It was a scalding day on Capitol Hill yesterday, and that includes tempers. Things got particularly hot during a photo op in the office of Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) after the minority leader and his Senate deputies completed a 17-minute meeting with the hot-tongued Howard Dean.
About 60 reporters and cameramen attempted to shove their way into an office equipped to handle about 20. The resulting spectacle offered yet another distillation of why so many people believe that politicians and the media deserve each other.
The madness began at 10:30 a.m. when the media horde was invited to enter Reid's office. Photographers poured in first, equipment slamming into the sides of a narrow doorway and -- in one case -- the temple of a female staffer. Reporters were invited in next, but roughly 20 reporters were unable to crowd in and were left to shout objections through the bottleneck. "You can't start yet," one yelled from the back. "The reporters aren't in."
Dean said he rather liked the idea of starting without the reporters. He meant this as a joke, sort of.
Reid thanked everyone for coming. He sat under a white chandelier, between Dean, the Democratic National Committee chairman, and Minority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.). Reid emphasized that he and Dean meet every month.
In other words, the timing of the confab was not related to the string of controversial remarks Dean has uttered in recent weeks that many Republicans have been quick to condemn and many Democrats have been just as quick to disassociate themselves from. Among other things, Dean has said that he hates "Republicans and everything they stand for," that many of them "have never made an honest living in the lives," that House Majority Leader Tom DeLay "ought to go back to Houston where he can serve his jail sentence" and -- most recently -- that Republicans are "pretty much a white Christian party." Reid invited questions from reporters.
"Have you had advice for Governor Dean about his most recent comments, sir?"
Reid replied that there isn't anyone who hasn't "misspoken" and recited an on-message litany of "important issues" that Democrats are committed to addressing, including the escalating costs of gasoline, health care and college tuition. "We're here today to talk about the American people," he said. But practically everyone else in the room wanted to talk about Howard Dean.
"Senator Reid, you just used the word 'misspoke,' " yelled one reporter, out-shouting a half-dozen others. He asked if Reid thought that Dean had "misspoken."
"You know," Dean interjected, "I think a lot of this is exactly what Republicans want, and that's a diversion." He bemoaned the "media circus" of the last two weeks and said that he and Reid were not concerning themselves with that -- only with vital things like Social Security, national defense and jobs.
"And all this other stuff is all fine and good, and we understand how exciting it all is to you," Dean said, shaking his head.
The press chorus then devolved into a cacophony of competing screams. (And Dean knows screams!) After several seconds, a booming voice cut through the noise. It belonged to Brian Wilson, a Fox News correspondent who was standing in the middle of the crowd. He asked Dean "if people are focused on the other things that you've said about hating Republicans, about Republicans being dishonest and then this latest comment about the Republican Party is full of white Christians. You say you hate Republicans -- does that mean you also'' hate white Christians?
Dean didn't respond and Reid talked about having a "positive agenda." Wilson was so insistent that at one point, Durbin asked, "Does he run the press conference?" After Reid took the one question of the morning that was not about Dean (it was about Iraq) there were a host of disjointed and semi-decipherable follow-ups (none of which was about Iraq).
Someone asked whether Dean would "change his ways," or if he planned to be "less confrontational in the future" or whether he "regrets" anything he has said. An aide to Reid announced that the photo op was over.
"We'll decide when we're ready," Wilson said. Later, Durbin would recount the scene with some exasperation. He chided the media for avoiding important issues in favor of trivial matters. "Please, for a minute, get to the substance," he said to a group of reporters. "You guys should be ashamed of yourselves."
Staff writer Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.
DNC Chairman Howard Dean, left, and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) take a lot of media questions but keep their answers to a minimum.