It was poignant — and very funny — that two days after the now-celebrated seizure of my cell phone (after it went off twice during a press briefing at the White House) that another correspondent’s cellphone would go off as Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was calling on me.
“Are you going to phone this question in?” deadpanned Gibbs, amid loud laughter at the James Brady Briefing Room on Friday.
After a little more good natured banter and some more ribbing from my colleagues (“Cellphones on loud!” called out veteran CBS-Radio correspondent Mark Knoller), Gibbs and I got down to business.
Recalling a breakfast on Wednesday where I ran into Sen. Jeff Sessions (R.-Ala.), I repeated to Gibbs the senator’s complaint that he had twice written the administration regarding the controversial release of the Uighurs Chinese Muslims into the United States and has yet to receive a reply. As he told me, Sessions was voicing the concerns of many Americans that the Uighers (pronounced “Wee-gars”), who were trained at an al-Queda camp, should not be released into this country.
“Are you familiar with this and going to reply to him?” I asked Gibbs.
“I’ve not seen any letters,” the President’s top spokesman replied, “I don’t doubt from Sen. Sessions that they exist. I don’t know — I don’t have any announcements and I think I would point to what the Attorney General [Eric Holder] testified in front of Congress yesterday.”
Holder’s testimony, however, didn’t give any response to Sessions’ letters. Holder only said that he recalled drafting (or approving a draft) a letter in response. At this writing, there is no report that a response has been received.
At that point, I recounted a recent interview with the three Republican leaders of the newly-formed House Sovereignty Caucus. One of them, Rep. Doug Lamborn of (R-Colo.), told me during the interview that he felt President Obama would submit to the Senate for ratification the treaty that would take the United States in the International Criminal Court. The Bush administration refused to send the ICC treaty to the Senate.
“But [President Obama] has not officially said that,” I noted, “Is that the administration’s position?”
“I honestly don’t have anything on that,” Gibbs told me, “But I can — I will check for the House Sovereignty Caucus.”
Parting Shot: It wouldn’t have been the White House Briefing Room I know and love without a lot of needling about my “fifteen minutes of fame” over the cellphone ringtone. As I walked into the White House, Cheryl Stolberg of the New York Times was being interviewed at the site for TV cameras known as Pebble Beach and called to me: “Remember to turn it off!” As Gibbs began to call on me, I told him how, hours after the dust-up two days before, I already had an offer for a more up-to-date model with a big off button on it.
“You know, having held [your] phone,” he said, “you should take somebody up on that.”
And, needless to say, we all laughed.
The Governor is No Conservative
This weekend’s surprise choice of President Obama naming Utah’s Republican Governor as Ambassador to China was a brilliant political stroke. Much as French President Nicolas Sarkozy sent Socialist (and possibly the leading rival to him for re-election in 2012) Dominique Strauss-Kahn to Washington as managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the liberal punditocracy concludes Obama’s sending Jon Huntsman, Jr. to Beijing gets a potentially formidable rival off the Republican “rubber chicken circuit” here.
But there’s a problem with this analogy: where France’s Strauss-Kahn is very much in tune with the left-of-center ideology of the Socialist Party, Huntsman has taken some major philosophical strolls from the modern Republican Party. On issues ranging from vouchers to global warming, the two-term governor of the Beehive State is definitely at odds with most GOP activists who participate in primaries and party conventions.
When Huntsman first sought the Republican nomination for governor in ’04, one Utah source told me, “he told school voucher groups he would be ‘the voucher governor’ and they bought it.” But after he was elected and the issue of vouchers came up in the legislature, the same source told me, “Huntsman did nothing except say he would vote for it if it became an initiative. Vouchers narrowly passed the legislature and we had to have an initiative. Again, he did nothing — would not let [the pro-voucher forces] use his name or picture.”
Like Florida’s Gov. Charlie Crist, Huntsman has long called for his fellow Republicans to address the issue of global warming. Conservatives know that Democrats’ “solution” to this unproven problem will lead to a carbon tax that burden every American household and so burden the economy that recovery from the current deep recession may be prevented. The Utah chief executive is now featured in a commercial sponsored by environmental groups along with California’s Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana.
Earlier this year, Huntsman stunned Utah conservatives by calling for legislation providing for civil unions among gays. Although many Republicans — notably in New England — support the concept of civil unions for gay couples, it’s incongruous among Utah GOPers. Although the measure died in the legislature, it attracted swatches of publicity for the governor.
To be sure, Huntsman is strongly pro-life and has an excellent record on taxes — as do most Republicans on Utah. He charmed TV viewers by speaking Mandarin Chinese during the announcement with the President. Right now, he is being lauded and cheered throughout his state, which is obviously proud of his appointment to this pivotal slot (although it should be pointed out that published reports have it that Obama initially wanted another Republican with insurgent tendencies, former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel).
Jon Huntsman may well go on to be a great diplomat. But the Republican nominee for President in 2012? That’s more than a bit of a reach.