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The Audacity of Audaciousness

By Dana Milbank
Friday, February 13, 2009

It takes a certain amount of nerve to have an event at the National Press Club and then ban the press from covering it.

It takes another level of chutzpah entirely to admit members of the general public to your event at the National Press Club, recruit a news organization as the co-sponsor and then tell the press they can't cover it.

But that's exactly what former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe and Georgetown University did yesterday.

Plouffe was listed as the keynote speaker at the luncheon yesterday for "Transition 2009," sponsored by Georgetown University and Politico. The public was invited to the event -- students free of charge and everybody else for a fee. But at the last minute, Georgetown announced that Plouffe's speech would be "closed press," even though the speech was being given in the National Press Club ballroom, described on a plaque at the door as "the sanctum sanctorum of American journalists."

National Press Club President Donna Leinwand fired off an e-mail to Plouffe and his agents stating her "strong opposition" to the press banishment from its own club. "If Mr. Plouffe wants to keep secrets," she said, "Mr. Plouffe should stay at home."

Politico editor John Harris called it "a surprise to me and an unhappy one." Harris pulled out as moderator of the speech and said his publication was disassociating itself from the luncheon.

Un-sponsoring part of the two-day event, however, was rather tricky. The Politico emblem was still emblazoned on signs outside the ballroom and on the lanyards and name tags for attendees.

This sort of mess has become a trademark of the former Obama campaign manager. Plouffe still keeps his Obama ties -- over the weekend he sent out an e-mail in his name to millions from barackobama.com titled "Urgent message from President Obama" -- yet he is also profiting from them. He is reported to have received as much as $2 million for his forthcoming book, "The Audacity to Win," and he can't give his material away in public speeches.

Plouffe's Audacity to Cash Out caused some embarrassment for him over the weekend, when he flew to Azerbaijan to give a speech to a group tied to that country's repressive leader. The title of that speech, "The Power of Democracy," took on an ironic meaning when journalists were ordered to leave the auditorium before it began.

Banishing the press from the National Press Club was not as easy.

Georgetown spokeswoman Rachel Pugh said the speech was "closed at the request of the speaker" before agreeing to let reporters in as long as they did not report on anything they heard there.

But Plouffe, confronted at a reception before the speech, blamed Georgetown. "The conversation in there, at the university's request, is off the record," he said. "It's not my choice."

Oh? The question was put to Rob Manuel, dean of Georgetown's School of Continuing Studies. "We are honoring his decision to be off the record," he said.

To circumvent the off-the-record rules, a Washington Post reporter put on a sandwich board with the messages "unPLOUFFEable" and "what the Plouffe?" and then handed out notebooks and pens to regular citizens who, because they were not reporters, were free to report on the speech. They provided a full account of his nearly 90-minute talk.

On Sarah Palin: "She was our best fundraiser and organizer in the fall."

On the primary victory over Hillary Clinton: "Really by February 17, mathematically, the night of the Wisconsin primary, it's over. We had to endure 3 1/2 months of pure hell before we secured the nomination."

On the New Hampshire primary: "Our sense was if we won Iowa that would be enough to shoot us past her. . . . We should have found a way to remove the pressure to win."

On the Texas primary: "The biggest mistake I made in this campaign."

On Internet organizing: "We had hundreds of thousands of people who signed up to be rapid responders. So when John McCain's attacking us on Bill Ayers, and other silly issues, those people were sending out the facts."

The crucial moment of the general election: "McCain's suspension of his campaign . . . From that point on, people saw McCain as more unsteady and erratic."

McCain's "celebrity" ad: "We just sat back and said he's doing huge damage to himself with independent women voters. When you coupled Palin to it, it was explosive and really destructive."

Interesting stuff, sure, but nothing newsworthy and nothing out of school. So why did Plouffe have the press removed from the press club?

After the speech, Plouffe again blamed Georgetown. "They wanted to have a candid exchange," he said.

Nearby, a Georgetown event staffer tried to prevent the questioning of Plouffe. "Seriously, this is going to be a scene," she warned. "I really do recommend that you not do this."

Plouffe was whisked away, and the press club was again open to the press.

For a video version of this column and more excerpts of Plouffe's speech, go to http://blog.washingtonpost.com/roughsketch.

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