Washington Sketch Live

Dana Milbank
Washington Post Columnist
Friday, June 26, 2009; 12:00 PM

Post columnist Dana Milbank serves as the capital's foremost critic of political theater in his Washington Sketch columns, videos and blog posts.

He was online Friday, June 26 at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the things politicians say -- and the absurd ways they find to say them.


Dana Milbank:

Good afternoon, Sketchreaders.

It was a big Sketchweek, with Mark Sanford's marvelous press conference, a dictator's son championing democracy in Iran, and a loose-lipped Rahm Emanuel's breakfast meeting. And it's not every week that one has an excuse to make a video with a photo-shopped Nancy Pelosi in coconut bikini (http://washingtonpost.com/mouthpiecetheater). But the one that seems to have caused the biggest stir was Obama's stage-managed press conference and the pre-arranged questioner from the Huffington Post. The writer, Nico Pitney, was called by the White House the night before and told Obama was likely to call on him with the understanding that Pitney would ask him a question on Iran from an Iranian.

The left got all stirred up by my column, naturally enough, by the Huffington Post. My favorite bit of outrage was from one Eric Boehlert writing for the liberal website Media Matters (UPDATED: Why the Village is so mad at Nico Pitney):

"Within hours of online writer Nico Pitney asking a single question at a WH presser, the WashPost's Milbank swooped into action, loudly mocking Pitney's involvement as being terribly troubling and phony. But please note that in 2005 when it was revealed that right-wing partisan James Guckert had been waved into the WH press room nearly 200 times without proper credentials, wrote under an alias (Jeff Gannon), and asked Bush officials softball questions, Milbank remained mum."

Oh? I did a quick Nexis search and found transcripts of four segments I did on Gannon on Countdown with Keith Olbermann and Hardball with Chris Matthews. I was doing so much Gannon coverage that when Keith introduced me as a Post reporter one evening, I joked: "I am also your Jeff Gannon correspondent." Replied Keith: "That`s true -- I`m sure that`s at the head of your resume."

Actually, Boehlert didn't need a Nexis account to find this out. He could have looked at his own website's account from 2005 ("Media Matters," week ending February 11, 2005; by Jamison Foser):

MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank understood the story's true importance during the February 9 edition of MSNBC's Countdown:

MILBANK: The fact is he was representing a phony media company that doesn't really have any such thing as circulation or readership, it's affiliated with something called GOPUSA. So, there are many people, Fox News, Washington Times, they are conservative but they are legitimate organizations. So, this guy is not a real journalist. And he was hanging out there wasting everybody's time in the press room. . .

OLBERMANN: But let me ask you, finally, is it fair to contextualize this in light of the well-publicized administration payments to Armstrong Williams and two other columnists to support their policies? Is this a mutation of that? Or is it just lousy judgment? In other words, was he a plant? Or was he just an ineligible presence?

MILBANK: Well, I think he is probably somewhere in between. You saw from the clips you played there of Scott McClellan turning to him as a life line. I call him a foil. You turn to this guy when you want to get the heat of off of you from another subject.

It follows a pattern in this administration. We have seen not only the Armstrong Williams case, but cases in which people -- there have actually been actors used posing as journalists in advertisements. This seems a awful lot like that. This didn't have as far-reaching consequences, but it was of a similar vein.

Of course, the Gannon comparison is Boehlert's, not mine. Unlike Gannon, Pitney works for a legitimate outlet and, to the best of my knowledge, has never offered himself as a prostitute with nude photos on hotmilitarystuds.com. The point is I think it's wrong to have hidden collusion at news conferences, whether it's a Republican White House doing it with a conservative, or a Democratic White House doing it with a liberal. You can disagree with me on this, obviously, but please don't suggest that I have one standard for a Republican administration and another for a Democratic administration.



Bethesda, Md.: Dana, your cup runneth over. Have you ever had a week like this in terms of material dropping into your lap?

