Waving the Flag (the Yellow One)

By Dana Milbank
Friday, January 23, 2009

There hadn't been so much excitement over a Gibbs since the Bee Gees were at the top of the charts.

All 49 seats in the White House briefing room were full for the maiden news briefing by President Obama's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, and 100 more reporters crammed three-deep into the aisles. Dozens of others pointed cameras at the uncharacteristically well-dressed Obama aide.

"We should sell tickets and have the money go to the deficit or something," Gibbs joked.

But first, he'll have to spice up his act a bit. For the voice of an administration that came to office promising openness and transparency, he instead sounded, well, abundantly cautious.

"Out of an abundance of caution, Chief Justice Roberts came last night to readminister the oath," after he flubbed the swearing-in on Tuesday, Gibbs reported. "There are at least two examples in history where words have been misplaced in the oath and, again, out of an abundance of caution, a similar abundance of caution, the oath was readministered."

NBC's Chuck Todd asked whether Obama would re-sign the executive orders he issued "out of that same abundance of caution."

Gibbs repeated his view that the oath was redone only "out of an abundance of caution" and that no such caution is required for executive orders. "Out of an abundance of caution," he said once more, "the oath was readministered."

Why was the oath redone without being filmed? Gibbs said this "demonstrated again that this was done out of an abundance of caution and only that."

Did Obama have to be persuaded to retake the oath? "No, because it was done, again, out of an abundance of caution."

The repetition caused an abundance of laughter in the briefing room. "People usually don't laugh when I don't say something that's not altogether generally funny," the puzzled press secretary observed.

Gibbs should perhaps be cut some slack; he has been on the job just three days, so short a time that the television in the press office is still tuned to Fox News. But he has surprised reporters with two of his first decisions: Wednesday night's swearing-in was done in front of only four reporters and without prior notice. Then yesterday, the Obama team's first White House briefing was held off-camera by officials who were identified only as "senior administration officials."

"In order to allow them to speak freely," spokesman Josh Earnest replied when reporters protested.

"An abundance of caution?" needled Mark Knoller of CBS News.

When Gibbs returned later for his on-camera briefing, Ken Herman of Cox News asked: "Why did the administration believe it was important for the American people not to know the name of the two senior administration officials who briefed us?"

The Wall Street Journal's Jonathan Weisman pointed out that Gibbs had already used one of the officials' names; indeed, he had spoken six times of a colleague named "Greg." Replied Gibbs: "I'm tempted to ask you to see if you can get one person's name into the papers so people will think he might be a Brazilian soccer star."

That was one of the press secretary's more colorful phrases. Other times, the words sounded almost Fleischer-esque. The bank bailout? "Let me not get ahead of an economic team." Bad mortgage assets? "I don't want to get ahead of the economic team." Mideast envoys? "I shouldn't get ahead of the president." Gitmo detainees? "I just don't want to get ahead of a process."

The Associated Press's Jennifer Loven tried to quiz him about interrogation techniques. "I don't want to prejudge," he said. Will the Army Field Manual apply? "I don't want to prejudge." The hardest cases at Gitmo? "We don't start to prejudge."

Some of the biggest journalistic names had come for the performance, and White House officials checked out the scene: spokesman Bill Burton, chewing gum; economist Austan Goolsbee, eating his lunch from a cardboard tray; and former campaign aide Tommy Vietor, who now has an Executive Office of the President e-mail account under the name "Thomas F. Vietor."

Fox's Major Garrett and CNN's Ed Henry gave live stand-ups before Gibbs's arrival. "I'm looking over my shoulder," Henry told his viewers. "He's not here yet." But soon he was, and a lone reporter near the back applauded. "Don't clap yet," Gibbs suggested, with prescience.

The abundantly cautious spokesman referred regularly to notes as he worked his way through the questions. Gibbs uttered the name "Obama" not once, instead slipping into the press secretary habit of saying only "the president" -- 70 times. As in: "The president comes to work each and every day." Even a question about the number of people Obama sends e-mails to on his BlackBerry produced a demurral: "Let me get some guidance from the counsel's office."

Then there was the matter of the secretive swearing-in. "It was done in a way that was upfront and transparent," Gibbs said.

"How is it transparent," CBS's Bill Plante asked, "when you control the only image of the re-swearing, there's nobody in there but four print reporters, there's no stills, there's no television, and the only recording that comes out, as I understand it, is one that a reporter made, not one that the White House supplied?"

"Well, we would have had to get a bigger room," the spokesman said.

Perhaps next time, he will -- out of an abundance of caution.

Dana Milbank will be online for a Q&A at noon, ET. Submit your questions here.

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