“If you’re in give me a call,” was the message from fellow White House correspondent and veteran columnist Llewelyn King when I returned to my office after the daily press briefing by Press Secretary Scott McClellan. “If you’re still there applying first-aid to Scott McClellan, I understand.”
King was only half-kidding. In an hour-long session dominated by hard-hitting questions about Vice President Cheney’s accidental shooting of hunting buddy Harry Whittington, the President’s top spokesman was pelted with queries about the 14-hour delay in reporting the accident and who precisely broke the news to the President Bush.
At one point, when McClellan tried to explain that Mrs. Armstrong (the hostess of the Vice President and Whittington for their quail shoot over the weekend) “reached out to the Corpus [Christi] paper—that’s her local paper,” NBC correspondent David Gregory shook his head and exclaimed: “Oh, come on!” Gregory followed up with “But that’s ridiculous. Are you saying that you don’t know within the White House? What took you so long?”
The McClellan-Gregory exchange was preceded by a comment from Fox News’ Carl Cameron who promised: “Straight chronological questions. We don’t have to yell it.” But after McClellan agreed and tried to explain that White House Chief of Staff Andy Card “talked to [the President] probably in the—my sense is in the 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. range, initially” and that details were coming in from Card “at even 3 a.m. in the morning,” reporters began to grow skeptical and hostile (or, more hostile than usual).
At times, the hardball questions were being pitched by different reporters from the same organization. ABC-TV’s Jessica Yellin and Martha Raditch, for example, were both on the scene, as were Gregory and fellow NBC correspondent Kelly O’Donnell. “We’ve got three people from each news organization here,” observed McClellan about the standing-room-only James Brady Briefing Room.
McClellan was queried about whether the vice president has a hunting license and whether he’s taken a hunting safety course (McClellan told reporters to ask his office about the first point and his understanding was Cheney had a license “for this hunting trip”), and even whether it was proper for the Vice President to offer his resignation—that gem coming from veteran radio reporter Connie Lawn. “That’s an absurd question,” retorted McClellan.
For my part, I asked if the Vice President will be available soon to answer all questions, himself about the incident. “I think you ought to direct questions like that to his office,” replied McClellan. ABC’s Yellin followed up by asking McClellan to ask the Cheney office to “share this information with us, because they’re not.”