Dana Milbank:

It was an embarrassment of riches. Indeed, I was struggling on Wednesday figuring out whether to cover Disney's theme park at the White House (Charlie Gibson in the Blue Room and Dianne Sawyer on the South Lawn) or Sanford. Luckily Sanford's performance made this decision easy.


Floris, Va.: On Wednesday, June 24, your colleague, Will Haygood, wrote on the front page of Style: "The governor, it should be noted, is quite happily married." Question: What drugs was he on when he wrote this, and does he share?

Dana Milbank: Maybe he meant Charlie Crist, the governor of Florida, who recently married a costume manufacturing heiress? I'd love to see what outfit SHE would wear to a White House luau.


Thank you, Rahm: In a chat two weeks ago, you were lamenting that Rahm Emmanuel had proved too cautious to provide you with any fruitful colum material. How wonderful that he obliged you with a mealtime rife with columnar possibilties, and then allowed himself to be plopped in the dunk tank by both Sashsa and Barack Obama.

Dana Milbank: This can only mean that Rahm reads these chats.

While he definitely entertained, I also think he did himself and the White House some good yesterday. He seemed much more plausible than Gibbs and Burton, who seemed primarily interested in fighting with reporters. True, there was a little kerfuffle with Harry Reid when Mike Shear reported Rahm's remark about there not being the votes yet for immigration reform -- but what Rahm said is self evident. That gives him credibility, by not pretending something is other than what it is.

by the way, here's a transcript the Monitor put up from the breakfast:

Transcript of Rahm Emanuel Monitor Breakfast


Stillwater, Minn.: I heard my elected U.S. Rep. insinuate that if I complete the 2010 Census form it may be used by the government to send me to an internment camp. My question: Do you know any details about the housing at these internment camps? It might be scary if it were in Detroit, but if it was out west or has a nice view, it may not be so bad. I'm losing my house anyway.

Dana Milbank: Dear Congresswoman Bachmann:

I think you will like it there very much. Think of it as summer camp with nice, soft, padded walls. Also everybody there, because they did not fill out the census, is by definition a pro-America American.


Boston: Regarding the press conference. Shouldn't you really get mad at Chip Reid, Major Garrett and Chuck Todd? All three are paid seven-figure salaries and all three asked really stupid questions.

Dana Milbank:


And Chuck Todd can't find a better barber?

Actually I am not mad at Nico. I think it's wrong of the White House to try to stage manage news conferences. It undermines everybody's credibility in the end, because how will people know which questions are organic and which have been arranged in advance?


Ruffled Feathers, Penguin?: Apparently you were a little miffed that the B-Team media (Huffington Post) got to ask a question in the President's presser the other day. Can't figure out why? It was a great, tough question. Wasn't it? More substantive than most of the A-Team "gotcha" reporters came up with. Can you explain if this was just ruffled feathers on your part, or if you have a real beef with how things went down? What did -you- think of the Iranian's question the HuffPo reporter asked?

washingtonpost.com: Stay Tuned for More of 'The Obama Show'

Dana Milbank: Okay I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt and assuming you sent this in before seeing the beginning of this chat.

As I wrote in the Rough Sketch blog a couple of hours after the presser, I thought it was a fine question. Once again, that's not the point. The point is I don't think it's a good idea for the White House to be colluding in secret with the media, even if the result isn't bad. Even Jeff Gannon, for that matter, didn't do any great harm to civilization with the questions he asked -- but it still wasn't a good idea for the White House to allow it.


Poor lei-out: Come on, guys! A tie under a Hawaiian shirt and lei?

You didn't wear a tie with your caveman outfit--a little consistency, please!

Dana Milbank:

Oh, lei off!

Not to point fingers but that was Cillizza's idea. And he left me with the tight shirt that makes me look like a sausage. Or maybe that's just what I look like.


