One of many complaints by White House reporters has been this White House’s ever-increasing reliance on background briefings (as well as background quotes) in which statements are made for the record, but are not attributable to any individual. Quotes are, instead, cited to a “White House official.”
The practice has become so reflexive that White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest actually bragged about not having a background briefing on the drone strikes that killed an American and an Italian hostage last week. On Monday morning, though, the Office of the First Lady held perhaps the most absurd background briefing to date.
In preparation for the state dinner during Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s visit, the White House held a special preview in the State Dining Room to unveil the new China pattern, give reporters a chance to photograph the place settings, and to get information about the dinner from a variety of White House staffers, including White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford, White House Executive Pastry Chef Susan Morrison, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, and White House Curator William G. Allman.
All of these staffers delivered remarks at the top of the preview, on the record, but the press office informed all reporters in writing beforehand, and again in person at the preview, that all remarks during the Q&A session would be on background only. Why they made that stipulation is anyone’s guess, but since they allowed photography at the event, I’m able to show you this picture of Comerford holding a really fancy salad, which she called “a nod to the classic American Caesar Salad with a Japanese twist, literally. The salad is wrapped in a clear acetate and tied with a Mizuhiki cord emulating a gift to be opened.”
However, I can only report to you that a “White House staffer” told me that the salad is about 350 calories, and then demanded to know why I was so interested in calorie counts. A “White House staffer” also told me that Iron Chef Morimoto would be cooking during the state dinner, but has planned no impromptu competition, and that the main course will be a Wagyu beef tenderloin, cleaned and roasted whole.
Dessert will be “a unique take on the American-style cheesecake using healthier ingredients such as Silken Tofu and soy milk,” along with “a fruit salad featuring a selection of seasonal berries from Florida” and “a petit pillow accented with blackened syrup and Honey from the South Grounds.”
There will also be a selection of petit fours inspired by Japanese tea, alongside a handcrafted sugar blown teapot. Looks delicious. I was unable to get a calorie count on that, or anything else.
And finally, here is White House Curator William G. Allman talking to a reporter about dishes:
Separately, I can report to you that a “White House staffer” told me that the China service, designed by First Lady Michelle Obama, made by Pickard China of Antioch, Ill. and unveiled for the first time Monday, was donated by the White House Endowment Trust. He couldn’t tell me how much it cost, but ballparked a comparable 4,000-piece (or so) set at around $2 million.
The preview itself was fascinating, especially for an avid home cook and (God, I hate this word) “foodie,” and it was well-attended by a good hundred or so reporters, most of whom were openly videotaping throughout the Q&A. It is obvious that the insistence on background quotes is the reflex of a heavy-handed press operation, and not a necessity, or even a possibility in this case.