NEW YORK -- When "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno asked President Obama this week about "leading from behind" in Libya, the president pointed out that he never actually said those three words, which have frequently been used to describe his foreign policy strategy. "This was a phrase that the media picked up on," Obama said, adding the U.S. actually "led from the front" through the United Nations and in NATO.
It wasn't just the media that ran with the phrase, originally attributed to an unnamed "adviser" in a May piece by the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza. Several Republican candidates brought the phrase to the stump while trying to depict the administration as weak or taking a backseat on the international stage. In August, HuffPost reported on the "evolution" of this blind quote, which evolved a bit more on Thursday.
In a USA Today piece about the origins of phrase, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said that "no one in this White House ever" used it. Vietor pointed out that that Lizza had sourced the phrase to an "adviser" and argued that "there are hundreds of people who could credibly be called an 'adviser' to the president, and there are hundreds more who go to D.C. cocktail parties and claim to be one."
Lizza responded on Twitter that the phrase came out of the mouth of a White House official, even though that attribution wasn't in the original piece. HuffPost asked Vietor about his statement to USA Today in light of Lizza's clarification that the phrase had come out of the White House. He responded in an email:
My point is this -- there's has been an enormous amount of press attention given to a background quote that didn’t reflect reality then, and I'd argue that with the death of bin Laden, the U.S. leadership of the civilian protection effort in Libya, and our foreign policy record generally, hasn't worn wear well over time. Until now, despite many conversations with Ryan and others at the New Yorker and months of the line being twisted and used to attack the President, it was always thinly sourced to an 'adviser.' Why Ryan decided to change his sourcing is a mystery to me, but that doesn’t change the fact that the President has been leading on foreign policy since his first day in office, and has an impressive record to show for it. I guess I should've said 'no one at the WH who knows how the President actually thinks' said that, but regardless I hope we can start talking about our actual record and not an article from May.
Lizza, too, doesn't seem to want to say much more about that article from May. When reached by email, he declined to comment about using a different description Thursday for his source than he did when the piece was published six months ago.
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