The week that was at the White House
It's been a rough and tumble week in the White House press room over the Cheney hunting story. Many viewers have written me with praise and plenty of criticism about my questioning of press secretary Scott McClellan. The debate about this story has focused equal parts on my colleagues and me as it has on the unfortunate facts of this hunting accident involving the Vice President.
Let me say at the outset that I was wrong to lose my temper at Scott McClellan. I've worked well with Scott since we first met during the 2000 campaign. Monday, he suggested my aggressive questioning about the disclosure of the hunting accident was a stunt for the cameras. He said this during a morning OFF CAMERA briefing, which undercut his point. Furthermore, I considered it a cheap shot. I said, "Don't be a jerk to me personally, just answer the question." I regret saying that because it's never appropriate to speak that way and because it created a distraction from the issues at hand.
Putting that aside, I do not apologize for asking tough questions about this story. I'm in the business of getting information -- as much of it as possible. The public and I don't always get as much as I think we deserve, but I keep trying. I also try to demand straight answers. Covering politicians, I have to work harder to get them. I have not made any judgments about the facts of this story as it pertains to what happened on the Armstrong ranch. I have stuck to reporting the facts. I do, however feel it's appropriate to push hard for full and immediate disclosure from our country's highest leaders about their conduct -- public and private. My view is, as elected officials with unparalleled influence over the lives of the American people, the President and Vice President owe the public information about their activities. I see myself as a proxy for the public that has raised questions about what happened and why the Vice President did not immediately disclose it. Furthermore, when a sitting Vice President shoots a man, it's a helluva story -- worthy of public notice and discussion. Therefore, I think it's appropriate to question the White House about why the Vice President chose to disregard the President's normal procedures for public disclosure. Mr. Cheney, in my view, acted as if he had something to hide. He also chose to allow a witness to this accident and the White House press secretary to spend three days portraying this as the fault of the shooting victim, Harry Whittington. Wednesday, Mr. Cheney changed course and took the blame. That invites press scrutiny.
This episode was also emblematic of how the Vice President chooses to communicate with the press and by extension the public. It also revealed tension within the White House between the staffs of the President and Vice President.
Yet the debate playing out in the blogosphere, cable airwaves and on talk radio pits the Vice President against an allegedly left-wing, overly cynical, prissy White House press corps in a tizzy because it wasn't the first to know and angry because it hates the President and Vice President anyway. This is nonsense. If you believe an accidental shooting by Vice President Al Gore would not be met with the same press scrutiny, I think you are not being honest with yourself. Have you Googled transcripts from the Clinton administration at the height of the Lewinsky scandal? The pursuit of information at the White House is often tense. We push hard for it. Maybe you think we pushed too hard in this case. Maybe you think there was no grave harm in waiting to learn the facts of this incident for a few days. I can accept that. The way we do our business is not always pretty and we should be accountable for that. I happen to believe, however, on balance, our dogged pursuit of lots of information, all the time, is a good thing. I view the White House press corps as a proxy for the public. It provides fodder for important debates in this country. But then again, I do have a bias: I'm in the information-gathering business.
One final thought. In recent days, some people have suggested to me that the press corps has failed to recognize that this is a sad story. Two friends, one who happened to be the Vice President, were involved in a terrible accident. It could have happened to anyone. Our tough questions and our reporting failed to give that adequate attention. It's a fair point. I do think the Vice President himself helped to give voice to how painful this accident was. That's why I think it was appropriate he decided to discuss it publicly.
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