07/07/2010 02:16 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Jim Messina Offers Glimpse Into White House Improvisation

White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina made a rare public appearance on Wednesday, addressing throngs of progressive students at the Campus Progress National Conference. And while he stuck mostly to platitudes -- telling the audience that if they worked hard, they too could be the next Jim Messina! -- he did raise the curtain a bit to reveal some of the disorder that surrounds daily White House operations.

Reflecting on an early administration pseudo-scandal, in which an Air Force One photo-op triggered a panic in downtown Manhattan, Messina recalled the haphazard process by which he somehow became the point man for internal investigations.

"I had gone out for lunch," he said, "which I don't normally do. And when I got back, I was watching Robert Gibbs do [the daily briefing]."

"He said 'The president has appointed White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina to investigate the matter. I was like, 'Excuse me?'"

Messina, subsequently, was called into a high-staff meeting to be told exactly what that role entailed. In the end, the AF1 flyover was an incident that will be remembered (if remembered at all) as a minor blip in the Obama presidency. Far more time-consuming crises have engulfed the administration since then though those stories were left out of Messina's question and answer session.

But the Deputy Chief of Staff did hint at the stresses the job entails, which, in some respects, represents a deviation for a White House that prides itself on remaining calm, collected and organized. Messina, who prior to his current post, served as Sen. Max Baucus's Chief of Staff, urged the audience to understand that it was "hard work" passing health care reform and climate change legislation. As for gay rights (a hearty cause for the attendees), he stressed that the president has made "more significant progress on these issues than any administration in the history of the country."

"The challenges that this president has had are just monumental," he concluded. "When you work on the Hill, you don't have that."