A lot of my friends are dumbfounded when I tell them some of the things that we discuss at the off-camera, early morning “gaggles” (briefings) by White House Press Secretary Tony Snow.
Yesterday, at a gaggle that lasted less than thirty minutes, we must have spent five-to-10 minutes on Democrats being “bothered,” as veteran CBS radio correspondent Mark Knoller put it when he raised the issue, by the President referring to the “Democrat-controlled Congress” rather than the Democratic Congress.
“I want to thank everybody for making three mountains out of a molehill,” fired back Snow, “When we asked him about it, he said, ‘What? No, I didn’t mean anything by it.’”
Snow went on to point out that the President came out and “makes a gracious gesture to Nancy Pelosi. He spends an entire speech talking about reaching out and working together, and a few people who apparently haven’t gotten the message run out and they complain that the letters ‘I C’ were missing from Democratic. That looks like an exercise in looking for a fence rather than looking for a way to work together. The President has made it very clear that there’s a lot of work to be done and both parties can work together. The State of the Union was aimed at a series of issues where there ought to be common interest and also common benefit in getting the job done. These are issues that Americans [sic] want to see something accomplished.
“So, let me just repeat, that there was no intentional slight of anyone. As a matter of fact, if you look at the tone and the way he conducted the speech, from the very beginning, through the very end, that was designed as an exercise to say to the American people: ‘You know what? Let’s stop committing petty politics. Let’s stop looking for silly fights and let’s look to get the people’s business done in a way that can give them reassurance that Washington is not a place that’s going to be paralyzed.”
But the Fourth Estate was not going to be deterred. Ann Compton of ABC Radio asked Snow if he was aware that the “Week Ahead” paper put out by his office also left the “IC” off its references to the Democratic Congress?
“No,” replied Snow.
Another reporter asked if the President was aware the reference to the Democratic Party as the “Democrat Party” was a slur against Democrats and has been used in this manner for more than thirty years?
A slightly irritated Snow shot back that “what I’m actually telling you is that this is something that he wasn’t even aware of and you guys are trying to pick a fight that doesn’t even exist. So what I would say is, is it appropriate to try to make a mountain out of a molehill? Only if you really need to.
“If you want to do a roster of name-calling, I would challenge you to go back and look at every characterization of the President and ask that question to people who have used it [sic] against him, because you are going to find that this is a President who has tried to stay away from the business of doing slurs and there was none intended. As a Republican president, he is going to be meeting with Democrats. That is a demonstration of good will. I think what you ought to do is take a look at the actions rather than try to take umbrage at what was something that was an unintentional failure to read two letters at the end of a word.”
The New York Times’ Sheryl Gay Stolberg then jumped in the fray and questioned Snow again whether the President was unaware this is a slur at the Democratic Party historically.
By now, Snow had had it: “He just doesn’t think anything of it. . .It wasn’t delivered. I’m not putting him on the coach. Come on, you guys. Why don’t you ask yourselves if you want to build a constructive atmosphere in Washington, why don’t you think about the substance of the address? It will make you work a little more, but it’s probably more constructive.
He then closed the meeting with “I’m not going to touch it.”
There you have it: your Fourth Estate at work.
A Footnote: My friend Martha Kumar, a historian who is a regular participant in the White House briefings, referred me to a history of ‘Democrat Party’ as a term of contempt. It’s a long history. The farthest historians have traced the term is to the Oxford English Dictionary of 1890, which has a passage: “Whether a little farmer. . .is going to rule the Democrat Party of America.” The same history notes that the term has been used to specifically refer to the big-city machines of the party, which Republicans considered un-democratic, and was employed by Herbert Hoover in 1932, Minnesota Gov. Harold Stassen in 1940, Ohio Sen. Robert A. Taft in 1948, and Dwight Eisenhower and Sen. Joe McCarthy (R.-Wisc.) in the 1950s.