As a member of the UN press corps I was invited to the White House Monday and found myself in Scott McClellan's briefing about Dick Cheney having shot someone. There's plenty of shooting going on in Iraq and elsewhere but this was the one the American public could really understand. This was a news story to sell to the average viewer.
Afterward I met and exchanged some sympathetic words with Helen Thomas in the claustrophobic briefing room. Thomas is the dean of White House correspondents, relegated to the back row, not called on very much anymore because she has dared to challenge this Administration, mostly on its reckless foreign policy.
Then we lined up to go into the oval office. We stood outside under a portico for about 15 minutes, about 30 photographers and maybe a dozen reporters. I looked through the window on my right and it was the darkened cabinet room. I could make out the names of Cabinet officers engraved on small plaques on the backs of the chairs.
On my left there was a dog running wildly by itself on the grounds. I asked if that were a stray dog that had jumped the fence but was told it was Barney. It seemed strangely calm, very calm at the White House, both inside the building and especially waiting outside the Oval office on this bright afternoon. It did not possess the atmosphere of the epicenter of world power. Everything was quite subdued as though we were in a country mansion somewhere overlooking the Hudson.
Then we were led to the door to the office. The photographers were held up after a few were let in and I thought that I would be shut out. As I stood there outside with the door blocked by huge cameramen with their equipment I heard someone, sounding like a yokel with a grating Southern accent, shouting from inside. I could not make out what was being said. I asked myself, "Who the hell is that?" And of course I then immediately answered my own question.
We were let in. It is not a very large room. I got into a position right in front of them with a clear view, about 20 feet away, as they sat on armchairs. In front of me were two sofas with a coffee table in between. On my left sat Kofi Annan. On the right was Bush. Bush looked up. We made eye contact for a second. He had a blank expression on his face.
I felt very relaxed and confident, yet also quite unnerved when he looked at me. I realized I had no admiration at all for this man, no respect, even though I was standing in his office before him. It had nothing to do with partisanship. Another republican president may have had some presence, but not Bush. Then he spoke. He babbled on with some bland statement about the topics they had discussed, without any details.
I looked up at the white ceiling, with the seal of the United States in relief. I glanced behind me to see the intricately carved, wooden desk made from the abandoned British ship Resolute and used by every president since Rutherford Hayes. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Bolton standing at attention along the back wall, behind the desk, with his press attaché. As they both know me, I felt that they gave me a disapproving look, since I am not on the A team of US reporters at the UN, feeding at their trough. Their look seemed to say: "What are YOU doing here?" I looked back at Bush. I was thinking this is the guy I've seen giving state of the unions, sending troops to die and kill.
As Bush spoke I looked at Kofi who smiled at me and winked, as he knows my face for many years at the UN (even though I recently asked him a very pointed question at a press conference in NY). Then when Bush was done Kofi went on with his bland statement. I glanced over at Bush and it seemed to register in his mind that to look intelligent or important, certainly far more powerful than this African running some dumb international organization, that he should suddenly and consciously twist his lips and start rolling his eyes. As the secretary general of the UN was speaking in the Oval Office, the president of the United States was rudely rolling his eyes, as if to say get this dumb guy out of here.
It was over. A few reporters started shouting, "Mr. President, Mr. President." I zeroed in on him with my eyes. He was looking away.
This was my chance to shout a question at him. But the AP reporter had warned me in advance that in the past, at these photo ops, Bush only ever took a question each from AP and Reuters and in the past few months he was taking no questions at all.
I later learned that Cheney had been at the meeting with Kofi, but I did not look around the room enough to see if he was still there. Because the McClellan briefing was almost all about the shooting, Cheney may have slipped away before the press came in. The AP reporter also warned me that if she got to ask a question at all, it would be about Cheney, an unfortunate hunting accident, rather than one of the many crises engulfing the planet.
A few seconds after the first shouts of "Mr. President" I realized it would be futile and humiliating to shout my question, which he would ignore. I had no more eye contact with him. And at that moment we were led out of the room. As I was leaving, I heard Bush shout to a photographer, "You need a haircut." I turned around and saw the kid move his mop from his eyes and say, "Yeah, I know." It was a somewhat depressing and humiliating experience, brought to the candy store but not allowed to buy anything. And while people die in Darfur I couldn't confront him about why the US acted in Iraq, where there was no live humanitarian crisis, and will not in Sudan, where Bush's own government says genocide is going on. I walked back through the press briefing room, went outside and asked Kofi two questions out on the lawn where a mike had been set up. He had come to ask Bush to help stop the killing in Darfur. Back in the cramped briefing room came an announcement that the next meeting was in the East Room. What's going on there, I asked a reporter. "White Sox," she said. The baseball champs had come to be anointed by Bush. I left.
I had wanted to ask Bush about Sudan and about a new book in Britain that quotes a leaked memo that Bush suggested to Blair at a January 2003 White House meeting that the US send a U-2 plane painted in the UN colors flying low over Iraq in the hope that Saddam would shoot it down, providing a pretext for war. I should have tried to ask McClellan during his briefing, but not only was I way in the back, standing up, but the Cheney shooting consumed the briefing. As I left the White House I could not shake the feeling that I blew an opportunity to do something in that place, to say something to shake it up, but whatever slim opportunity there was I failed to seize it.
The next day I was in a fascinating and underreported House hearing with five whistleblowers from the CIA, DIA, FBI, NSA who had been fired, deemed mentally ill or demoted for speaking out against abuses and illegalities. Denis Kucinich was on the committee panel and he blasted the White House for marginalizing the role of Congress, reminding Bush it had equal weight with the presidency. That the White House runs this entire town was the theme I came back to New York with.
I was telling a friend just before we arrived on the Hill that I was reading Daniel Ellsberg's memoir as I traveled through Vietnam in January. Just a few minutes later, there was Dan Ellsberg at the hearing and we had a conversation about Vietnam. He is going next month and wanted advice from me about who he should see. I then told him I had been in the inner sanctum the day before and he reached out mockingly towards my sleeve, "Oh, can I touch you?" he said. I told him that after making eye contact with the man that I just felt like going home.