Good morning, and welcome to this week’s still-nameless Members Only column. Since your humble correspondent was down with the sickness all last week, we’ll be going to the vault this week for a look at one of President Obama’s first visits to our shared workspace: the Brady Briefing Room.
As our regular readers have probably gleaned, covering the White House mostly involves not seeing the president at all, and when we do see him, it’s usually in the most pre-packaged, least-newsworthy fashion possible. Canned events in the East Room, announcements in the Rose Garden, arrivals and departures from the South Lawn, and even, to some extent, presidential press conferences are all choreographed affairs that you can probably skip if you’ve got access to WhiteHouse.gov.
When the president comes to the briefing room, however, it’s Kind of a Big Deal. Often, these appearances are made with little or no notice, and usually accompany some kind of pretty big or unexpected news. There’s still a canned quality to them, since there’s little or no chance he’ll just start taking questions from the crowd, but there’s something different and special about having the president on our turf.
I was put in mind of this fact when I came across some video I had shot during one of the first such appearances the president made in the briefing room. It was two days after President Obama had set the world on fire by calling stupid police stupid. It was to be the first briefing since the president had told Chicago’s own Lynn Sweet that police had “acted “stupidly” in arresting Harvard Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates on the porch of his own home, and with great dismay, I was expecting that issue to take up the bulk of the proceedings, as it had Gibbs’ Air Force One gaggle the previous day.
Often, when a visit to the briefing room is truly a surprise, we sort of get tipped off by a White House photographer setting up in advance, which is what happened this day. It was about 15 minutes or so before the briefing that reporters noticed, and began speculating about a surprise visit. This is the point at which the truly grizzled White House veterans are separated from the ones who immediately drop their cultivated air of nonchalance, and completely lose their shit. Only a few months into the beat, I didn’t really know enough to do either, but rather, to observe the palpable shift in the atmosphere of the briefing room.
Among my colleagues that day, I was one of the few who expressed dismay at the way this story had been framed, as most of them took for granted that there was necessarily some sort of “damage” to “control,” but we all knew what was coming, at least in a general sense. Even though Gibbs had just gotten done telling reporters that president Obama did not regret his word choice at that July 22 press conference, we all figured he wasn’t coming down there to tell the Cambridge Police to kiss his ass.
The president did not apologize that day, but he did say he could have “calibrated” his words more carefully, and in reading out his phone call with Sgt. James Crowley, sowed the seeds that would eventually grow into the famed “Beer Summit” spectacle. The president spoke for about six minutes, followed by the regular briefing by then-Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. Here’s what the president’s remarks looked and sounded like from the fifth row of the briefing room:
The president didn’t take any questions, but as you can imagine, Gibbs wound up taking lots more questions about the controversy. I took the opportunity to let Gibbs shift the focus where it should have been, onto the absurd arrest of Professor Gates. He declined:
At that time, the White House was pretty slow to get its video up, so I would often videotape entire briefings with the camera sitting on my lap, just so I could use the audio for reference, which is exactly what I did after the president left the briefing room. I usually deleted them afterwards, but I still have this one, so because I have it, here’s what that question looked like from the keyboard of my laptop:
That’s all for this week, folks, but I will be traveling on Monday and Tuesday this week, so we should have lots of new stuff for you to look at next week. Until then, happy Bantering!