White House press secretaries have earned the reputation over the last half dozen administrations of being practiced in the arts of obfuscation, deception and lying with straight faces as opaque as plastomer. The White House press corps, for their part, have become inured to the hyperbolic and elliptical rhetoric. Depending on whether the corps are friendly or hostile to the administration, individual members can read the subtexts of a press secretary’s statements and, governed by their biases and subjectivist preferences, tailor their interpretations one way or the other and project them as kinda-sorta news or analyses of what may or may not be official policies or positions. Their talent is to describe a pea-soup fog. This is what passes for modern journalism.
The press corps of President Barack Obama’s White House are not a true press corps. The majority of its members have betrayed their vocation and attend these rigged press conferences as a formality. The events seem to be more dumb-show and noise for groundlings than opportunities for news-gathering. One gets the sense that the White House would rather just dispense with the formality. The corps may as well be animated mannequins; they rise on cue to ask pre-screened questions of the press secretary or president; the latter will have prepared answers to those questions, the former is a skilled fog-making machine. Teleprompter or no teleprompter, nothing could be phonier than give-and-take spontaneity that may as well be rehearsed.
Former President George W. Bush at least had a modicum of honesty and, during his infrequent press conferences, faced a largely hostile press corps and did not do well. His advisors kept him off-stage as much as possible and let his press secretary run interference. But now the news media have largely become a collective shill for Obama’s policies, allies who give him a free pass for his contradictions and flip-flop policies, and who can be trusted to pass on to the public the latest official ukase. If any one of them decides not to play ball, presumably he will be put on a press conference “do not recognize” list.
Robert Gibbs, 38, a career political creature, has been Obama’s press secretary since January, and has worked for Obama before, during and after the latter’s Senate days. It should come as no surprise that he was also press spokesman for Senator John Kerry and other Democratic politicians. While he is no Joseph Goebbels, the maniacal propaganda chief of Nazi Germany whose obfuscations, deceptions, and lies were dutifully repeated as news by an unfree press, Gibbs performs much the same role for a press that chooses to be unfree. As Goebbels did, as the “public image” managers of tyrants in the past have done, he helped to create the myth of infallibility and the populist persona of Barack Obama, and now is responsible for preserving them. In that unconscionable fraud he is aided by a largely obliging news media.
But cracks are appearing in the façade of Obama’s “open presidency.” They are becoming more and more evident in Gibbs. On May 27, in response to a blog statement by Newt Gingrich that Judge Sonia Sotomayor, Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, ought to withdraw from consideration or be withdrawn because of racist and feminist remarks she made, Gibbs said something that was in the spirit of Goebbels. Responding to the Republicans’ opposition to Sotomayor, one based on her past affiliations, her less than stellar record of understanding the Constitution or even being cognizant of it, her apparent hostility to white males, and the media-generated myth that she is the daughter of immigrants (who, being Puerto Ricans, were actually U.S. citizens) who rose by her own efforts against tremendous odds (but, like Obama, probably the beneficiary of affirmative action or racial, gender, or “diversity” quota policies). Gibbs said, in the innocuous, undramatic tone of a garage mechanic recommending a certain grade of engine oil:
“I think it is probably important for anybody involved in this debate to be exceedingly careful with the way in which they’ve decided to describe different aspects of this impending confirmation.”
Briefly, there is no “aspect“ of Sotomayor‘s character or record which should be open to description, identification or debate. If anyone breaks that rule, Gibbs implied, the offending party will be smeared as a racist, bigot, and misogynist. Gibbs and chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel are in charge of the White House machinery that can manufacture a backlash of outrage. Ask Sotomayor legitimate questions at your own risk. Her confirmation hearing will be a “debate” in name only. Besides, her confirmation is “impending,” in the cards, a sure thing, so why bother dredging up inconvenient truths about her?
When you watch Gibbs fielding questions from the press corps, you do not have the sense that you are observing evil incarnate. You do not see a Goebbels-like maniac. What you see is a person who very likely never once placed a value on truth or honesty. You see a non-entity whose existence is assured by his willingness to obfuscate, deceive, lie and juggle banalities commensurate with his character and task. You see a human face that reflects little else but calculation of how best to say nothing that could be interpreted as an absolute, a nondescript face with blank, evasive eyes and a self-effacing manner that expects and gets the cooperation of his auditors in putting one over on themselves and on the whole country.
Whether Gibbs’ warning to the Republicans not to press too hard on Sotomayor’s qualifications to sit on the Supreme Court was a conscious flouting of the First Amendment — he should know that even Senators have First Amendment rights that should not be threatened or abridged by a mere press secretary or anyone else, let alone by a president — or was an impromptu rebuke that was insensible to that Amendment, is irrelevant. What matters is that, for a moment, in a handful of incautious but revealing words, the mask of respect for anyone’s right to freedom of speech was dropped. His warning was aimed not just at Senators, Internet bloggers and Newt Gingrich, but at the press and the news media. It was an all-encompassing growl of disapproval of any questioning of the alleged wisdom of his employer and of resentment for any questioning of his own assertions.
In the real world, the one beyond the White House and Congress, one would not give anyone like Gibbs or his assertions a second thought. His ilk are many, mean, and small. But threats emanating from the representative of a man who is consciously wreaking destruction on this country, who is contemptuous of the Constitution, individual rights, private property, and freedom of speech, should not be taken as a matter of routine. This is not the first time Obama‘s gofers have warned individuals away from speaking out on certain issues and facts. Gibbs’ statements are uttered with the tacit approval of the president. Neither the president, nor Gibbs, nor anyone else on the White House staff, wishes anyone to think and speak with any gravity about Sotomayor or to trouble her with inopportune questions, which, under oath, she must answer with possibly damaging truths, during Senate confirmation hearings or in any other setting. They are all prepared to take retaliatory measures if anyone does.
What remains to be seen is whether or not any member of the Senate committee will be brave enough to take his First Amendment rights seriously enough to pose a single inopportune question, one that may suggest why Obama is so ideologically comfortable with her.
Gibbs’ admonitory “advice” to critics of Sotomayor is an order not to think. A prohibition of thought necessarily extends to a prohibition from action, in this instance, to voluntarily refrain from asking questions lest the White House become “exceedingly“ nasty. After all, why bother thinking about a matter when one is proscribed from acting on it? It is a blatant and unforgivable attack on the mind. Further, Sotomayor’s silence on Gibbs’ mealy-mouth diktat speaks volumes about her own position on the issue of the First Amendment; she does not seem to be aware that Gibbs violated it, or perhaps she is hoping that no one has noticed.
But then, this has been the constant leitmotif of Obama’s conduct in office.