Jay Carney difficulty in warming up to me, and on a certain level, I can't say I blame any of them. Six years in, and I'm still pretty green, still shorter than most in the paying dues department. But I've also got a job to do, so also, fuck them.

Betsy's observation, though, reminded me of another time when I got called on early in the briefing. Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton was filling in for Gibbs, who was taking a lot of flak for his "professional left" comments, and whom many speculated was taking the day off to let the uproar die down. When he called on me right after Chuck Todd, you'd have thought he had asked someone to "Please pass the jelly!"

You can't hear all of it in the clip, but there were gasps and laughs, and even overt shade:

http://youtu.be/S7lA8XhgAQQ

That probably leaves me and Les Kinsolving as the only two reporters to ever get heckled by other reporters at the White House.

So, that happened, and it felt pretty shitty, but it also cemented in me the determination to always be nice to the new guys and the little guys, no matter who they work for. The beat has turned over quite a bit since I've been there, so everyone there now is pretty used to us scrubeenies getting some crumbs now and then, and Josh is even better about spreading the wealth than Carney was, but I think it still helps to meet a friendly face when you're just starting out. This is a marked departure from how I am in every other aspect of life, where I am usually the asshole in any given situation.

Here is this week's film (you can see  all of this week's photos here). I hope you enjoy coming along with me into the White House as much as I enjoy bringing you in. See you next week.

http://youtu.be/I5N65ky_QEk