In the Loop: Finally, a Junket Where the Press Is Invited

Sen. Mary Landrieu, above, has invited journalists on a fact-finding mission to Amsterdam, right, among other scenic locales in the Netherlands.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, above, has invited journalists on a fact-finding mission to Amsterdam, right, among other scenic locales in the Netherlands. (By Peter Dejong -- Associated Press)
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By Al Kamen
Monday, May 18, 2009

For years we've been told that no reporters were permitted to join our intrepid lawmakers on congressional jaunts to find facts overseas. There were vague references to some Senate Rule 406.4(x)1, which reads: "Members should not take the press on thinly veiled, taxpayer-paid vacations." (There's a similar House rule.)

So we were surprised last week to see a media invitation to join Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson for a trip next week to the Netherlands -- lovely in spring. The stops include Amsterdam, The Hague and Delft, and there's plenty of wandering about the beautiful land of the windmills.

But wait! They're flying commercial, coach class, not on the customary military jets with all first-class seats. And people are on different flights, so no one will whisk reporters and everyone else through customs and immigration and pick up the bags and take them to your fine hotel room.

One obstacle to press participation is that, while there are cheap flights available online, even free isn't cheap enough for newspaper editors to approve these days. Another impediment is that the briefings scheduled each day include advice from Dutch experts on flood control, water management and supply, and "flood safety created by dredged material."

That's why no reporters had signed up for the trip as of Friday, although some wire service people stationed in Europe claim they might show up, Landrieu communications director Stephanie C. Allen said Friday. Of course, no other senators have signed on.


While we're in the area, former Federal Communications Commission chairman and Obama campaign fundraiser William E. Kennard, a managing director at the Carlyle Group, the D.C.-based private equity firm, is said to be the pick to be ambassador to the European Union, which is based in Brussels. (It's only an hour and 22 minutes by train to Paris.)

There's also renewed chat that Volvo magnate and former Virginia lieutenant governor Don Beyer, who had been talked about for a top slot in the Commerce Department, is being looked at for a fine embassy posting, perhaps something Baltic, since his forebears were Estonian aristocrats going back to a great-great-grandfather, Count Otto Sternau, and great-great-grandmother, Princess Marie Dembinska.


It looks as though Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) may finally get his man.

For months, Nelson has promoted retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr., a four-time shuttle astronaut, to be NASA administrator. Bolden, who would be the first African American to lead the civilian space agency, is now an aerospace consultant and is popular in the space community, our colleague Joel Achenbach reports.

Nelson has been a Bolden fan since Bolden piloted the space shuttle with Nelson aboard in 1986. But to Nelson's great frustration, the job has remained vacant. Twice, the White House floated the names of other candidates for the NASA post -- first J. Scott Gration, then Steve Isakowitz -- only to back down when congressional leaders balked.

Today, however, Bolden is expected to meet with President Obama at the White House. The meeting, first reported by NBC, suggests that Bolden has passed any major vetting issues and now merely has to make Obama comfortable with the selection.

The president has ordered a sweeping review of NASA's human spaceflight strategy, and he may want to make sure that Bolden, a strong advocate of human spaceflight and the new Constellation program, will be open-minded about changes in NASA's plans.

No guarantees the meeting will do it for Bolden, but one Democrat close to the White House said: "This one looks -- gosh, I give it 95 percent."

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs confirmed the meeting between Obama and a prospect for NASA administrator but would not name Bolden. "He wants to meet with somebody" about the job, Gibbs said, "and we'll see how that goes."


Gregory B. Starr, the State Department's security chief, was named earlier this month as the new U.N. security chief, overseeing the organization's worldwide security operations.

U.N. spokeswoman Michèle Montas said Starr was chosen "mindful of the immediate need to tackle the heightened, serious security risks facing the organization around the world."

Good thing there was an "immediate need." That's why it only took them 11 months to fill the job.


Obama last week tapped Preet Bharara, chief counsel to Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), to be U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Bharara, formerly an assistant in that office, was a key player in the congressional investigation of the Bush administration's firing of U.S. attorneys as Schumer's counsel on the Judiciary Committee, and he helped coordinate the dramatic testimony of former deputy attorney general Jim Comey -- who told a rapt audience about the hospital visit by White House officials to have ailing Attorney General John D. Ashcroft sign off on a sweeping electronic surveillance program.


Friday's column erred in saying newly indicted former U.S. Surgeon General Antonia Novello is the sister of Don Novello (a.k.a. Father Guido Sarducci). She is his sister-in-law. Please stop calling.

With Alice Crites

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