Alexandria, Va.: As the unofficial fashion critic of Mouthpiece Theater, let me say that while I'm still waiting for those bottle green velvet smoking jackets, thumbs up to the bow ties earlier in the week. I'm hoping this sophisticated turns means that you two fashion reprobates can actually tie them. We'll attribute those Hawaiian shirts to casual Friday, but otherwise, great work, official MT shopper!

p.s. Gaby Bruna deserves a raise, just on the Nancy Pelosi in coconuts alone.

Dana Milbank:

Mouthpiece Theater fashion consultant Alice Crites has ordered four vintage smoking jackets, I believe, on e-bay. Also I have a couple of day cravats coming.

Yes, Gaby Bruna, the pride of Costa Rica, all of 23 years old or something. She is a rare talent and luckily she likes to stay up late because she finished today's video around 3:30 a.m.


Baltimore MD: People will hate me for saying this, but the person who benefited the most from the death of Michael Jackson was Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina. If you watched TV last night, the story had disappeared entirely.

Dana Milbank: Michael Jackson is to Mark Sanford what Mark Sanford was to John Ensign.


New York : Could you do me a favor? I'm looking to copyright the phrase "hiking the Appalachian Trail" as a euphemism for, well, you know, and I was wondering if you could recommend a good lawyer?

Dana Milbank: You can have it, but I've already taken the phrase "That Sparking Thing" for my memoirs.


Minnesota: Interesting piece on Rahm Emanuel today. From the comments section he seems like quite the lightning-rod. People either love him or hate him. What's he like in person?

washingtonpost.com: Washington Sketch: At Breakfast With Emanuel, a Side of Sausage-Making

Dana Milbank:

As I hope came through in the column today, I like Rahm and have since I started covering the Clinton White House in '98 for the New Republic. Yes, he's overtly partisan and an unapologetic tactician, and he talks like a sailor -- but isn't that much better than all the phonies in town who piously and dishonestly pronounce themselves unconcerned by politics?


Sanford: Has a budding career in penning those "bodice ripper" novels, starting with one loosely based on his own searing experiences in the tidepool of a forbidden love.

Dana Milbank:

I blush whenever I think of Maria's salad under the coconut tree.


Hawaiian theme?: After the success of the President's luau, do you and Mr. Fix plan to have a Hawaiian night at Mouthpiece Theater? Haul in some sand, inflate a beach ball or two, don those festive shirts and leis, and sip a beverage from a coconut with an umbrella decoration. The next week you could pretend this was an Argentinean beach like the one where Mark Sanford was contemplating his romantic prospects, so it would serve a dual purpose in advancing political discourse.

Dana Milbank:

Gaby Bruna -- get on it!


Gov. Sanford: The emails he wrote to his mistress were extremely lovely and poetic, almost like the Songs of Solomon. He definitely read that Bible he thumped, just the wrong parts. He must have missed the ones about committing adultery and bearing false witness.

Dana Milbank:

Until the cool of the day when the shadows flee away,

Turn, my beloved, and be like a gazelle

Or a young stag on the trails of Appalachia.


Talon News Service: Back when Jeff Guckert was the go-to guy at Bush press conferences...those where good times. Did you guys have contests to see who was the biggest man-whore in the room?

Dana Milbank: See, I would like to give you the benefit of the doubt and say that probably you didn't read the beginning of this chat, but there is also the possibility, between the nature of your question and the spelling, that you are just a little bit slow.


Re: Boehlert: Did you ever mention Gannon in print, though, or just on tv?

And do you really think that asking a reporter from the HuffPost who's been all over the Iran beat is the same as having a male prostitute in the briefing room tossing softballs?

Dana Milbank: Here's something I wrote about Gannon in the Post a couple of years ago:

"'This isn't that kind of event,' explained Jeff Gannon, spokesman for the host, the International Bible Reading Association. Gannon, actually a pseudonym for James Guckert, had earned fame in 2005 representing a conservative Web site at White House briefings until it was revealed that he posted nude pictures of himself on the Web to offer his services as a $200-an-hour gay escort.

