During a recent gathering of former White House press secretaries, former Clinton spokesman Mike McCurry discussed having to master from the podium the political art of “telling the truth slowly” while never misleading.
The Obama administration appears to have a few students who might need to take the class.
In a week that was supposed to focus on jobs and the economy, President Obama’s team spent an awful lot of time of augmenting and editing their official stories for two burgeoning controversies under investigation by Republicans in Congress. And in doing so, they spent some of the precious capital of credibility and trust that every president must earn from the American people, while handing their nemeses a new political attack line.
The defining moment of the week came late Friday when the White House borrowed a page from the well-worn playbook of professional spin masters and by finally giving reporters a batch of long-sought documents about a controversial loan to the now-bankrupt solar firm Solyndra on the eve of a three-day holiday. Taxpayers are now potentially on the hook for a half-billion dollar loss, and lawmakers have been fuming.
For weeks, the White House’s official line had been that there was no political or donor pressure to approve the loan and a prominent 2008 Obama fundraiser named Steve Spinner—who advised the Energy Department—had recused himself from the Solyndra matter, in part because his wife’s law firm represented the company.
Even McCurry’s current successor at the podium, Obama press secretary Jay Carney repeated the line a few days ago.
“It’s my understanding, at least with regard to the gentleman you just mentioned [Steve Spinner], that he had no connection to overseeing the loan guarantee program,” Carney declared when asked by ABC about a Spinner connection.
Friday’s document dump told a different story: One email showed Spinner not only pressured the Energy Department for a decision on the Solyndra loan, he invoked the president and vice president in the effort.
“How hard is this? What is he waiting for?” Spinner wrote in an Aug, 28, 2009 email to an Energy Department official. “I have the OVP (Office of the vice president) and WH (the White House) breathing down my neck on this. They are getting itchy to get involved.”
Later that same day, Spinner implored the officials to “walk over there and force him to give you the answer.”
There were other new versions of the truth to evolve this week on Solyndra.
Obama declared in an interview with ABC early in the week that the Solyndra loan “went through the regular review process and people felt that it was a good bet.”
But documents released in several batches since then show some administration and career federal officials had serious reservations about the loan, but presidential aides kept pressing for its original approval as well as a decision to rework the terms of the loan as Solyndra’s financial condition worsened.
A memo that surfaced Friday night shows the Treasury Department strongly objected to a decision to put the government behind other Solyndra creditors if the firm defaulted. A Treasury official wrote, “the guaranteed loan should not be subordinate to any loan or other debt obligation.” The advice was ignored.
Republicans Friday night jumped on the president’s statement, suggesting it was misleading.
“The paper trail released by the White House portrays a disturbingly close relationship between President Obama’s West Wing inner circle, campaign donors, and wealthy investors that spawned the Solyndra mess,” said Reps. Fred Upton (R-MI) and Cliff Stearns (R-FL), who have led the probe.
“When asked about Solyndra this week, President Obama proudly proclaimed Solyndra ‘went through the regular review process, and people felt like this was a good bet.’ The facts say otherwise, but if Solyndra is evidence of Obama’s regular review process, then we have significant problems and taxpayers could be on the hook for billions,” they added.
Solyndra wasn’t the administration’s only evolving storyline this week.
A few doors down from the House Energy Committee, the House Reform and Government Oversight Committee got new evidence suggesting Attorney General Eric Holder was briefed in June 2010 about a federal sting called “Fast and Furious” that allowed weapons to leave the United States and fall into the hands of Mexican drug gangs, over the objections of front line federal agents.
The revelation might not be too surprising, save for one fact: Holder had previously told Congress he hadn’t heard about the probe until earlier this year when news media broke the story about agents’ controversial tactics of letting “guns walk.”
The turnabout left Holder clinging to a new line, one used famously in past controversies like Iran-Contra: “I have no recollection of knowing about Fast and Furious prior to the public controversy about it,” Holder insisted Friday.
Now all of this may ultimately seem to the American people to be more of the same old Washington politics, where political leaders are expected to obfuscate, fudge and mislead.
But if that is the American public’s ultimate take-away from these controversies, it might spell bad news for Obama. He was, after all, the candidate of change who promised in 2008 to ensure his administration would talk straight, usher in a new era of transparency and avoid the professional spin that dominates so much of Washington’s dialog.
I remember bumping into McCurry at an event near the end of the Clinton presidency. He had already left the press secretary’s podium and I asked him what lesson he took from three grueling years in the job.
His answer was as quick as it was concise: Always remember you are the people’s press secretary, the person that connects the public to the president.
That meant keeping the bond of trust to give information as accurately as possible, while never being knowingly misleading. He added he always thought it better to admit he didn’t know something and try to find out an answer later rather than to give a line that he might find out later was false.
Perhaps that lesson next week will be rattling around the great public mosh pit we know fondly as the White House press room.