BOB GARFIELD: The White House released 18 months of President Bush's National Guard payroll records on Tuesday in an attempt to clear up the confusion surrounding the president's service in the guard during the Vietnam War. But the records didn't clear everything up. In fact, they fueled a firestorm that raged through the press room and left Press Secretary Scott McClellan nursing singed eyebrows. The press briefing began innocuously enough. McClellan outlined a meeting the president had just wrapped up with some economic leaders, and then he invited questions from the reporters.
REPORTER: Is the president's position that these documents put this issue to rest, period?
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Oh, I think these, these documents show that he fulfilled his duties. These documents show that he met his requirements.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, case closed. Right? Well, no. Not really.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: That's the sec--that's the second time you've asked this question.
REPORTER: Right, and I'll ask it till we, till we get some....
BOB GARFIELD: The White House press corps is not normally known for its esprit de corps, but very occasionally, like a flock of migrating birds, they find themselves flying in formation. Determined to arrive at some straight answers on Tuesday, they for once acted in concert instead of flying solo.
REPORTER: Can you just clarify it back to Elizabeth's question here on Document 5, for example--
SCOTT McCLELLAN: Mike--
REPORTER: Scott, may I re-ask Dana's question? You keep saying he served....
BOB GARFIELD: Forty minutes in, McClellan had finally had enough.
SCOTT McCLELLAN: We're going to keep moving. Any more on this topic, do you have this topic, this topic--then Wendell is the new subject. We're off this topic.
BOB GARFIELD:Bill Plante is a veteran of the press corps and a participant in Tuesday's briefing, and he joins me now from Washington. Bill, welcome back to the show.
BILL PLANTE: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: When we last spoke to you, it was last March, before the war, and following a press conference with the president in which the press corps was particularly quiescent and failed to follow up on many a legitimate question that the president just seemed to have dodged. What's changed since March of 2003?
BILL PLANTE: There is a subtext in every daily briefing and in all presidential news conferences, and it has to do with the expectations of the reporters about what will actually get answered. There was no expectation in that news conference a year ago that the president would answer the questions which he was asked about going to war. You simply don't press harder, because you are relatively certain that you won't get more. Now I'm not saying that that's something to be admired. I'm simply suggesting that it is a fact of life around here in almost any administration. You develop a sense for where a spokesperson is likely to go on any given subject, because you kind of know what their parameters are and what their answers are likely to be.
BOB GARFIELD:Let me ask you a question about license. In the past 6 months, the candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination have been relentless in their criticism of the White House, and a week ago on Meet the Press, Tim Russert was equally relentless in questioning the president about policy and the war and so forth. Has the White House press corps suddenly been liberated, given license to be harder on the president than it hitherto had been?
BILL PLANTE: I think that when a story reaches a certain critical mass, people do feel more license to jump in with both feet.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, I'm curious about this sort of central nervous system of the press corps. Should it be sensitive to the outside environment and whether a story has achieved critical mass, or should it never be timid and always be aggressive and never mind what the surrounding environment might be?
BILL PLANTE: In a perfect world, it should always be aggressive, but what happens of course is that people learn very quickly that if they press too hard, they simply get shut off, and they get shut off only for the day. I've never known-- well, hardly ever known anybody to get really shut off -- but you learn quickly that you can't get anywhere, so you don't try as hard. Is this ideal? Absolutely not. But it's also true that if everybody came in here every day with guns blazing and insisted and demanded and what not, very little more would be accomplished than already is. Because I think one of the critical things to understanding the daily public briefings at the White House is that they are not where most of the real business gets done, because the nuanced material is not something that the White House is usually willing to put out on the record, and reporters know that. That just is the sort of way that business is done.
BOB GARFIELD:Now this may just be my imagination speaking, but at some point in this briefing, it seemed to me that it ceased to matter whether McClellan was being responsive or not, and that there was a sort of shark attack going on - that the sharks smelled blood and were just chomping away, willy nilly. Was I just seeing things?
BILL PLANTE: It would be wrong of me to suggest that any of my colleagues might be attracted by the opportunity to gang up on the spokesman, just because they're frustrated [LAUGHS] on a daily basis. But human nature being what it is, there might be something to that.
BOB GARFIELD: Were there high fives afterwards? Any kind of sort of mutual acknowledgment--
BILL PLANTE: No--
BOB GARFIELD: -- of what had taken place?
BILL PLANTE:-- just a lot of rueful chuckling. The day after that, Mr. McClellan came up with a new phrase -- "we were trolling for dirt, emptying out the garbage. Usually happens much later in campaigns," he said. "We're just so sorry that it's happened so soon in this one."
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Well, Bill, safe trolling.
BILL PLANTE: [LAUGHS] Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Bill Plante is the White House correspondent for CBS News. [MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, no sunshine in the Sunshine State, and when presidents attack.