"Let us pray for the power to understand how Gannon made his way from HotMilitaryStud.com to the International Bible Reading Association."

Also I wrote about him in my book, Homo Politicus -- and he wrote quite a bit about me in his.

As for your second question, as already stated I do not think they're the same at all. I just don't like collusion between White House and media in any form.


Anonymous: Do you think that folks who matter will get tired of his act and indulge in some serious payback as Obama inevitably loses some luster? And then Emanuel is a liability (think Hamilton Jordan)?

Dana Milbank:

Well, certainly Obama can't be at 65 percent forever -- although if the economy is genuinely improving he could be there for a good while. I think Rahm will be long gone before any real trouble starts.


New York: A sad, sad, day. So, what's your favorite memory of Ed McMahon?

Dana Milbank:

That was a laugh-out-loud question. Thank you.

My favorite memory of Ed McMahon was the Farrah Fawcett poster from Thriller.


Chevy Chase: During the beginning of the week, prior to the Sanford and Jackson stories, the left wing blogosphere was ripping into your article on Nico Pitney and making fun your Mouthpiece Theatre performance. Any response?

Dana Milbank:

For Chevy Chase and others just joining the chat, please see above for the first part of your question. The second part refers to a HuffPost blog item by one Jason Linkins, saying "that maybe serious journalism is dressing up in costumes, telling a bunch of unfunny jokes, and portraying yourself as an entitled ass."

While I'm flattered that this is the best response to my column on Pitney that the HuffPost could come up with, obviously Jason Linkins is a VERY ANGRY MAN!!!!!! He probably goes home and sends emails in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS!!!! With cleverly spelled OBSC*NITIES!!!!!

But I think it's possible to make a serious point without taking yourself too seriously. And, no, I don't think my friend David Gregory should be disqualified from hosting Meet the Press because he danced on the Today show.


re: The point is I don't think it's a good idea for the White House to be colluding in secret with the media, even if the result isn't bad.: My only disagreement with you is that I don't think it really was "in secret." Neither the White House nor the reporter seemed to be trying to hide the fact that this was prearranged. I mean, I watched the press conference, and it wasn't nearly as cloak-and-daggerish as you (very entertainingly) described it. I also don't think the collusion was that troublesome, given that Obama did not know what the question was going to be, just that it was going to come from an Iranian. I'm skeptical that he doesn't have a similar idea of what questions are going to come from Chuck Todd or whoever.

That said, I hope this was a one-time situation.

Dana Milbank:

That was very well said.

The truth is if Obama hadn't been so clumsy in setting up the question, and Nico hadn't basically repeated Obama's phrasing, nobody would have thought to ask if this was scripted and we wouldn't be having this conversation.

I agree with your conclusion. Assuming this was a one-time thing, probably no great harm done.


Falls Church: Hi Mr. Milbank: An avid fan of your column. As a life-long Liberal Democrat, I am dismayed by the latest farragos of leading Republicans. Believe it or not, I am a big fan of a two-party system- it works for our democracy when you have competition. A suzeranity of Democrats, as much as it appeals to my lefty conscience, does not appeal to my good-government side. Question: Are the Republicans about to implode? Who is going to take the place of "Loyal Opposition"? Baynor is a straw man, Newt is 20 years past his sell-by date, Palin...well, I won't go there. Who? Are the Republicans finished?

Dana Milbank:

I don't think the Republicans are going to implode, because they already have imploded.

I think the solution for them is obvious: Michelle Bachmann.


Sewickley, Pa.: My mouth was watering over Sausage making with Rahm. Then you said something about dipping melon balls in yogurt. Eeeew!! Who puts yogurt on cantaloupe? Was that a subliminal message from the Sanford presser?

Dana Milbank:

I'm not touching that, Sewickley, but I like your tan line and the curve of your hips. It's time for me to go hike the Appalachian trail, followed by a salad under the coconut tree. So to speak. Thanks for chatting.


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