Hot-mike history: Obama the latest to engage in a modern presidential tradition

Columnist March 26, 2012

There’s nothing hotter than a hot microphone. Despite decades of cautionary tales, politicians persist in falling into the trap of having their not-made-for-public-consumption words broadcast to the world.

The latest installation in the anthology of live-microphone moments came Monday, when President Obama told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev he’d have “more flexibility” on nuclear missiles after his presidential election. But this was hardly a first.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993. View Archive

Here are some of the Loop’s favorite moments in hot-mike history.

●At the G-20 summit last year in Cannes, Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy indulged in a little bashing of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Sarkozy called Netanyahu a “liar.” Obama sympathized: “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you.”

Vice President Biden famously assessed the signing of the massive health-care bill in 2010 thusly: “a big f------ deal.” The comment, made during the signing ceremony, in front of TV cameras, was intended for Obama’s ears only — but the mikes picked it up.

●During the 2000 presidential campaign, running mates George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were caught grousing about a reporter during a campaign event. Bush pointed out New York Times reporter Adam Clymer and called him a “major league a------.” Cheney agreed. “Yeah,” he said. “Big time.”

●President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair thought they were having a tete-a-tete during during a G-8 summit in 2006. But Bush was overheard griping to Blair about the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. Syria should “get Hezbollah to stop doing this s---,” Bush opined.

●President Ronald Reagan may be known as the Great Communicator, but he wasn’t immune to a microphone gaffe. During a sound check before a 1984 radio interview, he warmed up: “My fellow Americans . . . I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever,” he said. “We begin bombing in five minutes.”

●President Bill Clinton apparently didn’t have many major open-mike problems. (Yes, yes, he had other open problems.) But during the 1992 Democratic primary campaign he was told — incorrectly, as it turned out — that Jesse Jackson had endorsed another candidate. On camera, Clinton said things were “fine” between them.

Then, thinking the mike was off, Clinton told an aide: “It’s an outrage, a dirty, double-crossing, back-stabbing thing to do. . . . For him to do this, for me to hear this on a television program, is an act of absolute dishonor.”

●While not exactly an “open mike” moment, one of the earliest examples of a president being caught unawares came when President Richard Nixon waited to go on television to announce his resignation in 1974. An emotional Nixon was captured on several minutes of tape, saying at one point, referring to White House photographer Ollie Atkins, “I’m afraid he’ll catch me picking my nose.”

State, under fire

For those who thought desk jobs were safe . . .

Seems the State Department China-desk team — about two-dozen-plus China policy experts and other officials — has been sitting in offices two long blocks away in State Annex 1 in recent months while their office space in the main building is being remodeled.

The team has grown in recent years from 14 Foreign Service officers to more than 25 in order to handle increasingly important relations with America’s Favorite Banker. (New space is the same size as the old, so the new offices are teensy.)

Then, very early Tuesday morning, we’re told, a printer on one of the desks in the temporary space somehow ignited and started a fire. The fire department came and quickly doused the flames, though several floors had smoke and water damage and a number of other bureaus were closed down.

So the team had to scatter around the East Asia Pacific bureau back in the main building, mooching desk space until the renovations were done. Other bureaus are making do, telecommuting and so forth.

The good news is no one was hurt. And, more good news, a hurry-up went out to get the new digs finished, which they were by Monday morning.

But a fire starting when no one was there? When most everything was shut down and unplugged? And virtually on the eve of Obama’s trip to Asia to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao and other leaders?

We’ve warned people about those cheapo Chinese listening devices, how they are prone to overheating. The Chinese repeatedly promised to fix that flaw. Apparently they haven’t.

Raising of the green

Attention those who missed celebrating St. Patrick’s Day this year — or for those whose memories of the festivities are a little fuzzy. There’s an event for you.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner is holding an Irish whiskey tasting on Thursday at Murphy’s Irish Pub in Old Town Alexandria, a popular watering hole for the green-beer-swilling set. Glasses won’t be the only thing raised at the event, which we’re imagining is like a St. Patty’s mulligan. It’s a fundraiser for the Wisconsin Republican.

Admission prices are tiered, and each corresponds to an appropriately priced brand of Irish spirits: $1,000 puts you in the Midleton class (that’s a top-shelf brand), $500 in Redbreast class (a slightly less expensive drink) and $250 in Jameson class (that’s standard-issue, not that we’d turn our noses up at it).

Sensenbrenner knows that green isn’t just the unofficial hue of the Emerald Isle — it’s also the color of money.

With Emily Heil

The blog: washingtonpost.com/intheloop; Twitter: @InTheLoopWP

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