If I had my way, I would have preferred to be highlighted on such programs as "Inside Edition" and CNN’s "Situation Room" for a question I posed at the White House briefing yesterday on the heated topic of the day: namely, the administration’s decision not to release photos of the enhanced interrogation techniques of alleged terrorists.
Instead, I drew Andy Warhol’s “fifteen minutes of fame” when my cell phone with its ringtone of Merengue music went off during the briefing.
“Just put it on vibrate, man,” said Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, “[I]t happened twice one day” — a reminder of the time I had forgotten to go to vibrate at our briefing before Easter.
Then my cell phone went off again and, well, the rest is history. Gibbs stepped down from the podium and, amid laughter that broke up an increasingly intense session, he turned to me and said “Give me the phone.”
For a few moments, it was “White House High School.” Rather than interrupt Gibbs’ rather poignant version of the two-fisted teacher immortalized by Glenn Ford in Blackboard Jungle, I surrendered my phone. Gibbs promptly walked to the pressroom door and tossed it to an aide in the back room — all on national television.
As I sat there, looking a bit sheepish (“Don’t sit by me again!” joshed colleague Ken Bazinet of the New York Daily News), I got something of a reprieve. The phone of veteran White House correspondent Bill Plante of CBS went off.
“You too?” asked Gibbs, and then started for Bill’s phone.
Nothing doing for the 22-year veteran of the White House press corps. As he revealed later, “It was a source I’d been waiting to hear from.” Gibbs was not going to get his phone. Bill stepped outside and returned five minutes later.
“Did I miss anything?” he deadpanned.
“Will somebody brief Bill on our new Supreme Court nominee?” shot back Gibbs to laughter all around.
As he headed toward his office after the briefing, Gibbs handed me back my phone, with a wink.
Now one important point should be made: the calls were from my editor wanting to know where I was and that he needed copy. Plante, of course, heard from a source he needed to talk to. A third cellphone that went off (the correspondent didn’t come forward) was probably something just as important.
The briefing, originally scheduled for 1:00, was moved to 1:30. Then it was moved to 1:45 and it finally started at 2:00 PM. Gibbs was at it again, telling my colleagues and me to “hurry up and wait” once more. When the briefing starts that late, of course we’d get calls.
“Maybe I’ll bring a novel to read next time,” I whispered to a colleague before the press secretary finally emerged at the podium. She replied: “I’ve got one at my desk downstairs!”
For all the joshing from my friends and colleagues, all the mock warnings about an assault on freedom of the press, and all my wishes the resulting press attention had been about something more substantive, it wasn’t all that bad. The viewers on TV saw that the most intense of situations — and that’s what the briefing on interrogation photos was getting to — can be broken up by levity. And they also got a glimpse of what I tell viewers all the time: that those of us who have the honor and privilege of covering the White House are colleagues in the best sense of the word. We enjoy our time together, can laugh at one another’s foibles, and then move on.
Sure enough, fellow correspondents had more needling and joshing as we left the briefing. One volunteered, “I have a spare phone if you need it," and others wondered rather loudly: “Guess what the lead story on the news will be tonight?” And political correspondent Hiroyuki Takahashi from Japan’s JiJi Press asked me: “Does this happen often in the White House briefings?”
Robert, if you’re reading, I thought you would like to know that SW (Smarter Wife) agreed with your action completely. The two places she refuses me my cell phone are in church and the car when I’m driving. Now she’s considering a third site to declare a “cell phone free zone” for me. I can’t let that happen — it was my editor calling and demanding copy — so I promise to be on good behavior.
And next time I think the briefing will start late, I’ll bring a novel!