On Monday evening, December 12, the rancor and edginess that is so familiar to regular viewers of the White House press briefings vanished amid holiday cheer and food.
The White House Correspondents Association held its Christmas party at the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Washington, D.C., and had as its guest of honor someone who has been frequently likened to a piñata for the scribes: Scott McClellan, press secretary to the President.
The televised confrontations between the Bush Administration’s top spokesman and members of the Fourth Estate who cover McClellan’s daily briefings have become heated lately.
When the name of White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove was first mentioned in connection with the revelation of former CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity this summer, McClellan was pelted with no less than 47 questions about Rove and Plame at his afternoon briefing. More than a few reporters said he called that day on talk show host Les Kinsolving (who inevitably asks long-winded questions about subjects other reporters avoid) and Raghuibir Goyal of the India Globe (who almost always asks about India and Pakistan) as “lifelines.” (A beaming Goyal was at the Marriott festivities, eagerly snapping pictures of McClellan with his camera).
In October, a session over White House support for a proposed exemption for the CIA to the torture ban being pushed by Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) led to a particularly stormy exchange between McClellan and correspondent April Ryan of the American Urban Radio Network. Again, McClellan closed the briefing by calling on Goyal, who asked a question about relief for flood-wracked India that sounded, according to a fellow correspondent, “as if he were making a speech in a parliament.”
In introducing McClellan to the revelers, Associated Press White House correspondent and Association President Mark Smith hailed him as “someone we all like, even though we may torture him every day.” Ken Hermann of the Cox Newspapers, resident wit of the Brady Briefing Room at the White House, thereupon called out, “We don’t torture!” and brought down the house. (Hermann’s rapier wit was in good form throughout the party; when a fellow guest congratulated him on being named one of the “50 best reporters in Washington” by Washingtonian Magazine, the veteran reporter deadpanned: “It’s really helped sales of the Ken Hermann action doll figure this Christmas!”).
Loudly cheered by those who cover him, McClellan thanked them for “doing your job” and expressed his pleasure at regularly answering their questions. He then departed for a Christmas party hosted by White House Chief of Staff Andy Card.